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(c) Auckland Castle; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Bishop Hensley Henson, whose addresses are quoted here


From time to time here we get localised flare-ups of “Vatican II wars”. The Council gets mention; some attribute to it all the ills of the modern Church; someone else (usually me) points out that other Churches suffer from the same problems and that, in any event, priests formed in the forties and fifties were the ones who carried through (or not) the reforms, so the problems must antedate that; and so it goes. I suspect that for most people it is a turn off, and non-Catholics, observing in their own church the same phenomena, must wonder whether the Catholics suppose they are the only ones here. As an historian, I am a little struck by the something else – the length of time for which some of the laments we date to that period have actually been going on.

I was reading (as one does) some addresses given by the Bishop of Durham in 1928 to his diocese. In it he laments the way in which cries of ‘equality’ are leading some to try to force the issue of women’s ordination on the Church. Foreseeing the day in which women will take on a more active political role, he makes two points: the first is that such women will not be much interested in being wives and mothers, which would mean that ‘the feminine influence which will be brought into English public life will not be the best’; and that it will lead to a ‘collapse of elementary morality’. How, he wondered, in a public disengaging from Christian knowledge, would it be possible for people to understand the real, theological objections, to the idea?

His second worry was the declining number of vocations. In 1914 Durham had had 238 assistant curate; by 1928 it had 96. During that period the number of working clergy had fallen by 142. The old ways in which the Church had kept in touch with the people, through house to house visits, was declining and must, he thought, decline further; and Church Schools, the other main point of contact, were also ceasing to be informed by a Christian ethos. Parson were, he lamented, becoming merely minister of a congregation, not of their parishes.

Similarly, when he looked at society’s attitude to marriage and divorce, he discerned worrying trends. The multiplication of divorces was not, he thought, the cause of moral decline, but it was certainly a symptom of it. He was not naive, and was well aware that during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance ‘adultery and prostitution were rampant’ – the fact that marriage was indissoluble did not mean that the parties to it respected it, merely that they could not escape it legally. It was rather, he thought, the re-evangelisation of the British people in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries which had brought the hearts of those converted to a realisation of the reason for the Law, which meant they were more likely to observe it in spirit too. But as people were now drifting away, it was to be expected that, at best, people would go back to the old hypocrisy – and at worst, treat marriage as no more than a temporary contract. It was, he thought, short-sighted to be paying so much attention to the question of whether marriage was dissoluble rather than concentrating on ‘the circumstances in which marriage may be contracted’:

To prohibit divorce in the name of Christ and, at the same time, to celebrate marriages which patently conflict with Christian principles, is surely both irrational and profane?

Far too little attention, he argued, was being paid to marriage formation; the fruits, he feared, would be bitter when they came to harvest. In a later address, in 1933, given in Cambridge, he warned that ‘the Church has fallen out of general concern and is tending to a total neglect’.

All of this has a contemporary ring, and yet was written nearly a century ago. It suggests that the origin of our current discontents lies much further back than the 1960s.