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Baptismal regeneration and the Gorham case

31 January 2014


From Dr John Mair

Sir, - Miss Prudence Dailey (Letters, 10 January) and Mr Alan Bartley ( Letters, 24 January) allude to the Gorham judgment. Mr Bartley notes that Sir Robert Phillimore observed in 1895 that the views of the appellant (the Revd George Cornelius Gorham) were "almost impenetrable", but the fact remains that, 45 years previously, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council had held (in April 1850, after hearings in December 1849) that those views were not an infraction of the doctrines of the Church of England as set out in its official statements.

In the context of the present debate about baptismal rites, it may be relevant and important to clarify the scope of the Gorham judgment, which was essentially a legal determination that the views ascribed to Gorham were compatible with the Articles and formularies of the Church of England as by law established.

The Judicial Committee (whose first ecclesiastical cause to come before it was this case, which was in the event spectacular) did not, and did not purport to, define the truth of any doctrine in itself.

The nature of the Committee's jurisdiction and of its judgment was, however, widely (and in some cases wildly) misunderstood: there followed vast public meetings of protest and shoals of pamphlets and even secessions to the Roman Catholic Church. The judgment was not a ruling on the abstract merits of particular doctrines of baptism or of regeneration; but critics persisted in seeing it as a theological rather than as a legal determination.

This perception was probably heightened by the fact that almost all church parties approached the matter with an outlook of unqualified, and probably unselfconscious, theological realism, which led them to consider that they were dealing with absolute statements about metaphysical facts.

An appreciation of the intensity of the participants at the time requires an act of imagination in our own day, when doctrines may be seen as expressions of a kind of applied art rather than as final definitions of matters of which many are unknowable.

JOHN MAIR (Reader emeritus)
67 Bromefield
Middlesex HA7 1AG

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