The Ecclesiological Society

History since 1879

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The following article appeared in the January 2004 edition of Ecclesiology Today. It provides a brief history of the Society since 1879. For those who prefer reading this sort of thing on paper, you can download a version in Word or a pdf version (Adobe Acrobat).

‘The non-professional study of ecclesiology’:
125 years of the Ecclesiological Society

Trevor Cooper


Did they intend merely to visit, in an agreeable but unintellectual way, a certain number of churches? – challenged Alexander Beresford Hope. He was speaking to members of
the new St Paul’s Ecclesiological Society – our Society, under its original name – during his inaugural address on Tuesday, 1 April 1879.  He hoped members would not limit
themselves in this way, and went on to encourage them to maintain and develop the ‘science of Ecclesiology’, which was the study of worship in ‘all its material developments’.

The language may be dated, but the point he made is robust, and has stood the test of time. Since its foundation 125 years ago, the Society has continued to study all the physical
appurtenances of worship, such as church buildings, furnishings, artistic embellishments, liturgy and music.

It is worth emphasising that from the beginning the Society has been devoted to learning and debate, rather than attempting to lay down the law. This is in contrast with the original
Ecclesiological Society, which had been founded forty years previously, in 1839 (beginning life as the Cambridge Camden Society). This earlier Society had been a
highly-effective pressure group for the Gothic style, together with  a rigid set of ‘laws of church arrangement’. These views had been transmitted with verve, sarcasm and cast-iron
certainty through its famous Journal, The Ecclesiologist.

But the original Society failed to recruit, the membership aged, and with the close of The Ecclesiologist in 1868 (the last issue claiming, with some truth, that ‘we have the
satisfaction of retiring from the field victors’), the original Society seems quietly to have faded away, though it was said to have been represented at the funeral of Sir George
Gilbert Scott as late as 1878.


A prospectus for the new St Paul’s Ecclesiological Society (the present one) announced it to be a ‘successor’ of the Ecclesiological Society, by then ‘dissolved’. Canon Gregory,
one of the Vice-Presidents, recalled how the new Society had begun ‘as the result of a conversations he had had with a few gentlemen . . . who remarked to him that a want would
be supplied if the young men of London could visit the churches of the metropolis, under efficient guidance, on their Saturday half-holidays’.

The object of the new Society, headlined on its first set of Transactions, was ‘the non-professional study of Ecclesiology’. This less than inspiring strapline was quietly dropped in
succeeding years.

The first president was the dean of St Paul’s, who held the presidency for 21 years. It was because the Society met at the Cathedral that it was called ‘The St Paul’s
Ecclesiological Society’, no doubt to help make clear that it was newly founded.

The two surviving prime movers of the original 1839 Ecclesiological Society, Beresford Hope and Benjamin Webb, both became members of the new Society. As we have seen,
Beresford Hope gave the inaugural address, and both he and Webb were vice-presidents. (It was a peculiarity of the Society at this time that more than ten percent of its
membership were vice-presidents.) Very few other members of the original Society joined the new one: many would by then have been elderly.

The new Society began with a bang, with nearly 250 members, including some of the leading architects, liturgists and church historians of the day – men like G. H. Birch, R. H.
Carpenter, Alfred Heales, J.  Wickham Legg, T. Gambier Parry, J. D. Sedding, J. P. Seddon, Sparrow Simpson, and J. C. Wall.


In its first years, the Society visited churches old and new, held lectures, and published learned articles. It has, of course, done much the same ever since, the most significant
innovation since 1879 being the launch of the Society’s website, though this had to await the invention of the internet, and was not introduced for 120 years, in 1998.

For the first sixty years, until 1938, the Society published a continuous Journal, Transactions of the St Paul’s Ecclesiological Society. Many of the articles in this series broke new
ground, and are of very high quality. This was followed by a more intermittent series, the Transactions of the Ecclesiological Society (by then the Society had changed its name),
until about 1957.

Other publications followed, including a useful series of short monographs, and a lively newsletter. The Society now produces a periodical three times a year Ecclesiology Today
(gentle reader, you have this in your hand), and occasional monographs.

