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The Ecclesiastical Commission of 1835

Peel Memoirs, ii-72-5

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.

One of Peel's main preoccupations when taking office in 1834 was to allay the hostility to the Church not merely by remedying some of the Dissenters' grievances (in which he did not succeed) but also by setting up machinery for a real and substantial reform of the Church. The royal commission appointed by Grey in 1832 to enquire into church revenues had been a fact-finding body without any policy implicadons. The Ecclesiastical Commission established by Peel in February 1835 was intended to uncover defects, propose remedies to the legislature, and supervise their administration. Its composition, which included strong episcopal and ministerial representation, was designed to make its recommendations acceptable both to parliament and the Church. The following letter to a sympathetic liberal Conservative peer (one of the Waverers of 1832) illustrates Peel's general views on the immediate task before the Commission. When the Whigs returned to office they renewed the Commission (June 1835) with the substitution of Whig for Conservative ministerial members and in 1836 it was put on a permanent statutory basis, as the 'Ecclesiastical Commissioners for England'.

Whitehall, January 12, 1835

I hope that the deep interest which you have uniformly taken in the real welfare of the Church will induce you to lend a favourable ear to my present proposal.

I am convinced of the absolute necessity of taking some effectual and practical step with a view not only to the satisfaction of the public mind, but to the higher object of promoting the spiritual efficiency of the Church, and the great moral and religious purposes for which the Church was founded.

I feel it my solemn duty as a Minister, and as a member of the Church, to advise the Crown to administer its Church patronage from this time forth on a new principle, and calmly and dispassionately to consider, as great preferments fall vacant, whether there may not be some appropriation of the revenues of those preferments better calculated to serve the cause of religion than an exact adherence to the existing law and long observed usage in respect to those revenues. The best way to illustrate my meaning and intentions is to take a practical case.

If the Bishopric of Ely were to fall vacant tomorrow, I should advise the Crown not to make an immediate appointment to it, but to consider these several particulars:

The amount of the revenues of the See, and the propriety of appropriating only a part of those revenues to the support (the decorous, nay the liberal support) of the Episcopal station: The expediency of making some new distribution of Episcopal duties between the Bishopric of Ely and adjoining or neighbouring Bishoprics, which are comparatively overloaded with functions which might be annexed to Ely: Lastly, a review of the livings within the diocese, and especially of those at the disposal of the Bishop, with a view to appropriate the superfluous revenues of the See to their increase, in cases wherein the existing provision should be notoriously inadequate to ensure a resident minister.… I should look again to the provision of Episcopal duties in the North of England; and if I, and those real friends of the Church with whom I should be most anxious to consult, should be (as I am confident we should be) of opinion that the altered circumstances of the times – the state of public feeling – the spiritual interests of the Establishment – required the application of a new principle, I should at once advise the Crown to consent to its application.

Amidst the harassing duties in which I have been lately engaged, and which, to say the truth, have up to this time left me but little leisure to consider any other matters than those immediately connected with the formation of the Government, this subject has chiefly occupied my anxious attention. I have had much confidential communication with the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of London, and I have the satisfaction of finding on their part an earnest desire to lend me their assistance, and the support of their authority in doing something effectual in Church reform, in the encouraging and (where possible) the compulsion of residence – the prevention of improper pluralities the gradual extirpation of sinecures in the Church.

The immediate course I propose to pursue for the purpose of laying the safe foundations at least of progressive reform in the Church, is the appointment of a Commission to which I should confidentially refer, on the avoidance of any great preferment, the consideration of those arrangements in detail which might best promote the object I have in view, and which Commission might also consider prospectively the arrangements which it might be advisable to adopt, either with the consent of those who have at present existing interests, or, if their consent cannot be had, on the occurrence of a vacancy.

I think of constituting the Commission thus –
The Archbishop of Canterbury The Lord Chancellor
The Archbishop of York Sir Robert Peel
The Bishop of London Mr Goulburn
The Bishop of Lincoln Mr Charles Wynn
The Bishop of Gloucester Sir Herbert Jenner

and, with your permission, yourself.

I will only repeat that I earnestly hope that your general concurrence in the views of which I have given the outline, and your devotion to the real interests of religion and the Church, may induce you to give me on this Commission the inestimable value of your sanction and cooperation.

Believe me, &c.,
Robert Peel
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