Cracking a Nut With a Sledgehammer: The Public Worship Regulation Act 1874

On August 7, 1874, one of the most ill-conceived pieces of legislation in history received Royal Assent. The Public Worship Regulation Act 1874 (37 & 38 Vict. c. 85) was a surprisingly un-Anglican attempt to stamp out liturgical pluralism, and it ushered in a dark period in the Church’s history.

Photo of Archbishop Tait by Unidentified Artist - Harvard Art Museum/Fogg Museum, Historical Photographs and Special Visual Collections Department, Fine Arts Library. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons -

Photo of Archbishop Tait by Unidentified Artist – Harvard Art Museum/Fogg Museum, Historical Photographs and Special Visual Collections Department, Fine Arts Library. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons –

The Act was the brainchild of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Archibald Campbell Tait. For the past forty years, the Church of England had been riven by a battle over its identity. Inspired by the Oxford Movement of the 1830s, the High Church party emphasized the Catholicity of the Church and sought to introduce a number of Roman Catholic practices into the liturgy  (contemporaries referred to this as ‘ritualism’). Their efforts encountered opposition from the Low Church party (i.e., Evangelicals) as well as certain segments of the press. The Evangelicals banded together to form the Church Association, which worked to facilitate the prosecution of ritualist clergy in the ecclesiastical courts. Ritualists in turn founded the Church of England Protection Society (later renamed the English Church Union) to protect their interests.

Many of the legal disputes over ritual were heard by the Dean of the Arches, Sir Robert Phillimore (the Dean presided over the Court of Arches, which exercised appellate jurisdiction for the ecclesiastical province of Canterbury). From a modern perspective, the issues in these cases seem unbelievably trivial. In Martin v. Mackonochie, he had to decide whether it was lawful to mix water with wine during the Communion service or place lighted candles on the Holy Table (he ruled that the former was not lawful, while the latter was).1 In Sumner v. Wix, he had to adjudicate the legality of using incense in Divine Service (he ruled that it was illegal),2 while in Elphinstone v. Purchas he had to consider whether a priest could carry a biretta into church or use wafer-bread during the administration of Holy Communion (he answered yes to both).3

Sir Robert Phillimore, Dean of the Arches by London Stereoscopic and Photographic Company [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Sir Robert Phillimore, Dean of the Arches by London Stereoscopic and Photographic Company [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Phillimore’s judgments were usually appealed to the Queen in Council (i.e., the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council). Many Anglicans saw the Privy Council as a secular institution since most of its members were lay judges who were not necessarily Anglicans. It also tended to take a very legalistic approach toward the liturgy, reasoning that since the 1662 Book of Common Prayer had been annexed to the Act of Uniformity 1662 (14 Carol. 2 c. 4), it had to be interpreted like a statute.  The Privy Council reversed many parts of Phillimore’s judgments, ruling that candles on the Holy Table were illegal4 and wafers couldn’t be used in Holy Communion.5 Many High Church clergy were incensed that a lay tribunal was issuing binding decisions on matters of doctrine and ceremonial, and some of the clergy who had been sued refused to stop their ‘unlawful’ activities.

Disputes over churchmanship could lead to violence. Between 1859 and 1860, mobs disrupted services at the London parish of St. George-in-the-East because of the High Church practices introduced by its rector (a concise account of the ‘ritualism riots’ can be found on the website of St. George-in-the-East), while in 1866, villagers in the Somerset village of Northmoor Green vandalized the parish church when the incumbent announced that he would don special vestments for Easter Sunday.6

In a bid to bring peace to the Church, the government appointed a Royal Commission on Ritual in 1867. It considered a range of issues, including the use of vestments, incense and wafer-bread, but the commissioners found it difficult to reach a consensus, and many of them ended up dissenting from the Commission’s reports. The lack of unanimity made it difficult for the Government to act.7

In the absence of a Government initiative, Archbishop Tait decided to act. He was under a great deal of pressure: the Church Association was agitating for legislation against “changes which tend to obscure the work of the Reformation,” while Queen Victoria called for a measure to stop the erosion of the Church of England’s Protestant character.8 Tait raised the matter of ritualism at a meeting of bishops from both provinces in January 1874, and although there was initially some opposition from High Churchmen, all but one of the bishops eventually came to support the Archbishop’s plans.9

