Wise Virgins: The Cardiff Convention 1917

by Philip Jones

Controversy

It is easy to forget – and its present leaders may prefer to forget – that the Church in Wales was strongly opposed to its own Disestablishment.  Disestablishment gave rise to ‘more bitterness and acrimony than any political controversy in which the Welsh nation has ever been engaged’ (House of Commons Official Record 1945, vol 409, column 527).  Devolution and Brexit were amicable by comparison.

The Disestablishment controversy was fought on party political lines.  The Liberal Party’s electoral support came from the nonconformist chapels, which resented the perceived wealth and privilege of the Established Church.  In Wales, the Church was widely regarded as an alien, English institution, with only a small number of adherents.

However, the Church was still ‘the Tory Party at prayer’.  For many years, the large Tory majority in the House of Lords frustrated Liberal attempts at Disestablishment.  The Welsh Church Act 1914 was only enacted at the 4th attempt, and only after the Parliament Act 1911 had made it impossible for the House of Lords ultimately to prevent the enactment of legislation approved by the House of Commons.

Disestablishment per se might not have been so controversial.  However, the 1914 Act also provided for a substantial disendowment of the Church in Wales.  Most of its glebe and tithe property, on which its clergy depended for their income, was secularised, transferred to the Welsh local authorities and to the University of Wales (s.8(1)(c)-(e)).

S.13 of the Welsh Church Act contains 2 provisions for the post-Disestablishment governance of the Church in Wales:

‘(1) Nothing in any Act, law or custom shall prevent the bishops, clergy and laity of the Church in Wales from holding synods or electing representatives thereto, or from framing … constitutions and regulations for the general management and good government of the Church in Wales and the property and affairs thereof …

(2) If … it is shown to the satisfaction of His Majesty the King that the said bishops, clergy and laity have appointed … persons to represent them and hold property for any of their uses and purposes, His Majesty in Council may by Charter incorporate such persons … as the representative body.’

S.38(1) clarifies that ‘The expression synod [in s.13(1)] includes any assembly or convention’.

These 2 provisions are different in character.  S.13(1) merely confirms that, having ‘cease[d] to be established by law’ (per s.1), the Church in Wales has the same freedom to govern itself as any other voluntary association.  It does not confer any status on the Church’s synods or assemblies.

S.13(2), by contrast, confers a positive power on the state (‘His Majesty in Council’) to incorporate the Representative Body.  Before exercising this power, the state had to be satisfied that the appointed persons did indeed represent the Church in Wales.

S.8 provided that the property left to the Church in Wales after Disestablishment should ultimately vest in the Representative Body.  However, s.4(1) provided that, at the date of Disestablishment, the property should first vest in the Welsh Commissioners, a state agency.  The Welsh Commissioners would then transfer the property to the Representative Body.

(s.4(2) excepted movable chattels from this rule.  Chattels remained the property of their ecclesiastical owners, then vested automatically in the Representative Body when incorporated.)

Disestablishment, and Disendowment, were originally scheduled to occur no later than a year after the passage of the Welsh Church Act (s.1).  However, the outbreak of the First World War caused Disestablishment to be postponed for the duration of hostilities: Suspensory Act 1914, s.1.  This gave the Church in Wales more time to prepare its future constitution.

Cardiff

The 4 Welsh diocesan conferences were the primary vehicle for the Church in Wales’s forced march to self-governance.  Diocesan conferences were no novelty in 1914.  They had existed in England and Wales since the 19th century, but only on an unofficial, voluntary basis.

Each conference appointed 100 delegates to represent it, led by the bishop: one third clergy, two thirds laity (including, progressively, one lady delegate).  The 4 conferences also passed identical resolutions giving their delegates full power to act on their behalf (12).  These 400 delegates became the Cardiff Convention.  The Convention was therefore a representative assembly of the diocesan conferences, and drew its authority from the diocesan conferences.

The Convention met from 2nd to 5th October 1917, exactly 100 years ago this week.  The venue was apparently Cory Hall, which no longer exists.  There is a group photograph of the delegates which looks as if it was taken outside what is now Cardiff Crown Court.

Nobody in the Church in Wales was more trenchantly opposed to Disestablishment than its senior bishop, Alfred George Edwards, the Bishop of St. Asaph.  (He was, in today’s parlance, a ‘remainer’ or ‘remoaner’.)  By virtue of his seniority, he officiated as President of the Convention.  His opening speech graphically illustrates the Disestablishment controversy:

‘The [Welsh Church] Act proclaims that on the day the War ends it will smash our machinery and rob the safe’.

He continued defiantly:

‘Our answer is clear.  We shall do our best to prevent you [i.e the Liberal Party] doing your worst’ (Convention Official Report, p.7)

The Presiding Bishop was particularly distressed by s.4(1) of the 1914 Act.  Disendowment was bad enough.  But the prospect of the Church’s remaining property also falling into the clutches of a secular agency was dire.  His priority was therefore to ensure that a Representative Body was constituted and incorporated, ready to take over the Church’s property at Disestablishment.

