The city of Liverpool is no stranger to matters of religious controversy but it is astonishing to think that in May 1887 the Reverend James Bell Cox, vicar of St Margaret’s Church in Toxteth, was committed to Walton Gaol consequent to having performed such rituals as using lighted candles, singing the Agnus Dei and celebrating the Eucharist facing east.
James Bell Cox was born in Norfolk in 1837 an after attending Cambridge University he was ordained as deacon at Salford in 1862. In 1869 he came to Liverpool, appointed as assistant curate at St Margaret’s Church in Princes Road, Toxteth. His first home was as a lodger at 101 Upper Stanhope Street L8 (now demolished). He had not been in post for long when the church was embroiled in controversy. The vicar, Rev. Charles Parnell had accepted an invitation to the consecration of the new Greek Orthodox church opposite St Margaret’s on Princes Road, a ceremony to be performed by the Archbishop of Syria. Parnell subsequently invited the Archbishop to attend a service at St Margaret’s and agreed to his request to deliver a blessing to the congregation. Nowadays this would be viewed as a praiseworthy piece of ecumenical brotherhood but in the heated atmosphere of Victorian ecclesiastical affairs it brought down upon the vicar the wrath of the ultra-protestant Church Association in the person of its chairman, Liverpool surgeon Dr James Hake. Hake, described by the Liverpool Review as a “bigoted busybody” was a leading light in a number of protestant organisations. Hake accused Parnell of violating church regulations by allowing a Greek Orthodox archbishop to ‘preach’ in a C. of. E. church and pressured the bishop to take action. Proceedings rumbled on for some two years before Parnell decided to end the controversy by resigning. This left Bell Cox as the vicar and he was soon to feel the full force of Hake’s wrath.
In 1874 Prime Minister Disraeli, seeking to curry favour with the ‘low church’ Queen Victoria passed the Public Worship Regulation Act (PWRA) with the explicit aim of 'putting down ritualism and the mass in masquerade'. In keeping with the wishes of his congregation James Bell Cox followed many of the rituals which the aforementioned act had outlawed. Matters were note helped when, in 1880, Liverpool was established as a separate see from Chester and the evangelical J.C.Ryle was appointed as the city’s first bishop. Ryle wrote to Bell Cox requesting that he desist from the various banned rituals but the incumbent of St. Margaret’s refused to change his ways. Frustrated by Ryle’s failure to take action James Hake took a private prosecution against the ‘errant’ vicar for his contravention of the PWRA.
He indicted the vicar on twelve counts; use of lighted candles, vestments, elevation of the sacrament, mixing of water and wine in the chalice, celebrating the Eucharist facing east, singing the Agnus Dei, making the sign of the cross, washing the chalice during the service, kissing the gospel book, bowing towards the altar cross, obscuring the manual acts and genuflecting during the prayer of consecration. In September 1885 the Court found against Bell Cox but he took no notice of the verdict. Hake was not to be thwarted and he petitioned for the vicar’s arrest. In May 1887 he was duly taken into custody and incarcerated in Walton Gaol. He spent 17 days in prison before his release was ordered by the House of Lords.
The St. Margaret's vicarage, James Bell Cox's home for most of his time in Liverpool.
Much of the information on James Bell Cox was gleaned from press reports in Liverpool papers. There is some useful information on him on a website entitled the athenaeum.org
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