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Anglican fears of disestablishment

Taken from Norman Gash, The Age of Peel (London, Edward Arnold, 1973), with the kind permission of Professor Gash. Copyright of this document, of course, remains with him.

Two parallel sets of events in 1834,

  1. Dissenting agitation, the abortive government relief bills, the call for disestablishment, and such isolated incidents as a motion in the House of Commons for the exclusion of bishops from the House of Lords which secured 58 votes;
  2. Ward's motion (May) for the appropriation of part of the revenues of the Irish Church (since 1800 legally united with the Church of England), the recourse by the government to a commission of enquiry and the consequent resignation of Stanley, Graham and two other members of the government,

had made the position of the Established Church the great controversial issue of the session.

The letter below expresses the fears of many Anglicans that a planned attack was being made on the whole position of the Church. The motion for exclusion of bishops was made by C. Rippon, M.P. for Gateshead (one of the new Reform Act boroughs), seconded by W. D. Gillon, Presbyterian member for Falkirk boroughs, and supported by many radical and Irish members.

British Magazine, vi.273-8 (Sept. 1834) Correspondence

Three of the great embankments of our constitution have recently been cut through, - one in 1828, another in 1829, and a third in 1831. The first broke down the long-established qualification for office in our Christian state; the second let in, as legislators, men implacably hostile to the great living principle of all our institutions; and third, as a natural consequence of the two former, poured into the House of Commons (to use the Hollander's term) an 'overstrooming'of the turbid waters of sheer mammonry, democracy, and republicanism. The professed object of all these changes has been to liberalise our institutions; or, in other words, to obliterate what are called all INVIDIOUS distinctions. The consequences of these vital changes in our constitution are daily manifesting themselves in the necessary laxity and (so called) popularity of public measures, which actually leaves all the great interests of society in a state of instability and insecurity. I am sure that no man, who has watched the progress of these disorganizing principles, was in the slightest degree astonished at Mr Rippon's motion, on the 13th of March, to bring in 'a bill to relieve' (observe the sarcastic malignity of the term!) 'the arch-bishops and bishops of the established church from the exercise of their legislative and judicial functions in the House of Peers'.... Mr Rippon, the mover, and member for Gateshead, described his motion as 'the first step ('the little whimble') towards a full and fair discussion of the church establishment'; and, in the plenitude of his candour, observed, that 'the state of the community was such as to demand a reform in the established church, to make it conformable and afford satisfaction to an ENLIGHTENED people'. This reform he would have made in time, while it may be 'considered a boon, and possibly not extorted as a matter of right'.… Mr Harvey told the house that 'there was a principle and a cause AT WORK out of doors, which, at no distant time, would make it a question, not whether the bishops should continue to sit in the House of Lords, but whether the establishment should be maintained at all'. He was also kind and generous enough to think, that, 'if we were to disrobe the church tomorrow of its gorgeous array, and to deprive the bishops of their overgrown temporalities, the church, as a Christian church, would still not only stand, but flourish'. It seems the bishops 'belie the simplicity of the creed they profess, and arm infidelity by the gorgeousness of their worldly appearance'. 'He would send the bishops to those scenes of moral simplicity where the example of their live might excite confidence in their flock and lead them to a due observance precepts of religion.' In other words, he would make them parish priests, and live up to their religion. The suggestion is as ingenious as it is charitable! 'All that the non-conformists required was, that religion should be let to stand upon its own inherent an - imperishable pretensions'; i.e., voluntary contributions, or Franciscan beggary. Here is the clue to the whole outcry!

Mr Hume thought 'the bishops had made themselves odious to three-fourths of the people of England, by the manner in which they had INTERFERED in the proceedings on the Reform Bill'. Yet he adds, 'they had a right to give their opinions'; but, as they were so wilful and wrong-headed as to use that right 'in opposition to persons so religious and conservative as Mr Hume, 'they should be removed from a spot where their political functions interfered with their other duties'.…

Such are the precious fruits of a spurious liberality, which would be popular by the concession of even vital points. How far it may be allowed to proceed, rests, under Heaven, with those to whom the destinies of this degraded country are committed. Let us remember the declaration of Lord Grey, in the House of Lords, on Friday, the 22nd day of March: - 'His wish, he again repeated, was to go every length he conscientiously could in removing the real grievances of the dissenters. He professed himself to be the sincere and ardent well wisher to their claims.' 'GRIEVANCE', like 'emancipation' and 'reform', is now the cant term, the 'argumenturn breve' et 'ad misericordiam', the broad cloak for arrogancy and encroachment!

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