The Court of Arches II: Oxford v. Henly

Today’s visit to the Court of Arches concerns a matter that we would probably expect to find in an ecclesiastical court as ecclesiastical courts have jurisdiction over matters concerning clergy behaviour and  how they conducted services. The case in question was bought before the Court of Arches by the Bishop of Oxford, Francis Paget, against one of his clergy, the Revd. Oliver Partridge Henly, vicar of Wolverton St. Mary, Buckinghamshire. Henly stood accused of the rather serious ecclesiastical offence of “reservation of the Blessed Sacrament.”[1]

Rubrics set out in the book of Common Prayer stated that enough bread and wine for each member of the congregation should be placed upon the altar to be consecrated. If the sacrament should be totally consumed before everyone has had the chance to receive, then more bread and wine must be consecrated. If any of the sacrament remains, then it should not leave the church but must be consumed by those present, in most cases by the priest.[2]

Modern, as well as, medieval practice allowed priests to reserve the sacrament for the purposes of preforming Holy Communion for the infirm in hospitals and in their homes. However, in the early 20th century, when this case takes place, the Church of England generally adhered to a strict interpretation of Article XXV which states that “The Sacraments were not ordained of Christ to be gazed upon or to be carried about, but that we should duly use them”.

Unfortunately for Revd. Henly, the Bishop of Oxford was very particular in this matter. Even worse, while conducting a funeral, Henly had been seen by the Bishop of Reading reserving the sacrament. Reading is a suffragan bishopric in the Diocese of Oxford, so naturally, the Bishop of Reading went straight to his superior with the news.

Perhaps if this episode had been a one off occurrence, Henly may have escaped with just a flea in his ear. However, the Bishop of Reading gave the following evidence which suggested the contrary, “I was going to take part in the funeral service; when I was in the vestry Mr. Henly said, “I wish you to understand that the Blessed Sacrament is reserved in the church, and therefore it will be necessary to genuflect before it.” I went straight into the church without waiting for the choir. There I saw the lamp hanging near the altar, in front of and above it. Then I went to my place and waited there, and in due time the choir came in and they made their genuflexion quietly and reverently so much so that it was certain to me that they had been properly trained.”[4] To compound matters further, the Bishop of Reading claimed not to have seen a tabernacle or ambry where the eucharist may have been stored.

Upon hearing the news, the Bishop of Oxford wrote a letter to Henly asking him to confirm or deny Reading’s version of events. Henly replied confirming what Reading had said, but stated that “the choir was trained to genuflect before it [and] the only person occupying a position in the choir who on that occasion neglected this act of reverence [was] the Bishop of Reading himself.”[5] The Bishop of Oxford responded, asking Henly to abandon the practice immediately, to which Henly retorted saying that the bishop had no right to make such a demand and that he had never disobeyed the rubrics, which in his opinion did not affect the practice of reserving the sacrament for the sick.

Letter between the parties
“Francis, Bishop of Oxford v. Partridge H., V. of Wolverton St. Mary, Bucks.; leaving consecrated bread and wine unconsumed, 1905”, (Arches/HH/47, Lambeth Palace Library, London).

During the Arches Court sessions, these letters would provide the basis for the prosecution’s case, as Henly freely admitted to reserving the sacrament and to disagreeing with the Bishop of Oxford’s stance on the matter. However, as reported in the Times, the problem for the prosecution was the date of the offence. Had Henly reserved the sacrament before or after the Bishop of Oxford’s ruling? Had Henly directly disobeyed his bishop or merely disagreed with his theology?

In his letters, its clear that Henly disagrees with the church’s stance, however, even with the Bishop of Reading’s evidence, it was difficult to prove that Henly had wilfully committed an ecclesiastical offence. The prosecution’s case wasn’t helped by the fact that no witnesses had been summoned to give evidence. When the reporter from the Times had asked why the churchwardens for example hadn’t been called to testify, the Bishop of Oxford had admitted that “he had felt unable, under all the circumstances, to proffer any evidence except that of the letters”.[6]

This left the court in a remarkable position. Here was a charge being pleaded without any real evidence to support it. Ecclesiastical courts, just as in any criminal court, required due process to be followed in order to protect the right’s of the individual.

In the end, Henly was found not guilty, which supports the notion that ecclesiastical courts were not above due process. A common misconception is that ecclesiastical courts were free to operate as they wished behind closed doors. For the most part however, ecclesiastical courts were just as concerned with the just upholding of the law as contemporary secular courts were. Many, including the Times reporter, thought Henly was guilty, however, without definitive evidence it was impossible to lay charges against him.

However, it seems that Henly was unable to take the hint and in 1909 he found himself once again before the Court of Arches for “(1) the reservation of the Blessed Sacrament; (2) the holding of a Benediction service; and (3) disobedience to a monition of the Court issued in 1906 in respect to the reservation of the Blessed Sacrament.”[7] Henly hindered his own defence by not being present during the trail. It was also reported by the Rhos Herald that Henly had threatened to “black” the eye of William Henry Partridge, clerk to the registrar of the diocese, when he attempted to serve Henly with the bishop’s monition.[8]Perhaps unsurprisingly, on this occasion the Court of Arches sided with the Bishop of Oxford and Henly was deprived of his ecclesiastical promotions within the Province of Canterbury. It seems that Henly and the Bishop of Oxford could not be reconciled, as Henly would leave Oxford for another diocese before later joining the Roman Catholic.


[1]Newspaper Cutting of “Arches Court” Article from the Times, 11 December 1906, Davidson Papers 1906-1907, Vol. 761, Lambeth Palace Library, London.






[7] Newspaper Cutting of “Court of Arches” Article from the Times, 4 August 1909.

[8] Newspaper Cutting of “Bishop v. Vicar” Article from the Rhos Herald, 24 July 1909.