The Vicar Who Claimed A Seat In The Commons

On November 30, 1965, a Church of England vicar named Christopher Wansey tried to enter the chamber of the House of Commons. Although he wasn’t an MP,[1] he was a proctor for the Diocese of Chelmsford in the Convocation of Canterbury, and he argued that this entitled him to a seat in the lower house of Parliament as part of the ‘Commons Spiritual.’ But what’s the story behind this curious incident?

Wansey’s foray into Parliament was a very dignified affair. Dressed in his proctor’s robes, he attempted to enter the Commons chamber from the Central Lobby, but he was immediately stopped by the policemen on duty. The vicar announced that he was “one of the reverend members for Chelmsford in Her Majesty’s Convocation with authority to sit in the House of Commons,” to which one of the policeman responded with a simple “no, sir.[2]” Wansey asked if he was being resisted, and when the policeman responded in the affirmative, the vicar turned around and left. As he departed, Wansey told onlookers that he had been “resisted in the pursuit of the Queen’s business and a constitutional issue has been raised between Church and state.[3]” The whole episode lasted a mere twenty seconds.

Wansey came to Parliament to make a point. He was unhappy with the Prime Minister’s role in the selection of Church of England bishops. In a letter to the Speaker, the vicar argued that, since Parliament was no longer a Christian body, there was nothing to prevent a non-Anglican (or even a non-Christian) from becoming Prime Minister. Because the Prime Minister advises the Sovereign on episcopal appointments, this raised the prospect of the Church’s leaders being chosen by someone with no allegiance to the Church of England or even Christianity.[4]

Wansey’s abortive attempt to enter the Commons exploited a grey area in the British constitution. Like the bishops, representatives of the lower clergy had been summoned to national assembles throughout the thirteenth century, and when Edward I asked the common folk to send representatives to Parliament in 1295, he required the lower clergy to attend as well. He ordered bishops to bring their cathedral deans[5] and archdeacons with them to Parliament, while their cathedral chapters and diocesan clergy were to be represented by elected proctors (the chapter would send one proctor, while the diocesan clergy would send two). These directions were embodied in the praemunientes clause in the bishops’ writs of summons.

The King expected the clergy to obey his summons to Parliament throughout the first four decades of the fourteenth century, but the praemunientes clause was no longer enforced after 1340.[6] There were several reasons for this. The representatives of the lower clergy could also grant money to the Crown through the Convocations of Canterbury and York, so their attendance at Parliament was not strictly necessary (Parliament was still primarily a tax-levying body at this point).[7] This was also the time when Parliament began to claim judicial powers, and it is possible that the clergy were reluctant to sit in a secular court.[8] In addition, the clergy from the Province of York may have preferred attending Convocation because it let them avoid the long journey to Westminster.

Although it was once assumed that the lower clergy weren’t summoned to Parliament at all after 1340, recent research has shown otherwise. Documents from the National Archives reveal that the clergy continued to be summoned for a further two-hundred years (the Chapters of Wells and Lincoln elected proctors for Parliament as late as 1536),[9] though their attendance was strictly voluntary. Alas, gaps in the source material make it difficult to understand clerical proctors’ day-to-day role in Parliament.[10] Interestingly, when Parliament was considering the Prayer Book Measure in 1927, the Speaker of the Commons was asked if clerical proctors from Convocation still had the right to sit alongside MPs. His only response was to say that the Commons Chamber was crowded enough as it was, so the addition of anyone else would require even more people to be excluded![11]

Despite the diminished role of the Commons Spiritual in Parliament after 1340, Parliament and the Convocations remained linked. In addition to the praemunientes clause mentioned earlier, constitutional convention dictated that the Convocations had to be summoned and dissolved alongside Parliament. By the twentieth century, this connection had become inconvenient to the Church, as it meant the Convocations’ work could be disrupted by a snap General Election (as with Parliament, a dissolution of Convocation caused all pending business to lapse). These links would be severed a few years after Wansey’s protest. The Church of England Convocations Act 1966 allowed the Sovereign to summon and dissolve the Convocations independently of Parliament, while The Crown Office (Writs of Summons) Rules 1969 finally removed the praemunientes clause from the bishops’ writs of summons.

