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When we gave a piece of our mind

08 February 2013

The Church Times has often taken sides in ecclesiastical controversies. Bernard Palmer, Editor from 1968 to 1989, chooses six of the biggest dust-ups


MY editorial predecessors never minced their words when dealing with controversial issues in the columns of the Church Times. They believed in denouncing the pillars of both Church and State, as occasion offered. Here are half a dozen particular topics on which they really let themselves go.

The Public Worship  Regulation Act

THE purpose of this notorious Act, which was approved by Parliament in 1874, was to suppress the growth of Ritualism in the Church of England - or, as the Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, put it to the House of Commons, "the mass in masquerade". The Act did not so much change the law regarding Anglican worship as strengthen the machinery for its enforcement.

The original Bill was drafted by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Archibald Tait, but was significantly amended in a more Protestant and Erastian (the theory of state primacy over the Church) direction during its passage through the Commons.

Needless to say, the Church Times - which had been launched in 1863 to support the Ritualists - was against the Act from the beginning.

In an early editorial comment (24 April 1874), it stigmatised a speech by Tait in the House of Lords as "bordering on the disgraceful". He must have known, the paper suggested, that there had ceased to be "any public ground for legislation on the subject of Ritual at all". And, just in case the Archbishop was still in ignorance of the subject, the paper went on to spell it out for him:


The most rev. prelate knows perfectly well that the only section of the Anglican clergy who care one straw about Church rules are those whom he holds up to execration, and requests legislative permission to injure and oppress. He knows perfectly well that what he chooses to call violations of the law are believed to be its punctual fulfilment.

Under the terms of the Act, a new court was set up under a divorce-court judge, Lord Penzance, who soon became one of the Church Times's favourite whipping-boys. The paper frequently called his judgments into question, as a succession of Ritualistic priests came up before him, and, in some cases, were sentenced to terms of imprisonment.

One such priest was Arthur Tooth, Vicar of St James's, Hatcham, in the diocese of Rochester, who, as a result of his jailing, became an instant hero and martyr to most of his parishioners. The Bishop of Rochester, Thomas Claughton, sent another priest to take over the conduct of services at the church during Tooth's enforced absence - to the chagrin of the Church Times.

"The Bishop of Rochester", it thundered (16 February 1877), "has at last found a clerk unscrupulous enough to thrust himself into the cure of St James's, Hatcham, and gain possession of the church by means analogous to those employed by burglars. . . We are extremely sorry to hear that there is a tendency on the part of a few to accept the Irreverend the Intruder."

In a leading article in the same issue, the paper suggested that the Bishop had little reason to be proud of his work. "Throughout the whole of these miserable proceedings he has exhibited neither episcopal dignity, nor fatherly generosity, nor even the ordinary good feeling to be expected from a Christian gentleman." So much for poor Claughton.

Tooth was eventually released on a legal technicality; but any belief that his mishandled case would make the Act a dead letter was premature. Even though 17 out of 23 attempted prosecutions under the Act were to be vetoed by the diocesan bishops concerned, the remaining half-dozen proceeded to court - and four more priests were to suffer imprisonment.

The most notorious of these cases was that of Sidney Faithorn Green, Vicar of St John's, Miles Platting, in the diocese of Manchester, who languished in Lancaster jail for a year and seven months. His long imprisonment undoubtedly helped to swing public opinion against using the law to put down Ritualism. And, by keeping the issue constantly in the headlines, the Church Times undoubtedly played a part in the ultimate victory of the Ritualists.

It is also worth remembering that, today, perhaps as many as three out of every four of the parochial clergy in the Church of England indulge in ceremonial church practices that might have had their predecessors hauled before the courts.

Welsh disestablishment

THIS was an issue that excited fierce passions in church circles towards the close of the 19th century. The then four Welsh dioceses of Bangor, Llandaff, St Asaph, and St Davids still formed part of the Church of England's province of Canterbury, and their bishops were almost invariably Englishmen.

This increasingly offended Welsh nationalist sentiment, and led to the estrangement of the majority of Welsh people from Anglicanism. The tithe war of 1888-89 sparked off a campaign to have the four Welsh dioceses both disestablished and disendowed.