If William Gladstone hadn’t lost the 1874 General Election, it’s possible the Public Worship Regulation Act might never have become law. When Victoria told him that the bishops wanted to secure legislation against ritualism, Gladstone responded cooly,10 but he was replaced as Prime Minister by Benjamin Disraeli a few weeks later, and Disraeli was more amenable to Tait’s plan. Shortly after taking office, Disraeli received a memorandum from the Archbishop setting out his proposals for reform. At this stage, he envisioned a simple procedure that was centered on episcopal authority, and he made it clear that he didn’t want to punish clergy for minor violations of the rubrics.11

Tait’s proposals put Disraeli in an awkward position. His Cabinet contained both High Churchmen (the Marquess of Salisbury and the Earl of Carnarvon) and Low Churchmen (Lord Cairns and the Earl of Derby). Understandably, he feared that a Bill against ritualism could prove divisive and destabilize the Ministry.12

But Tait courted public support for legislation by asking the The Times to run a story on the Bill, which it did on March 10. The article provoked three letters to the editor from the High Church clergyman Edward Pusey that set out various objections to the Archbishop’s proposals (they  were published on March 19, 24, and 30). However, Tait’s plan also encountered opposition from the Evangelicals. The Earl of Shaftesbury wrote to the Archbishop arguing that there needed to be a fundamental overhaul of the ecclesiastical courts, and he expressed wariness at the idea of giving the bishops more power. He also disliked the fact that Tait’s proposals didn’t allow for an appeal to the Queen in Council.13

Tait’s publicity campaign seems to have forced Disraeli’s hand, and the Prime Minister reluctantly asked the Archbishop to send him the Bill that he was planning to introduce into Parliament.14 Under the terms of the legislation15 that Tait sent along, a complaint about ritualistic practices could be made by diocesan officials or a layperson who declared himself to be a communicant member of the Church of England. The complaint would be heard by a special board of diocesan officials and elected representatives of the parish clergy and the laity, and it would advise the bishop on whether or not he should issue a monition (i.e., a command to stop doing something). There would be no appeal if the board decided not to recommend a monition, but if it did recommend a monition, the recipient could appeal to the archbishop of the province.

Disraeli asked his colleagues what they thought of the Bill, and they were predictably divided. Although Tait asked the Queen to pressure the Prime Minister into supporting the legislation, she was reluctant to advocate a course that might split the Ministry, and she urged both Tait and Disraeli to proceed cautiously.16 Further negotiations between the Archbishop, Lord Chancellor Cairns, and Disraeli produced a measure that was more judicial in nature. However, Disraeli warned Tait that official Government support might not be forthcoming.17

Tait finally introduced the Bill into the House of Lords on April 20. Additional changes had been made: now, the legislation would only apply to actions that were clearly illegal, and appeals from beneficed clergymen would go directly to the Queen in Council unless the archbishop wanted his provincial court to hear an intermediate appeal (unbeneficed clergymen would not have any right of appeal). The Bill also included stiffer penalties for those who disregarded a bishop’s monition, though it also gave the bishop the sole power to decide whether or not a complaint should go to court.18 In his speech on first reading, Tait made it clear that the Bill was aimed at ritualism rather than general inattention to the rubrics.19 Since first reading is largely a formality, the Bill attracted little criticism at that time, though the Earl Nelson and the Bishop of Lincoln, Christopher Wordsworth, thought that further consideration of the Bill should be postponed until the Convocations had had a chance to consider it.20

Tait was disinclined to allow this course of action since the Lower House of the Convocation of Canterbury was likely to object to it.21 Given Parliament’s long history of legislating without reference to Convocation, Tait was under no legal obligation to consult it. However, Wordsworth managed to convince Tait to delay the Bill’s second reading for three days so that Convocation could consider it (though Tait used his sweeping power over the Lower House to prevent it from manifesting its opposition too forcefully!22). As it happened, the Government decided to delay second reading for three weeks in order to put off having to commit itself to a contentious proposal.23

During the Convocation of Canterbury’s debates on the Bill, the Lower House won the right to appoint a committee to consider clergy discipline in general, though Tait ordered it to focus on public worship and report within six days. The committee’s report argued that the Church should address ritualism by canon rather than statute, and it refused to endorse the principle behind the Bill. However, it also demonstrated a certain pragmatism by suggesting amendments to it.24

Tait decided to incorporate some of their proposals into the Bill in order to make it look like he was listening to the wishes of his clergy.25 Although a number of peers took part in the second-reading debate on May 11, the Bill advanced without a division.