NOTES

[1] Indeed, at that time, ministers of religion were specifically barred from becoming MPs. This prohibition was finally removed by the House of Commons (Removal of Clergy Disqualification) Act 2001.

[2] “Claim to Seat in Commons Fails,” The Times (London, England), December 1, 1965.

[3] Ibid.

[4] “Commons Seat Claimed by Proctor,” The Times (London, England), November 30, 1965. While a Prime Minister who is a Roman Catholic or a Jew is legally prohibited from advising the Sovereign on ecclesiastical matters (see section 18 of the Roman Catholic Relief Act 1829 and section 4 of the Jews Relief Act 1858), a Prime Minister who happens to be Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, or atheist would be free to offer advice on ecclesiastical matters.

[5] Priors of monastic cathedrals were also expected to attend in person.

[6] Phil Bradford and Alison K. McHardy, eds., Proctors for Parliament: Clergy, Community and Politics c. 1248-1539, vol. 1 c. 1248-1377, (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2017), XLV-XLVI.

[7] The clergy taxed themselves in Convocation until 1664 when the Archbishop of Canterbury waived that privilege through a gentleman’s agreement with the Lord Chancellor.

[8] Bradford and McHardy, XLVII.

[9] Bradford and McHardy, L.

[10] For a brief discussion of these limitations, see Bradford and McHardy, L-LII.

[11] Arthur Smethurst, Convocation of Canterbury: What It Is; What It Does; How It Works (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1949), 12. Unfortunately, Smethurst doesn’t provide any context for this anecdote. I haven’t found it in Hansard, but it’s possible that the question was asked outside the Chamber (e.g., in private correspondence with the Speaker).

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12 Responses to The Vicar Who Claimed A Seat In The Commons

  1. Pingback: The Convocations Of The Clergy And Parliament | A Venerable Puzzle

  2. That odd lacuna in the law created by the Roman Catholic and Jews Relief Acts is fascinating—I wonder if those provisions would survive a collision with Strasbourg (inasmuch as it seems hard to objectively justifying only barring *some* non-Anglicans from giving such advice).

    • jasonloch says:

      That’s an interesting question. In practice, I suspect there would be little appetite to pursue litigation on that point since a Prime Minister who was a Jew or a Roman Catholic could comply with the law by allowing someone else to offer advice to the Queen on ecclesiastical matters. For example, when Harold Lever (a Jew) was Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in the 70s, the Clerk of the Council of the Duchy took over responsibility for advising Her Majesty on the Duchy’s ecclesiastical patronage (https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1976/may/24/ecclesiastical-patronage#S5CV0912P0_19760524_HOC_175). Given that ministerial advice on church matters is largely a formality nowadays, I don’t think a Jew or a Roman Catholic would feel terribly aggrieved if they had to let someone else handle it. Of course, one could also argue that the formal nature of this advice means that there’s no longer a good reason to prohibit Jews or Roman Catholics from offering it!

      • Indeed, I suspect that a Jewish or Catholic PM would be very happy to have the admin of dealing with ecclesiastical matters taken out of their diary! Here’s an interesting question: if Ed Miliband had become PM, would he have been barred from giving advice? Although by Jewish law (halacha), he is a Jew (he has a Jewish mother), Mr Miliband religiously identifies as an (ethnically Jewish) atheist. Under the Jews Relief Act, would he be considered a Jewish holder of the premiership, or an atheist one?

