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The cry for self-government: 100 years of the Enabling Act

06 December 2019

Jeremy Morris marks the centenary of the Enabling Act, which created the General Synod’s precursor, in response to a campaign for the C of E’s ‘liberty’


The Church Assembly, in November 1948, is addressed by the Revd C. E. Douglas, its oldest member, then in his late seventies. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Fisher, is in the chair

The Church Assembly, in November 1948, is addressed by the Revd C. E. Douglas, its oldest member, then in his late seventies. The Archbishop of Canter...

JUST before Christmas 1919, George V signed the Enabling Act into law. This conferred on a National Assembly of the Church of England the power to adopt “Measures” through a Legislative Committee, which would pass to an Ecclesiastical Committee of Parliament for scrutiny and rapid progress into law.

This single piece of legislation still forms the bedrock of the Church of England’s modern representative system. It came with a great fanfare of acclaim, led by a pressure group headed by the charismatic future archbishop William Temple. In consequence, it is often seen as a decisive and unexpected leap forward in the Church’s self-understanding.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The Enabling Act was a vital piece of legislation for the Church of England, and has good claim to be the most important piece of legislation passed by Parliament for the Church in the 20th century. But it was the result of a long evolution in church polity and ecclesiastical authority, and of the careful development of practical solutions to problems of governance by the Church’s leadership. In its essential conception, it owed little to Temple.


COUNCILS have been intrinsic to the Church’s governance from the time of the apostles. By the time of the first Council of Nicaea, in 325, representatives attending were bishops, but they were convened by the emperor, who was technically a layman. Ecclesiastical councils in the West did not normally include laity, and that has to be seen in the context of the growth of religious orders, canon law, church courts, and separate ecclesiastical jurisdiction.

In seventh-century England, Archbishop Theodore reorganised the Church, and established assemblies for the provinces of Canterbury and York — the Convocations, as they were later called. By the late Middle Ages, these included cathedral and some parish clergy, as well as bishops and abbots.

Senior clergy were also members of the various councils summoned under royal authority, and which eventually evolved into Parliament. The Convocations often met alongside — or just before or just after — sessions of Parliament. Even at the Reformation, when there was an attack on the principle of separate ecclesiastical jurisdiction, the Convocations survived. None the less, the Reformation entailed a new understanding of near-absolute royal authority in religious matters, enforced by the novel instrument of royal injunctions. In time, through conflict, this morphed into the modern concept of the Crown-in-Parliament, and the supremacy of law.

But it presupposed a further shift in the understanding of lay participation: now the sovereign (i.e. Crown-in-Parliament) through which the affairs of the Church were regulated included lay members of the Houses of Commons and Lords. A distinction was made, theoretically, between doctrine, on the one hand, and the governance of the Church, on the other: the clergy belonged to the former, the “civil magistrate” to the latter.

In practice, successive settlements of religion did actually shape doctrine, through the Articles of Religion and the Prayer Book. Richard Hooker, in the disputed eighth book of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, openly acknowledged the place of Parliament, including Convocation, in regulating church affairs.


BY THE early 18th century, successive crises in Church and State, and the truculence of the representatives of the parish clergy, made Convocation inconvenient to the Crown. After 1717, it did not meet — except as a mere formality — until the mid-19th century.

Church leaders could console themselves, however, with the thought that their legislative interests were protected by a Parliament in which, under the Restoration settlement, only members of the Church of England could sit. This was the origin of the misleading idea that the House of Commons was the “lay synod” of the Church of England.

But that was, in turn, swept away by constitutional reform in the early 19th century. In four tumultuous years, from 1828 to 1832, abolition of the constitutional restrictions on Dissenters, Roman Catholic emancipation, and Parliamentary reform ended for ever the exclusive connection between political representation and Anglicanism. That is why churchpeople began to agitate for the revival of Convocation, and for a representative system for the Church of England. Without such a mechanism, Anglicans could have no means of determining church policy and legislation.

The Convocations of Canterbury and York began to meet again for the discussion of business in 1852 and 1861 respectively. Quite quickly, a voluntary representative system emerged, with lay representation. Bishop Browne of Ely led the way with the first diocesan “conference” in 1866. By the 1880s, almost all dioceses had them.

