Bampton and District Local History Society

Bishop Edmund Gibson

Bishop Edmund Gibson (1669-1748).  Rt Revd Dr A.A.K.Graham

Tinclar’s Library Friends, Bampton, Friday 25th March 2011

Before tackling my subject, I make two excuses, followed by three apologies.

  1. I apologise for taking as my subject the very person about whom the Revd Geoffrey Marrison spoke to this gathering in November 1996. Some of you may have heard much of this before or read his address in an abbreviated form in Ploughing in Latin.
  2. I am neither a professional nor a trained historian, merely an amateur. Any professional historians present may well wish to qualify or to correct much of what I say. I very much hope that they will, either privately or in any open discussion which may follow this paper.

So much for the apologies. Now for self-exculpation:

  1. I am at least interested in the subject. Ever since I was an undergraduate I have been fascinated by the baroque quite a while before that influence became fashionable. I became drunk by reading Sacheverell Sitwell’s work Southern Baroque Art, by its architecture then its painting, by the literature of the era, by its principal figures, not least in the Church as in various ways it reflected the spirit of the age.
  2. The first major work by Dr Norman Sykes, later professor at Cambridge, that redoubtable son of the north, finally Dean of Winchester, published in 1926 was entitled “Edmund Gibson”. Thus my attention was drawn to the subject of this evening’s discourse, and Sykes did as much as anyone to rehabilitate the eighteenth century Church in England from the disrepute and contempt with which it was generally viewed in the nineteenth early twentieth centuries.
  3. The third justification for my speaking on this subject this evening is that every morning, on drawing back my bedroom curtains, I look over to the spot where Edmund Gibson was born.

So to Edmund Gibson himself: a brief survey of his life and activities until he became Bishop of Lincoln and so very much a public figure. I shall look back at some matters in which he was closely involved, noting some of the similarities and dissimilarities between the eighteenth century Church at its best and today’s circumstances.

First of all, a brief survey of the first 48 of his 79 years. Born at High Knipe (though not in the present farmhouse) in 1669, fortunately escaping injury when a beam fell on his cradle, into a family not rich but of some means and substance and reasonably well connected, a pupil of Bampton Grammar School (on this very site) where like many others he received an excellent education. In 1686, when he was 17, he went to The Queen’s College, Oxford, of which his half brother later became Provost. The College has a distinctly northern tone. The Archbishop of York was and still is the Visitor. There were until recently entrance scholarships and formerly fellowships open only to candidates born in certain northern counties. That atmosphere is still perceptible. A few years ago I met an undergraduate member of the College from West Cumberland – asked him how he was getting on. He replied that he liked it at Queen’s – “you meet there other people who speak in the same way as they do at home”. Also, certainly until 40 years ago there was over Christmas and New Year a series of feasts. They date back to the time when on account of difficulty of travel during the winter undergraduates could not return home for Christmas and New Year. So cheer was provided by the college for them and for their seniors.

The education at Oxford then was severely classical, but Gibson also branched out into law and divinity and during his years after graduating he produced a remarkable series of works, mostly historical and/or textual, for instance:

All this is background to the great work for which he is still well remembered – Corpus Juris Ecclesiastici Anglicani – of English Ecclesiastical Law. He worked at it for 25 years or so; a work of massive erudition, careful attention to textual accuracy, providing a solid basis for the Church of England in Law and in History. It is still the basic text for the study of English ecclesiastical law, and reference is still made to it today. But he maintained that it had proved such a demanding occupation that his health never fully recovered.

I mentioned that he was reasonably well connected. An uncle, his father’s brother, had a flourishing medical practice in London and had married the daughter of the Protector, Richard Cromwell, son of Oliver. When Gibson came to London to pursue his researches after he had come down from Oxford, he stayed with his uncle, who introduced him to people of influence in the wider world. Thus about this time he came to the notice of Archbishop Tenison, who in 1698 made him one of his chaplains. He soon became Lecturer at St Martins in the Fields, then Rector of Lambeth (close to the Archbishop), then Archdeacon of Surrey, trusted adviser successively to Archbishops Tenison and Wake, especially in legal and constitutional matters – and not surprisingly in 1716 he was nominated Bishop of Lincoln. The lad from High Knipe had arrived, never to look back. We see him as prodigiously diligent, a careful evaluator of texts, of wide learning, and sound judgment

I have often tried to picture the 17 year old setting off from this valley by pony or donkey over Nan Bield or Gate Scarth down to Kendal then, perhaps for the first time, to Preston and so into the wider world. What was in his mind? Who would have foreseen his meteoric rise?

