Guy Beringer Articles

Article 1

If you were asked to describe the Church of England today, the picture painted might be one of a church under pressure, seen by many commentators to be in crisis.  The case for it to be the officially established church of England might be seen to be weakened by doubts within and criticism from without.  Internal doctrinal division would be seen to be widespread.  The possibility of schism between the church's liberal and traditional wings might also be noted.

The Anglican of 2015 will see evidence all around to support this picture: multi-cultural influences and growing secularism press convincingly against the case for continued establishment; the ordination of women priests and bishops and the question of gay marriage produce seemingly irreconcilable division.

The picture described above is not, however, a description of the Church of England in the early 21st century.  It is instead a description of the Church of England in the mid 19th century.  It is a description which would have been entirely familiar to the men and women who rebuilt St James' Church in 1848.  They would have been shaken by the conversion to Rome of J.H. Newman in 1845.  They would have been following with increasing concern the controversy over the Gorham case, which found its way to the Privy Council in 1849.

Those who are faint hearted about the state of the Anglican church today may therefore draw some comfort from the fact that its current troubles are neither new nor particularly remarkable.  Any who are troubled by the prospect of a major re-ordering of the church buildings in Weybridge today may draw greater comfort from history.  Our predecessors' reaction to crisis was bold and decisive: in 1848 they built a new physical environment for their activities which was fit for purpose and modern.

This article is the first of a series which describes the crisis faced by the church in Victorian times.  It is arguable that the evidence of crisis in 1848 was more formidable than is the case today.  The church was beset by pressure to reform the political and social culture of which it was a central part and it was seen by many as corrupt and weak.  It was assailed by developments in biblical scholarship and historical research which challenged previously accepted literal interpretations of the Bible.  It was rocked by Darwin's theories concerning the origin of the species which appeared to challenge the core of religious teaching.  It was torn by animosity between high churchmen and evangelicals.  It was shaken by defections to Rome.  Its leadership was seen as weak, inactive and unable to defend traditional doctrine.

What does the view with hindsight reveal as the response of the church to these challenges?  There were at least four areas where the church transformed itself over time.

First, its structure was radically overhauled and reformed.  This reform covered parish life as the practice of pluralism (where one clergyman held several paid posts but often did not perform the duties of the additional posts) was acknowledged to be wrong.  The reform also extended to the organisational structure of the church and the way in which it took decisions.

Second, its liturgy and ritual were re-examined and considerably changed.  The manner in which services were conducted, the frequency of communion services, the emphasis on personal devotion, were all evidence of a radical overhaul.

Third, the church embarked on an extraordinary building programme which often adopted a distinctive and imposing gothic style.  The physical presence of the church was dramatically increased during this period.

Finally, the church underwent a musical transformation in the 19th century with the creation of a distinctive Anglican choral tradition rooted in the parish as well as the cathedral.  The role of the hymn was enhanced and modern Anglican traditions of hymn singing were effectively invented by the Victorians.

All of these changes have a particular resonance with St James' which, in many ways, is an ideal case study for the response of the established church to the pressures of the mid-19th century world.  The articles which follow are an attempt to give some historical context to the challenges and decisions which now face us.  Our predecessors in 1848 faced crisis by rebuilding the physical presence of the church in a way which engaged more directly with the new world around them.

It would be wrong to say that our challenges are the same as those of 150 years ago.  But it would be equally wrong to say that those events cannot inform our decisions and offer some lessons.  We are in a world which needs to find its way back to pluralism but it will need to be a positive pluralism.  We are in a world which needs to accommodate other religious and cultural traditions in a way that does not dilute the role that the Anglican church is capable of playing for the good of all.

We are in a world which needs to re-examine the organisation of the church to make it fit for modern purpose.  We are in a world which needs to work out how to accommodate a state which has moved to a view of marriage which differs from the traditions of the church.  Many in 1848 would have thought the same about baptismal regeneration.  Nothing much is really new.  It is simply our turn and if the past can help us make a better fist of it, so much the better.

Guy Beringer


Article 2

Back to the Future

The greatest issue which faced the church in the 19th century still endures today.  It was the question of establishment.  The Church of England was the established church of the country and was an integral part of its legal and political structure.  What did establishment mean in practice in 1848?

It meant, amongst other things, that:

-the state registered births only in the baptismal registers of parish churches

-the state recognised no marriages as legal (save for specific exemptions for Quakers and Jews) unless they took place in the parish church-non-Anglicans could not obtain university degrees

-every parishioner (whether or not Anglican) had to pay a local parish rate which funded roads, bridges, welfare and the cost of upkeep of the nave of the Anglican parish church.