Four principles came to the fore: separate but parallel representation for clergy and laity; the linking of representation to traditional ecclesiastical units (parish, deanery, diocese, and province); a hierarchy of these authorities; and indirect rather than “direct” or democratic representation at the layers above the parish.

The laity were not represented nationally until the 1900s, and were excluded from discussion of doctrine. Voluntary as it was, the system was not uniform; by the 1890s, many urban parishes had councils, but they were rare in rural areas.

In 1903, the Convocations were brought together with parallel lay assemblies to form the Representative Church Council (RCC): the first truly national assembly of the Church of England in modern times. But it was still a voluntary, patchy system, entirely dependent on Parliament for legislative authority.

The franchise in this system was restricted to men, and usually based on confirmation, not baptism. This naturally reflected the influence of High Churchmen, who were particularly prominent in the agitation for self-government. They assumed that the power to determine that representation should lie with those most committed and engaged in church work; baptism was too wide and indiscriminate a basis — confirmation and reception of communion were the real marks of active church membership.


PRESSURE for legislative autonomy came from three sources. The Liberal landslide victory of 1906 brought into power a government shored up by ardently anti-establishment Dissenting MPs. Welsh disestablishment followed: adopted in 1912 and enacted after the Great War.

In 1913, fearful of the argument’s extending to the Church in England, the Archbishops established a committee to propose a scheme for the full integration of lay opinion. But it was increasingly clear, anyway, that Parliament was now an obstacle to church legislation: the growing pressure of parliamentary business pushed church affairs to the margins.

The case was also theological: High Churchmen wanted a system of self-governance to reflect the spiritual autonomy of the Church; Evangelicals wanted renewed and effective mission; and Broad Churchmen wanted a truly national system to reflect aspirations for a comprehensive national Church.

The draft scheme that emerged in 1916 was the product of careful negotiation and management by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Randall Davidson, in particular: full integration of the laity in the assembly; the universal establishment of parochial church councils; and devolved powers of self-government.

But by now Britain was at war. Davidson was convinced — rightly — that there would be no appetite in Parliament for the enabling legislation until the war was over. And yet pressure for change was building up. The relative failure of Davidson’s National Mission of Repentance and Hope, in 1917, underlined the distance between the Church and ordinary people who were the ones dying in the trenches and working in the munitions factories. This was the impetus for Life and Liberty, a group of enthusiasts for reform led by William Temple, which, at a crowded London meeting, called for Parliament to declare its intentions on self-government for the Church.


ANGLICANS revere their prophets and mostly despise their statesmen and administrators. Temple led Life and Liberty magnificently: he gave up his day job at St James’s, Piccadilly, and spent two years on the stump, arguing passionately up and down the land for “liberty for the Church”. Undeniably, he gave focus and impetus to the cause.

He also changed the scheme in one important respect: supporting the comprehensive National Church idea, and keen to encourage working people to participate in church government, Temple argued successfully in the RCC for a baptismal franchise.

Anglo-Catholics, led by Charles Gore, were disappointed, and this was one reason why Gore resigned his bishopric in Oxford in 1919. The electoral rolls that defined the electorate in each parish, when the universal creation of PCCs came into effect, rested on baptism, not confirmation, as the basis of church membership.  ​A caricature of the Archbishop of Canterbury (1903-1928), Randall Davidson, and Lord Hugh Cecil, one of the prominent laymen on the Church Assembly

Yet Davidson’s patient and careful handling of the political processes, and his astute grasp of key relationships, cannot be underestimated. In all respects other than the franchise, the scheme mooted in 1916 came to fruition in the creation of the Church Assembly after the Enabling Act passed into law.

Temple, arguably, had overheated the significance of the Measure. The mass participation in church affairs which he desired never came to pass. Within a few years, the operation of the Church Assembly, and of the subordinate diocesan and deanery conferences, and the PCCs, was largely in the hands of active middle-class churchgoers, where it remains today.

The limitations of the much-vaunted power of self-government were cruelly exposed when, in 1927, and again in 1928, Parliament rejected a revised Prayer Book approved by the Church Assembly. The opportunity for strengthening this power did not come again until 1970, with the creation of the General Synod.

Has this exercise in self-governance, and the inclusion of the laity, worked well overall? Some would argue that it has still not gone far enough. Disestablishment could free the Church of England of its remaining parliamentary burdens. Open elections for senior positions, as in many Churches of the Anglican Communion, could take church democracy further.

