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.