The tradition of visiting churches has, of course, continued, together with that of organising lectures, including the well-established annual Dykes Bower memorial lecture, begun in
1998, and the Annual Conference, first held in 1996.

It has not, of course, been entirely a smooth ride. Somewhat embarrassingly, there were financial rumblings just one year after the foundation of the Society, when it was realised
that income from subscriptions would not equal expenditure, probably because the life membership fee was set so low. After continued expressions of concern by the Treasurer,
and largely unsuccessful appeals for donations, subscriptions were raised in 1884.

Money became a major problem during 1922, largely, it seems, due to excessive expenditure on a previous section of the Transactions. This left the Society technically insolvent.
The immediate response to was to expel about one quarter of the membership for arrears of subscriptions; for the next few years the Transactions were rather thin.

One major decision which seems to have caused some angst was the question of the admission of women. This was first raised at the AGM in 1907. It was recorded that ‘an
animated discussion followed, from which it appeared that members were by no means in accord on the subject’, and it was put aside for further consideration. This incendiary
subject was left alone for six years, until at the AGM in 1913 ‘some discussion ensued’, but ‘no definite decision’ was reached. Finally the Council took a grip on the situation, and
at the AGM the following year made a recommendation to admit ladies, six months before war broke out. There was a long discussion, before it was finally agreed that ‘there is
nothing in the constitution of the Society to limit the membership to men’, and the great matter was settled. By the following year, eight ladies had joined.

Throughout much of the early years of the twentieth century there seem to have been worries about membership, which hovered between 250 and 300, and then began a steady
though slow decline after the clear-out of members in 1922. In 1936, with membership having dropped below two hundred the Society created a subcommittee to review its future.
One recommendation – contested by some members at the AGM the following year – was to change the name to the Ecclesiological Society (dropping the prefix St Paul’s) and
this was finally agreed at an Extraordinary General Meeting attended by just 23 members later that year.

Despite this attempt to reposition the Society, numbers did not rise substantially, and by the 1960s they had dropped to something around one hundred members. At this time
there was an active programme of visits, but little in the way of publications. A relaunch of the Society by Stephen Humphrey, the energetic Secretary at the time, supported by a
number of Council members, finally led to the desired growth, Since then, membership has been on a general upward trend, and now stands at more than 850 members.

Until about thirty years ago the Society was firmly based in London and the surrounding area. Almost all visits started from London. Today, although still weighted towards southern
England by a factor of about two to one, the Society’s reach is national, and visits to churches take place all over the country.


Thus the Society has been in continuous, though not entirely untroubled, existence since 1879. The Council hopes that, after 125 years, the Society still meets the needs of those
who find churches and their use a fascinating subject for recreation and study, and who enjoy, from time to time, meeting others of a similar turn of mind, making it ‘the Society for
those who love churches’.

I would be delighted to hear from anyone who has, or knows of, a copy of the Prospectus of the St Paul’s Ecclesiological Society (probably dated 1878 or 1879), or of the
recommendations made by the sub-committee on the future of the Society in 1936, or, indeed, of any of the more ephemeral material relating to the history of the Society up
to (say) the 1980s, including the rules of the Society at the various stages in its life.

My primary source is the Transactions of the St Paul’s Ecclesiological Society, as follows: Vol I, title page, iii, vii, viii, lx and passim; Vol VI, xix; Vol VII, xxiii, xxvii and xxxiv; Vol IX,
viii, xvi (in addition to which, my copy of Vol IX part 1 contains a handwritten note detailing the excessive costs of part 5 of Vol VIII); Vol X, cv, cxiv, cxviii, cxix . In addition, see
James White, The Cambridge Movement, Cambridge (1962), 223-4; Geoff Brandwood, ‘Fond of Church Architecture’, page 53 and passim in C. Webster and J. Elliott, ‘A
Church as it should be’: the Cambridge Camden Society and its Influence, Stamford (2000); Gavin Stamp (ed.), George Gilbert Scott’s Personal and Professional
Recollections, Stamford (1995), 382. I am grateful to Geoff Brandwood for comparing the names of the original members of the St Paul’s Ecclesiological Society with those who
had belonged to the by then defunct Ecclesiological Society.

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