A Defence of the Public Worship Regulation Act 1874
Although the 1874 Act singularly failed to live up to its title, it did introduce one reform that has endured to the present day. By s.7, it combined the 3 most senior judicial offices of the Church of England in a single officeholder
(1) the Dean of the Arches, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s provincial judge
(2) the Auditor, the Northern equivalent of the Dean and
(3) the Master of the Faculties, the official who exercises the Archbishop of Canterbury’s special faculty jurisdiction over both English Provinces, to grant licences to marry and to practice as a notary public.
As a result of the Act these 3 offices, like the Trinity, are 3 in 1 and 1 in 3. The Dean of the Arches and Auditor (and Master of the Faculties) is in effect the Lord Chief Justice of the Church of England. Ms Morag Ellis KC is the current holder of the 3 combined offices.
The Public Worship Regulation Act was a response to illegal ritualism, i.e illegal liturgical practices. Such practices involved
(1) ornaments of worship – whether of the fabric of the church (or churchyard), the movable furniture therein, or the vestments worn by officiating ministers. In 1874, these were governed by the famous Ornaments Rubric of the Book of Common Prayer.
(2) rites and ceremonies. Rites are the words used in public worship. Ceremonies are liturgical acts or gestures. These were likewise governed by the rubrics and other directions contained in the Prayer Book.
The purpose of the Act was therefore to uphold the rules of public worship laid down by the Book of Common Prayer (cf.s.8).
Before the 1874 Act, ritualist clergy were prosecuted under the Church Discipline Act 1840. However, such prosecutions were very expensive and could last several years. The primary object of the 1874 Act was therefore to reduce expense and delay. (This was the reason for combining the senior judicial offices in a single judge.) However, the Act was also intended to conciliate the offending ritualists.
The 1874 Act did not repeal the 1840 Act. It merely provided an alternative procedure (cf. s.5). An incumbent whose case was decided under the 1874 Act could not be proceeded against under the 1840 Act (or vice versa) (1874 Act, s.18).
The great difference between the Church Discipline Act and the Public Worship Regulation Act is that, while the former was criminal and penal in character, the latter provided a civil procedure.
The Public Worship Regulation Act sought to decriminalise ritualism, and treat it as a civil wrong instead. Its purpose was not to punish past offences but to secure future compliance.
It is, of course, particularly ironic that a law intended to decriminalise ritualism resulted in ritualist clergy being sent to prison.
Thus the 1874 Act provided that ‘Proceedings taken under this Act shall not be deemed to be such proceedings as are mentioned in the [Church Discipline] Act, s.23’, i.e that such proceedings are not a ‘criminal suit or proceeding’. The Act deliberately eschewed the language of criminal law and clergy discipline. Hence the use of the word ‘regulation’, rather than ‘discipline’. The long title of the Act refers only to ‘the better administration of the laws respecting the regulation of public worship’.
Proceedings under the 1874 Act were commenced by a representation, not a charge (s.8).
The 1874 Act discouraged Low Church legal activism against ritualists by limiting the class of potential complainants. Only the incumbent’s local archdeacon, his churchwarden(s) or any 3 male parishioners could make a ‘representation’ against him (s.8). Complaints against cathedral clergy could be made by any 3 male inhabitants of the diocese (the cathedral being the parish church of the diocese). Bishops were not subject to proceedings under the 1874 Act.
The Act also excluded old grievances. No representation was allowed in respect of an illegal adjustment of the church fabric, if this had been completed more than 5 years previously. Alleged illegal practices had to have occurred no more than 12 months previously.
The bishop could veto proceedings on a representation ‘after considering the whole circumstances of the case’ (s.9). This meant that he could stop proceedings on grounds of mere expediency, even if the incumbent clearly had acted illegally.
The Act also provided a form of arbitration. If he did not veto the proceedings, the bishop was required to invite both the incumbent and the complainant(s) ‘to submit to the directions of the bishop touching the said representation, without appeal’. Thus the bishop could settle the dispute on a consensual basis. The bishop’s decision, like an arbitration award, bound only the parties to the dispute. It was not a binding judicial precedent.