So much for his early life. Now before considering his work as Bishop of Lincoln we need to take a brief look at the way the Church of England was organized at that time. At the time of the break from Rome under Henry VIII and of the markedly Protestant doctrinal stamp imposed on the Church of England in the reign of his son, the mediæval structure of the Church of England (apart from papal supremacy) was in nearly all other respects untouched. Ever since, the mediæval structure of its inner workings and organisation has been gradually altered, at times ever so slowly, and the process is still going on. The mediæval Diocese of Lincoln stretched from the Humber to the Thames, one of the two largest in England. Henry VIII had founded six new dioceses, of which five still survive. Two of them, Peterborough, covering Northamptonshire and Rutland, and Oxford, covering Oxfordshire, had the effect of cutting in half the great Diocese of Lincoln, the northern half comprising Lincolnshire and Leicestershire, and the southern Huntingdonshire, Bedfordshire Buckinghamshire and the northern half of Hertfordshire. This made for extreme difficulty in administration. The Bishop’s principal residence was at Buckden, on the Great North Road, as we call it, in Huntingdonshire – roughly midway between the Humber and the Thames. Add to that the difficulty of transport in those days. Apart from the major highways such as the Great North Road, horseback was the only reliable means of communication during the winter months until roads were tarmacadamed. The summer months also were the time when Parliament was in recess and the Court was largely dispersed, the nobility having moved to their country estates in the summer. Thus attendance at Court and in the House of Lords was not required and both were important features of a Bishop’s duties in those days, as we shall see.

(Here I digress for a moment and provide a local example of gradual administrative reform; the Diocese of Carlisle was founded in 1133 by Henry I largely in order to keep the Scots out. It was tiny in extent, comprising the northern portions of Cumberland and Westmorland; we were just in it. The rest of what we know as the Diocese of Carlisle, covering all Cumbria except around Alston and Sedbergh, then in the Dioceses of Durham and York respectively, was in the Diocese of York. Under Henry VIII the southern parts of Cumberland and Westmorland and the district of Furness were transferred to the newly founded Diocese of Chester. So when the Bishop of Chester founded a theological college at St Bees in 1816, he travelled there, I assume, by ship. It was only with the death of Bishop Percy of Carlisle in 1856 that the Diocese of Carlisle assumed its present shape)

That was a digression, but it illustrates the difficulty of getting around a huge diocese. Necessarily the shape of a bishop’s activities was markedly different from that which we see today, when a bishop is seen more or less frequently in every part of the diocese, but his principal core activities remain the same: to play a part in the making of new Christians at Confirmation, in the ordination of new priests and deacons, in the making of appointments, in the maintenance of discipline and in general oversight, and in all that Bishop Gibson was exemplary during his seven years as Bishop of Lincoln from 1716 to 1723. Even in its reduced size the Diocese of Lincoln comprised 1,312 parishes; he made his way diligently round this vast area, conducting Visitations (that is to say, general gatherings of the clergy whom he would address on matters of current concern) in every Archdeaconry from St Albans in the south to Stow in north Lincolnshire.

He held regular confirmations and ordinations – for instance, in 1718 he held confirmations at 7 centres in Buckinghamshire and four in Bedfordshire – 300 or 400 candidates were expected on each occasion. At each of two places in Buckinghamshire one year over 700 turned up; not surprisingly he wrote “it would be impossible at that rate to go on for 11 days together.” So he then made a practice of enquiring how many candidates there were likely to be, and then arranging for them to be assembled at some convenient place. Such numbers in those days were not unusual in the summer confirmation tours of bishops. It is recorded that when an eighteenth century bishop of Exeter made his way into the remoter parts of Cornwall, he was con­fronted with a great crowd of 2,000 candidates. So he resorted to the expedient of making them all kneel down in rows and arranging for a plank to be laid on their heads; he would then recite the Confirmation prayer over each row while laying his hands on the plank which touched the heads of each row of candidates.

