Friday, March 9, 2012

The Gorham Judgment, March 9, 1850

The Privy Council, a secular Court, announced a decision on the case of the Reverend George Cornelius Gorham on this date in 1850. The Anglican bishop of Exeter Henry Phillpotts had refused to allow him to become vicar of St. Peter's in Bramford Speke, Devon because of Gorham's theology of Baptism, which did not conform to the doctrine of the Church of England. Reverend Gorham held that Baptism was not sacramentally effective and that an adult decision to accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour was necessary. Bishop Phillpotts, however, was a High Church Anglican who could not accept such a denial of Article XXVII of the Thirty-Nine Articles:

Baptism is not only a sign of profession and mark of difference whereby Christian men are discerned from other that be not christened, but is also a sign of regeneration or new birth, whereby, as by an instrument, they that receive baptism rightly are grafted into the Church; the promises of the forgiveness of sin, and of our adoption to be the sons of God, by the Holy Ghost are visibly signed and sealed; faith is confirmed, and grace increased by virtue of prayer unto God. The baptism of young children is in any wise to be retained in the Church as most agreeable with the institution of Christ.

This decision had a great impact on Henry Edward Manning, one of the leaders of the High Church Anglican movement with connections to William Gladstone and James Hope-Scott. The Gorham Judgment, with a secular institution interfering with ecclesiastical matters, convinced Manning (and Hope-Scott) to become Catholics, which they did in 1851.

The Gorham matter, like the appointment of Renn Dickson Hampden as Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford in 1836, was a great controversy in the Church of England, contributing to "defections" like Manning's and Hope-Scott's. It demonstrated the Erastian nature of the Church of England which did not support the High Church view of ecclesiology. When the authority of the local Bishop to teach and uphold Christian doctrine is rejected by the authority of the State it is difficult to maintain the notion that Anglican bishops are successors of the Apostles. Blessed John Henry Newman responded to this crisis with his series of lectures on Anglican Difficulties:

Anglican Difficulties is ad­dressed specifically to Anglo­-Catholics to show them that if they would remain true to their principles -- specifically, those of the Oxford Movement, born in 1833 -- they would have to go over to Rome.

Newman knew all the Anglo-Catholic arguments for not going to Rome, and he knocked them over one by one. What is truly pro­phetic about this book, though, is that Newman, understanding the debilitating weakness of the Anglo-Catholic position, foresaw how the position of Anglo-Catholics in the C. of E. could only get more and more precarious -- and preposter­ous -- over time. . . .

Newman contended that the C. of E. had no real identity and no future. It was not beholden to Christ or Catholic doctrine or the universal Church (either the actual one centered in Rome or the one imagined by Anglo-Catholics), but to the nation, public opinion, and the Spirit of the Age. It could only move further and further away from its "mimic Catholicism." For Anglo-Catholics to remain in the C. of E. could not alter this destiny, only slow it down for a time. Re­garding the Spirit of the Age, and with reference to the Privy Council decision, Newman exclaimed elo­quently: "The giant ocean has sud­denly swelled and heaved, and ma­jestically yet masterfully snaps the cables of smaller craft...and strands them upon the beach.... One vessel alone can ride those waves; it is the boat of Peter, the ark of God."

Newman saw that if the doc­trine of baptismal regeneration could be reduced to a mere matter of opinion, then any doctrine could be so reduced.

The Anglo-Catholic blog posts this great lecture by Father George Rutler, discussing "The Present Importance of Newman's View of Anglicanism".


  1. Hello,
    I came to this site as I wanted a brief account of what the Gorham judgement was. The page gave me much od what I wanted, but, crucially, I cannot see anywhere an account of the judgement: did the Privy council agree with Phillpotts or not? Surely this is the the central part of the story, or am I missing something?

  2. Against. That's why Manning and Hope-Scott left the Church of England and Newman gave his talks, hoping for more Tractarians to "Come Home to Rome."

  3. Privy council did not agree with ruling of court of Arc