It was estimated in 1851 that, of a total population in England and Wales of around 18 million, approximately 7 million attended church and this number was split roughly equally between Anglicans and non-Anglicans.  The established church therefore occupied a position of privilege in 1851 which its active membership levels did not merit.  This inevitably attracted pressure from non-Anglicans.  Two further factors made that pressure more intense.

The first was that the early Victorian church was demonstrably corrupt in certain respects.  It had many paid posts which were given to incumbents who often lived miles away and who performed no duties in return.  The press revealed in the 1830s that 19 bishops accounted for 61 paid posts in addition to their bishoprics.  It was estimated that only half of parishes in the 1830s had a resident priest.  Pluralism was rife and was obvious to critics of the Church.

The second factor was that this was a period of major political reform.  The 1832 Reform Act began the process which was to lead to universal suffrage 100 years later.  It was unfortunate, but not surprising, that the bench of bishops in the House of Lords distinguished itself by voting against the early stages of the Reform Bill and thereby identified the Church with the old discredited political system.  This produced a wave of popular pamphlets and abuse.  The Bishop of Lichfield was chased down Fleet Street in his carriage by the mob.  The Archbishop of Canterbury asked for police protection and the Bishop of Exeter was burned in effigy.

The Times wrote: 'The establishment of the Church of England is now in serious peril'.  Dr Arnold of Rugby School wrote: 'The church, as it now stands, no human power can save'.

How did the church survive this crisis to remain established to this day?  The answer lay in a process of reform and change.  The starting point was the Ecclesiastical Commission of 1835 set up by the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel.  This body took central control of the affairs of the Church.  It reformed the way in which revenues were distributed and introduced new rules to limit pluralism.  In 1838 it was estimated that over 3000 curates in England acted for non-resident priests.  By 1864 this number had fallen to 950.  The work of the Commission (now the Church Commissioners) provided evidence that the Church was reforming from within, albeit slowly.

Many non-Anglicans called for an end to establishment and the privileges it bestowed on the Church of England.  At first, members of the church resisted these calls vigorously but the decades which followed the Reform Act saw increasing levels of interference in the Church's affairs.  This came at first from the Ecclesiastical Commission, a creation of the Prime Minister, and this was followed subsequently by some secular court decisions affecting doctrinal matters.  By 1848 some within the Church were actively suggesting that it would be better off without the interferences brought on by establishment.

Two examples illustrate how the views about establishment of some within the Church changed during this period.

The first example is the men who formed the Oxford Movement.  This is the name given to a group of churchmen at Oxford University, the best known of whom was J. H. Newman.  They published a series of documents known as tracts and they are often referred to as the Tractarians.  The origins of the movement lay in the 1830s, when its members argued that the Church should possess a divine authority which could not be overruled either by Parliament or by the secular legal system.  A key principle of the movement was the doctrine of apostolic succession- the Church had a direct line of authority which could be traced back to the original ministry with which the Church was founded.  The movement was initially a very traditionalist one and sought to go back to the position in earlier times.  It soon became apparent to its members, however, that establishment might be a barrier to their ideas because it gave the state a place in the Church's affairs which they came to resent.  Many of its members defected to Rome.  Many also came to be critical of establishment and some concluded that the Church would be in a purer position without state interference.

The second example is now almost forgotten and it is the story of George Gorham.  Gorham was an evangelical fellow of Queens' College Cambridge who was installed in 1846 as vicar of St Just in Cornwall, then part of Exeter diocese.  The Bishop of Exeter was Henry Phillpotts, an ultra high church Tory who is said to have been the model for Archdeacon Grantly in Barchester Towers.

Gorham attracted attention by unwisely advertising for a curate 'free from Tractarian error'.  He then asked to be moved to a parish nearer Exeter and the Bishop summoned him for an interview before agreeing to the transfer.  The interview in the end lasted 38 hours and was spread over 5 days.  The Bishop pronounced Gorham's views on baptismal regeneration to be unsound.  The Bishop contended that baptism of infants automatically resulted in regeneration whereas Gorham contended that this was not always the case (on the basis that adult baptism would not automatically regenerate a person who was, for example, an unrepentant atheist).

The Bishop refused to install Gorham in his new parish and he appealed to the ecclesiastical courts.  The case went through all the ecclesiastical courts but the final appeal was to the Privy Council.  This was where the problem lay because the Privy Council involved a hearing where the majority of the judges were non-clerical.  It was true that the two Archbishops and the Bishop of London sat as part of the tribunal but they were outnumbered by secular judges and the judgment was delivered by the Master of the Rolls.

