Chapter 1. Its Constitution and Rights

{341} THE Convocation of the Province of Canterbury, called, par excellence, the Convocation, is generally known to us as the State meeting of the clergy, convened, as the representatives of the Church, at the commencement of every new Parliament, and as consisting of two Houses, the bishops in the Upper, and, in the Lower, the deans, archdeacons, and proctors (that is, representatives) of the chapters, one for each, and of the parochial clergy two for each diocese. The whole number of the members of the Lower House is between a hundred and forty and a hundred and fifty, of which about one-third is parochial clergy. It is generally known, moreover, that the Convocation is called, under king's writ, by mandate of the Archbishop; that it is opened with divine service and a sermon; that an address follows from the Archbishop, its president, to all its members; that, at the direction of the Archbishop, the Lower House withdraws and chooses a Prolocutor, or Speaker, {342} from among its members; that, though the Convocation thus assembled may address the King or Parliament on behalf of religion, or the redress of Church grievances, it is not at liberty to confer to constitute canons, that is, to act as a Council, without the king's license, nor even with it to execute any which are against the king's prerogative, the common or statute law, or any custom of the realm; lastly, that, in matter of fact, after the introductory solemnities, it is always prorogued, and has been in this dormant state for about a hundred and twenty years. This is as much as is generally known about the Convocation. Now it is a question which often rises in a churchman's mind, "Is it not an anomaly that we have no ecclesiastical synod?" And times may be coming of so grave an aspect as to turn this anomaly into a great practical evil and misfortune. Then the questions follow, "Are we still to account this long-suspended Convocation the synodal representative of our Church? If so, what if the king altogether refuse his writ to assemble, or license to debate and enact canons? or what if, on the other hand, the Convocation is made use of by the civil power, to force upon the Church measures destructive of her purity or constitution?" Questions such as these become more urgent year by year; and the first step towards answering them is to be put into possession of the facts of the case, that is, the history of the Convocation.

This history was fully discussed and brought to light in the beginning of the eighteenth century, in the course of those dissensions which ended, A.D. 1717, in its suspension. I propose to give some account of this quarrel, and such information concerning the constitution and history of the Convocation as may be necessary to illustrate the points debated in it. {343}


When King William was called from Holland to the throne from which James had retired, he promised the nation such a comprehension as should heal the chief differences which distressed the Protestant world. With the circumstances which encouraged him thus to pledge himself we are not concerned here,—his own feelings on the subject are obvious. Being external to the Church himself, he naturally thought it a matter of little consequence whether a man were without or within it; Protestants might be considered as all of one religion, inasmuch as they were not Papists, the enemies of intellectual and political freedom; and, coming, as he professed and was acknowledged, as the Great Liberator of the Church of England "from Popish tyranny," he reasonably expected churchmen to sacrifice somewhat of their prejudices and peculiarities for the blessing of his patronage. Accordingly he promised a comprehension; but, when it came to the point, unexpected difficulties encountered him. First, as many as nine bishops refused to acknowledge the obligation under which he had laid the Church, in taking the place of James, and declined the oath of allegiance. Four hundred clergy followed their example; and there seemed a danger (which in the event was realized) lest he should be obliged to have recourse to measures against the Church even more arbitrary than those which had disgraced the dethroned monarch. Under these circumstances, to have altered the liturgy or discipline of the Church at his own royal will would have been a gratuitous insult, as impolitic as it was unprecedented in the history of the English monarchy since the reign of the tyrannical Henry.

There were persons however, at the time, even among {344} the dissenters, the especial champions of liberty of conscience, who were desirous of such a measure, pointed to the precedent of Henry, and maintained with truth, that the Church would never be reformed to their satisfaction without some such summary process on the part of the civil power. Calamy takes this line in his account of his own life and times. "I am well assured," he says, observing on the failure of William's attempt, "that it is the wish of many ... that, when the next fit opportunity arrives for such an healing attempt, ... it may be taken with more vigour and less formality. The Reformation had never been brought about had it been left to a Convocation; nor will our breaches be ever healed but by a true English Parliament." And he speaks of the proceeding actually advised by Tillotson, as the "unhappy step of this great and good man."