      • jasonloch says:

        I wondered that myself when Mr. Miliband was Leader of the Opposition. What’s left of the Jews Relief Act 1858 doesn’t define a Jew, though it does refer to “persons professing the Jewish Religion”. One could argue that the emphasis on the Jewish religion means that, as an atheist, Mr Miliband should have been able to advise the Queen on ecclesiastical affairs, but it might have been safest to treat him as a Jewish premier rather than an atheist one in order to avoid any legal uncertainty. After all, if a Jew is found to have advised Her Majesty on an ecclesiastical matter, the penalty is quite stiff: it’s a high misdemeanor, and they are forever barred from holding any office, civil or military, under the Crown!

        Although Mr. Miliband never made it to Downing Street, he would have had to contend with the ecclesiastical patronage question when he was Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (the Chancellor advises the Queen on ecclesiastical patronage within the Duchy). If he recused himself from ecclesiastical matters then, I suspect he would have done so in Downing Street as well.

      • Indeed, it seems that unless one goes full Disraeli and converts to the C of E, it’s best to err on the side of caution!

        I am now curious to know what Mr Miliband did as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster—do we have any readily available evidence of his involvement or non-involvement in ecclesiastical appointments then? (If not, I think this would be an enjoyable FOI request, or some informal correspondence with his constituency office)

      • jasonloch says:

        I haven’t seen any evidence about Mr. Miliband’s practice as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. However, when Harold Lever (who was also a Jew) was Chancellor in the 70s, he told the House of Commons that the Clerk of the Council of the Duchy was advising the Queen on ecclesiastical patronage (which is interesting in itself as the Clerk is not part of the Government, so Her Majesty wasn’t acting on ministerial advice when making ecclesiastical appointments in the Duchy). I suspect Mr. Miliband may have followed that precedent, but I haven’t seen any evidence one way or the other. You can see Mr. Lever’s full answer here: https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1976/may/24/ecclesiastical-patronage#S5CV0912P0_19760524_HOC_175

      • Thank you for that very interesting information on Harold Lever! From a constitutional perspective, how does responsible government operate when the minister cannot legally be responsible for advice? Or, is the Chancellor still acting through the civil servant on Carltona principles, and the Jews Relief Act merely precludes personal advice? There would seem to be very serious constitutional implications of the monarch taking decisions without capital-A Advice (even if there was still advice lato sensu).

        And as the Duchy isn’t subject to FOIA requests, I shall send a friendly email to Mr Miliband’s office and update you if I get a response! I hope I can at least brighten some parliamentary staffer’s lockdown day with a fun and unusual question (amidst the rather bleak news the Shadow Secretary for Business can only be bombarded with at this time).

      • jasonloch says:

        I suspect the Clerk was allowed to offer ecclesiastical advice in Mr. Lever’s place because of the Chancellor’s unique position. While he is part of the Government, the Duchy’s website makes it clear that he’s responsible to the Queen, not Parliament, for the Duchy’s administration. In other words, in Duchy matters, the Chancellor seems to act as a personal agent of Her Majesty rather than a government minister (this is why, for example, the Chancellor is sworn in and receives the seals of office separately from other ministers). This seems to suggest that the Chancellor doesn’t offer the Queen capital-A Advice where the Duchy is concerned, so allowing the Clerk (who is also separate from the apparatus of government since he isn’t even a civil servant) to offer advice in his stead isn’t as weird as it looks at first. It just goes to show that the British constitution has many caveats, and even an axiomatic rule such as “the Queen only acts on ministerial advice” isn’t always clear cut in practice!

        I’d love to hear what you can find out from Mr. Miliband’s office. It would be interesting to know if he followed the Lever precedent.

      • jasonloch says:

        Unfortunately, it looks like the Duchy of Lancaster isn’t subject to the FOIA.

  3. (I suppose the verb describing Disraeli’s change of religion ought to be the passive ‘is converted’ rather than the active ‘converts’, inasmuch as his father directed his baptism in 1817)

  4. Pingback: The Prime Minister’s Appointments Secretary And Episcopal Appointments | A Venerable Puzzle

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