In Pursuit of a Welsh Episcopate: Appointments to Welsh sees 1840-1905

by
02 November 2006

University of Wales Press £35 (0-7083-1939-4); Church Times Bookshop £31.50

Who's welcome in the valleys? Bernard Palmer on the tricky problem of picking Welsh bishops

"BISHOPS seem to have a special spite against Mr Gladstone," the Church Times suggested in its issue of 25 February 1870, "for during his premiership we have been constantly hearing of either resignations or deaths."

Gladstone took his responsibilities as bishop-maker so seriously that all other affairs of state went out of the window when an episcopal vacancy occurred. And, if every such vacancy gave him trouble, a Welsh vacancy, he complained on one occasion, "costs me more trouble than six English vacancies".

The reason for this was the need to discover a man who, in addition to all the other essential qualifications, could speak Welsh. To one correspondent Gladstone agonised: "If you read in the papers some morning that I have been carried to Bedlam and that a strait-waistcoat is considered necessary, please to remember that it will be entirely owing to the vacancy in the see of St Asaph."

Gladstone is one of seven premiers whose attitudes to Welsh bishop-making are discussed in this absorbing study. The others are Melbourne, Russell, Derby, Disraeli, Salisbury, and Balfour. The four dioceses concerned - all, prior to disestablishment in 1920, within the province of Canterbury - are Bangor, Llandaff, St Asaph, and St Davids. (Swansea & Brecon and Monmouth are both post-disestablishment sees.) Each of the four fell vacant three times during the period under discussion.

The book's underlying theme is the protracted campaign to persuade successive prime ministers to choose Welsh-speaking clerics for Welsh sees. Melbourne, who appointed Thirlwall to St Davids in 1840, saw bishops as political animals rather than as spiritual leaders, and regarded their knowledge of Welsh as irrelevant.

But knowledge of the language, in itself, was not enough. It was Gladstone who realised that an Englishman who had learnt Welsh was not the same as a native Welsh-speaker. His appointment of Joshua Hughes to St Asaph in 1870 was a recognition of the force of this argument.

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All but one of Gladstone's successors followed his lead. The exception was Disraeli, who, by appointing Basil Jones to St Davids in 1874, reverted to an earlier policy of choosing a man who was familiar with Welsh, but not conversationally fluent in the language. For Disraeli, it was sufficient that Jones was a Welshman, a scholar, a gentleman, and, above all, a Conservative whose appointment would please the Prime Minister's local supporters. Gladstone, by contrast, always put concern for the Church's welfare above party-political considerations.

This book is likely to interest a far wider readership than Welsh people or ecclesiastical historians. The author, a busy parish priest as well as a distinguished academic, describes with skill and verve the many issues with which successive premiers had to come to grips. These included the campaigning and often shameless intrigues to which each of the dozen episcopal vacancies gave rise. It makes for an enthralling, if sometimes unedifying, narrative.

At least the overall motive of many of the campaigners - to ensure the appointment of Welsh-speaking bishops to Welsh sees - was an honourable one. And, thanks to the lead given by Gladstone, every potential Welsh bishop was required not merely to understand Welsh, but to be able to speak it like a native.
Dr Palmer is a former editor of the Church Times.

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