Chapter 4. Its Relation to the Ecclesiastical Establishment

{389} IT may be recollected that I proposed three questions for consideration on the subject of Convocation:—what was its real nature and history relatively to the Church? what was the principle, and what the actual extent of the civil governor's jurisdiction over it and assumption of its powers? and, thirdly, what was the place which the Lower House held in its constitution? The last of these three has now been discussed, as far as is necessary to illustrate the history of its suspension in the beginning of the eighteenth century. And for any other purpose, one may hope it ever will be unnecessary; for it was (to say the least) a heavy calamity that members of the Lower House should have felt it their duty, from the circumstances of the times, to stand upon their rights against the authority of their Bishops. Not to dwell on the unbecoming appearance of such an opposition, it must be borne in mind that the privilege actually conceded on all hands to the Lower House, the Veto on the proceedings of the Upper, is in itself almost too liberal a grant of power for the episcopal principle; and is only defensible (I suppose) on the ground of the size of the dioceses, and the Crown's prerogative in the choice of Bishops. "Maximo enim," says Wilkins, "præ aliis nationibus presbyteri synodi Anglicanæ fruuntur privilegio in concilio provinciali, ut dissensus eorum universa domûs superioris decreta irrita reddere valeat." Having the Veto upon all proceedings of their superiors, surely {390} the clergy should have been satisfied. But perhaps those of them who had released themselves from their pledge of canonical obedience to their deprived Bishops, might consider lightly of the obligation which subjected them to those who had come into their place; perhaps, also, there was reasonable ground of jealousy as regards such as William's government had promoted. But, though much might have been said in their defence had they refused altogether to recognize the new prelates, one does not see the consistency of taking them for their rulers and then not submitting to them. But enough on this unpleasant subject. Now let us pass to the consideration of a second of the questions originally proposed—viz., the nature and history of Convocation relatively to the Church. And first a few words in statement of the controversy respecting it.


Atterbury, Binckes, and their party, maintained, in the pamphlets mentioned in my first paper, that the Convocation was an essential part of the constitution, established by law, "by the same law as the gentleman receives his rent, or the member enjoys his privilege." When required to produce the particular law which makes its assembling imperative on the sovereign, instead of its being (as the court party maintained) at his option, they allowed as much as this—viz., that his writ was absolutely necessary for its assembling, but they maintained, at the same time, that it was absolutely necessary that he should grant that writ, and that for two reasons: first, if the meeting of Convocation were a privilege or liberty of the English Church (which no one could deny), the King was by his coronation oath bound in two ways to issue his writ according to custom. For Magna Charta {391} (they argued), to which the King had sworn, pronounced "quod Ecclesia Anglicana libera sit, et habeat omnia jura et libertates illæsas;" and again one especial part of the oath administered to him by the Archbishop, contained a promise on his part to "preserve to 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 to them or any of them;" so that, since the assembly of the clergy in Convocation was, beyond dispute, a privilege recognized by the law, no particular law was necessary to bind the sovereign, who was bound in a more solemn manner by his express oath, which the law imposed.