The first serious opposition emerged when the House of Lords returned to the Bill on June 4. The Earl of Limerick and the Duke of Marlborough attempted to frustrate it through procedural tricks, but the House ultimately voted to go into committee by a vote of 137 to 29. In its subsequent stages, the Bill faced a torrent of amendments. Most were ultimately withdrawn without a vote, but the Earl of Shaftesbury proposed a package of changes that found favor with the House. He wanted to diminish the bishops’ power by establishing a single judge for both ecclesiastical provinces who would hear all ritual-related disputes.26 His proposal found favor with the Government, much to Tait’s chagrin. Shaftesbury’s proposal for a single judge ultimately passed by a vote of 112 to 13, though the Archbishop of York, William Thomson, successfully proposed an amendment that united the three principal offices in the ecclesiastical court system in the person of the new judge (i.e., he would serve as Dean of the Arches Court of Canterbury, Official Principal of the Chancery Court of York, and Master of the Faculty Office).27 The Lords also accepted an amendment from Lord Shaftesbury that allowed the bishop to pronounce a sentence without a hearing, provided the complainant and the respondent both agreed.

By the time of the third reading debate on June 25, the Bill had attracted overwhelming support, and the only dissenter was the Marquess of Salisbury, who claimed that it would do more harm than good.28 However, the Bill received its third reading and was passed without divisions.

As the Bill crossed the Palace of Westminster to the House of Commons, its future was far from certain. The Government was still non-committal, and MPs might be too preoccupied by other controversial legislation.29 The Commons considered the Bill for the first time on July 9, and MPs were treated to a lengthy speech from William Gladstone.30 He argued against it on the grounds that it did not have the support of most of the church, and he maintained that an unyielding pursuit of uniformity was not necessarily desirable. However, his fervor was matched by Sir William Harcourt, a fellow Liberal MP who had been Gladstone’s Solicitor General, who presented an Erastian case for the Bill that concluded with a paean on the authority of the Crown and Parliament over the Church..31

The second reading debate was adjourned in the early morning hours of July 10 without a decision. Although his Chief Whip informed him that many Tory MPs wanted to see the Bill pass, Disraeli was still wary of it.32 Again, the Queen brought her influence to bear, and Disraeli and the Cabinet eventually came out in favor of the Bill.33 On July 13, he informed the Commons of the Government’s decision, and on July 15, the House resumed the second-reading debate. Disraeli’s speech in favor of the Bill adopted a stridently anti-Catholic tone, calling it a measure “to put down ritualism,” which he called “the Mass in masquerade.”34 It soon became clear that the mind of the House was firmly behind the Bill, and Gladstone looked increasingly isolated. Ultimately, it received a second reading without a division.

The Commons’ consideration of the Bill in committee resulted in yet more amendments. The date of commencement was delayed in order to give the Convocations time to change the Prayer Book’s rubrics if they were so inclined, and it was decided that only residents of the parish should be able to bring prosecutions under the Bill. MPs became so engrossed in the Bill that it began to present the Government with major scheduling problems, and Ministers were forced to abandon many of their own proposals in order to ensure that the Public Worship Regulation Bill could be passed before the Queen prorogued Parliament.35

The salary of the new ecclesiastical judge soon emerged as an unexpected sticking point. The Lords had proposed paying him out of the funds of the Ecclesiastical Commission, which would be reimbursed through the customary fees that he would receive. Gladstone opposed this on the grounds that it would deprive the Commission of money that it would otherwise use to help poor clergy.36 Disraeli suggested that the judge might be paid out of the Consolidated Fund, but MPs objected to the idea of paying an ecclesiastical judge from the state’s bank account.37 Disraeli’s next proposal was to appoint a retired judge who wouldn’t need a separate salary.38 But he was soon informed by Archbishops Tait and Thomson that the man who had accepted their invitation to become the new judge, Lord Penzance, had only done so on the condition that he be paid the salary that was currently in the Bill. However, they promised to come up with a way to pay him from ecclesiastical fees.39 Lord Penzance’s appointment also proved controversial because of his former role as a judge of the Court for Divorce and Matrimonial Causes (somewhat ironically, the legislation that created that court also stripped the ecclesiastical courts of much of their jurisdiction). The idea of a divorce-court judge hearing ecclesiastical cases was deeply unpalatable to many High Churchmen.

