17 July 2020

The ‘Staffordshire Creed’
and 18th century pamphlet
wars and threats of schism

A carved portrait at Oscott College of Father John Kirk … he was censured for his views on the ‘Staffordshire Creed’ before he moved to Lichfield in 1801

Patrick Comerford

I am continuing to dip in and out of Michael Greenslade’s Catholic Staffordshire, and enjoying his vignettes of church history in Staffordshire up to the 1850s.

It is fascinating that, as legislation for Catholic Emancipation was being rolled out slowly in the late 18th and early 19th century, the question of oaths of loyalty divided the Catholic clergy in Staffordshire from the bishops. The so-called ‘Staffordshire Creed’ opened a pamphlet war and even drew accusations of heresy.

The division was almost of schismatic proportions, and even delayed the appointment of one bishop, but also led to the appointment of Father John Kirk, who built new churches in Lichfield and Tamworth, and changes at Oscott College, which became one of the leading centres of Catholic education in England.

A Catholic Relief Act was passed in England in 1778, repealing the Act of 1700, and the Irish Relief Act followed in 1779. A second Relief Bill was published in England in 1789.

As the Bill was being debated in England, English Roman Catholics were anxious to convince their neighbours that they had nothing to fear from Catholics. The Catholic Committee, a lay pressure group, devised an oath swearing allegiance to the House of Hanover and repudiating any claims that the Pope had power to depose the monarch or that the Pope’s spiritual powers could interfere with the nation’s constitution.

The Catholic clergy in Staffordshire became champions of the proposed new oath, and in 1790 they drew up an address supporting the Bill with the new oath. The address, signed by all 15 Roman Catholic priests in Staffordshire, was drawn up by Joseph Berington of Oscott.

The address was sent to Bishop Thomas Joseph Talbot (1727-1797), the Vicar Apostolic for the Midlands, and his coadjutor bishop, Charles Berington (1748-1798), a former member of the Catholic Committee, who had been consecrated a bishop in 1786.

However, the Bill had already been condemned by the Catholic bishops in England, then known as Vicars Apostolic. However, Bishop Talbot and his brother, James Robert Talbot (1726-1790), also a bishop and vicar apostolic of the London district, declined to publish this condemnation, fearing it would damage Catholic unity. The Talbot bishops were younger brothers of George Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury.

The clash of views between the bishops and the Staffordshire clergy soon stirred up a pamphlet war.

In effect, the Staffordshire clergy were opposing absolutism in their Church, whether it was exercised by the Pope or by the Vicars Apostolic. But Charles Walmesley (1722-1797), one of the bishops and the Vicar Apostolic of the Western District, dismissed their views and declaring them heretical, labelling them the ‘Staffordshire Creed.’

Eventually, a simple oath of allegiance used in the Irish Relief Act in 1779 was included in another English Relief Act when it was passed in 1791. The Act restored freedom of worship for Catholics, provided their chapels were registered. Immediately 13 chapels were registered in Staffordshire: Ashley, Black Ladies, Cobridge, Cresseell, Hoar Cross, Longbirch, Moseley, Oscott, Sedgley Park, St Austin’s Stafford, Swynnerton, Tixall, and the Great House Wolverhampton.

John Kirk, who had been the chaplain at Pipe Hall from 1788, was sacked by Thomas Weld in 1792 as one of the priests who supported the ‘Staffordshire Creed.’

Joseph Berington, who was seen as the most extreme exponent of the ‘Staffordshire Creed,’ left Oscott in 1793 to become chaplain to Sir John Throckmorton in Buckland, Berkshire.

Bishop Talbot soon set up a new school and seminary in the large house at Oscott. His plan received support from John Kirk, but was opposed by three of his fellow bishops, who feared the influence of the clergy who had supported the ‘Staffordshire Creed,’ who would ‘have the means of doing irreparable mischief.’

Bishop Thomas Talbot died in 1795 while taking the waters near Bristol. His coadjutor bishop, Charles Berington, was regarded as being too close to the Staffordshire clergy and was denied permission to officiate at his own bishop’s Requiem Mass.

Eventually, Berington succeeded Talbot, but only after signing a retraction of his views in October 1797 at a meeting of the other bishops at the Swan in Wolverhampton. Berington appointed John Kirk, who had been sacked at Pipe Hall for his support of the ‘Staffordshire Creed,’ as his chaplain and secretary in 1797.

But the letters giving Berington permission to officiate as a bishop were delayed in Rome and were only sent to England after much debate. It was too late: Berington died three days after they were dispatched, on 8 June 1798, while riding home from Sedgley Park, on the roadside between Wolverhampton and Longbirch. He was buried in the chancel of Brewood Church.

Staffordshire got a new bishop with the appointment of Gregory Stapleton in 1801. By then, however, most of the priests who had supported the ‘Staffordshire Creed’ had either left Staffordshire or died. Stapleton tried to settle the dispute with the remaining priests. He secured a retraction from John Kirk, Thomas Southworth of Sedgley Park, James Tasker of Creswell, and John Roe of Black Ladies, and secured a partial retraction from John Carter of Wolverhampton.

Stapleton appointed John Kirk as the resident priest in Lichfield in 1801, with a stipend of £60 a year, with responsibility too for the Tamworth area. Kirk would eventually build Holy Cross Church on Upper John Street, Lichfield, and bought the site for Saint John’s Church off Aldergate in Tamworth.

John Carter of Wolverhampton, the last of the priests to support the ‘Staffordshire Creed,’ summed up his position in his will in 1802: ‘I conscientiously, Domine tu scisti, refused to sign away the canonical liberties of the Christian clergy and obliquely to wound the reputation of two beloved superiors.’

As for Oscott College, it moved in 1838 to a new site that came to be known as New Oscott, near Sutton Coldfield and 15 km south of Lichfield. The new buildings were designed by Augustus Pugin and Joseph Potter and form a Grade II* listed building.

Three Comerford brothers from Rathdrum, Co Wicklow, went to school at Oscott in the 1870s and 1880s: Edward Comerford (1864-1942), who was there in 1876-1882; James Comerford (1868-1924), at Oscott in 1880-1881; and Owen James Comerford (1869-1945), in 1880-1883.

Oscott College became a symbol of the rebirth of Catholicism in England in the 19th century. Today it is the seminary of the Archdiocese of Birmingham and one of the three seminaries of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales.

Inside Holy Cross Church, Lichfield … built by John Kirk, one of the supporters of the ‘Staffordshire Creed’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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