For once, the Church Times found itself on the side of the English bishops. When the first Welsh Church Disestablishment Bill looked likely to get through Parliament, the bishops pledged themselves to resist its passing into law. The Church Times cheered heartily from the touchline. "A deliberate attempt is made in this Bill", it declared (4 May 1894), "to treat the Church as a mere creature of the State, to be mutilated and transformed at the caprice of any Government that happens to be in power."

That particular Bill fell by the wayside, but a later effort succeeded. Stigmatised by the Church Times (21 February 1913) as "unutterably mean and unjust, the outcome of sectarian malice", it nevertheless survived its passage through Parliament, and the deed was done. The paper again beat its breast (22 May 1914):

We are disposed to think that in the long run it will be well to set up a Welsh Province with an Archbishop of St Davids; but to allow that the four sees can be cut off from Canterbury by Act of Parliament would be intolerable. The whole Church of England must come to the rescue of the despoiled churches. The spoilers may be left to their spoils and to the consequences.

In the event, the outbreak of the First World War delayed the coming into force of the Welsh Church Act; and disestablishment did not finally take effect until 1920.

Herbert Hensley Henson

ONE of the thorniest issues to occur during the nine-year editorship of Ernest Hermitage Day (1915-24) was the row over David Lloyd George's nomination of Herbert Hensley Henson to the bishopric of Hereford in 1917.

Henson, who had been Dean of Durham since 1912, was a scholar and a fine preacher. But his allegedly liberal interpretation of the Creeds, particularly in regard to the Virgin birth and the resurrection, was such as to make him anathema to many in the Church - and not only to Anglo-Catholics.

No doubt the Church Times's wrath would have been just the same, whatever the see to which Henson had been nominated, but there was a certain piquancy in the fact that Day happened to live just outside the city of Hereford, and so was physically, as well as emotionally, at the heart of the controversy.

At the time, even though a world war was raging, the affair excited fierce passions in the Church at large. A number of bishops announced that they could take no part in Henson's consecration. Charles Gore, of Oxford, who was spearheading the campaign against Henson, threatened to resign his see if it went ahead; and even the Archbishop of Canterbury, Randall Davidson, considered resigning.

The Church Times's feelings were voiced in two leading articles in successive issues. The first (14 December 1917) was headed "Unhappy Hereford", and declared that the diocese's cup of bitterness was full to the brim:


Churchmen everywhere are entitled to ask what there is in Dr Henson's record which might seem to justify his nomination to a see. His most fervent advocates would be at a loss to supply an answer. . . Churchmen everywhere, and not only in the diocese of Hereford, are entitled, and perhaps bound, to register their protest against the appointment. It is one which everywhere will meet with opposition, nor from one section of Churchmen only.

The next week, the paper returned to the attack in a leader headed "The Hereford Scandal". Never, within living memory, it declared, had the feelings of Churchmen been more stirred by a nomination to a see than by Lloyd George's nomination of Henson to the see of Hereford.

The letters which lie heaped upon our table are witness to the fact that all over the country Churchmen deeply resent the indignity which has been put upon the Church. . . There is no reason why protest should fail of its effect. The case is unique, since never before has a nomination been so resented not only within the diocese immediately affected but far beyond it.


The protest may have been "unique", but it was unavailing. Only four of the 19 prebendaries who turned up for the fateful meeting of the Cathedral Chapter on 4 January 1918 heeded the Church Times's exhortation, and declined to vote for Henson's election. And Gore's threat to resign was neatly defused by a letter from Henson, written at the Archbishop's suggestion, giving Davidson a formal assurance of his belief in the virgin birth and the resurrection.

Birth control

THIS was one issue on which the Church Times was to change its mind over the passage of time. It was a subject that (as the paper saw it originally) was always rearing its ugly head. Bewailing the steadily declining birth-rate in Britain, the Church Times declared (10 November 1899):

The avoidance of a numerous family is becoming quite an accepted standard of social economics among all classes. This, if allowed to spread, means national ruin. . . When the Bishops have finished pothering about incense and lights, perhaps they will turn their attention to this weightier matter.