At the eleventh hour, the Bill was almost derailed by an amendment that allowed for an appeal to the archbishop whenever a bishop exercised his veto.40 Although Tait was ambivalent toward the Bill, he discovered that several of his brethren intended to vote against it when the House of Lords considered the Commons’ amendments.41 To make matters worse, Gladstone had let it be known that, if the amendment wasn’t rejected, he would consider himself “altogether discharged from maintaining any longer the Establishment of the Church.42” The Bishop of Winchester, Harold Browne, argued that allowing an archbishop to override the discretion of his suffragan was contrary to the constitutional principles of the Church.43 Although the Lord Chancellor warned the House that the Bill could be lost if the Lords voted to remove the amendment44 (a sentiment that Disraeli echoed privately to Tait45), they voted against it by a vote of 32 to 44. Embarrassingly, Tait and Thomson were the only members of the episcopate to vote for the amendment, while eight of their brothers voted in the opposite lobby.

Tait tried to persuade MPs to accept the loss of the amendment, but when it went back to the Commons, MPs were in a querulous mood. To them, the dispute was about more than ecclesiastical discipline; it had become a wider constitutional question about whether the Lords could defy the will of the Commons. Sir William Harcourt called on Disraeli to defend the Commons against “the ill-advised railing of a rash and rancorous tongue, even though it be the tongue of a Cabinet Minister, a Secretary of State, and a Colleague46” (the tongue in question belonged to the Marquess of Salisbury, who had dismissed the idea that the Lords must always defer to the Commons as ‘bluster47‘). Disraeli was all too happy to criticize his colleague,48 but he urged MPs to swallow their pride and avoid further confrontation with the Lords. In the end, MPs were content to vent their spleen in debate, and the House did not insist on the amendments that the Lords had removed. With that, the last obstacle melted away, and the Bill received Royal Assent when Parliament was prorogued two days later.

Tait no doubt hoped that the passage of the Public Worship Regulation Act would pacify the Church, but it was not to be. The fervent opposition to ritualism that animated many peers and MPs was not representative of the larger Church. The clergy in particular were very unhappy with the Act, and when the next General Election came around, many of them refused to vote for MPs who had supported it.49

Cartoon from Punch Magazine showing Archbishop Tait trying to control the ritualist 'black sheep'  wia Wikipedia -

Cartoon from Punch Magazine showing Archbishop Tait trying to control the ritualist ‘black sheep’ wia Wikipedia –

The Act also failed to dissuade High Church clergy. In many cases, their bishops didn’t have the stomach for a legal fight and used their veto to block prosecutions.50 However, there were six cases where a priest was tried under the Act.51 In five of those cases (the Rev. Sidney Green, the Rev. Arthur Tooth, the Rev. T. Pelham Dale, the Rev. Richard Enraght, and the Rev. James Cox), the priests refused to obey the court’s monition to stop their ritualistic practices and they were imprisoned for contempt of court (the ecclesiastical courts cannot imprison on their own authority, but the Chancery Division of the High Court will imprison a person who fails to obey an order of an ecclesiastical court). In the end, four of them were ultimately removed from their benefices.

The specter of decent priests being imprisoned over things like incense and vestments made the Public Worship Regulation Act increasingly untenable. In 1890, the Bishop of Lincoln, Edward King, was prosecuted for ritual offenses before the Archbishop of Canterbury. Although the proceedings weren’t conducted under the Act (it didn’t apply to bishops), King’s acquittal on most of the charges effectively sounded its death knell. There would be no more prosecutions for ritualism, and in 1906, the Royal Commission on Ecclesiastical Discipline declared that:

[T]he law of public worship in the Church of England is too narrow for the religious life of the present generation. It needlessly condemns much which a great section of Church people, including many of her most devoted members, value; and modern thought and feeling are characterised by a care for ceremonial, a sense of dignity in worship, and an appreciation of the continuity of the Church, which were not similarly felt at the time when the law took its present shape.52

Although the Royal Commission recommended the repeal of the Public Worship Regulation Act, it would remain on the books until the passage of the Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction Measure 1963 (1963 No. 1), a sorry monument to an age of intolerance.


