The Duke made the criticism in a letter - seen by the Independent on Sunday - to Lord Harris of High Cross, founder of the right-wing think- tank, the Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA). A number of bishops took exception to the remark yesterday, one of them observing that it was the Duke who had got things wrong.
Prince Philip wrote the letter in July, after Lord Harris sent him a copy of Samel Smiles's celebrated 1859 volume Self-Help, which has been republished by the IEA. The book advocates laissez-faire economics and describes "help from without" as "enfeebling".
Prince Philip said in the letter: "I think you should arrange for every bishop in the country to receive a copy. They all seem to confuse self- help and individual responsibility with selfishness."
The remark appears to challenge the Church's stance on the relationship between individuals and society, which has on occasion brought it into conflict with the Government. Churchmen have tended to lay more emphasis than ministers on helping the poor and the weak.
Prince Philip, who was brought up in the Greek Orthodox Church, joined the Church of England upon his marriage to the then Princess Elizabeth in 1947. Tim Heald, in his 1991 biography, described him as not being enamoured of "the woolly- minded side of the Church of England".
Yesterday his remarks were described by bishops as a misjudgement. The Right Reverend Jim Thompson, bishop of Bath and Wells, said: "I think he misjudges us. I don't think many bishops are as naive as he claims.
"We are very keen to see individuals gaining in responsibility and maturity, and encouraging enterprise unless it destroys people. But what is really tragic about society today is that it is increasingly individualistic."
Bishop Thompson's comments were endorsed by the Bishop of Leicester, the Rt Rev Thomas Butler, who said that the Duke was "wrong". "Christian teaching is that individuals are expected to make the use of his or her gifts, but also the make the world a better place for others," he said. "Self-help is not sufficient to build the kingdom of heaven. We need one another and the grace of God."
The Bishop of Ludlow, the Rt Rev John Saxbee, also expressed surprise that Prince Philip should think bishops confused. "I don't recognise any confusion," he said. "Self-help strikes me as about independence. We need inter-dependence and mutuality. That would be far more fulfilling than the Victorian age."
The recipient of the Duke's letter, Lord Harris, made his views on the hierarchy clear in a foreword to the new edition. They, and "other lofty paternalists", he wrote, "instead of confining their compassion to the well-advertised 'have-nots' ... should ponder more deeply that most 'haves' ... are also struggling privately and daily against their share of human adversity ... made more difficult to bear because of the further disability inflicted by state welfare weakening the extended family and undermining the authority of parents".
Smiles, the author of the book which the Duke so admires, was one of 11 children of a general merchant and worked as a journalist before building railways and writing books. Self-Help was his biggest success, and in it he took a stern view - fashionable among Conservatives today - about government intervention. "Where men are subjected to over-guidance and to over-government," Smiles wrote, "the inevitable tendency is to render them comparatively helpless."