Alan Edwards sketches elements of the emergence and history of the Free Church of England wondering if it might not offer interesting pointers or parallels to a future free province

In the discussion of a free province it is surprising that no attention has been given to the example of the Free Church of England (FCE). Although now a small denomination, reduced to under thirty UK churches, this episcopal, BCP-based body is the longest-lasting Anglican schism, or more positively, the oldest continuing church. It began in 1844 with a dispute between an Evangelical controversialist, the Revd James Shore, and his diocesan, the Tractarian sympathizer, Henry Phillpotts of Exeter.

The original dispute

Shore had successfully campaigned against a Tractarian appointment and Phillpotts responded by refusing to renew Shores licence to Bridgetown Chapel, where he had ministered for ten years. Shore resigned from the diocese – legally he thought – and licensed the chapel as a Dissenting Conventicle, calling it ‘The Free Church of England.’ Phillpotts pursued him in law and Shore was imprisoned for preaching at a Countess of Huntingdon chapel, whilst still being an Anglican priest.

John Fenwick, author of the most recent history [The Free Church of England Continuum 2004, £50] and an FCE bishop (having been formerly an Anglican priest), has said, ‘Shore would be no more than a footnote in history but for two facts.’

Firstly, Shore, and those who quickly followed his example, were carrying on a tradition dating from the mid-eighteenth century of forming independent evangelical Anglican congregations, the Countess of Huntingdon’s chapels being the best-known example. It is significant that the infant federation of anti-ritualist ‘Free Churches of England’ which developed in the wake of Shore sought help from them, until they received the episcopal succession securing their future as a discrete denomination.

Secondly, Shore maintained the tradition of giving ‘independency’ an undoubted Anglican identity. The FCE has always been more than another ‘Prot Protest’ movement. Although it built churches until the early twentieth century to oppose ritualistic excess, architecturally these new churches were Anglican Gothic rather than Non-Conformist Palladian. It is also amusing that the stained glass in several FCE churches shows figures in the very vestments that the body opposed.

The FCE made some modest amendments to the 1662 BCP, moving nearer to 1552. Nevertheless the church proclaims its devotion to Prayer Book worship, its notice boards advertising that fact. FCE worship still recalls past days: surplice and scarf, North end stand, Matins, bishops in ‘magpies’ but no mitres. For some Prayer Book Society folk, manna in the wilderness?

Beyond these ‘outward signs’, the FCE’s nineteenth-century view that it was opposing innovations to Reformed Anglicanism agrees with FiF’s twenty-first century resistance to liberal innovations. In both cases there was, and is, a realization that opposition could mean separation.

The American connection

In 1873 George Cummins, Assistant Bishop of Kentucky, broke with the American Episcopal Church, following censure for participating in an ecumenical Communion. He established The Reformed Episcopal Church (REC), a b o dy of Protestant but still Anglican identity. He seems to have been influenced by the Old Catholic revolt, believing he could bring unity to divided Evangelical sects via the Prayer Book and a new style of episcopacy.

Cummins carried his reform of the BCP further than those undertaken by the FCE. He believed that a ‘romanising germ remained in the 1662 liturgy. He settled for the unadopted 1785 American BCP. However, recent years have seen a retreat from liturgical ultra-Protestantism.

From Cummins the English FCE derived episcopal orders and its claim to be within the Anglican tradition. They point to the example of Augustine of Canterbury to justify the initial consecrations by a single bishop. Nowadays they always maintain the canonical three. The Countess of Huntingdon’s Connexion had been content with a single order of ministry but the FCE did not see this as faithful to the New Testament. The same reason presumably lies behind the body’s failure to have female Readers, let alone ordained women.

Cummins’ successors in the REC planted churches in the UK but, in 1927, these united with the English body. Although FCE is episcopally governed and adopts Anglican organizational patterns where possible, the geographical separation of its parishes has ruled out such familiar elements as rural deaneries. There is obviously no Church Commission funding: stipends are modest and many clergy engage in part-time employment or use pensions to supplement stipends. The FCE’s experience of running a tight financial ship might be an important example for a fledgling province.

Reformed and Anglican

Back in late nineteenth-century America, the REC soon found disagreement between those who saw it as an antechamber to full-blown Protestantism and those who wished to preserve the Anglican heritage. A century and more later, similar tensions have surfaced within the FCE, and some churches have broken away claiming the denomination is now too favourable to ecumenism and is insufficiently Protestant. Could a free province be torn by internal divisions – ‘Roman asylum seekers’ versus ‘always Anglicans’?

Modern divisions within ECUSA have revived the REC after years of decline. Their reception of a large influx of traditionally-minded former ECUSA worshippers has led the church to adopt a more catholic stance and to have friendly contacts with FiFNA. The RECs have always been a much larger body than FCE, numbering many thousands of worshippers and maintaining two seminaries.

A decade ago, conversations between the CofE and FCE, aimed at producing a concordat, broke down. It seems that some in the FCE thought that their big sister had become too liberal. However, today the FCE still asserts its Anglican ethos and its relevance to the contemporary English Church. Bishop Fenwick, formerly an Ecumenical Secretary to Archbishops Runcie and Carey, believes that the FCE can offer not only a home for some marginalized traditional Anglicans, but also a pattern for and cooperation with, a future free province. ‘We’ve had over 150 years of acting as a parallel jurisdiction and of the canonical arrangements involved – we are the original Free Province.’