Holy battle for cathedral: How Halifax fought Wakefield to take charge of our new diocese

Mother church: Wakefield Cathedral. All Saints' Church became the heart of the new Wakefield Diocese in 1888, beating Halifax Parish Church ' now Halifax Minster (below)  ' to  the honour.  And Wakefield became a city.
Mother church: Wakefield Cathedral. All Saints' Church became the heart of the new Wakefield Diocese in 1888, beating Halifax Parish Church ' now Halifax Minster (below) ' to the honour. And Wakefield became a city.

For the past 125 years Calderdale has been, for Church of England purposes, part of the Diocese of Wakefield.

The mother church is Wakefield Cathedral, overlooking Kirkgate in the heart of the city. The city itself was, from 1889, county town of the old West Riding of Yorkshire and, from 1974 to 1986, of West Yorkshire.

Halifax Minster, Halifax

Halifax Minster, Halifax

But how many people know how close Halifax, rather than Wakefield, came to becoming the centre of the new diocese, with St John the Baptist’s Church – now Halifax Minster – the cathedral and Halifax ennobled as a city?

The story is told in a new book just published to mark the diocese’s special anniversary. Wakefield Diocese: Celebrating 125 Years, is a remarkably comprehensive telling of the diocese’s story by Kate Taylor (pictured, below right), doyen of Wakefield historians, who has written many books about her beloved city.

The diocese was founded in 1888, carved out of the Diocese of Ripon, which itself had been created out of the ancient Diocese of York in 1836.

This was an era of phen-omenal expansion in the industrial conurbations of Yorkshire and Lancashire. In the 40 years between 1836 and 1975 the population of the Ripon Diocese had doubled, from 600,000 to 1.6 million. A new diocese was badly needed to serve the people of the growing industrial area.

Wakefield Diocese, book by Kate Taylor

Wakefield Diocese, book by Kate Taylor

But where should the new cathedral be? As Kate Taylor shows, as in many things, the decision had much to do with politics – and money.

There were only ever two candidates, Halifax and Wakefield. And Halifax had a strong claim. It was a huge parish – and it was rich, with many endowments. It was reckoned that £100,000 would be needed to endow the new diocese, to produce the required income. The Parish of Wakefield was nowhere near as wealthy.

As early as 1875 the death of the then Vicar of Halifax, Charles Musgrave, prompted moves to form a new bishopric with Halifax Parish Church as the cathedral.

It was suggested that some of the parish’s endowments could be appropriated to fin-ance the new diocese. It was even suggested, by wealthy Halifax industrialist, landowner and former Halifax MP Sir Henry Edwards, that the vicar at Halifax should also be the new bishop.

Kate Taylor

Kate Taylor

His idea came to nothing and when, in 1877, the Government published a bill setting up the new diocese, Wakefield was initially named as the cathedral city. However, Sir Henry Edwards intervened and Halifax was named as an alternative. The battle of the two towns was on – and the question was: which would fight the harder for the honour of becoming cathedral city?

In May leading Wakefield church and civic figures met to press the town’s claims. Wakefield had recently carried out a major restoration of its parish church; Halifax had not. Wakefield was well placed for rail transport, on a main line; Halifax was merely “on a railway branch line”.

And there was concern that a bishop established at Halifax would play second fiddle to the wealthy Vicar of Halifax, who controlled 30 priestly livings in the huge parish.

Two days later a similar meeting took place at the Assembly Rooms in Halifax, called by Sir Henry Edwards. It was not so well attended as the Wakefield meeting but members voted unanimously to press the town’s claims, stating that the parish church could easily be adapted as a cathedral and the town was well placed at the centre of the proposed diocese. A committee was formed to fight for Halifax.

But there were mutterings among the poorer vicars who thought that if parish funds were to be appropriated it would be better if they were used to boost their own incomes rather than support the new bishopric.

And then there were the politicians. Wakefield’s Conservative MP, Thomas Kemp Sanderson, lobbied hard for his town. In Halifax, the town’s then two MPs, James Stansfeld and John Dyson Hutchinson, both Radicals or Liberals, were less outspoken. The Vicar of Halifax, Francis Pigou, noted that they were more interested in disestablishing the Church of England that in creating a new diocese.

That, and the attitude of the Halifax clergy, determined the issue and when the Bishoprics Act was passed in 1978 it confirmed that Wakefield would be the new cathedral city.

That was not entirely the end of the matter, for it took another 10 years before the new diocese came into being. Much of that had to do with cash at a time of recession. The new diocese was put on ice for several years until the Vicar of Wakefield, Norman Straton, had the idea of bringing the national Church Congress to Wakefield as a means of promoting the scheme and raising funds towards the Wakefield Bishopric Fund.

The congress, held in 1886, was a triumph for the town, with a reception held in recently built town hall and processions to three churches where services were held at the same time. The trading floor of the Corn Exchange was used as the congress hall and other prominent buildings turned over to caterers and the press. The postmaster ensured that reports could be sent by electric telegraph to all parts of the country and a leading clerical outfitting firm exhibited his garments at the local Co-op store.

By 1888 the Wakefield Bishopric Fund had raised more than £83,500 and most of it was invested. The Order in Council creating the Diocese of Wakefield was signed on May 17 1888 – and it specified that All Saints’ Church, Wakefield should be the cathedral. And Wakefield became a city, the last to be granted the privilege by virtue of its cathedral.

Kate Taylor, a lay canon at Wakefield Cathedral, goes on to tell the story of the diocese for the next 125 years – its bishops and clergy, its churches, its organisations, its religious communities, its campaigns and challenges.

Her book has an astonishing amount of detail; it is packed full of stories and facts covering parishes and people from Todmorden to beyond Pontefract and from Barnsley almost to Leeds.

The diocese’s 125 years have seen two world wars, immense changes in society, a proliferation of faiths – especially of Islam – and huge changes in the role of lay people and that of women in the church.

The first half century was a period of growth, with new churches everywhere, but the last 50 years have seen relative decline, with dwindling attendances, falling revenues, closing churches and merging parishes.

A hundred years ago the church was relatively inward looking; today it is reaching out to the communities and, as Kate Taylor says, “on a more positive note many churches which were once only open on Sundays are buzzing with activity throughout the week [with] lunch clubs for the elderly to activities for the whole family such as Messy Church or Kidz clubs”.

But this could be the last major anniversary for Wakefield Diocese. The Church is planning to create a “super diocese”, merging the three bishoprics of Bradford, Ripon and Leeds, and Wakefield into one Diocese for West Yorkshire and the Dales, retaining the existing cathedrals but centred on Leeds.

nWakefield Diocese: Celebrating 125 Years, by Kate Taylor, pictured, is available at Fred Wade’s bookshop, Halifax, at £14.99.