This is a further blog post in a series to commemorate the centenary of the First World War. The Library and Record Centre together hold substantial material relating to the War, which is summarised in the research guide available on our website.
The records include minutes of Bishops’ Meetings. This was a gathering of diocesan and suffragan bishops in England and Wales, held biannually. The meetings were chaired by the Archbishop of Canterbury: during the War, Randall Davidson. The minutes provide an insight into the issues facing the Church following the outbreak of War.
The first wartime meeting took place in October 1914 (ref: LPL BM 6/57) and show its impact on Church activities, for instance the postponement (for a year, it was thought – in the event it eventually took place in the 1920s) of a proposed Mission of Help to the Church in India.
Wartime subjects which already commanded the attention of the Bishops included preparation of special forms of prayer for public use and the possibility of a National Day of Intercession.
The minutes include a copy of a circular letter sent out by Archbishop Davidson on the subject of clergy as combatants, expressing his view that to volunteer as a combatant was “incompatible with the position of one who has sought and received Holy Orders”: the special calling of the ordained ought to be regarded as their “special contribution to their country’s service”. Offers to serve as chaplains in the Army or Navy were at that time “far more numerous than could possibly be accepted”. Those not yet ordained but nearing the end of their time at theological colleges were encouraged to complete their training, but those at an earlier stage of study could be encouraged to enlist as it was thought that “great advantages” could be gained from service, and the fact of having borne arms would not subsequently disable a man from receiving Holy Orders. There was, given the “unprecedented” state of affairs, extensive discussion on the work of Army chaplains (in both the Territorial Army and the new Kitchener Army) and the position of the Chaplain General.
Fees for marriage licences (which enabled greater flexibility in the location and timing of weddings) for soldiers and sailors summoned at short notice to go on active service were discussed. It was advocated that officials adopt some liberality and sacrifice some fees “as only the reality of the crisis and its temporary character can justify”. The Archbishop counselled, however, that such reduction ought not to be used to “expedite marriages otherwise unsuitable”.
Further discussion involved the role of the clergy in facilitating the issue of Government assistance (in the form of separation allowances) to the wives and families of men in the Army and Navy on active service. Dissemination of information on this had been done at the personal request of Lord Kitchener. The question of assistance to unmarried partners of soldiers and sailors ensued, a “difficult and delicate question”. Resolution of this issue the Bishops explicitly considered in some degree as being of a private character within their meeting; but they endorsed this approach of supporting unmarried women, “where there was evidence of a settled home” and unless “such a course would gravely imperil the standards of moral life, both among the men of His Majesty’s Forces and in the nation”.
Use of school buildings and churches by the troops, already requisitioned by the military in a few cases, was mentioned. More specific were prospective requests to use parish churches for the celebration of the Roman Mass for Belgian refugees which, it was argued, could not easily be granted.
The subject of War memorials was raised, and attention called to the importance of parish clergy keeping lists of those from their parishes who served during the War.
Brief reference was made to the peculiar difficulties in which certain ecclesiastical industries (for instance organ building and the making of stained glass) found themselves owing to the War.
A “long and important” discussion followed on the subject of increased drinking, especially among the wives of absent soldiers and in some cases among army recruits. The implications for the opening hours of public houses and on alternative recreations in the camps were raised. Similarly, “moral dangers and difficulties” with regard to the camps and billeting were of concern to the Bishops, with attention paid to means of “helping the young girls of the country”, perhaps by the provision of “women patrols”.
Discussion on these subjects, and on additional topics such as precautions in case of invasion and the moral and spiritual care of German prisoners, continued to resonate in the records as the War proceeded.
The response of the Church of England to the War was featured on the Radio 4 Sunday programme.