Church members were highly confused to find a doctrinal issue of enormous contemporary importance being decided by a law court.  Ironically, the Bishop's supporters were more worried about the reliability of the two Archbishops (both of whom tended to the evangelical) than about the lay judges.  In the event, the court decided in favour of Gorham.  A bishop's authority to appoint his clergy could be challenged and overturned in a court where the majority of judges were laymen - where had apostolic authority gone?  Gorham is almost forgotten now but this was an event which was as high profile then as gay marriage is now.

 What effect might these events have had on St James', which was being rebuilt while they were being played out?  The Gorham judgment is unlikely to have been welcomed in Weybridge.  Such evidence as exists (the ritual and the music used in St James') suggests that both William Giffard and Edward Rose (the two Rectors of the period) both tended towards the High Church party which felt itself threatened by the trends toward state intervention and evangelicalism.

Contemporary observers would have been able to distinguish High Churchmen from evangelicals not only by their dress (with High Churchmen in frock coats and evangelicals in cutaway tailcoats) but also by their interests.  Evangelicals disapproved strongly of fox-hunting parsons and cricketing parsons, both activities being likely indicators of High Churchmanship.

Readers of early editions of the parish magazine in the 1860s will see little evidence of fox hunting.  If they look carefully, however, they will note the regular inclusion of the cricket results alongside the train timetable and meteorological statistics.  In 1866 the magazine reported that the cricket pitch on the Common had been relaid and enlarged.  Edward Rose even presented a special prize at the church school for the best cricketer.

Guy Beringer


Article 3

Ritual and Worship in the early Victorian era


The rebuilding of St James' in 1848 came in the middle of a period of spiritual rebuilding in the Victorian Church.  In the early part of the century services were hurriedly intoned by parson and clerk; vestments were plain and reverence was often hard to detect.  One parish clerk sang the services with a quid of tobacco in his mouth, emphasising each Amen by spitting from the lower deck of the pulpit.  In many parishes, the area below the tower housed the fire engine.  The altar was frequently used as coat rack or even as an additional seating area. Services of holy communion were infrequent.

It was against this background that the Oxford movement came into being and published a series of 'Tracts for the Times' between 1833 and 1841.  The writers of the Oxford tracts examined the old (and forgotten) rubric of the prayer book and found in it provision for daily services and weekly communion.  They also discovered that the rubric permitted use of ornaments which had been used in "the second year of the reign of King Edward VI" (i.e., 1549).  This provided the foundation of a high church revival.  Much of the historic ceremony of church services had fallen away and the re-introduction of regular communion services, the wearing of surplices and other vestments, the use of candlesticks and other ornaments, the use of crosses on the altar, the introduction of cathedral-style choral music all became marks of high churchmanship.  All these practices were vigorously attacked by evangelicals as a series of dangerous (and papist) innovations.

There were many ways in which clergymen's allegiances could be seen.  High churchmen revived the traditional practice of turning east for the creed.  This led to the rather curious spectacle in 1854 at a service in St. Paul's Cathedral, attended by Archbishop Sumner and Bishop Blomfield, when it was noted that London turned east for the creed whereas the more evangelical Canterbury did not.  This led to some confusion and one Suffolk parson solved the dilemma in classic Anglican fashion by adopting a north-easterly position.

It is clear that St. James's became part of the High Church traditionalist movement.  Edward Rose's New Year message for January, 1866 stated that Sunday congregations had improved in the latter half of the day and the number of communicants had considerably increased.  He indicated that this was "partly due to weekly communion and partly to services more hearty".  The lack of communicants at St. James's was addressed through regular confirmation classes.  These efforts ultimately bore results as the annual confirmation service conducted by the Bishop in April 1870 confirmed 137 candidates, 76 of whom were from Weybridge.

The pattern of services during the period further underlines the greater emphasis placed on Holy Communion at St. James's.  Before 1846, Communion was celebrated once a quarter with an average attendance of about 10 communicants.  During the following 10 years, Communion services were held once a month with an average of 20-30 communicants.  On Easter Day, 1847 there were a record 60 communicants but this may have been connected with the imminent demolition of the old church.  On Easter Day in 1866 there were 117 communicants at 8.30 a.m. and 212 communicants at 12 noon.

