The Prayer Book crisis of 1927-8

Simon Green

Church of St Mary the Great, Cambridge.

On 29 January 1928 Henson delivered the University sermon at St. Mary’s Church, Cambridge.[1] This event had long been planned. Invited guests included the bishop of London and the editor of The Tablet. No-one, however, had been fully briefed about what the preacher intended to say that day. Henson used the occasion to launch a dramatic plea for the disestablishment of the Church of England. This represented his immediate reaction to the rejection of the revised version of the Book of Common Prayer by a recalcitrant House of Commons, on 16 December 1927. It also reversed the commitment of half a lifetime. Between 1886 and 1928, Henson was perhaps the most persuasive and certainly the most tenacious Anglican apologist for Establishment. Thereafter, he became the most eloquent and perhaps the most significant episcopal advocate for the separation of Church and State in England.

The Prayer Book Crisis of 1927-8 constituted more a catalyst than the cause of Henson’s dramatic change of mind. His disillusionment with the establishment of the Church of England was more profoundly rooted in the surreptitious separation of Church and state that he detected in the so-called Enabling Act of 1919, which created a substantial measure of self-government for the Church, through a National or Church Assembly. That said, the Prayer Book Crisis of 1927-8 was, for Henson, no mere unfortunate moment. It demonstrated that in relation to the Church the secular arm of the state had indeed become that irresponsible assembly about which he had warned his fellow Anglicans years before.[2] It also threatened to sever its sacred aspect into its warring ‘Catholic’ and ‘Protestant’ sects, forever destroying the National Church, for whose unity and comprehension he had dedicated the whole of his adult life. In this context, Henson conceived of disestablishment as an act of preservation. He also hoped to preserve that latitudinarianism and discipline which he believed was embodied in the revised Prayer Book itself.

Henson was ‘no liturgist’. Nor was he much more than an amateur theologian. But he fully understood that the text was crucial. Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer, revised in 1604 and 1662, had scarcely been altered since. Meanwhile, the Church of England had changed a great deal. The ‘Methodist revolution’ stimulated a revival of its evangelical wing at the end of the eighteenth century. The dissemination of German biblical criticism created a new, liberal, or broad church movement during the mid-Victorian era. Above all, a Catholic revival within the Church, beginning with the Oxford Movement and extending through what became known as the ‘Ritualist Party’, had created an almost unstoppable movement for liturgical change by the end of Queen Victoria’s reign.

Arthur Winnington-Ingram, Bishop of London.

It had also led to almost endemic lawlessness in many parts of the Church. The epicentre was London, where the Anglo-Catholic clergy declared themselves free to do whatever they wished under the (alternatively benign or neglectful) rule of Bishop Winnington-Ingram, from 1901. Henson as rector of St. Margaret’s, Westminster from 1900 to 1912, generally deplored these developments. He also revered the rhythm and cadence of Cranmer’s version. But he was a realist as well as a modernist, and he accepted the necessity of revision. That meant restoring some of the things abandoned at the Reformation (e.g. vestments and reservation of the sacraments), in order to reflect the more ‘catholic’ composition of the early-twentieth century Church. Similarly, it entailed abandoning many of those services that ‘conflicted [either] with the knowledge or the conscience of the modern Church.’ However, Henson’s aim throughout was pragmatic latitudinarianism, not principled liberalism. Above all, his intention was to ‘terminate lawlessness in the Church of England by removing all the legitimate justification for lawlessness.’[3] To that end, he hoped and worked for a prayer book that was capable of sustaining church discipline within a national framework, not for a text susceptible to licentious sectarianism.

The government response was a Royal Commission. This sat from 1904 to 1906. It recommended revision of the Book of Common Prayer.[4] For twenty years after, it absorbed much of the Church’s intellectual energy and a great deal of episcopal time. But little progress was made until after the First World War. Thereafter, the pace and urgency of official efforts quickened. Henson was intimately involved in the lengthy process of revision that ran from 1920 to 1927. He never laboured under any illusion as to what this actually achieved; the result was an inevitable compromise, something that Henson himself described as a ‘composite book’.[5] This was particularly true of the proposed alternative holy communion service that satisfied neither traditionalists nor innovators. Nevertheless, Henson resolved to support the Revised Prayer Book. His reasoning was clear, if slightly obtuse. For in his judgement, while it pleased few, it might reasonably be opposed by none. It should therefore have removed the grounds for ‘legitimate’ breaches of the law in the Church. Henson took this argument both to the Church Assembly and to parliament. This, and the complementary efforts of others, initially proved successful. Each of the houses of Convocation voted decisively for revision. So too did the House of Lords on 14 December 1927. Many peers were particularly persuaded by ‘an incisive and closely reasoned speech’ from the bishop of Durham.[6] However, some were taken aback by what Lord Lincolnshire characterised as Henson’s earlier derisive dismissal of those ‘senile, incompetent, illiterate [and] ignorant’ troglodytes, benighted inhabitants of the ‘protestant underworld’, who had the temerity to oppose the measure.[7]

Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin.