Secondly, they maintained that their assembling was matter of constitutional right; for the Convocation, they said, was a member or a necessary adjunct of Parliament; so that, independently of law or promise, it could not constitutionally be abolished or suspended. They showed from history that from the earliest Saxon times the clergy had been summoned with the laity to the King's great Council; that, as time went on, the mode of their assembling, from being indeterminate, became definite and regular; then again, from circumstances, was varied; and lastly became fixed in the particular form which had then for centuries been matter of usage; that, on the other hand, during this process and ultimate settlement, the ordinary annual Church Synods gradually came into disuse, so that the Convocation, as then constituted, was the representative both of an important political privilege, and a standing ecclesiastical ordinance of the Church; that at first they met in one body with the Laity, or Parliament (as it is now called), afterwards separated from it, and then again themselves divided into two provincial Synods; that this arrangement was {392} for awhile interrupted by a new writ from the King (the præmunientes clause inserted into the Bishops' writ), summoning them to Parliament, which was a fresh evidence of their constitutional right, but that the former custom was again restored and had so continued to that day, the above-mentioned clause being still retained in the Bishops' writ, though not acted on, in token that their right remained where it was; that under all these changes, under whatever irregularities of time, place, and form of meeting, the great rule obtained that they met in connexion with Parliament, as belonging to it, (closer or more detached, as the case might be,) but still as constitutionally annexed to it; lastly, that since the Reformation the Convocation had invariably met with the Parliament and been dissolved with it, except in the solitary and extraordinary instance of 1640, when it sat after the Parliament was dissolved, and which no one would urge as a precedent, though after all, even as such, it only affected the question of the termination of Convocation, not of its assembling. They added, that anciently the same general appellation was given to both meetings, the Parliament being called a Wittena Gemote, the Convocation a Church Gemote, and that in various modern documents (besides the præmunientes clause above noticed) the Parliament was said to include the clergy, as in a mandate of Bonner's, 1543, which has the words "prelati et clerus Prov. Cant. in parl.," in a petition to the Pope in Henry the Eighth's time, speaking of the "milites et doctores in parl.," and in the phrase in the 5th of November Service, "the nobility, clergy, and commons of this land, then assembled in Parliament;" this being the reason why a clergyman could not be a member of the House of Commons. They proceeded to argue, that, if the Convocation was thus an adjunct to {393} the Parliament, the King's writ was but the formal instrument, necessary indeed (as a license of marriage may be), but not to be refused without leading to grave political consequences.

The court party, on the other hand, granted that the clergy had this right to be summoned in Convocation, but they drew a distinction between assembling and conferring. They said that the clergy had nothing beyond a right to be summoned; that a further license was necessary in order to their debating, and that they had no right to demand this; that the utmost extent of their right did not go beyond that of framing petitions to King or Bishops when assembled under the primary writ. This ground of argument, which at first sight looks like an evasion, was maintained, first by the fact that the Convocation had often in matter of fact met without debating; next, by the received opinion of the Church in the century last past; and further by the reason of the thing, the stated meetings of Convocation having been held for the purpose of granting subsidies to the Crown, and the custom naturally coming to an end with its object. Accordingly it was professed that the Convocation had now become only an occasional assembly to provide for especial business, and that old precedents were sufficiently consulted by the King's formally convening them, though without suffering them to debate.

To this it was replied, that the same reasons which made the granting the writ for assembling a right of the clergy, made the license for debate a right also; but if not, then the Convocation did not, in matter of fact, supply the place of ecclesiastical Synod, and thus it became necessary to fall back upon the elementary and essential rights and duties of the Church, and to resume those canonical meetings which had only been suspended {394} from a wish to adjust the principles of the Church to the particular civil polity in which it had been incorporated.

This is an outline of the controversy, which turned upon this:—not whether the meetings of Convocation might be lawfully suspended, this no party maintained, but whether it had a right to debate as well as to assemble, a right to demand a license as well as the writ. Atterbury, indeed, goes further than this in his view of its rights, denying in toto its need of any license for any act short of the positive enactment of a canon; as if it might frame and pass any measure in the form of a Canon, and present it for the royal assent, as a bill in Parliament. On a question of this nature materials of argument lie so widely and plentifully for either side, that it requires a mind practised in weighing evidence, and much careful attention, in order to form an opinion worth putting upon paper. So far I suppose is clear, that at the present day a valid precedent against its right "to be put into a condition to do business," (to use the phrase of Atterbury's party,) exists in the actual suspension of its debates during the last 120 years; though, to be sure, certain recent changes in the constitution of Parliament, seem to create an opposite precedent of a novel kind, in favour of insisting on inherent rights instead of custom and usage. Now for the history of Convocation.