As for ordinations, Gibson was equally diligent; during his 7 years at Lincoln he ordained 235 priests, more that twice the number that I did over twice that time at Newcastle (but then I did not have the care of over 1,300 parishes).

I mention these three figures because, in the case of Gibson, they cast a different light on the eighteenth century episcopate from that shed by certain studies of church life in the eighteenth century. Gibson was undoubtedly a conscientious and industrious diocesan bishop. He did his duty by his diocese given the difficulty of getting about, particularly in its remoter parts, and given the constraints placed on him by attendance at Parliament and at Court.

During his time at Lincoln he had been appointed Dean of the Chapels Royal and so to a particularly close relationship with the Royal Household. Thus it is that, as background to Gibson’s long tenure of the see of London from 1723 to 1748, we turn to the political and ecclesiastical scene in which he was to play such an important part.

The overriding preoccupation of leaders of both Church and state was the Jacobite threat to the security both of the Hanoverian monarchy and of the established Church of England. A century and more earlier an astute reader of the signs of the time (I think John Locke) had seen that kings and bishops together guaranteed the security both of the English monarchy and of the English church. Similar considerations applied in the first half of the Eighteenth century. The particular factors at work in Gibson’s time were:

  1. The Church of England had been weakened by the secession of some influential church leaders and patrons, the Non-Jurors, unable to accept William III as king (although some had returned during the reign of Queen Anne, herself a daughter of James II)
  2. The episcopate tended to be “Whig”, almost exclusively so under the early Georges – understandably as Tories were suspect as agents of the King over the Water. On the other hand, the clergy, particularly the country clergy, were largely Tory. This antagonism between clergy and bishops came to a head in a bitter conflict between them concerning their respective powers in the running of the Convocation, the constitutional representative body of bishops and clergy.
  3. Theological differences: This was the age of Reason. Just think of the title of Toland’s influential book published in 1696 Christianity not Mysterious: that tells it all. (Toland himself was an Irish Roman Catholic who became a Protestant when he was but 16 and never looked back). The Latitudinarians, as they were called, with their Liberal theological attitudes tended to treat common sense as their yardstick in their presentation of Christian doctrine; this went hand in hand with a tendency to downplay or even deny any supernatural authority and doctrines such as original sin, the atonement, hell. There was an emphasis on practical charity, also a generous and friendly attitude towards dissenters, a general willingness to go for a comprehensive Protestant Church. By contrast, the High Church party, that of the country clergy, was interested not in ceremonial as that term “High Church” might imply today, but in the faith of the Church as traditionally expressed, in the reliability of the biblical record, in the proper authority and government of the Church by bishops. They tended to think in the terms of the divine right of kings, to mistrust even a parliamentary monarchy. Their attitude may be summed up in the toast “Church and Queen”, still in use in the college where I was an undergraduate, a college very sympathetic to the Jacobite cause, and which had a Non Juring bishop as one of its most munificent benefactors.
  4. So we come to the distinctions between Whig and Tory. These may be summed up in two quotations:
    • the first from that redoubtable Tory, Dr Johnson “A Tory is one who adheres to the ancient constitution of the state and the apostolic hierarchy of the Church of England” – in other words, Church and Queen
    • the second from the dramatist and poet W.B.Yeats who defined Whiggery as “a rational sort of mind, that never looked out of the eye of a saint, or out of a drunkard’s eye”

    You may prefer Dean Swift’s sober opinion: “Whoever has a true value for Church and State, should avoid the extremes of Whig for the sake of the former” (that is the Church) “and the extremes of Tory for the sake of the other” (that is the state).

I have dealt at length with these factors It had a boarded parlour and panelling and was considered very handsome of him. It is fitting too that this address should be delivered a stone’s throw from the site of that earlier church in which Edmund Gibson was baptised on 16 December 1669. He had 11 children, of which two died in infancy and six others survived him. His wife predeceased him by 7 or 8 years.