1. Robert Phillimore, The Principal Ecclesiastical Judgments Delivered in the Court of Arches, 1867 to 1875 (London: Rivingtons, 1876), 7-118. The decision was also reported at LR 2 A&E 116.

2. Ecclesiastical Judgments, 152-157. Also reported at LR 3 A&E 58.

3. Ecclesiastical Judgments, 158-199. Also reported at LR 3 A&E 66.

4. Martin v. Mackonochie [LR 2 PC 365].

5. Hebbert, heretofore Elphinstone, v. Purchas [LR 3 PC 664].

6. Nigel Yates, Anglican Ritualism in Victorian Britain, 1830-1910 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 228-229.

7. Anglican Ritualism, 234-235. Although the commission was unable to resolve the ritual question, it did pave the way for minor revisions to the Book of Common Prayer through the Prayer Book (Table of Lessons) Act 1871 (34 & 35 Vict. c. 37) and the Act of Uniformity Amendment Act 1872 (35 & 36 Vict. c. 35).

8. P. T. March, The Victorian Church in Decline: Archbishop Tait and the Church of England, 1868-1882 (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1969), 159-160.

9. Victorian Church in Decline, 160.

10. Gladstone to the Queen, January 22, 1874, in Correspondence on Church and Religion of William Ewart Gladstone, vol. 1, ed. D. C. Lathbury (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1910), 383-384.

11. Victorian Church in Decline, 162-163.

12. Victorian Church in Decline, 162-163; G. I. T. Machin, Politics and the Churches in Great Britain, 1869 to 1921 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), 71.

13. Victorian Church in Decline, 167-168.

14. Victorian Church in Decline, 169.

15. Ibid.

16. Victorian Church in Decline, 170.

17. Victorian Church in Decline, 171.

18. Victorian Church in Decline, 172.

19. HL Deb, April 20, 1874, col. 787.

20. HL Deb, April 20, 1874, cols. 802-804 (Nelson); cols. 804-805 (Lincoln).

21. Victorian Church in Decline, 173.

22. Ibid.

23. Ibid.

24. Victorian Church in Decline, 174-175.

25. Victorian Church in Decline, 175.

26. HL Deb, June 4, 1874, cols. 954-959

27. HL Deb, June 19, 1874, col. 142.

28.HL Deb, June 25, 1874, col. 408.

29. Victorian Church in Decline, 181.

30. HC Deb, July 9, 1874, cols. 1371-1392.

31. HC Deb, July 9, 1874, cols. 1414-1423.

32. Victorian Church in Decline, 185.

33. Ibid.

34. HC Deb, July 15, 1874, cols. 76-82.

35. See Disraeli’s explanation to the Commons at HC Deb, July 24, 1874, cols. 625-628.

36. HC Deb, July 17, 1874, cols. 242-244.

37. HC Deb, July 29, 1874, cols. 910-918.

38. HC Deb, July 31, 1874, col. 1043.

39. The Archbishops’ letter to Disraeli can be found at HC Deb, August 3, 1874, cols. 1152-1153. By that point, MPs had already deleted the salary-related provisions from the Bill. But since the Bill would not come into force for a year, there was time for Parliament to rectify the problem.

40. HC Deb, July 28, 1874, cols. 884-888.

41. Victorian Church in Decline, 189-190.

42. Victorian Church in Decline, 190.

43. HL Deb, August 4, 1874, cols. 1236-1238.

44. HL Deb, August 4, 1874, col. 1248.

45. Victorian Church in Decline, 189.

46. HC Deb, August 5, 1874, col. 1342.

47. HL Deb, August 4, 1874, col. 1253.

48. HC Deb, August 5, 1874, col. 1342.

49. Anglican Ritualism, 242.

50. Anglican Ritualism, 244.

51. For a summary of these cases, see Anglican Ritualism, 249-273.

52. Report of the Royal Commission on Ecclesiastical Discipline, Cd. 3040 (1906), para. 399.

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