Seventeen months later, the paper was even more uneasy on the issue. It complained (19 April 1901) about a "conspiracy of silence" on the falling birth-rate. "What we want is a general warning that the deliberate suppression of families of children is a sin akin to national suicide . . . and that the pursuit of selfish ideals and love of pleasure are the contributing factors of this national infamy." And, in the following decade, all the editorial stops were pulled out (23 August 1912) in the face of the Registrar-General's latest return:

The only inference to be drawn from these figures is that men and women, in startlingly increasing numbers, are deliberately shirking parental responsibility. . . The restriction of the family is openly and unblushingly advocated. Women publicly avow their reluctance to undertake the duties of motherhood. It is time that we deny ourselves certain luxuries, now considered necessities, for the sake of our offspring that might be.

If all this seems to be laying it on a bit, it should be remembered that it was not until 1930 that Anglicans were accorded a grudging permission, by the Lambeth Conference of that year, to use artificial forms of contraception - and that they were given the full green light only by the Lambeth Conference of 1958.

It was, in fact, merely by 193 votes to 67 (with a fair number of abstentions) that Lambeth 1930 had signalled an amber light: that circumstances might arise in which it was justifiable for Christians, not on grounds of "selfishness or luxury", but for serious moral reasons, to "practise methods of what is commonly known as birth-prevention". This, in the view of the Church Times (17 October 1930), marked a grave departure from the position adopted by previous Lambeth pronouncements:

To admit the necessity of any occasion for such practices is unquestionably an enormous concession to the spirit and perhaps the practice of the modern world which is by no means guided in its conduct by Christian principles. It certainly involves a startling departure from the traditional teaching of Catholic moralists. As such it will occasion most profound concern to all those who in this matter agree with the minority of the Bishops. There is no getting away from the blunt fact that a practice hitherto regarded as sinful by the Catholic Church has now been declared by 193 Catholic Bishops not to be, in certain circumstances, sinful at all.

The controversy rumbled on all through the autumn of 1930, the Church Times stirring the cauldron from time to time with a provocative comment of its own. But a paper can change its mind; and it did so, in no uncertain terms, in its approval (29 August 1958) of the Lambeth Conference's wholehearted endorsement of "family planning by use of contraceptives":

The Church Times, while fully aware of the legitimate conflict of conscience on this matter, applauds the courage of the bishops in thus declaring that this is something which is rightly left to individual conscience, and that the conscientious and unselfish use of scientific methods of birth-control is entirely right in Christian marriage. There is certainly nothing good or Christian about the only practical alternative in huge areas of the world, namely the continued procreation of millions of unwanted children for no better fate than certain starvation.

Honest to God

IN 1963, a book was published that was to hit the headlines in a big way, and excite the ire of the anti-radical editor of the Church Times, Roger Roberts. The book was Honest to God, the notorious paperback by the Bishop of Woolwich, John Robinson, which was to sell more than a million copies. Its thesis was that the old images of God were no longer adequate, and that Christians should think of him as "the ground of our being". As for morality, "compassion for persons overrides all law." The book provoked a storm of controversy.

The Church Times rose to the occasion, although Roberts's original intention had been to soft-pedal its reaction to the book. Indeed, he decided to abandon the paper's normal custom at that time of anonymous reviews, and, instead, commissioned a signed notice by J. W. C. Wand, the former Bishop of London and a scholar of distinction.

In a letter to Wand, he underlined the object of this break with tradition. "Robinson and his friends seem to have convinced themselves that the Church Times has a personal vendetta against him. If, therefore, we had published an anonymous review in the normal way, it might have been dismissed as just another instance of this imaginary vendetta."

Wand's review of Honest to God, which appeared in the issue of 22 March 1963, was constructively critical but mild in tone. It summarised the book's argument at some length, and went on to observe that the man in the pew might say that - in spite of the dangers of formalism - a few plain rules and a few liturgical prayers helped to keep him on the upward path, when mind and body were alike too weary for independent effort. "Nevertheless, the Bishop's protest is valuable because it will help us to recognise that we have not yet penetrated to the ultimate meaning of God. . . One hopes that the Bishop will not find it necessary to continue girding at religion."

