Treasures buried in the archive

by
08 January 2009

A. D. Harvey visits the National Archives at Kew, and looks at documents that reveal the relationship between the state and the Church of England in the 20th century

THERE ARE thousands of files relating to the affairs of the Church of England in the National Archives at Kew: for instance, 2900 have the word “cathedral” in the title, 1631 have “parish church”, and even “precentor” appears 124 times in the catalogue.

Subjects range from the claim of the Bishop of Sodor & Man to be an English bishop, en­titled to take a seat in the House of Lords at the next vacancy (TS 27/1452), to “Whether incumbents should deduct tax from curates’ stipends before payment” (IR 40/1191, dating from 1880); and from the request — unsuc­cess­ful — for permission to have a crown printed on the cover of the parish magazine of St James the Greater, Leicester, during the year of King George VI’s corona­tion (HO 144/20567) to the petition of the Revd James Silvester, late Vicar of Great Clacton and Little Holland, to the throne, urg­ing that, in view of the attempt by the Bishops “to mediaevalise the Book of Common Prayer by a Romeward revision”, George V should “use the royal supremacy by abolishing thrones and enthronements of diocesan Bishops, and therewith Diocesan Popery” (HO 45/15704).

Perhaps the most interesting material relates to the appointment of bishops and other church dignitaries. In 1937, the Earl of Halifax, then Lord President of the Council, was asked by the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, to advise on the appointment of a new Dean of Westminster. Halifax immediately referred the matter to his old friend and spiritual guide, Fr Edward Talbot CR, Superior of Mirfield (CAB 123/249).

Churchill and Attlee liked to keep appoint­ments in their own hands; although Talbot’s recommendation of William Temple for the Archbishopric of Canterbury, which was forwarded to 10 Downing Street — “The biggest and best man we have — the best in every sense — intellectually and morally . . . entirely free of snobbery” — chimed almost exactly with the views of Churchill’s private secretary, Anthony Bevir, except that the latter thought that “in administration he is apt to be muddled and uncertain”, and it was probably Bevir’s opinion that carried more weight (PREM 5/276).

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Certainly, Bevir was not inclined to pull his punches: “I believe the Bishop of Ripon [Geoffrey Lunt, later Bishop of Salisbury] to be a man of average ability who has not done badly where he is. On the other hand he has not done conspicuously well. He is a senti­men­talist and rather gushing. He is quite a good judge, as far as I know, of men. He is not particularly good at handling men of character or those who do not feel his particular en­thu­siasms” (PREM 5/287).

Later, Harold Macmillan’s sec­retary for appointments, David Stephens, advising on Geoffrey Fisher’s successor as Archbishop of Canterbury, pointed out with regard to Michael Ramsey: “He never seems quite to have got over the relationship established at Repton, where Ramsey was at school when Fisher was headmaster. . . ” (PREM 5/443) (quoted in full below).

ONCE APPOINTED, the bishops did not always behave quite in accordance with the Government’s wishes. In July 1914, the Home Secretary felt constrained to write to the Rt Revd Arthur Winnington-Ingram, Bishop of London, about the latter’s letter to The Times protesting against forcible feeding of hunger-striking suffragettes hoping to secure early release from prison: “Do you wish that the women who burned Lady Carlisle’s house, the hotel at Felixstowe, and other buildings, who attemp­ted to destroy pictures in the National Gallery and the Academy, and who carried explosives to Nottingham on the occasion of the King’s visit, should be released with the practical certainty that they may well burn more houses, destroy more pictures and use more explosives?” (HO 144/1305/248506).

