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The Reform Bishops 1828-1840 by Trevor Park

26 May 2017

Michael Wheeler on the ‘reform bishops’ and their record

The Reform Bishops 1828-1840: A biographical study

Trevor Park

St Bega Publications £15


Church Times Bookshop £13.50



WHEN the House of Lords rejected the second Reform Bill in the early hours of 8 October 1831, 21 bishops voted against it. Had they voted for it, the Bill would have had a major­ity of one.

During the ensuing riots, a dead cat narrowly missed the Archbishop of Canterbury, but struck his chap­lain in the face. “Be glad it wasn’t a live one,” Howley is reputed to have said. By 4 June 1832, the opposition in the Lords had collapsed, and several bishops were indicating that they would not resist the third Re­­form Act. The 22 peers who voted against were all laymen.

The Great Reform Act was only one in a series of measures that en­­gaged the attention of the 45 “re­­form bishops” (1828-40) and which changed the political land­scape in both State and Church.

When he was a member of the General Synod and an elected Church Commissioner, Canon Trevor Park had many opportun­ities to observe the bench of bishops closely, and he wondered how they compared with their pre­decessors.

Like his life of C. J. Vaughan, this group biography — a more chal­lenging project — comes from Park’s own publishing outlet. Unfettered by editorial constraint, he makes room for extensive quota­tions from original sources, some less accessible than others, which makes the book a useful reference work as well as an enjoyable read.

Clergy will be fascinated by the chapters on “climbing the clerical ladder” and “patronage and prefer­ment”, even though too many bishops are treated in too short a space for comfort. Promotion came to those who were favourites of the sovereign, or related by blood or marriage to a highly influential officer of state, or had been a tutor to the son of an influential aristo­cratic family, or had published an important scholarly or apologetic work, or were men of genuine ability.

Park takes us down all these routes, and cites some fascinating arguments presented in the charges of both bishops and archdeacons in defence of the system, at a time when there was little sense of a man’s having a vocation to ordina­tion from God. This in turn leads to a discussion of the part, sometimes almost non-existent, played by the bishops in the informal training of clergy and the establishment of the first theological colleges.

Park concludes by arguing that two popular beliefs about the “reform bishops” are mistaken: first, that they were all wealthy, nepo­tistic, self-indulgent, and generally unworthy of their high office (the combative Philpotts of Exeter may have been money-grabbing, but he and many of his fellow bishops had heavy overheads as well as large incomes); second, that there were no good, active, conscientious, reforming bishops before Samuel Wilberforce.

Having tried to set the record straight in his life of Vaughan, Park has now clearly succeeded in that endeavour in this group bio­graphy.


Dr Wheeler is a Visiting Professor at the University of Southampton and Chairman of Gladstone’s Library.

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