By David Goodhew and John Wallace
Who is the greatest Anglo-Catholic church planter? We invite Covenant readers to offer their suggestions. To start the bidding, we nominate Walter Hook, sometime vicar of the northern English town of Leeds.[i] Hook seriously matters as a figure who took the Oxford Movement outside of Oxford, turning tracts into actual congregations, arguably the first “slum priest.” In so doing, Hook offers inspiration and ideas for contemporary Anglo-Catholic ministry in the cities on both sides of the Atlantic.
Building Up the Church
Walter Hook arrived in May 1837 as Vicar of Leeds. Leeds had been a huge rural parish founded prior to industrialization, in which barely 100 people had lived. Now it was a large city full of smoke from the many factories and mills. John Wesley felt the people there to be rough and uncouth. Then he realized that underneath there was a warm-heartedness which he was able to harness. As a result, Methodism became the main expression of the Christian faith in the city. By 1831 the population of Leeds was over 120,000, but the Anglican church had done little to respond. Rapid urbanization together with active opposition from nonconformists was what faced Hook on his arrival.
Leeds was one parish, although there were the 14 other churches for which the vicar was also responsible, but with no income to support them. The low ebb of ministry in the city was reflected in the fact that many of the existing clergy resided outside of their parishes and a number of the curates were illiterate.
Churchwardens were elected each year at the vestry meeting, which anyone resident in the parish could attend. The dominance of nonconformity meant opposition to any expenditure on the Anglican church. Hook’s first vestry meeting was packed with those opposed to a “parish rate” which would have supported the church. But, eventually, by his charisma and humor, Hook won the people over and congregations grew.
Within six months it became clear that the main church building in Leeds was in such bad shape that the sensible solution would be to build a new church on the site. This was completed in 1841. The next problem that had to be addressed was the massive size of the parish and with it, the vicar’s responsibility. Overseeing the work of 14 other churches was unmanageable. Hook therefore devised a scheme to make each one of them an independent parish. This had to be done legally via Parliament, and so the Leeds Vicarage Act came to pass. Each of these churches was put on the same footing as St. Peter’s, Leeds’s parish church. So by one action, 14 new parishes were established, and Hook was able to relinquish all responsibility for them and just concentrate on St Peter’s. Hook not only let go of his control of them, but also a third of his income.
Beyond this, Hook began an energetic program of church building and had doubled the number of churches in Leeds to 36 by the time he left in 1859. Alongside all this, Hook increased the number of parsonages from six to 29, and the number of church schools from three to 30.
What happened inside the burgeoning number of churches mattered to Hook just as much as the number of those churches. Worship grew in frequency and dignity. When he started, the main parish church had around 50 communicants. Four years on, they numbered almost 500, including former Methodist ministers.
There is one other area of church planting to be considered; this was not Hook’s initiative but that of Edward Pusey, one of the leaders of the Oxford Movement. Through his agency an anonymous funder wanted to establish a church in Leeds. Hook agreed and laid the foundation stone of Holy Cross Church on September 14th, 1842. Although Hook was a high churchman, he soon became concerned at the way the church was going. Until it became a separate parish in 1846, it was under Hook’s oversight. After that, things, in Hook’s view, deteriorated. Clergy defected to the Roman Catholic Church in considerable numbers. This caused Hook great distress, as he felt it had undermined all that he had been doing in Leeds to consolidate the role of the Church of England. He saw the church as “a hornet’s nest at his gate.”
Building Up Society
Hook supported the movement for factory reform, notwithstanding the opposition this caused from businessmen who had hitherto supported him. He called for state-sponsored education for all, despite criticism from fellow high churchmen. His frequent lectures at mechanics’ institutes and his friendly relations with his churchwardens who were campaigning for full democracy (the Chartists) made him highly popular with the working classes of Leeds.
Much more could be written about Hook’s wider ministry, his support for home and overseas missions, his concern for the education of the poor and his wider activities in the life of the Victorian Church of England. What is clear is how he transformed the way in which the Church of England served a rapidly growing industrial city, with vision and above all, reliance on the grace of God.
Mission in a Secular City
Exactly who is the greatest Anglo-Catholic church planter is a matter of debate. Other candidates — from North America and elsewhere — certainly deserve consideration. But they need to outpace the remarkable ministry of Walter Hook.
When Hook arrived in Leeds in 1837, he faced a gargantuan task. The city was exploding into life. Burgeoning industry attracted tens of thousands of people, living often in profound poverty, amidst high social tension. It was the Pittsburgh of 19th-century England. And the Anglican church was, in large measure, absent. Still in the 18th century, the Anglicans of the 1830s were vastly better established in the leafy countryside and had made limited effort to incarnate the gospel in the mushrooming cities with their proliferating slums. Other denominations and secularist thinkers had been far more active in Leeds — and were in no mood to welcome the new Anglo-Catholic vicar.
In 1837 the Anglo-Catholic revival in the church of England had only just begun. Hook’s work shows that Anglo-Catholic mission to the poorest parts of urban Britain was there from very early in the Oxford Movement. Hook’s energy and creativity turned a deeply challenging context into an opportunity to grow faith and congregations — and offers encouragement for doing the same in the secular cities of our own day.
David Goodhew is a Visiting Fellow of St. Johns College, Durham University, Vicar, St. Barnabas Church, Middlesbrough, England and co-director of the Centre for Church Growth Research, (to be renamed in 2022 as the Centre for the Study of Modern Christianity) which can be followed on twitter @CCGR_Durham
John Wallace is researching a Doctorate in Theology and Ministry at Durham University, exploring new forms of church within the Anglo-Catholic tradition.
[i] For more on Hook, see: Stephens, W.R.W., The Life and Letters of Walter Farquhar Hook. (Richard Bentley and Son: London 1879)