The Society for the Maintenance of the Faith (SMF) was founded in 1873 by the Revd Edmund Gough de Salis Wood (1841-1932) and his brother James (1843-1928), a barrister. Ordained deacon in 1865, E. G. Wood (as his friends mostly called him) was first assistant curate and then vicar of St Clement’s, Cambridge, for a total of sixty-five years: twenty as curate and forty-five as vicar. He was made an honorary canon of Ely Cathedral in 1911.
The SMF was one of a number of catholic societies that were founded in the second, ‘Ritualist’, phase of Anglo-Catholicism (the first being the Oxford or Tractarian Movement that began with the Tracts for the Times of 1833-41). These included the priestly Society of the Holy Cross (SSC), of which Fr Wood was Master for three separate periods totalling nine years, as well as the ‘political’ English Church Union and the devotional Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament, in both of which Fr Wood was also active.
The object of the Society for the Maintenance of the Faith was, and remains, ‘to promote and maintain catholic teaching and practice within the Church of England’ – principally through the acquisition and exercise of patronage (the right to present priests to the relevant bishop for appointment as rector or vicar). Unlike other patronage trusts, the Society did not purchase patronage, because the founders considered trade in patronage to be uncanonical. Advowsons (rights of presentation) came to the Society by gift or bequest, as they still do today.
The Society was to have a lay President and lay Trustees in whom the advowsons (as a ‘peculiar property’) were vested. There was a Council, from which was drawn a Patronage Board that had to be chaired by a cleric. The intention was that SMF would be the main holder of patronage for the Catholic Movement, but this did not come about: other catholic societies and institutions also exercise patronage, although the SMF is now the catholic society that holds the largest number of advowsons. Over the last one-and-a-half centuries eleven laymen have served as President of the Society.
Not least because of its policy of not purchasing advowsons, the number of benefices in the Society’s patronage grew only very slowly. Five years after its inception it still had none. At a special general meeting in January 1878 a motion to dissolve the Society was moved: an amendment to give it another year’s trial was carried by one vote. It secured its first advowson in October 1879, but by 1901, 28 years after its inception, it still only had eleven.