‘I do not wish to speak for long’: The Transcripts of the Church Assembly and General Synod, 1920-1972

Church Assembly Session, 6 November 1962 [CIO/PHO/NEG/188, 62117/1]

Lambeth Palace Library has recently catalogued the transcripts of the reports of proceedings from the Church Assembly, and the early sessions of the General Synod. From the mid-nineteenth century the Church of England sought to achieve greater self-governance as its legislation was dependent on Parliament. The historic Convocations of Canterbury and York (made up of clergy) both added a House of Laymen by 1892, and together formed the Representative Church Council. This body, with bishops, clergy and laity all represented, became the Church Assembly in 1919 with the ‘Enabling Act’ empowering it to become the Church’s legislative body. The transcripts cover sessions between 1920 and 1972, covering the entire lifespan of the Church Assembly, and the formation of its successor body, the General Synod, in 1970.

The transcripts are a fantastic resource that add colour to the published reports of proceedings, which tend to omit much of the actual speech. The reports of proceedings are a summary of speeches made, edited from present to past tense and often shortened. On occasion, whole passages found in the transcripts are missing from the reports. Presumably, the editor viewed these as superfluous to the argument being made. By just looking at the reports of proceedings, researchers miss most of the anecdotes and all the humour deployed by speakers, leaving a skeleton speech deprived of the original intonation.

A lively debate led by the Bishop of Ely about ‘Danger on the Highways’, February 1935 [CAGST/2/32]

The transcripts also give an indication as to how speeches were received by the Assembly and later the Synod. Incidences of laughter, cries of dissent and murmurs of discontent are noted, giving the reader an insight into the atmosphere of these meetings.

The period of 1920-1972 covers many tumultuous domestic and global events, and this is reflected in the topics discussed by the Assembly and Synod. Domestically, the transcripts show lengthy discussions on divorce, unemployment and racial discrimination. The passing of monarchs and the accession of new Kings and Queens are marked.

‘Death of King George V, and Address to King Edward VIII’, February 1936 [CAGST/2/35]

The rapidly changing geopolitical landscape of the twentieth century can be seen through the transcripts, moving from a debate on the ‘League of Nations’ in 1924 to the threat of ‘Nuclear War’ in 1963. Slightly more unusual subjects discussed include ‘Danger on the Public Highways’ and ‘Influence of the Cinema’.

‘Nuclear War’, November 1963 [CAGST/2/108]

The transcripts supplement many of the other collections at Lambeth Palace Library, including the photographic collections of the Church Information Office. The photographic collections provide a comprehensive library of photographs illustrating the teachings and activities of the Church. Church Assembly sessions in the 1950s and 1960s were photographed, as well as the inauguration of the first General Synod.

Church Assembly discussing ‘Horror Comics’, November 1954 [CIO/5/PHO/1/1a]
Debate on ‘Sordid Reading Matter’, November 1954 [CAGST/2/81]

The Church Assembly and General Synod transcripts are a wonderful resource for readers wishing to gain a full and comprehensive understanding of the discussions had by Church Assembly and General Synod, and how this shaped Church policy and thought throughout the twentieth century.

Inauguration of first General Synod by the late Queen Elizabeth II, 4 November 1970 [CIO/5/PHO/2/4]

Archbishops’ Commissions on Church and State

Lambeth Palace Library holds the records of many of the commissions set up by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York. These were groups which played a vital role in shaping the direction of church policy and organisation. In the case of the commissions on church and state they made suggestions which have shaped the relationship between the Church of England and Government and considered the role of the Church in English life.

The 1914 Archbishops’ Committee on Church and State was created after a resolution was passed at the July 1913 meeting of the Representative Church Council that the Archbishops should consider “what changes are advisable in order to secure in the relations of Church and State a fuller expression of the spiritual independence of the Church as well as of the national recognition of religion.” Their report (H5157.A7A7 1916) lead to the creation of the National Assembly, later Church Assembly. The library holds the full minutes of this committee showing the thinking behind their recommendations.

The Hon Ruth Buckley, a witness to the Second Commission ACCS2/MS/2

When the Church Assembly passed a motion it was then sent to parliament where a somewhat unofficial process would get it proposed and hopefully approved by both Houses. Parliament was supposed to give members of the laity a voice in the decisions of the church. However, parliament could not make amendments to motions so their power was limited to vetoing measures. This system was accepted until parliament blocked the 1928 revision of the Book of Common Prayer.

This apparent interference in the spiritual matters by a secular organisation sent shockwaves through the church. In an address to the Church Assembly, Archbishop Davidson said “it is a fundamental principle that the Church … must in the last resort … retain its inalienable right … to formulate its faith in Him and to arrange the expression of that Holy Faith in its form of worship.” The 1929 Archbishops’ Commission on Church and State was established to ascertain what changes would need to be made to ensure this principle. It went beyond this and opinions were sought from all across the church and from members of other protestant churches on topics of ensuring conformity, ecclesiastical courts and disestablishment.

The report produced in 1935 by this second commission made a number of recommendations. It suggested that a more democratic Church Assembly was needed to ensure that the whole church agreed on new doctrinal measures and once this was established parliament should pass control of such measure to the assembly. Further adding to the power of the Church they suggested that the church be given the power to refuse bishops proposed by the sovereign and full control over the conditions for people getting married in church.

Professor Norman Sykes, a witness to the Second Commission  ACCS2/MS/2

Most of these recommendations were not acted upon and the subjects considered by the Commission remained contentious. Multiple further commissions considered aspects of the relationship between Church and State. The Howick Commission or Archbishops’ Commission on Crown Appointments unanimously suggested that the Prime Minister should retain control of the appointment of Bishops. A position which was not well supported by the Church Assembly.

gave the Church temporary powers to approve forms of worship outside of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. This was seen as a trial period for increasing the control the Church had over forms of worship and would require the drafting of new measures for when the trial finished. These issues led to the formation of the third Archbishops’ Commission on Church and State.

As with the second commission the third sought the opinions of members of other Christian churches in England and Anglican clergy abroad. Additionally, they carried out social research to establish the general opinion of the English public on the importance of establishment.

Leslie Paul, witness to the third Commission, [CIO/PHO/NEG/369]

The final report avoided explicit questions of establishment due to the ”confusion” about its definition. Their solution would give more control to the church but parliament would retain the final say in the appointment of bishops and approval of measures. This solution was not accepted unanimously. There were dissenters. Valerie Pitt, Denis Coe and Peter Cornwell suggested that the recommendations did not go far enough, merely making it less public when the parliamentary veto was used to block changes. They believed that disestablishment was the only workable solution. Sit Timothy Hoare only dissented to the chapter about the church’s relationship to parliament. He worried that General Synod had been established too recently for the Commission to conclude whether it was adequately representing the laity and that “[i]t may not be right to jettison the whole of the old pattern before the new has established its effectiveness.”

The Commission was conscious of the privileged position that the Church of England was in compared to other religious organisations. To counteract this they suggested that bishops of other Christian denominations should be added to the House of Lords to sit alongside the Anglican Lords Spiritual.

The minutes of the first committee and the documents, minutes and correspondence of the second and third commissions are available for public research in our reading room as well as copies of their published reports. These and other records from the Archbishops Commissions show changes in the mindset of the church and how it worked to ensure that the positions it took were representative of the community that it served.


The drawings above come from the transcripts of oral evidence given to the second Commission. Unfortunately, the name of the shorthand writer was not recorded so we do not know who drew them. Doodles of many of the witnesses were started although these are the most complete. Images of these can be found in our online image library Lambeth Palace Library or you can view the originals in our reading room. Their reference number is ACCS2/MS/1-5.