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Archibishop Tati in United Kingdom

Life and Work

From the book “Studies in Contemporary Biography”, by James Bryce:

England is now the only Protestant country in which bishops retain some relics of the dignity and influence which belonged to the episcopal office during the Middle Ages. Even in Roman Catholic countries they have been sadly shorn of their ancient importance, though the prelates of Hungary still hold vast possessions, while in France, or Spain, or the Catholic parts of Germany a man of eminent talents and energy may occasionally use his official position to become, through his influence over Catholic electors or Catholic deputies, a considerable political factor.

This happens even in the United States and Canada, though in the United States the general feeling that religion must be kept out of politics obliges ecclesiastics to use their spiritual powers cautiously and sparingly. England stands alone in the fact that although the Protestant Episcopal Church is, in so far as she is established by law, the creature and subject of the State, she is nevertheless so far independent as a 101 religious organisation that she retains a greater power than in other Protestant nations.

State establishment, though it may have depressed, has not stifled her ecclesiastical life, and an interest in ecclesiastical questions is shown by a larger proportion of her laity than one finds in Germany or the Scandinavian kingdoms. A man of shining parts has, as an English bishop, a wide field of action and influence open to him outside the sphere of theology or of purely official duty. And the opportunities of the position attain their maximum when he reaches the primatial chair of Canterbury, which is now the oldest and the most dignified of all the metropolitan sees in countries that have accepted the Reformation of the sixteenth century.

Ever since there was a bishop at Canterbury at all, that is to say, ever since the conversion of the English began in the seventh century of our era, the holder of that see has been the greatest ecclesiastical personage in these islands, with a recognised authority over all England, as well as an influence and dignity to which, in the Middle Ages, the Archbishops of Armagh and St. Andrews (primates of the Irish and Scottish Churches) practically bowed, even while refusing to admit his legal supremacy. To be the most highly placed and officially the most powerful man in the churches of Britain, in days when the Church was better organised, and in some 102 ways stronger, than the State, meant a vast deal. The successor of Augustine was often called a Pope of his own world—that world of Britain which lay apart from the larger world of the European continent.

Down to the Reformation, the English primates possessed a power which made some of them almost a match for the English kings. Dunstan, Lanfranc, Anselm, Thomas (Becket), Hubert, Stephen Langton, Arundel, Warham, were among the foremost statesmen of their time. After Henry VIII.’s breach with Rome, the Primate of England received some access of dignity in becoming independent of the Pope; but, in reality, the loss of church power and church wealth which the Reformation caused lowered his political importance. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, however, there were still some conspicuous and influential prelates at Canterbury—Cranmer, Pole, Whitgift, and Laud the best remembered among them. After the Revolution of 1688, a time of smaller men begins. The office retained its dignity as the highest place open to a subject, ranking above the Lord Chancellor or the Lord President of the Council, but the Church of England, having no fightings within, nor anything to fear from without, was lapped in placid ease, so it mattered comparatively little who her chief pastor was.

He exerted great influence in the House of Lords by his tact, by his firmness of character, and by the consistency of his public course, as well as by powers of speech, which, matured by long practice, had risen to a high level. Without eloquence, without either imagination or passion, which are the chief elements in eloquence, he had a grave, weighty, thoughtful style which impressed that fastidious audience. His voice was strong and sonorous, his diction plain yet pure and dignified, his matter well considered. His thought moved on a high plane; he spoke as one who fully believed every word he said. The late Bishop of Winchester, the famous Dr. Samuel Wilberforce, was incomparably his superior not only as a talker but as an orator, but no less inferior in his power over the House of Lords, for so little does rhetorical brilliance count in a critical and practical assembly. Next to courage, the quality which gains trust and regard in a deliberative body is that which is familiarly described when it is said of a man, “You always 112 know where to find him.” Tait belonged to no party. But his principles, though not rigid, were fixed and settled; his words and votes were the expression of his principles.

The presence of bishops in the House of Lords is disapproved by some sections of English opinion, and there are those among the temporal peers who, quite apart from any political feeling, are said to regard them with little favour. But every one must admit that they have raised and adorned the debates in that chamber. Besides Tait and Wilberforce, two other prelates of the same generation stood in the front rank of speakers, Dr. Magee, whose wit and fire would have found a more fitting theatre in the House of Commons, and Dr. Thirlwall, a scholar and historian whose massive intellect and stately diction were too rarely used to raise great political issues above the dust-storms of party controversy.

Perhaps no Archbishop since the Revolution of 1688 has exercised so much influence as Dr. Tait, and certainly none within living memory is so well entitled to be credited with a definite ecclesiastical policy. His aim was to widen the bounds of the Church of England, so far as the law could, without evasion, be stretched for that purpose. He bore a leading part in obtaining an Act of Parliament which introduced a new and less strict form of clerical subscription. He realised that the Church of England can maintain her position as a State Church only by adapting herself to the movements of opinion, and accordingly he voted for the Divorce Bill of 1859, and for the Burials Bill, which relieved Dissenters from a grievance that exposed the Established Church to odium.

The Irish Church Disestablishment Bill of 1869 threw upon him, at the critical moment when it went from the House of Commons, where it had passed by a large majority, to the House of Lords, where a still larger majority was hostile, a duty delicate in itself, and such as seldom falls to the lot of a prelate. The Queen wrote to him suggesting that he should endeavour to effect a compromise between Mr. Gladstone, then head of the Liberal Ministry, and the leading Tory peers who were opposing the Bill. He conducted the negotiation with tact and judgment, and succeeded in securing good pecuniary terms for the Protestant Episcopal Establishment. Though he had joined in the Letter of the Bishops which conveyed their strong disapproval of the book called Essays and Reviews (whose supposed heretical tendencies roused such a storm in 1861), and had thereby displeased his friends, Temple (afterwards archbishop), Jowett, and Stanley, he joined in the judgment of the Privy 114 Council which in 1863 dismissed the charges against the impugned Essayists.

Despite his advocacy of the Bill which in 1874 provided a new procedure to be used against clergymen transgressing the ritual prescribed by law, he discouraged prosecutions, and did his utmost to keep Ritualists as well as moderate Rationalists within the pale of the Church of England. He did not succeed—no one could have succeeded, even though he had spoken with the tongues of men and of angels—in stilling ecclesiastical strife. The controversies of his days still rage, though in a slightly different form. But in refusing to yield to the pressure of any section, in regarding the opinion of the laity rather than that of the clergy, in keeping close to the law yet giving it the widest possible interpretation, he laid down the lines on which the Anglican Established Church can best be defended and upheld. That she will last, as an Establishment, for any very long time, will hardly be expected by those who mark the direction in which thought tends to move all over the civilised world. But Tait’s policy and personality have counted for something in prolonging the time-honoured connection of the Anglican Church with the English State.

Perhaps a doubtful service either to the Church or to the State. Yet even those who regret the connection, and who, surveying the long 115 course of Christian history from the days of the Emperor Constantine down to our own, believe that the Christian Church would have been spiritually purer and morally more effective had she never become either the mistress or the servant or the ally of the State, but relied on her divine commission only, may wish that, when the day arrives for the ancient bond to be unloosed, it should be unloosed not through an embittered political struggle, but because the general sentiment of the nation, and primarily of religious men throughout the nation, has come to approve the change. (1)



  1. James Bryce, “Studies in Contemporary Biography” (1903), MacMillan and Co., Limited, New York

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  • Article Name: Archibishop Tati
  • Author: International
  • Description: Life and Work From the book Studies in Contemporary Biography, by James Bryce: England is now the only Protestant country [...]

This entry was last updated: October 28, 2016

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