Roberts's original intention to soft-pedal the book soon went by the board. Widespread publicity in the secular press, and on the BBC, persuaded him (in spite of the business of the alleged vendetta) to deal with the subject editorially in the same issue as Wand's review - although he concentrated not so much on the book itself as on the position of the author:

There is nothing surprising about the publicity which the book has received. It is not every day that a bishop goes on public record as apparently denying almost every fundamental doctrine of the Church in which he holds office. . . Of his complete sincerity there is no question. What is in question is his position as a bishop of the Church of England solemnly sworn to "banish and drive away all erroneous and strange doctrine contrary to God's Word"; the man cannot dissociate himself from his office so long as he continues to hold it.

Five days after his comment appeared in print, Roberts was writing to commission a signed review of another book that had just arrived on his desk. This was the provocatively entitled Objections to Christian Belief, the text of lectures given by four radical Cambridge theologians. Roberts departed from normal convention on this occasion by instructing his reviewer, T. E. Utley (a leader-writer on the Daily Telegraph), on what line he should take. There was to be no risk of this review's erring on the side of leniency. Nor did it.

Crockford  preface

A ROW erupted in the late autumn of 1987 (under my own editorship) over the preface to a new edition of Crockford's Clerical Directory, which was followed by the suicide of its anonymous author.

For long published by the Oxford University Press, the directory now appeared under the joint aegis of the Church Commissioners and the Central Board of Finance. The new publishers had taken over from the OUP the practice of appending to each new edition a preface, in which an anonymous author (often described as "a churchman of distinction") took a far-ranging look at what had been happening in Anglican circles since the appearance of the previous edition.

The preface to the 1987-88 edition, however, distinguished itself by severely criticising not only much in the general Anglican scene which displeased the author, but also the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, personally.

The result was inevitable. The media went to town, and a hot debate ensued on the identity of the anonymous author. He was eventually revealed as the Revd Dr Gareth Bennett, Fellow of New College, Oxford, and a distinguished historian. But the revelation came only after the news of Bennett's suicide (he had cracked under the strain of trying to preserve his anonymity - a tragic denouement to what had up until then been merely an intriguing mystery). The Church Times dealt editorially with the episode in three successive issues (4, 11, and 18 December 1987).

The initial leader was a straightforward critique of the offending preface, in which the then still anonymous author was taken to task for "greatly exaggerating the lack of religious principle and liturgical cohesion in present-day Anglicanism". The leader mentioned the personal criticisms of Archbishop Runcie - but only in the context of the preface-writer's general strictures on the "liberal establishment", which was said to dominate both the Church of England, and the Episcopal Church in the United States.

The Church Times's original second leader on the affair was written before the news of Bennett's suicide had been announced. It argued that, on the basis of stylistic analysis (sentence-length, punctuation, and so on), Bennett, and none other, must be the author of the preface. The leader had, of course, to be scrapped at the last moment, after the news of Bennett's suicide, and replaced by a revised version.

This, among other things, called for the abolition of unsigned Crockford prefaces in future, and for a full explanation of the whole sorry business from the highest level at Church House, Westminster, and the Church Commissioners.

The final Church Times leader on the Bennett affair castigated the "inadequate" response to the tragedy by the church authorities. "The Policy Sub-Committee does not seem to have grasped how wide and deep in the Church of England is the conviction that the printing of this unedited essay in an official publication of the Church was a serious error - and would have been so had the consequences been less terrible."

That, indeed, to my mind, was the nub of the matter. What had been perfectly acceptable in the directory's OUP days had ceased to be so when it was now officially published by the Church.

The first and third leaders were the work of my principal leader-writer, David L. Edwards; both versions of the second leader were written by my successor as editor, John Whale. But all three leaders could be considered mild in tone, compared with the denunciatory editorials of yesteryear, and maybe a consequence of more conciliatory journalistic times.


Dr Bernard Palmer is the author of  Gadfly for God: A history of the "Church Times" (Hodder & Stoughton, 1991). His new memoir, Pilgrim's Progress: A self-portrait, is reviewed in the Books section.

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