In March 1945, the Government fended off a Parliamentary Question “why the Bishop of Chichester was allowed to visit Paris, in view of his advocacy of gentle treatment of the Germans”, but was more than a little startled at the Bishop’s own account of his conversations with leading personalities in Paris: (“I heard very unfavourable opinions expressed regarding General Spears and his action in Syria and Lebanon. . . . The implica­tion was that General Spears had been very high-handed, and imperialist. . . Claudel seemed to me the wisest man I saw (while Siegfried, for all his ability, seemed a little out of date — a Victorian Liberal, like John Stuart Mill). ‘Poor Poland’ Claudel said. He feared Russia, but did not suppose Mr Churchill liked the Crimea [Yalta] agreement. . .”)

In March 1945, the Government fended off a Parliamentary Question “why the Bishop of Chichester was allowed to visit Paris, in view of his advocacy of gentle treatment of the Germans”, but was more than a little startled at the Bishop’s own account of his conversations with leading personalities in Paris: (“I heard very unfavourable opinions expressed regarding General Spears and his action in Syria and Lebanon. . . . The implica­tion was that General Spears had been very high-handed, and imperialist. . . Claudel seemed to me the wisest man I saw (while Siegfried, for all his ability, seemed a little out of date — a Victorian Liberal, like John Stuart Mill). ‘Poor Poland’ Claudel said. He feared Russia, but did not suppose Mr Churchill liked the Crimea [Yalta] agreement. . .”)

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(FO 371/49163). (Spears had been British Minister in Syria and Lebanon after the defeat of the Vichy French Forces there; Claudel and Siegfried were members of the Académie Française.)

Even in the second half of the 20th century, however, governments recognised the inter­national stature of the Anglican episcopate.

When Michael Ramsey visited South Africa as Archbishop of Canterbury, he had a private talk with John Vorster, the South African premier. He raised the question of migratory labour and the resultant long separation of men from their families, explaining to Vorster: “The Churches are concerned about the strain on family life and marriages and are trying to face the pastoral problem.”

“We did not invent migratory labour: the British practised it,” Vorster replied. “When Italians go and work in Switzerland you Angli­cans do not complain.”

Vorster was similarly responsive on the subject of the repressive methods of the police: “The police methods in South Africa, and laws concerning detention and questioning, which are much abused, are also practised by the British and resemble the law now in force in Northern Ireland.”

Perhaps part of the problem was Vorster’s Afrikaner English: on his return to London, Ramsey discussed this meeting with the then British Prime Minister, Edward Heath, and commented ruefully that “when Mr Vorster spoke of Communists he did not mean the same thing as we meant by Communists, but embraced within the term many people whom we would call liberals” (PREM 15/668).

THE GOVERNMENT files are less illumina­ting on the affairs of the lower clergy. Very few of the personal dossiers of priests who were chaplains in the army during the First World War have survived, for example.

Doctrinal matters received some attention in the wake of the Oxford Movement during the 19th century: between 1860 and 1870 eight different cases that had been dealt with by the Court of Arches were subject to appeals before the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (see, for example, PCAP 1/370). By the 1940s, however, these controversies were ceasing to trouble Whitehall (HO 45/19623).

There is an interesting file on the case of the Revd Charles Walter Sykes, Vicar of St John’s, Vartry Road, South Tottenham, who, in 1937, suffered a fate that might have figured in a parish priest’s worst nightmare: he was gunned down by the people’s warden (well, ex-warden), who had had an unlicensed rifle secreted in the Club Room for the previous nine years (MEPO 3/1720).

The National Archives’ catalogue is easily accessible on the internet, and admission to the building at Kew is equally straightforward. Whatever the topic, it is always worth checking whether there is a file on it in the government records: they are full of surprises.

In 1944, for example, less than ten weeks before the D-Day landings, the Government had to be reminded by an official in the dio­cesan office at Durham that the bishop of that see “(like the two Archbishops and unlike the other Bishops) reigns by Divine Providence”, rather than merely by Divine Permission (HO 45/19376).

A. D. Harvey’s most recent book is Body Politic: Political metaphor and political violence (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007). The letter and number references given are those for ordering the documents in question at Kew.

www.nationalarchives.gov.uk

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