The Diocesan Council is the simplest form of ecclesiastical assembly, and that which, under the circumstances of the primitive Church, would first come into use. "That the Bishop of each diocese," says Wake, "has, by divine commission, a power of governing the Church of {395} Christ over which he is placed, and, in order thereunto, to call together the presbyters which minister under him, was the constant sense of all the ancient Councils and fathers of the Church."

In our own Church these diocesan synods were held at first twice a year, but in process of time the direction of the Canon Law was followed, which made them only annual. At this stated assembly all beneficed clergy in the diocese were bound to appear, and the regulars also, except when any were exempted, as time went on, from episcopal jurisdiction. If the diocese were small, and had but one archdeaconry, all the clergy met in one place; otherwise they met by parties, the Bishop moving on from one archdeaconry to another. At these meetings the synodical inquiries were one part of the business, of which the ancient form still remains; then the causes,—not only clergy, but laity, being at liberty to present complaints before the assembly; then the Bishop's charge, in which he communicated to the clergy the decisions, if any, of the Provincial Council, and exhorted them to fulfil the ministry with which they were entrusted; lastly, the Bishop's diocesan constitutions, if such there were, were read and agreed to by the Synod, and thenceforth became the law of the diocese, provided they were not contrary to any provincial canons. The mode of celebrating these synods was as follows:—the clergy in solemn procession came to the church where they were to meet, at the day and hour appointed by the Bishop, and took their seats according to the date of their ordination. Then the deacons and laity (even women not excepted) were admitted. The Bishop having entered, prayers were read; and then the Bishop made an address introductory of the Synod. A sermon followed; then the complaints were heard; the diocesan constitutions were promulgated and {396} passed, and the charge, with prayers, ended the meeting, which commonly lasted three or four days. It is easy to see that these Councils are continued to this day in the Bishop's periodical Visitation, which at any moment (were it expedient) might resume the form of a synodal meeting. They were held, as above described, down to the time of Henry the Eighth.

The English Provincial Councils were as carefully conducted, after the pattern of the primitive Church. The Metropolitan summoned them, the business transacted related to the faith and discipline of the Church, and the members were the suffragan Bishops, to whom were sometimes added the heads of the regulars, abbots and the like; parochial presbyters having no place in them, by way of right, but, if summoned, summoned at the Archbishop's pleasure, and for some particular purpose. Here again we have the rudiments, perhaps the substance, of a Provincial Council left to us, (at least as far as political matters of debate are concerned,) in the private meetings of the Bishops in London during the Session of Parliament. So much for ecclesiastical meetings of the clergy; now for civil.

From early Saxon times the prelates of the Church, that is, bishops, abbots, deans, etc., were called to the great Council of the nation to assist in its deliberations, and especially to grant subsidies from the Church property for the use of the State; it being then, as now, the standing principle of the law of England, that no persons could be taxed without their own consent or that of their representatives. In Saxon times the Church lands were taxed for the three objects of castles, bridges, and expeditions. William the Conqueror changed their tenure, and laid the burden of a further service on them. The princes following increased these taxes. However, since {397} they still reached only to a portion of the clergy, and a part only of the revenues of this portion, various methods were adopted to comprehend the general body. First, the Pope laid a tax upon the Church for the use of the King; next, the Bishops, on extraordinary occasions, obliged the clergy to grant a subsidy to the King by way of a benevolence, which was done by means of diocesan Councils, the clergy empowering therein, first their respective Bishops, then their archdeacons, then proctors of their own, to act for them.

