08 June 2015

Bishop Milner

John Milner, Titular Bishop of Castabala and Vicar Apostolic of the Midland District from 1803-1826, had one of the strongest personalities of any of the English Bishops.  He was very devout, making his seminary at Oscott the first English centre of devotion to the Sacred Heart, and had a keen concern that his priests should be properly educated and orthodox: he was very keen that the Cisalpine tendencies which had grown since the French Revolution and which he detected in any body, lay or clerical, which opposed him, should be defeated.

He was one of the four Bishops who governed the Church in England and Wales as Vicars Apostolic, and usually found himself in a minority of one on any issue on which he and his brethren needed to agree.  He became the Parliamentary Agent for the Bishops of Ireland after the 1801 Act of Union, representing their (well, his) anti-Cisalpine views trenchantly, against those of the English Bishops, the representatives of the English laity and, as it happened, the Pope and the Roman Curia. Catholic Emancipation was achieved in 1829 but might have been in 1813, were it not for Milner's exertions. Yet it can be argued that it was because of Bishop Milner that the Bishops took over the leadership of the Catholic Church in England and Wales from the Catholic gentry who had kept it going throughout the penal period.

As Mgr Ward wrote, Milner had grievances against everyone, from the Holy Father downwards, with the inevitable result that he fell out one time or another with everyone with whom he came into contact. He denounced one of his fellow Vicars Apostolic to Rome for dishonestly keeping to himself monies from Rome which were due to Milner: in fact the accusation was baseless and the Roman authorities were exasperated by his behaviour. 

Famously, in 1813, after the defeat of Grattan's Emancipation Bill, the Catholic Board, which represented the interests of the Catholic Laity, voted to dismiss him from the "Select Committee" which it had set up to enable the Board to attend more expeditiously to public business.  Milner read to the Board a long paper of protest and, finishing, walked to the door, turned and said "You may expel me from this Board, but I thank God, Gentlemen, that you cannot expel me from the Kingdom of Heaven". These words were widely quoted among Catholics in the nineteenth century.

Less often quoted were the words of Mr Robert Clifford, one of the leading lay Catholics of the day, who refused to allow any resolution of the Board hostile to or critical of Bishop Milner to pass without a formal vote.  He wrote "I must in justice, however, say that I did it out of the respect which I bore for the character of a Vicar Apostolic, and not for the person of Dr Milner, as I should be unwilling to transact business with him without a witness".

Sources: Mgr Ward, Frs Schofield and Skinner, John Bossy

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