Remembering the first Diocesan Synod

By Neil Sayer, Archdiocesan archivist

Suffice to say, the forthcoming Synod 2020 will be significantly different from the first. After all, in 1853 only priests were invited to the Synod – and the decisions were published only in Latin!

That inaugural Synod followed Bishop George Brown’s appointment as the first Bishop of Liverpool in 1850 when, after centuries of persecution and secretive religious observance, Catholics in England and Wales were able to celebrate the restoration of a hierarchy of priests and bishops to lead them in worship. Bishop Brown decided that he needed to take control of his new diocese and assert his authority over the priests in his territory. He therefore summoned both regular and secular clergy to attend a Synod at the Pro-Cathedral
of St Nicholas, on Copperas Hill, close to Lime Street Station.

Over 120 priests were serving within the diocesan boundaries in 1853, and it must be presumed that they all presented themselves at the appointed time on 20 December. Instructions, issued in Latin and English, emphasised the spectacle and solemnity of the occasion by directing them to bring ‘a Cassock, Surplice, Red Stole, and Biretta’ and ordering that ‘the religious should appear in the habits of their respective orders’.

It doesn’t appear that a great deal of discussion took place at this first Synod. Its purpose seemed largely to provide an official occasion for the Bishop to inform his clergy of the decrees laid down by a recent Provincial Synod and to issue specific instructions on a few matters important to the administration of the diocese. In addressing his clergy, mostly in English and with many rhetorical flourishes, Bishop Brown highlighted his awareness of the size and importance of his new diocese: ‘Its wants press heavily upon us, and our anxiety
shall cease not, as long as there is one soul to whom the bread of life is not held out.’

Accordingly, he directed that there should be three annual collections – for the maintenance of poor schools, for clergy education, and for the Diocesan Mission Fund. He also instituted the system of parish visitation that has continued ever since, and directed that each parish should draw up an inventory of property and a list of Masses of obligation.

There have been 23 further Synods since that first one, though the last was held as long ago as 1955. The records of each may be consulted at the Archdiocesan archives. A Latin dictionary isn’t required for all of them!