Thus matters stood till about the reign of Edward the First, who determined to put them on a securer basis for the interests of the Crown. Accordingly, in 1281, he, of his own authority, bade the two Archbishops call a Council for raising subsidies "coram rege in parliamento." The superior clergy, alarmed at the consequences of a first step in an infringement upon their rights, refused to obey the summons; and the Archbishop of Canterbury, to meet the wishes of both parties, changed the place of meeting so as to disconnect it with the Parliament, while he obtained the grant of the subsidy previously by means of diocesan Councils. This was the first instance of the inferior clergy being summoned to Parliament. Twelve years afterwards, Edward made a new and more systematic attempt. On summoning his Parliament, he inserted a new clause in the writs issued to the Bishops and prelates, which has since been called, from its first word, the præmunientes clause, by which he required them to cite such of their inferior clergy to his Parliament as he therein specified, who were to act for the whole body. Here then a general representation of the clergy was introduced into the National Council, and may be called, after Wake in his learned work, (from which, with the assistance of {398} Wilkins's Concilia, this account is compiled,) the Parliamentary Convention of the Clergy. From that time down to the present day (unless any change has been made since the date of Wake's book [1703]) the clergy have always been summoned to the Parliament, and accounted one of the three estates of the realm. This writ of præmunientes has been acted upon, since the Reformation, in the church of York, at the end of Henry the Eighth's reign; in the church of Norwich, in Elizabeth's; in Lichfield, at the end of James the First's; in Lincoln, by the authority of Laud, 1640; and, according to Burnet, by several bishops in 1701 [Note].

Nothing more was done in the reign of our first Edward; but in that of his grandson the clergy resisted. They resolved they would not grant subsidies to the King except in provincial Councils, both as disliking the attendance in Parliament, and as hoping in this way to have more liberty in refusing or lessening the burdens which the King's necessities put upon them. Edward was obliged to give way, and allow these provincial meetings instead of parliamentary; securing, however, their stated meeting, first, by continuing in terrorem the præmunientes clause in his parliamentary writ to the Bishops; and next, by the periodical issue of a second writ to the Archbishop, formally bidding him to summon them for the purpose of voting subsidies. This is what is now called the Convocation of the Province, the nature of which will easily be gathered from what has been said. It is a kind of provincial Council, assembled (1) on the King's writ, (2) simultaneously in both provinces, (3) for civil, not spiritual purposes, (4) composed, not merely of {399} Bishops and prelates, but of representatives of the body of the clergy; (5) commonly held with a reference to the time of the meeting of Parliament:—But we must go somewhat more into particulars here, both as to the persons of whom the Convocation consists, and the matters which have come under its cognizance.

As to its members, since a money-vote was the object of the meeting, it necessarily consisted of representatives of the whole clergy. This system of representation had been begun in the Legantine Councils, first held, by the Pope's authority, in 1070, with the object of taxing the clergy, in which the regulars were represented by their abbots, etc., and the chapters by their deans, and afterwards by representatives chosen by themselves. The same system obtained in the Convocation. Before the date of its institution, the archdeacon is supposed to have been the original representative of the parochial clergy, in the occasional tax-meetings; but he was present in it in his own right, two proctors being added by election of the clergy of each diocese to support their interests. The members of the Convocation remain the same to this day, (subtracting the abbots and other prelates of the regulars who are extinct,) viz., the bishops, deans, archdeacons, proctors for the chapters, and proctors for the clergy, the Archbishop of the province being president. It should be added, that they gradually formed themselves into several more or less standing committees,—of, for instance, regulars, and of seculars, and of deans and archdeacons, under the Bishops, and then at last into two permanent Houses, which has been the constitutional form of the Convocation from a period earlier than the Reformation; but on this subject I have already spoken at length. {400}

As to the subjects debated in the Convocation, though the King's demand of a subsidy was the direct object of their meeting, yet it was natural that other matters of debate should be brought before it. Money-votes have commonly been used as a fit introduction of grievances; a statement of these and petitions for redress were accordingly added to the addresses, in which they conveyed to their sovereign intelligence of the grants which they had made him; and here it was impossible to draw the line between temporal and spiritual matters. Further, a meeting of the clergy was evidently a fit opportunity for discussing and deciding among themselves pure ecclesiastical questions; so that a meeting which had been called as a mere Convocation, was continued in the shape of a provincial Synod, the inferior clergy, of course, falling back into that subordinate rank which would be fitted to the change in the matter of their deliberations, and, by so doing, preparing the way for the formation of a Lower House. Thus, by degrees, ecclesiastical matters were altogether drawn into the Convocation, and the provincial Synod fell into disuse.