Such a mode of acting, however, was so contrary to the principles and sentiments which the dissenters had ever expressed, that it is no unpardonable blunder in Tillotson to have supposed that the opposite procedure would be more pleasing to them. He and his friends felt that one popular objection to the Church of England, on the part of Papists as well as Puritans, had ever been its being what was called parliamentary—as created by human law, and living by the breath of princes; and they considered that a concession was made to the prejudices of all its opponents, as well as a deference shown to its own members, by advising the new monarch to call a Convocation for the settlement of the proposed comprehension. For these various reasons, then, William resolved on committing religious matters to the clergy; and, accordingly, appointed a commission of bishops and presbyters to determine the proposed changes, which were then presented for the sanction of the Convocation. {345}

The Convocation, however, did not answer his expectations. He had, indeed, so revolutionized the Upper House that its members were incapacitated from acting or were already in his interest. But the Lower House consisted of men over whom he had no power, full of jealousy and suspicion of his intentions, who had unwillingly taken the oaths, and thought they had conceded enough in allowing the overthrow of episcopacy in Scotland and the suspension of their own bishops. Accordingly a determined stand was made against the project of comprehension, till the king, despairing of success, fearful of increasing the party of the nonjurors if he converted a political into a religious question, and embarrassed by the absence of the metropolitan, gave over his attempt, and closed the Convocation.

He had, however, an easy mode of retaliation in his power, for which he was indebted to Henry VIII. By the Act of Submission, passed in Convocation in the 25th of Henry's reign, that assembly could not meet, much less frame canons, without his permission. He availed himself of this power; and, though in the coronation oath he had sworn to "preserve unto the bishops and clergy of this realm, and to the churches committed to their charge, all such rights and privileges as by law do or shall appertain unto them, or any of them," he suspended these meetings of the clergy till close upon the end of his reign. Mr. Hallam makes the following defence for this procedure: "The Church had, by prescription, a right to be summoned in Convocation, but no prescriptive right could be set up for its longer continuance than the Crown thought expedient;" and, admitting the analogy between Convocation and Parliament, for which the clergy contended, he says, that "the {346} king may, legally speaking, prorogue the latter at his pleasure," and that, "if neither money were required to be granted, nor laws to be enacted, a Session would be very short." This is true, but the nation would not be satisfied if the king took on him to decide of himself, whether laws were required or not. However, this was the view of the subject maintained by the State party at the time.

So matters rested the better part of ten years; Convocations being called, and then prorogued. Towards the end of William's reign, dissatisfaction began to be openly expressed by the friends of the Church, who were apprehensive of these continual adjournments being drawn into a precedent for a perpetual suspension of Convocation, a catastrophe which the State party, on the other hand, professed to deprecate. In 1695, the controversy between Sherlock and South, on the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, giving an advantage to the Socinians, had occasioned the king's Injunction forbidding all such explications of it as were not commonly received in the Church. This proceeding, though strictly according to the precedent of the reigns of James and Charles, turned the minds of men more strongly, by way of contrast, to the suspension of Convocation, and seems to have opened the controversy.

In 1696 was published an anonymous pamphlet, entitled "A Letter to a Convocation Man, concerning the Rights, Powers, and Privileges" of that body, supposed to be written by Dr. Binckes, in which it was maintained, that, though the king's writ is the formal instrument of summoning the Convocation, it has, by our ecclesiastical constitution, a right to be summoned, and to be let sit and act, and that its meeting is determined by law and custom to coincide with the Session of Parliament; {347} further, that the king's license of its sitting as a Council, and enacting canons, is contained in the writ of summoning; lastly, that the canons enacted do not need the confirmation of Parliament in addition to that of the king, provided they are consistent with common law, statutes, customs, or prerogative. Letting alone the last position, which is of inferior importance in the controversy, we may observe that the two former impugn the received interpretation of the famous Act of 25 Henry VIII., already referred to. They maintain that the king's license is unnecessary, and that his writ somewhat resembles, for instance, a marriage license, which may not, under certain circumstances, be refused by the functionary who has the office of granting it.

In 1697, a few months after the publication of this pamphlet, an answer to it appeared by Dr. Wake, afterwards Archbishop of Canterbury, maintaining the received opinion of the king's absolute control over the Convocation. It elicited a reply the same year, written on a very different basis, by Hill of Kilmington, entitled, "Municipium Ecclesiasticum; or, the Rights, Liberties, and Authorities of the Christian Church asserted, against all Oppressive Doctrines and Constitutions." Waving the legal and constitutional question, the author asserts the divine right of synods in general, a right inherent in the Church, and prior to civil institutions; and, accordingly, condemns the Act of Submission as inconsistent with the first principles of ecclesiastical polity.

