[From Brown's Directory, 1881/2]

[Historical Chapter]

[Bishop Powys & St Thomas's Church]

About the same period the whole country was roused to indignation by the arbitrary and tyrannical proceedings of Bishop Powys in connexion with St. Thomas’s Church, Douglas. This prelate, a man of superior abilities and an able and convincing preacher, on his appointment in succession to Bishop Auckland, in 1854, had entered upon his duties with all the ardour of a missionary, and with the full intention of devoting all his energies to the improvement of his diocese. But, partly from the small area of his diocese, which was too limited to afford full scope to his active spirit, and partly from the injudicious way in which he attempted to carry out his schemes of improvement in the Manx Church, but mainly from being a strong High Churchman, while the Manx are thoroughiy Low Church, the changes which he proposed to introduce were repugnant in the highest degree to the feelings and prejudices of the people, and he soon found himself viewed with suspicion and dislike by both Churchmen and Dissenters, and even by his own clergy. These feelings, unfortunately, were strengthened and confirmed, as time passed, by his own many injudicious, and often ill-advised, ill-considered acts. He inducted clergymen of his own way of thinking into every living under his control, who, with his sanction and approval, introduced into their churches ritualistic practices and teaching contrary to the customs and wishes of the people; and he entered into disputes, sometimes of a very frivolous character, with several of the most respected of his clergy—as, for example, with Mr Cannell, of St. Matthew’s, Douglas, and with Mr Hawley, of St. George’s, Douglas—out of which he did not always emerge with dignity or success. From these causes, he met with so much oppo sition from both clergy and people, that he gradually abandoned all the hopes and plans with which he had started on his career, and contented himself with a perfunctory discharge of the most imperative of his episcopal duties, frequently absenting himself from his diocese for increasingly lengthened periods, to the great neglect of the duties of his office and the Injury of the Manx Church. But the worst scandal con nected with the episcopate of Bishop Powys, and that which most injured his position on the Island, was his dispute with the Rev. W. Drury, vicar of Braddan, respecting the right of nominating the incumbent of St. Thomas’s, Douglas. This church, which had been erected by voluntary subscriptions in 1849, was situated in the parish of Braddan, in con sequence of which the vicar of that parish claimed the right of presenting to the incumbency after its consecration. The Bishop, who wished to secure this desirable piece of patronage for himself, refused to consecrate the building when it was completed, and merely licensed it for public worship, and, assuming the right, nominated the Rev. Mr Simpson as incumbent. Mr Drury acquiesced in this appointment for the sake of peace; but on the resignation of Mr Simpson he determined to assert his right in the nomination of Mr Simpson’s successor. On his side the Bishop insisted upon repeating his former move, and, without waiting to procure Mr Drury’s consent, he immediately nominated as incumbent the Rev. Mr Dodd, and required the vicar to induct him into the living. After consulting with his legal adviser, Mr Adams, Mr Drury persisted in his refusal to accept the Bishop’s nominee, Mr Dodd, who was thus placed in a most unpleasant predicament; but, soon after obtaining preferment in England, he retired from the contest. With his customary overbearing arrogance, Bishop Powys now determined to break down the opposition of his subordinate, and to carry his point at any cost ; and, as a preliminary, applied to his legal adviser, the Attorney-General, and his Chancellor, the Vicar-General, for their opinion on the case in its legal aspect, who gave as their opinion that " while the Church remains unconsecrated, the vicar of Braddan may inhibit any clergyman appointed by the Bishop from officiating there," and further, that "when the building is consecrated, the right of appointment rests in the vicar." A legal opinion so thoroughly adverse to his case, and given too by his own lawyers, who, we may suppose, would naturally wish to look at the case in its most favourable light, would have decided most men to throw it up; but Bishop Powys was a man who would never admit himself to be in the wrong, and whom opposition only rendered more determined to carry his point, and, consequently, instead of abandoning his claim and acknowledging the vicar’s confessed legal right, or entering into some amicable arrangement with him, he now cast about for some means by which to compel him to give up his right or take it away from him by force. In these unjust proceedings, contrary both to legal and moral right, he was, unfortunately, encouraged by a large section of the congregation of