It is hard to argue that the experiment as such has been a failure, though. Despite the fiasco of 1927-28, and more recently divisions over women’s ordination, in general terms the Church has been able to process necessary business to a degree unimaginable before 1919. A glance at other episcopal Churches with integrated lay representation — the Nordic Lutheran Churches, and the Old Catholic Churches of the Union of Utrecht, for example — shows similar attempts at combining episcopal leadership with synodical governance. All have their strengths and weaknesses. No system of corporate governance is perfect.

Yet there are particular criticisms of synodical governance in the Church of England which remain pertinent today and can be traced back to the early evolution of the system — the organisation of “factions” or groups (News, 4 August 2017), the intrusion of quasi-parliamentary manoeuvring, over-preoccupation with procedural rules, the lack of diversity, over-complexity in voting processes. These and other points were made as much of the Church Assembly as they are of the General Synod now.

The real difficulty has been the wider failure of Temple’s vision: declining numbers in the past 50 years have drained church governance of the chance of broadening and deepening its roots in the community at large. It is no wonder the system looks cliquey and unrepresentative to those on the outside.

The Revd Dr Jeremy Morris is Master of Trinity Hall, Cambridge, and an Hon. Canon of Ely Cathedral.


The Enabling Act: promise and fulfilment

Charles Gore to Randall Davidson, 15 March 1919

While the main motive for resigning my bishopric is what I have described, the choice of the moment is partly due to the decision of the Representative Church Council a few days ago about the future of the franchise. I am convinced that, in abandoning the present basis of franchise which includes confirmation, we have sacrificed principle to the desire for larger numbers on our rolls, and that largely for the sake of maintaining the “national” position of the Church. I know this does not represent your point of view, or that of others of my friends who gave their vote for the baptismal franchise. But it represents, I think, the effect of the vote on the whole.

From a letter reproduced in Randall Davidson: Archbishop of Canterbury by G. K. A. Bell (second edition,1938)

Hensley Henson, Bishop of Hereford

On the day when the Enabling Act comes into force the people of England will be divided by statute into two categories — those who have signed the new declaration, and those who have not. As the law stands now, every baptized Englishman is ipso facto a member of the National Church; under the Enabling Act only those baptized Englishmen who have taken the test will be so reckoned.

From a letter to The Times, 15 December 1919, quoted by Henson in Retrospect of an Unimportant Life: Volume One 1863-1920 (1942)


F. A. Iremonger, William Temple’s biographer

Generally, it may be said that that at the outset there was a sharp and fateful struggle between two groups in the National Church Assembly who differed widely in their conception of its policy and its purpose and may be called, roughly, the legalists and the moralists. The struggle was a brief one. The legalists — of whom Sir Lewis Dibdin, the trusted adviser of Randall Davidson, will be remembered as the leader — were soon in control; the voice of the Assembly is now the voice of the administrator, not of the prophet; and so long as its constitution and time-table remain unrevised (so that, for instance, few of the laity outside the more leisured classes can spare the time to attend the sessions) its present tone and temper will persist.

From William Temple: Archbishop of Canterbury: His life and letters (1948)

The Church Times (25 November 1932):

The autumn session of the Church Assembly came to an end last Friday afternoon with a demand from one of the proctors that the President should give a ruling as to whether the Assembly was a competent body to discuss a motion concerning the remuneration of rural deans! The House had spent the morning in a final discussion of the important Benefices (Purchase of Rights of Patronage) Measure; but, at such a moment in the history of the nation, the raising of any trivial subject gives an unfortunate impression that the Assembly spends too much of its time in discussing matters of secondary importance. That the Assembly is inclined to shelve questions of real moment was shown by the defeat by only one vote, on Thursday morning, of a motion to give priority to a discussion on the question of the Ecclesiastical Courts. In its dealings with unemployment and gambling, the House, however, came off with greater credit than might have been expected. The discussion on unemployment was mainly notable for an extremely able summing-up by His Grace the President, whose sympathy with the unfortunate victims of economic circumstance and understanding of the problems involved earned him well-deserved applause. The speech of the Archbishop of York, who introduced the motion on betting and gambling, gained strength from the moderate manner in which he stated his case. Both these debates tended at their conclusions to afford opportunities for the elderly bores, of whom the Assembly has far too many. . .

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