Whilst Easter Day was the clear centrepiece of the year in St. James's, the other focal points were Ascension Day, Whitsunday, Trinity Sunday and Christmas.  Ascension Day was observed with communion at 7 a.m. and 12 noon together with Morning Prayer at 11 a.m. and Evensong at 8 p.m.  On Christmas Day there would be Morning Prayer at 11 a.m. and Evensong at 7 p.m. together with Holy Communion at 12 noon.  From 1865 onwards an additional early communion service was held at 8.30 a.m.  In that year, the 8.30 a.m. service attracted 29 communicants whilst the 12 noon service attracted 121 - this was significantly less than the numbers who took communion on Easter Day.

There was no equivalent at this time in St. James's of the modern day carol service.  The service of nine lessons and carols was first introduced during the 1870's at Truro by Bishop (later Archbishop) Benson.  There was, however, a special service introduced in 1869 on New Year's Eve at 11.30 p.m., followed after midnight by Holy Communion - there was no similar service on Christmas Eve.

The first record of a Harvest Thanksgiving Service appears on Wednesday, 20th October, 1869 at 8 p.m. although it is probable that this was not the first such service at St. James's.  Harvest festival services had been widely introduced from 1842 onwards, following a year in which a plentiful harvest saved many from starvation.

The parish was at this time part of the diocese of Winchester.  The Bishop of Winchester throughout the period from 1827 to 1869 was C.R. Sumner, a low churchman who, although anti-Tractarian, was not markedly evangelical.  He was indirectly notable for the fact that his son, George Sumner, married Mary Heywood who, as Mary Sumner, is known to many contemporary Anglicans as the founder of the Mother's Union.  The movement began as a parish organisation in Old Alresford and then became a diocesan organisation within the Winchester diocese before spreading rapidly to its modern day international status.

Old Bishop Sumner continued in office for 42 years until 1869 when he resigned at the age of 79.  The Weybridge parish magazine of September, 1869 underlined the significance of ecclesiastical appointments in the Victorian order of things when the Rector wrote (in tones familiar to devotees of Barchester):  "We can hardly over estimate the importance of such a crisis, or the greatness of the interests at stake in the appointment of a successor".  He need hardly have worried as Sumner's successor was Samuel Wilberforce, formerly Bishop of Oxford, and a man with respectable High Church credentials. 

The best evidence for the revitalised strength of the Church lies in the extraordinary building programme undertaken during the course of the 19th Century.  This was financed primarily by individual members of the Church but in 1818, parliament had voted £1,000,000 to build Anglican churches and in 1824 it provided a further £500,000.  Whilst this may not seem a significant amount, it is placed in perspective by the fact that St. James's was built in 1848 at a cost of well under £10,000.  The list of donors to St. James's was not a long one and the fund raising was dependent on a handful of people. 

This rather modern combination of public and private sector financing produced spectacular results.  Between 1840 and 1876 the Anglican church in England and Wales built 1,727 new churches.  During the same period 7,144 old churches and cathedrals were rebuilt or restored.  The total cost of this extraordinary programme was £25,548,703.  

A consequence of the expansion was the gradual abandonment of pew rents since many new parish churches were built on condition that the pews were free and open to all.  This was a matter of some contemporary controversy since many believed, as a matter of principle, that pews should be free and that it was the absence of free pews that kept ordinary people away from church.

St. James's was growing throughout the period, gradually at first but with increased momentum after the introduction of the railway.  The 7.35 a.m. to Waterloo got in at 8.25 a.m. in the 1860's - contemporary commuters may calculate for themselves the lack of progress in the intervening period.

A contemporary pamphlet of the 1840's estimated that there were 278 places in the old church of which only 65 were free for the poor.  Under the new arrangements, there were to be 608 places of which 350 would be free and open to all.  The evidence would suggest that the old church was under pressure of space from early in the 19th century and would certainly not have been adequate to accommodate the congregations of the 1860's when, at major festivals, the number of communicants alone could exceed 200.

What can the development of ritual in the 19th century teach us now?  The most striking thing is the way in which the Victorians introduced new festival formats- carol services and harvest thanksgivings are two good examples.  Might it not again be time for some new approaches which are designed to appeal to the contemporary churchgoer?  Harvest might perhaps be joined by services celebrating the environment and the natural world.  Christmas carols might perhaps be augmented by Easter carol services.  We should treat the reordering of St James's as an opportunity to address forms and ceremonies as the Victorians did.  As ever, innovation may be old wine in new bottles.  I do not advocate chewing tobacco during the service but a new form of ceremony for Ascension Day may be a start.

Guy Beringer