The bishop’s arbitration function under the 1874 Act echoed his function in the Book of Common Prayer
‘to appease all such diversity … and for the resolution of all doubts, concerning the manner how to understand, do, and execute, the things contained in this Book: the parties that so doubt, or diversely take any thing, shall alway resort to the Bishop … who by his discretion shall take order for the quiet and appeasing of the same …’ (Preface).
The Act also permitted the parties to agree a special case, i.e an agreed statement of facts, for judicial determination of the correct law, thereby avoiding the need for a contested trial.
Only if these options were declined by the parties did the case go to a full trial, with pleadings, evidence and legal submissions. The Dean of the Arches and Auditor, who is described simply as ‘the judge’ in the 1874 Act, ‘shall pronounce judgment on the matter of the representation’ (s.9). There was a right of appeal to the Privy Council.
The only remedies that could be awarded if a ‘representation’ was upheld were
(1) a monition or warning to the incumbent to desist from unlawful ritualism in future and / or
(2) a faculty to remove an unlawful ornament (cf.s.14).
If a warning (1) went unheeded the incumbent could be inhibited, i.e suspended from office. Thus inhibition / suspension was not a remedy per se. Its purpose under the 1874 Act was to enforce a monition.
A suspension would be lifted upon the incumbent giving a written undertaking ‘to pay due obedience to [the] monition or order’ (s.13). A suspended incumbent was allowed up to 3 years to submit. Only then could he finally be removed from office altogether.
The Public Worship Regulation Act probably has the worst reputation of any modern ecclesiastical legislation. It is argued that this is undeserved. Probably very few people have actually read the Act. Its provisions seem perfectly fair and reasonable, with nothing that is obviously objectionable. The text of the Act gives no clue as to the controversy that it inspired. Its moderation is in dignified contrast to the crass intransigence of the ritualists.
The fatal flaw in the Act was its naïve assumption that clergymen – of all people – would obey the law. They did not.
That is why they had to be sent to prison. There is no reference to imprisonment in the 1874 Act itself. As mentioned, the Act provides no sanctions more severe than warning and suspension from office. But the ritualists ignored these, and persisted with their illegal practices. The court observed in the case of Serjeant v Dale that ‘Mr Dale [the ritualist] from first to last took no notice of the proceedings’ (1877) 2 Queen’s Bench Division 558 at p.561).
Mr Dale was therefore imprisoned for contempt of court, not for illegal ritualism per se. However, this important distinction may not have been widely appreciated.
Nor was the contempt of court entirely passive. The Reverend Mr Tooth was only incarcerated after he and a gang of supporters had physically obstructed the clergyman sent by the bishop to officiate in his place. Once the obstruction was overcome, and the replacement clergyman safely installed, Mr Tooth was released: ‘let the order for his discharge be drawn up at once’ (Hudson v Tooth (1877) 2 Probate Division 125 at p.140).
Owen Chadwick relates that a grand total of 5 clergy were imprisoned for contempt: The Victorian Church, vol 2 (1970) p.348. The Reverend Mr Green’s imprisonment lasted over 18 months (‘They did not know how to get Green out’). The others were released after a few weeks. The aforementioned Mr Dale and Mr Tooth later had their committals quashed on technical grounds.
Why did the ritualists ignore the proceedings against them, even at the cost of imprisonment? Chadwick suggests that ‘in their eyes a non-Anglican Parliament had no more right than the Emperor of Japan to determine [their conduct of public worship]’. The ritualists were martyrs for the Church against the infidel secular state.
No doubt they convinced themselves of that. However, the case for the ritualists’ martyrdom is not compelling. Secular authority was not imposing some newfangled regime of public worship on the Church of England. On the contrary, it sought to uphold the Book of Common Prayer, the very essence of Anglican tradition. The 1874 procedure was indeed an Act of Parliament. But Parliament passed the Act at the request of the bishops. The then Archbishop of Canterbury, Archibald Campbell Tait, even drafted the original Bill himself (Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church). As mentioned, the Act encouraged ritualists to submit to the judgment of their bishop, an ecclesiastical authority.