If so, the rebarbatives had their revenge in the House of Commons. Permitted a free vote, the ‘second eleven’ took charge, despite the presence of members of the Cabinet who supported the bill, for example, the prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, and Walter Bridgeman, first lord of the Admiralty who opened the debate, together with Austen Chamberlain, foreign secretary, and Neville Chambelain, minister of health. But they did not mean to be helpful. One of their leaders, the home secretary, Sir W. Joynson-Hicks, was proud to be called a ‘Protestant Evangelical’; he not only spoke but voted against the bill, as did his fellow evangelical, the solicitor-general, Sir Thomas Inskip and the attorney-general, Sir Douglas Hogg. In this atmosphere, fears of popery, the revival of transubstantiation and the licentious use of reservation suddenly inflamed the mood and determined the vote – anyway, amongst those who had bothered to turn up (443 of 615). A certain distaste for English cravenness in matters of protestant conviction may also have had some effect: 36 of 42 Scots MPs voted against, 18 of 20 Welsh and all 11 members from Northern Ireland. The Prayer Book bill was rejected by 238 votes to 205 on 16 December 1927.[8]

Henson’s outrage was instantaneous. He suggested that ‘the Primate [should] give notice that he would [now] himself introduce a measure for Disestablishment’. T he ferocity of that response is only intelligible in terms of the doubts about existing Church-State relations that Henson had been harbouring since 1919. Its full meaning, perhaps, was only disclosed by his simultaneous observation that ‘perhaps this humiliating defeat may turn out to be a blessing in disguise, for it has brought Disestablishment into prominence on a clear-cut and adequate issue’.[9] In the event, the Archbishop of Canterbury published a letter on 22 December, indicating that the House of Bishops would reintroduce a revised version of the same measure the following year. Henson, who had advised the primate on the wording of this communication, finally determined to break cover. Hence his Cambridge sermon.

Subsequent developments seemingly vindicated his boldness. The Revised Prayer Book was carried through the Church Assembly in April 1928 only to be rejected by the House of Commons – a second time – on 15 June 1928, by 266 votes to 220. Once again, the Celtic fringe proved crucial. Henson calculated that ‘if [they] had simply abstained, and England alone had voted, there would have been a majority of 11 for the Book (208 to 197).[10] Thus provoked, he set about composing his ‘Second Quadrennial Charge to the Diocese of Durham’ which, when it was eventually published in the winter of 1929, described in detail his mature argument in favour of the disestablishment of the Church of England.[11]

But his fellow bishops did not join him in that resolve. The Church Assembly responded with an interim resolution on 2 July 1928 that was defiant about the Prayer Book but anything but resolute concerning establishment more generally. Two years later, it ‘resolved’ that Archbishops Lang and Temple be requested to appoint a Commission to ‘enquire into the present relations of Church and State.’[12] This body, after years of discussion, came to no firm conclusions in 1936. Meanwhile, Archbishop Lang played – brilliantly – for time. He supported specific acts of insubordination in relation to the Prayer Book, notably concerning its publication and use, but side-tracked the fundamental question of parliamentary approval. There was no third vote. However, from 1929, the bishops authorised the use of the revised book, subject to the approval of parochial church councils, which gradually found its way into churches up and down the land, regardless of parliamentary prohibition.[13] The Doctrine Commission, appointed as early as 1922, delayed its own report until 1938. This changed little. During the intervening years, ‘Catholic’ and ‘Protestant’ were cajoled to remain in the Church. The great cause of Disestablishment was killed by indifference. By the time Henson retired as bishop of Durham in 1939, he had become very nearly the sole advocate of a cause that almost everyone else had all but forgotten.

[1] Henson, ‘Church and state in England: a sermon preached before the University of Cambridge on January 29th, 1928’, in The book and the vote (1928), pp. 1-22.
[2] H.H. Hereford, ‘The Enabling bill: parliament and the Church’, Letter, Times, 19 Nov. 1919, 8.
[3] Cited in John S. Peart-Binns, Herbert Hensley Henson: a biography (Cambridge, 2013), p. 148
[4] Henson, ‘The ecclesiastical discipline report’, Contemporary Review, XL (December 1906), 241-57.
[5] The bishop of Durham, ‘The composite book’, Edinburgh Review, 245 (Apr. 1927), 225-41.
[6] Anon., ‘New prayer book; approval by the Lords; 241 votes to 88: a memorable debate’, Times, 15 Dec. 1927, 16.
[7] Lord Lincolnshire’s characterisation of Henson’s statements in the June issue of the Edinburgh Review, in HL debs, 69, c. 817.
[8] Henson, Retrospect, II, 166; Peart-Binns, Henson, pp. 152-3.
[9] Retrospect, II, 166 (Journal 16 Dec. 1927).
[10] Cited in Peart-Binns, Henson, p. 153.
[11] Retrospect, II, p. 198 (Journal, 15 June, 1928); Henson, Disestablishment: the charge delivered at the second quadrennial visitation of his diocese, together with an introduction (1929).
[12] Peart-Binns, Henson, p. 155.
[13] G.K.A. Bell, Randall Davidson, archbishop of Canterbury (1935), p. 1359.