Saturday, November 4, 2017

An Undiscussable Offence

Sailing from Southampton for Capetown in early 1868, Bishop Edward Twells still faced another 700 mile journey by cart to return to his diocese. Five years earlier, while vicar of St. John, Hammersmith, the unmarried Twells had been chosen to be the first Missionary Bishop of the Orange Free State. Five years later, he returned to Britain for a Pan-Anglican synod-cum-fund-raising tour. In his speeches, he conceded that his work had been hampered by the extreme difficulty of recruiting clergymen for so isolated a place. In a region populated by native tribes and Boer farmers, the Church of England required "men of great physical powers and energy." And money. Twells returned modestly enriched for his work. 

A little over a year later, "You can scarcely imagine the sensation," when the Cape Mail arrived with news that a warrant had been issued for Bishop Twells charging him with "an undiscussable offense." The English community in the region was shattered: "All society has been stirred to its depths, and our faith shaken in human nature and mankind generally." The Bishop could not be located. He was said to be in the Transvaal where he had taken refuge with friends, refusing to turn himself in as he feared he could not get a fair trial.

With no cable link, the news of the manhunt was weeks old by the time it reached London. Defenders of the bishop insisted the charges were false, a plot hatched by Twells' doctrinal enemies. He was suspected of being a closet Tractarian. The source of the painful allegations was said to be a "known thief and bad character in every respect." But other reports reached Britain that the charges were very likely true. Many were distraught at the effect this "shameless" scandal would have on the Church's work "in heathen lands." 

There must be a public trial, the press demanded. Bishop Gray, in Cape Town, ordered Twells to surrender and face a church inquiry on the "grave charges" made against him. In October, Twells submitted his resignation which was not accepted. By November, Twells, in disguise and using a false name, had boarded a ship for London. His old enemy, Bishop Colenso in Natal wrote, "He came through this colony in disguise, passing Maritzburg in the night, and hid himself somewhere at Durban until he could get away, which he found it very difficult to do." 

Meanwhile investigators had reached the Free State to discover the charges involved the Bloemfontein choir: "The boys of five or six families at least have been examined and have sworn to certain things and they have also been privately examined by their parents who could not bring themselves to believe the truth of the charges. But they do believe now that their sons have been most vilely and shamefully used - assaulted with depraved habits by one who was their chief pastor and should have been an example as well as a teacher of purity." 

There never was a public trial; "people wished to bury the scandal out of sight as soon as possible." In London, The Church Digest reported that Twells had been judged, by three medical men of high standing, to be "not of sound mind." Twells was just 40; he lived until 1898 in Clifton, Bristol, where he held the status of a "retired" bishop and only "occasionally officiated."

Not a bishop, the Rev. Rodgers was but a curate when he faced similar charges in Lowestoft. "I'll Do For Dicky Rodgers" is one of the stories in Clerical Errors, A Victorian Series, Volume 2 now available exclusively from and

For more about Twells, see:
Sachs, Homosexuality and the Crisis of Anglicanism (2009)
Southey, "Uncovering Homosexuality in Colonial South Africa: The Case of Bishop Twells." South African Historical Journal (1997)

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