Lord Selborne observed that the ritualists ‘claimed all the privileges of Establishment, while at the same time they repudiated all its conditions’ (Parliamentary Debates, Series 3, vol 219, col 949). Their rejection of episcopal authority as well as parliamentary authority was inconsistent with a Catholic belief in the Apostolic Succession of bishops.
(The response to the Public Worship Regulation Act reinforces the conclusion that so-called ‘Anglo-Catholic’ ritualism is neither Anglican nor Catholic, inasmuch as it repudiates both Anglican tradition and Catholic teaching. Ritualism is just that – an exaggerated love of ritual.)
The ritualists were a small and eccentric minority. However, their ‘martyrdom’ under the Public Worship Regulation Act was a characteristically exaggerated response to a real issue. In the 19th century, the Anglican theocracy created at the Reformation was gradually replaced by the modern secular state. This meant that the Church of England was governed by legislators and judges (i.e the Privy Council) who were not even nominally members of the Church.
The radical solution to this issue was Disestablishment, i.e complete severance of the link between Church and state. Conservatives sought autonomy, a measure of ecclesiastical self-government, but maintaining the link between Church and state (with its concomitant privileges, of course).
It might be argued that the Church of England already enjoyed a measure of self-government, through the system of ecclesiastical courts. However, even the Church courts were affected by 19th century secularisation. Doctors’ Commons, the ecclesiastical inn of court since the 16th century, was closed in the late 1850s-early 1860s. Sir Robert Phillimore DCL, original author of the famous commentary on ecclesiastical law, was the last inhabitant of Doctors’ Commons to officiate as Dean of the Arches. (He was himself the son of another Doctor, Joseph Phillimore.)
When the 1874 Act was passed, Sir Robert and the then Auditor both retired, in order to facilitate the combination of their respective offices. The first holder of both offices, the first Dean of the Arches and Auditor, was Lord Penzance.
Lord Penzance was a retired secular judge and barrister, with no connection to Doctors’ Commons. The Dictionary of National Biography suggests that he was a man of liberal sympathies, ‘concerned with issues of social change. In his maiden speech [in the House of Lords] he justified the Disestablishment of the Church of Ireland …’. This may not have endeared him to High Churchmen. It is ironic that a supporter of Disestablishment became instrumental in sending people to prison for rejecting ecclesiastical authority. (The way of the liberal is extremely hard!)
Apologists for the Public Worship Regulation Act correctly pointed out that Lord Penzance had the same function as his predecessors, and presided over the same courts. However, the Church courts underwent a profound cultural change in the mid-19th century, and the 1874 Act drew attention to this. Ecclesiastical law ceased to be a discrete profession with its own particular body of learning and custom. Ecclesiastical judges, like Lord Penzance, were now mere secular lawyers who happened to go to church. And the failure of the 1874 Act did nothing to improve the reputation of ecclesiastical law and the Church courts.
The convocations were therefore the only credible vehicle for ecclesiastical self-government. Suppressed in the early 18th century, they were revived about the same time that Doctors’ Commons was closed down. Chadwick relates that the practice began of proposed ecclesiastical legislation being debated by the convocations before being presented to Parliament (p.361). Thus the failure of the Public Worship Regulation Act produced the embryo of the modern legislative procedure codified by the Church of England (Assembly) Powers Act 1919.
Phillimore suggests that the Public Worship Regulation Act was already a dead letter by the end of the 19th century (Ecclesiastical Law, 2nd edition 1895, p.1036). A royal commission report of 1906 recommended repeal. However, the Act was not repealed until as late as 1963, by the Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction Measure, s.87.
It was easier to criticise the Public Worship Regulation Act than to replace it. A revised Book of Common Prayer was controversially rejected by Parliament in the 1920s. The law that currently regulates public worship, the Worship and Doctrine Measure, was only passed as recently as 1974, a whole 100 years after its unfortunate predecessor.