In Praise of Maligned Sources: The Evidence of the Royal Commission into Ecclesiastical Discipline

Dan D. Cruickshank is a PhD student at the University of Glasgow, researching perceptions of the Third Reich in the Church of England. Previously he wrote his masters thesis on the the doctrinal theology and ecclesiology behind the Prayer Book Crisis of 1927-28, which is in press with Palgrave Macmillan.

I first heard about the Royal Commission into Ecclesiastical Discipline (1904-06) from countless authors warning against studying the Commission too closely. Nigel Yates in his study of Ritualism warned that the evidence given to the Commission “relies very heavily on the observations of hostile, and sometimes not very well-informed, witnesses, and it relates almost solely to the more advanced ritualist churches.”[1]  Instead of looking at the evidence given to the Commission, the Commission is usually used as signifying the start of a revision process in the Church of England that led to the Prayer Book Crisis of 1927-28, in which the House of Commons twice rejected revised Books of Common Prayer for seemingly deviating from the historic Reformed doctrine of the Church. My own master’s thesis looked at the liturgical theology and ecclesiology behind the Prayer Book Crisis, and this is what led me to the Royal Commission into Ecclesiastical Discipline. Initially I heeded the calls of those who had gone before me and stuck to the Report of the Commission which instigated the revision process. Hunting down the report I found that not only the report, but all three evidence books of the Commission have been digitised.[2] With the evidence so easily accessible I decided to dip my toe in the water to see just how biased and useless this evidence was. And that is how I spent the entirety of Christmas 2017, reading the accounts of hundreds of witnesses who aired their grievances as to how services were being conducted across the Church of England at the start of the twentieth century. With a healthy supply of lebkuchen I worked my way through over a thousand pages of evidence; a way of enjoying Christmas that may not be to everyone’s tastes!

So what did I find that led me to read every single page of evidence given to the Commission? If I had found the biased Protestant propaganda that Yates paints the evidence to be, I would not have gone through every page; even my stubbornness has limits. Instead I encountered an astounding account of how ritualism operated on both the local and the national scale at the beginning of the twentieth century. The witnesses that came forward to speak ranged from the Archbishops to local parishioners. They talked of the actions of organisations such as the English Church Union, a leading ritualist pressure group, and the Church Association, its evangelical counterpoint. But mostly they spoke of churches. Hundreds of churches. They spoke of London churches where the Mass of the Pre-Sanctified was being observed on Good Friday, and of small rural churches in Norfolk where parishioners were no longer attending because of the minister continuously having his back to the people during communion. Of parishes containing a few hundred in rural Devon where people were now walking four miles every Sunday to attend a non-ritualist church, and of churches in urban parishes of thousands, where in full churches only the minister was receiving at communion. Such a comprehensive overview of services in the Church of England at this time is unique, and thus invaluable. It is true that many of the evidence givers were put forward by anti-ritualist groups, but the evidence they gave was not the hyperbolic, aggressive propaganda it has been painted as being. Instead their complaints were mostly practical, focusing on the position of the minister, what they were wearing, who was being allowed to receive at communion, and how often the service fell into silence as the minister took part in private devotions. Remarkably, evidence givers shied away from speculation: they did not presume to know what the minister’s private devotions were (i.e. if they were elements of the Roman Missal being secretly said), or why people were not being allowed to receive at communion. There were evidence givers who did speak in a polemical manner, but when this occurred, it was pointed out by the Commissioners themselves, and they did not allow such speakers to go unchallenged. The way ritualists engaged with the Commission showed their own attitudes to the idea that a state commission had the right to investigate the actions of the Church, and this was the basis of a paper I delivered at the summer conference of EHS.

The evidence books thus give us an insight into all wings of the Church of England at the start of the twentieth century. Apart from providing a great resource, the evidence books have taught me a valuable level. There is a great benefit to chasing sources, especially sources that others who have worked on an area may have written off. Often the sources do align with how they have been described and are of little of use. But sometimes, and as was the case with the evidence of the Royal Commission into Ecclesiastical Discipline, you find that evidence that has been long written off has many invaluable insights that need fresh exploration. So far digging into the Royal Commission has led to one paper at EHS, another given to the Anglo-Catholic History Society who kindly gave me a bursary to attend EHS,[3] and formed the introduction to my Master’s Thesis and forthcoming book.[4] And yet I feel I have barely scratched the surface of the evidence given to the Commission. I hope others join me in looking at this material to help us understand what services looked like in churches across England at the start of the twentieth century. As unusual as it may have been a way to partake in the festive season, I am glad I spent last Christmas accidentally digging through a maligned treasure trove of a resource.

 

Edming Sedding, The Holy Eucharist, 1865.jpg
Edming Sedder, The Holy Eucharist, 1865.

[1] Nigel Yates, Anglican Ritualism in Victorian Britain, 1830-1910 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 327.

[2] They are digitised at https://parlipapers.proquest.com

[3] Dan Cruickshank, From the Sublime to the Ridiculous: Ritualism and Anglo-Catholicism in the Evidence of the Royal Commission into Ecclesiastical Discipline, 1904-6 (London: Anglo-Catholic History Society, 2018).

[4] Dan D. Cruickshank, The Theology and Ecclesiology Behind the Prayer Book Crisis, 1906-1928, (Palgrave Macmillan) [in press].

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