His memoirs contain this poignant entry: ‘to constitute a Representative Body … in January 1915 … I was summoned to London to an all-important committee meeting, and I struggled painfully through it, for on that morning the news had reached me that my youngest son had been killed in action’ (Memories, London, 1927, p.270).

The Cardiff Convention created 2 new institutions for the Church in Wales:

(2) a Representative Body to secure the Church’s property and

(1) a Governing Body to provide for the Church’s governance after Disestablishment.

The Cardiff Convention constituted the Representative Body, but the Representative Body’s authority would come from its Royal Charter, when granted according to s.13(2).  By contrast, the Governing Body’s authority came from the diocesan conferences, via the Cardiff Convention.  The diocesan conferences’ authority came from the freedom conferred by s.13(1).

The constitution of the Governing Body was the embryo of the future constitution of the Church in Wales.  The Cardiff Convention constituted the Governing Body, and thereby enabled the Governing Body to provide a constitution for the entire Church.

The work of preparing the 2 constitutions was led by Mr Justice Sankey, the future Lord Chancellor Sankey, who was then Chancellor of Llandaff.  He took a more positive view of Disestablishment than the Presiding Bishop:

‘Unto us there comes the privilege which is seldom given to a generation, the opportunity of directing and shaping the course of the Church, it may be, for centuries’ (Convention Official Report, p.25).

Nevertheless he warned that ‘There will be chaos in the Church if the Governing Body is not in existence [at Disestablishment] and has not framed its constitution’ (p.18).  He counselled that ‘our watchword [should be] ‘Be ye prepared’.  Forgive me for reminding you of the parable of the wise and foolish virgins’ (p.13).

The Wise Virgins were well supplied with oil to trim their constitutional lamps.  They had a wealth of precedents to draw on.  The Church of Ireland had been disestablished in 1870.  (The Irish Church Act 1869 provided the precedent for the Welsh Church Act.)  In the 19th century, a number of overseas Anglican missions (South Africa, Canada, Australia and New Zealand) had involuntarily separated from the Home Church, when their colonies became self-governing.  When the colonies became independent and self-governing, their Churches were obliged to follow suit.  There is a detailed history of this Victorian colonial constitution-making in Phillimore’s Ecclesiastical Law (2nd ed 1895), at pp.1769-82.

Sankey related that he and his colleagues ‘consulted every constitution of every disestablished Church … circulated questions … to the most celebrated divines and historians’ (p.11).  His method was cautious: ‘We shall only do what is absolutely urgent and what is absolutely essential’.

The draft constitutions reflected this caution:

‘no originality is claim for these schemes.  We are not running after any new thing.  With few exceptions to meet the particular facts of our own case, every paragraph in both of these schemes [for the Governing Body and the Representative Body] is taken from some [existing] constitution which has been tried in the balance and is found not to be wanting’ (p.13).

The Governing Body and the Representative Body are easily confused.  It may be wondered why two separate ‘Bodies’ were considered necessary.  S.13 does not require this.  Perhaps the Representative Body could have served both to govern the Church and to hold and administer its property.

However, Sankey’s researches showed that every other voluntary Anglican Church had two distinct bodies, a synod and a finance committee (p.18).  He suggested that the finance committee/Representative Body should be ‘a small body with trained and expert knowledge’, whereas the synod/Governing Body handles ‘general questions of policy and the control of the many activities and organisations of the Church.  Here you want a larger body … representative … of all shades of thought and opinion’ (p.17).

He might have added that the Representative Body should be accountable for its stewardship of the Church’s property, and this required that it should be separate from, and subordinate to, the Governing Body.

The Governing Body held its first meeting on 8th January 1918, not in Wales, but in Church House, Westminster.  It proceeded to constitute diocesan and deanery conferences, parochial church councils and patronage procedures (p.18) on the basis of draft schemes prepared by Sankey and his colleagues.

The Representative Body was incorporated by Royal Charter on 24th April 1919.

Conclusion

The Disestablishment controversy had a relatively happy ending.  The carnage of the War put sectarian squabbles in perspective.  Any question of disestablishing the Church of England disappeared from the secular political agenda.  Welsh Disestablishment was irreversible, and eventually took place on 31st March 1920:  Welsh Church (Temporalities) Act 1919, s.2.  However, the Liberal-led government was by then heavily dependent on Tory support.  This assisted the Presiding Bishop to negotiate a substantial payment of public money to the Church in Wales, to mitigate the hardship of Disendowment (s.3(2)).

Sankey’s cautious approach of following precedent and ‘only do[ing] what is absolutely urgent and what is absolutely essential’ has stood the test of time, as he hoped it would.  While it has changed in matters of detail, the structure of the Constitution is still largely his work.  Its longevity compares favourably with the first Roman Catholic Code of Canon Law, which was also promulgated in 1917.  The 1917 Code was a great juristic achievement, but it was found to be unsatisfactory and out of date in practice almost immediately, and was eventually abrogated by the present Code in 1983.

There is a masterly analysis of Sankey’s work by Jeffrey Gainer, ‘John Sankey and the Constitution of the Church in Wales’ (LLM dissertation, Cardiff University, 1994).

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