" THE CHURCH AND THE CLERGY."—" PAROCHIAL COUNCILS, OR VESTRIES?"
[To THE EDITOR OF THE "SPECTATOR.'
SIR, —Will you allow me to reply to the two letters under the titles above written, which appeared in your paper last week in answer to me ? I will, with your leave, take the latter—that of Mr. Ellis—first. Mr. Ellis considers Parochial Councils " an innovation in restraint of national organisation," and he after- wards refers to them as " selected coteries," by which the clerical element would absorb the entire control of the Church's affairs. If that were the case, I should agree with him in preferring to retain the Vestry, and enlarge its powers.
Our objects appear to be the same, though Mr. Ellis does not show any strong sense of the importance of gaining some national control over the Church by giving power to the laity in the parishes. If he feels the importance of this object, and is pre- pared to work it out, I think we shall come to the same conclusion.
The proposal for establishing Parochial Councils is that a body should be chosen in any ecclesiastical district by the inhabitants with as little restriction as possible of any kind as to either electors or representatives. The restrictions as to representatives pro- posed in Lord Sandon's Bill I should, for one, wish to remove. How can such a body be spoken of in the terms applied to it by Mr. Ellis ? It differs from the Vestry not as being less national, but as being more effective.
I expected that it would be thought by some that the argument I had used against giving legislative power to Convocation, viz., that it would clash with Parliament, could be turned against Parochial Councils. Mr. Ellis thinks the mere statement of that argument is conclusive. But I think the contrary. The argument is valid against two supreme legislatures side by side. It is not valid against a Parochial Council, with definite powers conferred by Act of Parliament, side by side with a Vestry. Suppose that School Boards are erected in every parish, will Mr. Ellis think that this is denationalising education? In Switzerland, the 'only. country in which Church affairs are managed in a national and democratic way, the communal council is constitued, differently according to the subject it deals with. And so it might be with the Vestry in the smaller English parishes.
So far Mr. Ellis's proposal, if made in earnest, would nearly -coincide with mine. But if the differences in parishes be kept in view, it will be seen that the Vestry is inadequate for our purpose. Even in small parishes the vestry has come to be a coterie of *farmers, and its traditions would make it less suitable for the control of the Church services, &c., than a body elected for the special purpose, which would be at once more definite and more popular. But in the towns the vestries would be quite out of the question. A town is necessarily governed for ordinary purposes as one community by an elected vestry or board. No one would think of giving such a body power over the separate ecclesiastical districts and their churches. The ratepayers of the separate -districts, no doubt., are called together at Easter to elect a church- warden, but such a meeting has, in no instance that I know of 'lad, any power or any deliberative character. If it were proposed to give it power, some system of representation would have to be adopted, and the assembly thus constructed would be a Parochial Council.
I turn to deal with the larger questions touched upon in the letter of " A." I observe that he does not attempt to answer the two difficulties which I pointed out as lying at the threshold of any proposal for the rehabilitation of Convocation :—(1) That of the suffrage ; (2) that of the powers to be given. Till these can be settled, the proposal is merely to make a clerical debating society into a clerical and lay debating society. " A." says that I shall 'leave Convocation standing, and that, as at present constituted, it does much mischief. I see no reason why a body that does .much mischief should be left standing. But the mischief lies in -the solemn pretence of Convocation, however constituted, to ,exercise legislative functions, when it has really no power at all.
I addressed myself in my former letter to one point only, the Parochial Councils' scheme ; and as regards the legislative machinery of the Church, with which. alone we are now dealing, I wish for little more. But as "A." points out, it is desirable to -show what may be effected by these bodies, a thing much easier to do in their case than in that of Convocation.
Their great merit is that they would have defined legal powers. The law at present leaves a great many things unsettled, and these are practically settled extra-legally by the clergyman alone. They should be settled legally by the clergyman and the Paso- -.phial Council together, with the sanction of the Bishop. Almost all the matters which have caused dispute in our Churches of late years belong to this category ; and so do all the changes proposed by the Ritual Commission.
Most of the troublesome questions which come before Parlia- ment could be relegated to these Councils. The Atbanasian Creed is only the most prominent of a large class. When once a safe depository for the exercise of discretion was at hand, the Act of Uniformity might be progressively relaxed, and the powers of the Councils constantly augmented. I look forward to their gaining influence, if not actual power, in all parochial arrangements, and to their having eventually something to say to the appointment of the clergyman.
Mr. Ellis, as I understand him, fears that the powers of these 'Councils would be too great, and would lead to " the authorised adoption of eccentric services," &c. I think that the check of the Episcopal sanction, which should be made necessary for all acts of the Councils, would prevent this. But I am prepared to trust a great deal to the free action of the Parishioners, expecting that, if is some instances injudicious things were done, they would in due time be rescinded through the free play of public opinion.
In the larger objects aimed at by " A.," such as " the reconciling the clerical with the lay view of things," I am glad to be in agreement with him. But to my mind, the one thing needful for these purposes is that Church affairs should no longer be debated in the unpractical way which is common to Convocation and to Church conferences and congresses, but with a view to action. And I believe that the fact that the clergy had to count with lay opinion in every important change in their parishes, and were liable to receive suggestions which the laity had some power to enforce, would do more than anything else to subdue the clericalism of which " A." has so justly complained.
The reason why I am loth to look much beyond the establish- ment of Parochial Councils is that 1 wish to remain within the -sphere in which I see that real power can be exercised. Atten- tion has been lately called, by a letter of Mr. Stubbs to the Guardian, to a scheme for the federation of parishes at Sheffield. But it is evident that such a federation can only exist for con- sultative purposes and for the distribution of a voluntary fund.
It can have no legal existence nor legal powers. The diocese may be thought to give a basis for a larger organisation. But the only legal power which could be assigned to a Diocesan Synod or Council would be to control the acts of the Bishop, and those acts are mostly of a personal character, such as ordination, licensing, institution,—in which it is best to give discretion to one public officer amenable to public opinion.
_ " A." asks whether I think the Parochial Councils would affect the larger interests of the Church by stimulating Parliamentary action, or by leading to some wider organisation. I answer, mainly in the former of these ways, and I think that the influence would be much larger than " A." expects, and would give Church affairs their due place in legislation (a different place, I may observe, from that which they occupy in our feelings). My expectation that some 'diocesan organisation might be formed, but that it would always probably be weak, is confirmed by the organisation for the government of parishes and counties both in England and, still more, in America. The real life is in the parishes. The county organisation exists, but is of less account.
"A." is right in saying that I am, on the whole, satisfied with Parliament for the supreme legislature, and that, for the purposes with which legislation is concerned, I regard Church and State not as allied, but as fused together. I think the exclusion of the clergy from the House of Commons not an ultimate fact, but an evil which should be done away, while I do not wish to see the Clergy represented in the legislature as a class, or sitting there as members of a class. " A." wishes for an ecclesiastical legislature, on the ground that " human universal interests should be separated from national." But I think " human universal interests " are not at present the subject of legislation.
I readily admit that in all our national life we should have a regard for the bearing of our actions on human universal interests.
But just as in matters of commerce or of the framework of our Constitution, which have a great cosmopolitan importance, we best serve mankind by regulating our own affairs wisely and justly, so I think it is in the concerns of Christianity itself. Any country, the ecclesiastical arrangements of which should be truly national, would be at the same time " Catholic " in a sense far grander than has hitherto been implied by that word.—I am, Sir, &c., W. II. FREMANTLE.