This was the condition of the Church, as regards her greater Councils, in which the Reformation found her. At the commencement of it was passed, in Convocation, the famous Act of Submission, to which allusion has been made above, and of which I shall now give the history.


Henry VIII., of unblessed memory, was determined, as Wake says, to "tie up the hands of the clergy, that they might be unable to oppose his designs." With this end he contrived to involve them all in a præmunire, which lay against them for appearing in Wolsey's Synods {401} legantine unauthorized by the Crown, or for appearing and making suit in Wolsey's courts, as it is variously represented. Wolsey had been in such full possession of Henry's favour, that to have resisted him would have been to provoke the King's anger. He had been made legate with the King's knowledge, and held, besides, the great seal; and, when he put his commands on the clergy to appear before him, it was not for them to ask, or at least they neglected to ask, whether he, the keeper of the great seal, had an express license under that seal for what he commanded. However, by this mistake in a matter of form, they incurred the loss of liberty and estate; and Henry made use of this their difficulty to effect his purposes against the Church. He refused to pardon them unless they paid him £100,000, and recognized him as her supreme Head. After some negotiation they submitted, and passed an Act in Convocation, which was afterwards carried through Parliament, by which the liberties of the Church (as far as they can be lost) were lost for ever. They bound themselves by it, first, not to meet in Convocation, without his authority; and next, lest, when he had called them together (as he was obliged to do, from time to time, in order to obtain their vote of subsidies) they should proceed to act synodically in ecclesiastical matters, they promised henceforth only to act according to his directions,—in other words, not to attempt or make any canons or constitutions provincial without the royal license to make and promulge the same. This latter provision of the Act is the point of debate between Wake and Atterbury; in what follows I have sided with Wake, as having the general judgment of the seventeenth century in his favour.

The negotiations were of the following kind:—First of all, the Commons complained to the King "that they {402} (the clergy) made sanctions and laws of temporal things, not having nor requiring the King's royal assent to the same laws so by them made." The clergy answered, that "they had this power of God, and could not submit it to his authority; that their authority of making laws was grounded upon the scripture of God, and determination of the Holy Church; and, as concerning the requiring of the King's assent to the authorizing of such laws as had been made by their predecessors, or should be made by themselves, they doubted not but that the King knew that to depend not upon their will and liberty who might not submit the execution of their charges and duty, certainly prescribed by God, to his assent." They added, however, some vague promise of being guided by the King's wish in their decisions. This answer (as may be supposed) not satisfying King and Commons, new forms were drawn up, and fresh debates held, how they were to compound the matter with the King, yet give up as little as might be.

First, they gave up the power of publishing canons without the King's license, reserving to themselves the power of making them. But here they made several important limitations; first, the canons spoken of must relate to the laity; next, they must not concern faith or good manners, and the reformation and correction of sin; next, though they went so far as to offer, that they would not enact, promulge, or execute any constitutions in future, unless with his license, still this promise was limited, in the Lower House, to the King's lifetime.

These admissions did not satisfy Henry, and he drew up a form himself for them, in which the clergy were to bind themselves, first, never hereafter to meet in synod without the King's writ; and next, being assembled by it, never to proceed by virtue of authority of their own, or to make, {403} promulge, and execute canons, without the royal license previously obtained. This promise, after some discussion and alteration, was passed, by Convocation, in the following form:—"We, your most humble subjects, daily orators and beadsmen of your clergy of England, having our special trust and confidence in your most excellent wisdom, your princely goodness, and fervent zeal to the promotion of God's honour and Christian religion, and also in your learning, far exceeding, in our judgment, the learning of all other kings and princes that we have read of, and doubting nothing but that the same shall still continue and daily increase in your majesty, first, do offer and promise, in verbo sacerdotii here unto your highness, submitting ourselves most humbly to the same, that we will never from henceforth enact, put in use, promulge, or execute any new canons, or constitution provincial, or any new ordinance provincial or synodal in our Convocation or synod in time coming, (which Convocation is always, hath been, and must be assembled only by your high commandment or writ,) unless your Highness, by your royal assent, shall license us to assemble our Convocation, and to make, promulge, and execute such constitutions and ordinances as shall be made in the same, and thereto give your royal assent and authority," etc.

