ORESIGHT is one of the rarer human qualities. For that reason it is not easily recognised. Those who have this gift, and make the best use of it that they can, incur the criticism of being either over rash or too conservative. It is only after years have passed that the value of the prophetic instinct is appreciated and the rare quality of foresight approved in its final achievement.
The Church House is now seen to be the outcome of the power of vision possessed by some great ecclesiastics, clerical and lay, of the latter years of Queen Victoria. The jubilee of the reign of that great Queen gave in the Church's Memorial the immediate occasion for the birth of the Church House, but this occasion would have been useless except for the eye of faith in these men scanning the vistas of the future. They foresaw both inevitably epoch-making events of the world and also the prospects of the Church of England, and acted as they saw.
The House which in the year 1940 is at the service of the Church is due in the first instance to the foresight in 1890 of Archbishop Benson, of Bishop Harvey Goodwin of Carlisle and of Mr. Henry Hoare, the chief promoter of lay representation in the Church of England. In memory of the completion of fifty years of the great Queen's reign they designed a central legislative and business house for the Church of England. In it there was to be found place for the meeting of representative bodies, whether clerical or lay or both, and for the carrying on with a single conception of effort the enormously growing activities of the Church. These men had indeed before their eyes some of the changes of modern life and progress, but they could know nothing of a Church Assembly. Yet it is, regarded by and large, the direct outcome of the Church organisation in embryo as they made it. Nor could they have precisely anticipated a world shrunk to the size of an Elizabethan county through novel means of transport and incredibly swift communication through the air.
But they saw the beginnings and anticipated the outcome. All religious bodies have more or less adapted themselves, by the creation of a central organisation, to the new conditions. As usual the Church of England led the way. Beginning as a series of unco-ordinated units acting independently with slow and infrequent guidance from central councils, the Church of England has become one body in practice as well as in fact. The coming of the Church House may cause us to hope that it may be given to us to exercise the same foresight in the modern world, fantastic in its growth as it may seem to be.
From the outset the long view taken by these leaders of the Church aroused antagonism. Opposition to their idea of a great house for the transaction of Church affairs has persisted till to-day and curious anecdotes could be related of the methods in which that opposition has found expression. This is not a time, however, for dwelling upon amusing incidents by the way but rather for making grateful acknowledgement of the loyal and enthusiastic service which numbers of churchmen have given in this effort. Out of a great number it would be less than fair to leave unmentioned men like Hugo, Duke of Westminster, Mr. Harry Lloyd, whose munificence cannot be forgotten, Prebendary Ellison who has given fifty years of service to the House, Mr. Frederick White, an untiring chairman, Charles Robert Earl Grey, Treasurer for many years, and last and greatest, Cosmo Archbishop of Canterbury, whose courage in difficulties never failed.
The Archbishop and his advisers issued an appeal and a sufficient sum was collected to enable them to buy in Westminster the site which has now become so well known to churchmen. It was covered with buildings held on tenures longer or shorter, the last of the leases being due to expire in about fifty years. The price paid for the site was naturally smaller because of the long lag before all the property could come to hand. A number of leases were, however, quickly acquired and Sir Arthur Blomfield was appointed to be architect. He drew plans for a building, the cost of which was to be defrayed by public subscription and a portion of this building was erected.
Then came a long delay until the leases of the houses in Dean's Yard expired. This delay was not very welcome to the authorities of the Church House of the time, but progress was stopped by the attitude of the owner of the head leases of the houses. The delay can now be seen to have been a blessing in disguise. In this building partially completed, the Convocations met and transacted their business for many years. The Representative Church Council and the Canterbury House of Laymen also did in it work of great importance in building up a legislative body for the Church of England, and after the Great War of 1914-18 the passing of The Church of England Powers Act gave to the Church Assembly which these bodies had evolved, a constitutional place in the legislative life of the nation. For ten years the Assembly carried on its business in the old house and for the past three years both it and the Convocation of Canterbury have been without a home.
The experience gained in the uncompleted scheme of Sir Arthur Blomfield has been of great value to the Council of the Church House in creating the present highly complicated piece of mechanism. The method of the Council, which found expression in Sir Arthur Blomfield's plan, of raising money by public subscription, has been abandoned and the financial and administrative skill of some of the great laymen of the Church has been employed to erect a building which would produce a large annual income. This annual income will be used to amortise the capital borrowed to erect it until the whole income will be available for such purposes as the churchmen of the day may decide. To a great architect in Blomfield, long gone to his rest, succeeded another great man in the person of Sir Herbert Baker to whose genius the building testifies. There is no space to describe the intricate negotiations between the Dean and Chapter of Westminster, the Governors of Westminster School, adjacent property owners and political interests in Parliament which centred round the passing of the Church House, Westminster, Act of 1934. Great as were the difficulties, a suitable mixture of firmness and patience sufficed to overcome them all. The Dean and Chapter of Westminster were compensated for concessions made, Westminster School acquired a fine new boarding house in exchange for buildings surrendered and the Church House site was rounded off.
In 1939 a new Charter was obtained providing for an enlarged Council and for possible further developments. The total cost of the House including all the subsidiary purposes was about £550,000 (five hundred and fifty thousand pounds). Building began in 1937 and was completed in June 1940.
The purposes of the Church House are many and varied. Of them emphasis is here laid upon three. It is to be the Parliament House of the Church of England and will continue to be so whether the Church of the future remains established or is dis-established. The Church Assembly, Convocation of Canterbury and other great Church assemblies will find within its walls rooms worthy of their work and history. All the necessary offices ancillary to these large legislative processes are there conveniently arranged.
Then, the House is designed to give expression to the friendship and fellowship of churchmen throughout the world in carrying the load of the universal task of the Anglican Communion. The great organisations and societies which have borne the burden and heat of the day of the religious expansion of the British Commonwealth will, it may be prophesied, in time regard it as their own. In the Church House Club and in the Church House Bookshop, in the public restaurant and in the other social amenities, Churchmen from every part of the world will find a home to which they may resort, certain of finding a British welcome, a friendly atmosphere, and a company of their brethren who will receive them as "Christian in the House Beautiful."
Most important of all, the Church House is to be the expression of worship in affairs. To some it is given to follow the life contemplative, to others the community life, to yet others the life of affairs. None of them can assure to man the perfect life unless pervaded by the devotion which the Divine Founder of the Christian faith demands of his disciples. In the Chapel of the Church House daily worship and intercession will join with solemn deliberations of the Convocation, and with services of devotion expressive of the missionary, evangelistic, intellectual and administrative life of the Church. Divorce of the practical affairs of the Church from its life of devotion has been a predominating danger through the ages. The danger is greater than ever to-day. In the heart of Westminster and at the centre of English life in the Anglican Communion the Church House is destined to play, if men of affairs can rise to its idealism, a larger and ever more intense part in binding up the life of faith with the life of works, and in helping to breathe into the financial effort and genius of men the life-giving flame of God the Holy Spirit.