St. Thomas’s, who, having imbibed a taste for the High Church ceremonial, and believing that if the dispute ended in the vicar’s favour, he would appoint a clergyman of his own principles, which were strictly evangelical, went so far as to call upon the Bishop to disregard the vicar’s inhibition and to put his nominee into the living, if need be, by force. Finding that, so long as the district attached to the church in dispute remained a part of the parish of Braddan, the right of appointing its minister would remain in the vicar of the parish, he caused a bill to be drawn up and introduced into the Council called "The Braddan Division Bill," which separated the town of Douglas from the parish of Braddan, and divided it into the three district parishes of St. Barnabas, St. George, and St. Thomas, vesting "the right of nominating, collating, and presenting vicars and incumbents to the said churches" in himself. This bill passed rapidly through the Council, in which his influence was paramount, he, and his legal adviser, the Attorney-General, and his two subordinates—the Archdeacon, and the Vicar-General— forming a clear half of the entire body; but when it was brought into the House of Keys, and its purport thus became generally known, public indignation, already excited by the Bishop’s earlier proceedings, was thoroughly roused, and the largest meeting probably ever held in the Isle of Man, met in the Wellington Hall, Douglas, on the 20th November, 1867; and resolutions, denouncing in the strongest terms the Bishop’s bill as unnecessary and unjust, were unanimously passed. Petitions to the Legislature against this bill were also drawn up and numerously signed; and counsel were engaged to appear against it before the House of Keys on behalf of the town of Douglas. On the 8th of July, 1868, it came before the House, and, after a lengthy debate, was finally rejected on the preamble. But, in the meantime, the Bishop had taken another and even still more injurious step in this sad business. He had, early on in the proceedings, caused a formal notice to be served upon the vicar of Braddan to the, effect that, unless he withdrew his opposition to the bishop’s appointment, the episcopal licence would be withdrawn, and the church closed; no doubt concluding, from the well known character of the vicar, that he would make any sacrifice rather than by insistance upon his legal right be the ostensible cause of closing the church. But, however much Mr Drury would have shrunk from such an extreme measure for any mere personal interest, this dispute had now become with him a question of important principles which he felt he could not honestly draw back from; and he, therefore, notwithstanding the Bishop’s notice, persisted in his inhibition of the Bishop’s nominee. The Bishop, equally resolved, carried out his threat, and formally withdrew his licence from the church, thus closing it to public worship (December, 1867.) Failing to intimidate the vicar of Braddan, and equally unsuccessful in his attempt to obtain from the House of Keys that support in his scheme for aggrandising himself at the expense of his clergy which he had expected, Bishop Powys next turned to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, as he had on several occasions threatened he would do, and by his representations endeavoured to move them to do that which the Insular Legislature had deliberately refused to do. This outrageous act annihilated the little popularity the Bishop had still retained. It was universally felt that an act so tyrannical and so regardless of the spiritual interests of a large congregation was indefensible and unworthy a Christian bishop; and henceforth his connection with the Manx Church was looked upon as a great misfortune, and his name was now rarely uttered among Manxmen except to condemn his conduct in the strongest terms. Fully acquainted with the feeling with which his conduct was regarded in his diocese, and yet unmoved in his fixed determination to carry his poiat, Bishop Powys, during the remaining years of his episcopate, resided chiefly abroad, spending as little time as possible in his diocese, and neglecting its affairs in an unprecedented manner. During the year 1868, for example, the year immediately following the closing of St. Thomas’s Church, he was absent from his diocese about nine months out of the twelve; and later, when his health finally gave way, his absence in England was continuous, and such of his episcopal functions as could not be utterly ignored were performed by deputy. This persistent neglect of the duties for which he was so liberally paid (considering the comparative poverty of the Island) naturally excited great indignation among the Manx, and their complaints were loud and deep, but they had no remedy, and the Bishop, though thoroughly aware of their discontent, made no effort to overcome his growing repugnance to the people from whom he drew his income and whose spiritual interests he so persistently neglected.