Wake defended himself (1698) by "An Appeal" "in behalf of the King's Supremacy" as established by the law, and sanctioned both by Convocations and by our most eminent bishops and clergymen, among whom he enumerates Jewel, Whitgift, Bancroft, Bilson, Nowell, Hooker, Andrewes, Laud, Heylin, Taylor, and Barrow. {348} This Tract was supported, in 1699, by an anonymous "Brief Inquiry into the Ground, Authority, and Rights of Ecclesiastical Synods, upon the Principles of Scripture and right Reason," in which the author of the "Municipium" was met on his own ground, the abstract constitution of the Church, Wake having argued from history and authority.

Lastly, in 1700, appeared Atterbury's work, the first edition of which was without his name, in which "The Rights, Powers, and Privileges of an English Convocation" were "stated and vindicated, in answer to a late book of Dr. Wake's, entitled 'The Authority,' etc." It is written on the legal and constitutional ground, contending that the statute of Henry is not inconsistent with ecclesiastical liberty; that the Convocation had the legal right of meeting with every new Parliament, and might frame and present canons to the king, and do anything short of enacting them without his license.


So far the controversy had proceeded at the meeting of the new Parliament of 1700, which was attended by an accession of some of the Church party to the ministry. This occurrence was, of course, favourable to those who desired the restoration of the Convocation to its ordinary powers; and the ground which had been openly taken by Wake's party, almost rendered its meeting necessary in order to allay that suspicion of the Government, which the friends of civil liberty might entertain from its continued suspension.

There was just so much prima facie similarity between Parliament and Convocation, in the relation of each to the king—in their times of meeting, and their twofold internal structure—that to assert the king's absolute {349} power over the latter seemed a preparation for a similar claim in civil matters. Politicians, of all classes and opinions, looked upon Ecclesiastical Councils as mere creations of the State,—such is Burnet's professed opinion; but the more entirely the religious character of the Convocation was merged in its civil establishment, for that very reason the more ominous was the arbitrary conduct of the Crown. As for the bishops, they, it might be said, were but the tools of the government,—fifteen had been made in the two first years of William's reign; it was only by the clergy in the Lower House of Convocation that the Church was truly represented, and they were not allowed liberty of speech. If such was the fortune of that high-spirited order, which had stood foremost, whether in the person of their prelates, in their Universities, or in their churches, in resisting the encroachments of James, what was to be expected by the people at large?

And, farther, the ecclesiastical principles laid down broadly by Wake, were such as would have justified King James, had he proceeded of his own will to alter the Liturgy and Articles, and to exact the submission of the clergy, who would have been bound, not, indeed, legally, till Parliament had confirmed the alterations, but, in foro conscientiĉ to accept them. In debating the question, "Whether the prince should be allowed a power to alter or improve what a Synod has defined, to add to, or take from it," Wake remarks, "Sure I am that this princes have done, and so I think they have authority to do. For, since the legislative power is lodged in their hands, so that they may make what laws or constitutions they think fit for the Church, as well as for the State; since a Synod, in matters relating to discipline, is but a kind of Council to them in {350} ecclesiastical affairs, whose advice having taken, they may still act as they think fit; seeing, lastly, a canon, drawn up by a Synod, is but, as it were, matter prepared for the royal stamp, the last forming of which, as well as enforcing whereof, must be left to the prince's judgment, I cannot see why the supreme magistrate who confessedly has a power to confirm or reject their decrees, may not also make such other use of them as he pleases; and correct, improve, or otherwise alter, their resolutions, according to his own liking, before he gives his authority to them." This is spoken of the power of princes generally; yet, as Atterbury observes, he afterwards says that, "by our own constitution, the King of England has all that power over our Convocation that ever any Christian prince had over his Synods." In another place he asserts that this power exists, "not only in matters of discipline, but in matters of faith too;" and he cites the example of Henry VIII. in his modelling the Articles, which, he says, "relate to doctrines of faith, and that in the most necessary points of it; and yet, see what liberty the king took in judging, as well as correcting, of what they [the Synod] had done." If this be the constitutional power of the king over the Church, it is plain that the clergy, who risked so much against James, are the only body of men who have not gained legal rights and liberties by his expulsion; and it curiously fulfils the words of the incensed monarch to the seven protesting bishops, that "they were raising a devil, which they would never be able to lay, and were the unconscious tools of men who aimed at the ruin of the Church as well as of the throne." Ken and Sancroft might have the simplicity of the dove in slipping between James and William; but the Comptons and Atterburys, who had not this grace, should, at least, have had enough of the {351} serpent's wisdom to have bargained for ecclesiastical liberties as the price of their changing their king. But to return.

