Scottish Catholics had to wait for nearly 30 years after their coreligionists in England and Wales for the restoration of their own hierarchy of diocesan bishops. It was not until the late 1860s that Rome decided that something definitive must be done about the state of the Church in Scotland. Writing in the journal Recusant History in 1997, Bernard Aspinwall reflected that there had formerly existed a “small village world of quiet Catholic certainties in a hostile land”. It had been thrown into chaos as resentment between native Scottish Catholics and post-Famine Irish immigrants (including a large body of clergy) finally boiled over into open conflict.
At Rome, Propaganda Fide was bombarded with complaints and demands for action; Henry Edward Manning was sent from England to conduct a visitation on behalf of the Holy See. By the start of 1868, Manning had endorsed a widely held view that the only solution to the problem was to import authority from elsewhere. He duly attempted to persuade George Errington, whom he had pipped to the Archbishopric of Westminster three years earlier, to become the pope’s man in Scotland as apostolic administrator.
Errington had been coadjutor cum jure successionis to Nicholas Wiseman, Manning’s predecessor, but had been removed by what Pius IX called “a coup d’état of the Lord God” after Manning’s proponents waged a smear campaign against him. He had been deeply shaken by his treatment, but now Manning suggested that if Errington went to Glasgow he might go not only as administrator but also as metropolitan of a newly established hierarchy.
Errington’s brother Michael quickly grasped the problems that would be faced by an incoming prelate who was part-Irish, part-English and not Scottish at all. “There is a great deal of factious spirit [which] will hardly be put down without some snubbing. Might not the snubbed settle down afterwards more quietly under an Archbishop who had not the snubbing of them? Would not a Scottish Metropolitan be more acceptable even to the non-factious?”
Despite his declining health, Errington remained open to the plan, but it soon transpired that Manning had overstepped his brief. The appointment was only to be that of apostolic administrator, with the possibility of the archbishopric when the hierarchy was re-established. There was no definite timescale, and while it might be likely that the hierarchy would be restored soon with him at its head, of this there could be no guarantee.
His kinsman Richard More O’Ferrall, a member of the privy council, raised other concerns. As far as he could tell there had been little consultation with the government about the restoration of a Scottish hierarchy; he felt that it was vital to avoid a repeat of the “No Popery” uproar that had followed the restoration of the English hierarchy in 1850. “The main point on which your ultimate decision should turn,” he wrote, “is the decision of the important question whether the Hierarchy is to be established with the assent of the government in Scotland, or not.”
O’Ferrall thought that the business was “a matter of policy and prudence, not depending on any local circumstance”, and recognised the challenges that would need to be overcome before anything might be done. “Any man who knows the present state of England as regards Catholics, and the great excitement which is likely to increase on the Irish Church, the extreme bigotry of the Scotch [Protestants] which would be stimulated by the appearance of the representative of the Scarlet Lady in Edinburgh, must convince any sane men that the time is not even near when it would be safe to try the temper of the Scotch.”
Parliamentary considerations soon complicated matters further. Benjamin Disraeli had hoped that the anti-Catholic Ecclesiastical Titles Bill of 1851 might be repealed, but a recent Bill for that purpose was pointedly withdrawn (its repeal would finally come under the Gladstone administration in 1871). While Manning had intended to ascertain through Disraeli how a Scottish hierarchy might have been received by the government, this changed everything. Errington duly declined to continue the discussions. “I consider the negotiation closed,” he told Manning, tactfully adding, “except in the recollection which I shall entertain of your courtesy and kindness during the course of it.”
Aspinwall noted that if anyone was to go to Glasgow in 1868, then “the job description was clear: the character was required to be mentally, spiritually and physically tough. He had to be an authoritative harmoniser and healer. A resilient, decisive and dynamic builder of Catholic resources, he must channel the various resentments into a united, disciplined effort.” Errington’s previous record elsewhere made him an obvious candidate, but there is truth in Aspinwall’s evaluation of his refusal. “A man would have to be a saint or a madman to accept [and] he was neither.”
In the end, Scottish Catholics had to wait until 1878 before Rome saw fit to restore its hierarchy; John William Strain became their first primate and metropolitan as Archbishop of St Andrews & Edinburgh. It would not be until 1969 that his successor Gordon Gray became the first Scottish cardinal since the Reformation.
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