It will be observed, that this submission of the clergy, ample as it is, does not go the length of binding the successors of the clergy making it, and it seems to limit itself to the very monarch to whom it was made, by speaking of his personal qualities and endowments, moreover, it was recalled in Convocation, in Mary's time, and never renewed. However, it became the subject of an Act of Parliament in Henry's, and afterwards in Elizabeth's reign, and with a stronger wording, by that {404} Act (with the penalty of præmunire to enforce it) are the clergy at present bound.

Thus stood the relations between Church and State till 1664, the Church being willing to remain in a subjection which the King never abused to her spiritual detriment. On the Restoration, a change was silently made by Sheldon and Clarendon, which was scarcely favourable to her interests. It will be observed, that the sole remaining safeguard which she possessed against the tyranny of the State, was the power of granting subsidies, which gave her a hold of some sort over the earthly masters she had taken to her, "when the Lord was her king." This power gave to Convocation importance, and eventually prevented any attempt at suppressing it. At the era in question, the clergy, impoverished by the recent troubles, felt severely the weight of the subsidies required of them, and perceived (as was really the case) that they paid for their privilege by contributing to the State in a larger proportion than other subjects. An arrangement was agreed upon, in spite of a protest from Heylin against it, between the Bishops and the Commons, by which two subsidies, which the clergy had just voted, were remitted to them, while, on the other hand, they were sub silentio, and without formal statute, comprehended in the wording of the money-bills passed in Parliament. The first public Act on this subject was a Tax Act of 1665 (16-17 Car. II. cap. 1), which includes the clergy, discharging them from subsidies, with a saving clause as to their right of taxing themselves, which has never since been exercised. The clergy, on the other hand, soon acknowledged the arrangement by exercising the right of voting in the elections of the Commons, which before was forbidden them, as now it is forbidden peers of Parliament. Burnet speaks of this {405} right, as generally admitted, in a pamphlet, published as early as 1700, and it is assumed in two subsequent Acts of Parliament, 10 Anne, cap. 23, and 18 George II., cap. 18. "Gibson, Bishop of London," observes Speaker Onslow (in a note contained in the last Oxford edition of Burnet's History), "told me that this (the taxing out of Convocation) was the greatest alteration in the constitution ever made without an express law." It is remarkable that (according to Warburton) the clergy had as silently both become and ceased to be an estate in Parliament 300 or 400 years before.

The Church soon began to feel the alarming position in which she had allowed herself to be placed. In 1675, and then in 1677, addresses from the Lords were presented to the throne, praying for the frequent meetings of the Convocation, which (as Mr. Hallam justly observes) probably proceeded from the Bishops, and shows their dissatisfaction with the existing state of things. They were not allowed, however, to feel or express their regrets for any long time. The Revolution which soon followed, "glorious" as it has ever been considered in its political effects, was fatal to the remaining liberties of the Church. William completed what Henry had begun. Nine of her Bishops were sentenced to deposition by a prince who had just ceased to be a Presbyterian, and its Convocation shortly after expired, except as a matter of form, while endeavouring to raise its voice against the doctrines of Hoadley.

Top | Contents | Volume contents | Works | Home


Wilkins (p. 11, vol. i.) seems to say that the form of the præmunientes was disused after the Restoration. On the other hand vide Wake, passim, e.g. Author. p. 253, and Burnet's History, vol. iii. pp. 389-395.
Return to text

Top | Contents | Volume contents | Works | Home

Newman Reader — Works of John Henry Newman
Copyright © 2007 by The National Institute for Newman Studies. All rights reserved.