The Peel Web
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The ecclesiastical reforms of the Whig government in the 1830s were motivated partly by their desire for progressive reform in line with Benthamite thinking, partly by the need to win the support of non-conformist voters and Irish radicals in Parliament. However, despite their desire to woo the dissenters, there was no move to disestablish the Anglican Church.
There are three aspects to the Whig church reforms:
The position of the Church of England had been weakened by the concessions to non-conformists in 1828 with the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts, by Catholic Emancipation in 1829 and by the 1832 Reform Act which the Church opposed. Norman Gash, Reaction and Reconstruction in English Politics, says the Church as an institution was "politically unpopular. socially exclusive, administratively corrupt.
In 1833 the Whigs planned a Bill to create new Sees to reflect population changes and to redistribute the wealth of the Church from the richest to the poorest bishoprics. This proposal was lost when the Whigs lost office in 1834.
Peel, the incoming Conservative Prime Minister, was concerned to strengthen the Church as a established institution and appointed an Ecclesiastical Commission to look into Church revenues. This Commission, which provided an opening for the progressive forces within the Anglican Church, suggested the same reforms as the Whigs - the creation of new sees and the redistribution of Church income.
When the Whigs returned to office they passed the Established Church Act in 1836 which made the Ecclesiastical Commission permanent and empowered it to prepare reforms for parliamentary legislation and to implement them. Beginning with the equalisation of diocesan incomes, the Commission went on to deal with the question of pluralism. There was no move to disestablish the Church and in the long run it was strengthened by progressive reform.
Non-conformists pressed the Whig government for removal of several disabilities and grievances. They objected to financial levies like Church Rates and the Tithe, and to the Anglican monopoly on marriages and funeral services. They complained that the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge were closed to non-Anglicans and that in many areas education could only be obtained in Anglican schools.
These grievances were stated in May 1833 by the United Committee of Dissenters. The Whig Prime Minister, Lord Melbournewas prepared to do something in the Church Rates Bill of 1834 but was dismissed by the King before it became law.Peel also gave some attention to dissenters' grievances in a Dissenters' Marriage Bill, which allowed for a civil marriage before a magistrate, but he too lost office before the Bill became law.
When the Whigs returned, they were able to pass a number of measures which had been virtually agreed with the Opposition.
The Anglican Church of Ireland presented the Whigs with major problems. The large landholdings of the Church, the inflated clergy and the tithe, were all resented by the predominantly Catholic peasantry, on whom the burden of maintaining this alien institution fell. In Parliament the government was under pressure to act from the Irish radicals led by Daniel O'Connell.
The Irish Church Act of 1833 abolished the church rate, or cess, and replaced it with a tax on clerical incomes. Ten of the twenty-two Protestant bishoprics were suppressed and parish clergy with no parishioners were removed. Church tenants were given leases in perpetuity. The Irish Tithe Act of 1838 transferred responsibility for payment from tenant to landlord.
However, the Whigs were unsuccessful in their attempt to appropriate the surplus income of the Church for secular purposes like education. Opposition in the Lords in 1833 led to the abandonment of Clause 147 of the Irish Church Bill. The Lords' opposition in 1835, 1836 and 1837 to appropriation of the tithe for education led to its omission from the 1838 Act. The Whigs were not successful in removing the burden of the tithe from the peasantry. In 1833 they passed a Coercion Act giving wide powers to the authorities in Ireland in an effort to overcome the refusal of Catholic tenants to pay the tithe. When the Tithe Act was passed landlords merely passed the burden of the tithe to the peasants through increased rents.
1662 Anglican Catechism
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