The mode in which Wake attempted to anticipate the objection which the jealousy of the friends of liberty made against his statements, was to maintain that, in "an extreme case," resistance to the royal authority would be justifiable. "Whenever," he says, "the civil magistrate shall so far abuse his authority, as to render it necessary for the clergy, by some extraordinary methods, to provide for the Church's welfare, that necessity will warrant their taking of them." Further, both he and Dr. Kennett, who wrote against Atterbury in 1701, candidly lament the tyrannical character of the Act of Submission, and are manly enough to protest against what, at some future day, though not under their then gracious sovereign, might be an instrument of deplorable mischief to the highest interest of the Church. Dr. Wake, says Kennett, "does not dwell so much upon the equity of the Act; but he proves the obligation, and there in law leaves it: because, perhaps, he might think this submission was a little hardly obtained by a prince of excessive power, and in a time of some ill designs; and, however safe and expedient for us, under princes of our own faith and communion, yet, under the government of heretics and heathens, it may lay too hard a yoke upon the Church, when the archbishop shall have no power to assemble the bishops and clergy of his province, nor they any liberty to attend him, (without a prĉmunire,) let the necessities of the Church be never so urgent, and Christianity itself in utmost danger. Dr. Wake, who pleads for present submission, seems aware of ill consequences that might arise in future times of trial."

The odiousness, then, of that constitutional right in {352} the Crown, by which alone the suspension of the Convocation could be defended when assailed, seems to have forced the State bishops to give way; and the two Houses were accordingly opened, in due form, in February, 1700.

The clergy, having now gained one victory (so to call it) over the Crown, proceeded, in the next place, to attack the authority of the archbishop. They maintained that the Lower House had the independent right of debating whenever they would, (as fully as the House of Commons,) without reference to the meetings of the House of bishops; or, (as it was worded,) they contended for the right of "adjournments," which now became the great question in dispute. The mode of reasoning adopted was, as before, the asserted analogy between the Parliament and Convocation; and they contended that—if even the king had no constitutional power to hinder their meetings, much less had the archbishop, the president of the Convocation, whose rights, at least, were certainly destroyed by the Act of Submission in the reign of Henry VIII. And thus we have three main inquiries before us,—the relation of the Convocation to the Church; the power of the king over Convocation and other synods; and the power of the Lower House to transact business independently of the Upper.


These shall be discussed in due order. Before proceeding, however, there is a call on us seriously to reflect upon the anomalous state of the opposing parties in the dispute, and to ask ourselves the question, whether the Church had not, somehow or other, got into some wrong position, which put all its functions out of order, {353} and made them work in perverse and fantastic ways? On the one hand, the Tory and (so called) high-church party were in opposition to authority, resting on law rather than on ecclesiastical principles, attacking the conduct of Laud and his sovereign towards the Church, and rising up against the rulers of their own day, while aiming thereby at a blow at the low theology of the school of Burnet;—a position which they never can again occupy, considering the dependence of the Lower House, as regards the appointment of its members, on the Crown and the Bishops. On the other hand, the superior clergy were the advocates of episcopal rights, and conducted themselves with the temper which became their station, though they had confined, unchurchmanlike views, and were more or less the creatures of the court. Some of them, as Burnet, were open Erastians, and willing to admit presbyterian Ordination. Others, with Wake, made the historical precedents of the country, of whatever nature, the law of the Church, so that it was sufficient that only one tyrannical act of the Civil Power in former ages should be producible, in order to its being assumed and used as an ecclesiastical principle. And others, with Hody, while seeming to allow that the Revolution was attended with encroachments on ecclesiastical liberty, maintained nevertheless that the Church must ever submit to an irresistible necessity, as if sanctioning a cowardly surrender of the trusts which had been committed to her.

Meanwhile, Ken and his company stood by on dry land, far removed from the scene of confusion into which the politics of the time had precipitated their hapless brethren. Whether they were right or wrong in declining the oaths of allegiance to William, still they, at least, had a compensation for their worldly losses. They had no need to reconcile their duty to the faith with {354} their duty to their Church; to obey the authority of its rulers while they resisted their doctrines,—a more grievous conflict than that which they themselves had encountered once, between loyalty and conscience. At length, they dropped off one and one, from this troublesome stage, and their race is long extinct; but the English Church, my mother, is still encompassed with the waters into which she then was plunged.

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