The closing of St. Thomas’s Church was severely felt in Douglas. The church accommodation in the town, including this edifice, was greatly below its ordinary requirements; for no provision had been made for a rapidly increasing population, which, in the twenty years since the erection of St. Thomas’s Church, had increased fully one-half. In the summer, when the town was crowded with visitors, it was altogether insufficient ; and, but for the praiseworthy exertions of the various bodies of Dissenters, who in the same period had built no fewer than four new chapels, the spiritual destitution of the town would have been extreme. It is an evident fact that during this period of rapid growth the Church had not done its duty to the town of Douglas, nor maintained its relative position; and to close one of the best of the few churches the town possessed, can only be regarded as an act of supreme unwisdom as well as a grievous wrong to its large congregation. Under these circumstances the closing of St. Thomas’s Church caused great inconvenience, especially during the summer seasons; and so unbearable had the scandal become that on November 26th, 1869 (when the church had been closed for two years), the Bishop gave notice of his intention of re-opening the church for the purpose of holding a series of services in it himself, and that these services would begin with a Confirmation service on Advent Sunday. In thus acting the Bishop, no doubt, thought to do away with the scandal of a church necessary to the spiritual provision of an important section of his diocese closed by his own act, and yet avoid the necessity of yielding the claim of the vicar of Braddan; but his action, to say the least, was unfortunate, and, if not actually illegal, as asserted by the vicar’s friends, it was highly disorderly—a glaring fault in a Christian bishop whose office in the Church of England is mainly to preserve order in the Church and to set an example of it. Upon learning the Bishop’s intention, Mr Drury, through his legal adviser, Mr A. W. Adams, protested against such a stretch of authority; and offered to make arrangements for regular services being held in the church if the Bishop would agree. No notice was taken by the Bishop either of the vicar’s protest or of his offer to provide a regular service in the closed church; but, on the 27th November (Advent Sunday), he took possession of the church and held a service in it, in accordance with his announcement. For several successive weeks divine service was held in the church, the Bishop being the officiating clergyman, but on the 30th December he addressed a letter to the congregation of St. Thomas’s giving notice that it would be closed again on account of the failure of his health, and saying that he would spare no efforts to obtain a decision of the Ecclesiastical Commissioners favourable to his wishes. Learning the fact that, in consequence of the failure of the Bishop’s health, the church would again be closed, the vicar of Braddan informed the Bishop by letter that to prevent the church being again closed, and its congregation being again scattered, he would, as a temporary expedient, give the services of his curate, the Rev. Mr Langton; but to this offer, the Bishop, with his customary disregard of even the common courtesies of society when dealing with an adversary, returned no answer whatever, and again closed the church.

Meantime a further complication, causing fresh scandal to the church and additional anxiety and trouble upon the Bishop, had grown out of this miserable business. On the 29th of May, 1869, the Bishop’s Charge was published in the Manx Sun, and in it there appeared some severe comments upon the dispute over St. Thomas’s Church, and the conduct of those opposed to him in connection with it. Among those thus specially referred to in this charge was A. N. Laughton, Esq., a noted member of the Manx bar, who had upon several occasions distinguished himself as a Liberal leader, and who had also taken a prominent part in this dispute against the Bishop. Considering the remarks of the Bishop to be libellous, Mr Laughton immediately raised an action at Common Law for damages against him. After the initial delays often characteristic of Manx legal proceedings, the case came on for trial at the Court House, Ramsey, before Deemster Stephen, on the 15th of February, 1870. Messrs Adams, Sherwood, and A. Dumbell, were the counsel for the plaintiff’— Mr Laughton; and the Attorney.General and Mr ‘F. C. Callow were the counsel for the defendant—the Bishop. As might have been expected under the circumstances, the "Great Libel Case," as it was called, excited great interest throughout the Island and the utmost anxiety was expressed as to the result. It continued, with several short adjournments, from the 15th of February to the 15th of March following, when, after having occupied the Court twelve days, it concluded with a verdict for the plaintiff for £400 with costs. So low had the reputation of the Bishop sunk in his own diocese that this result was hailed with general satisfaction, while upon the Bishop himself it had the effect of still further alienating him from his people and of confirming him in his resolution to reside in England and have as little to do with the Island as possible.


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