HC Deb 17 April 1822 vol 6 cc1460-2
Mr. Brougham

presented a petition from the Unitarian Dissenters of Kendal in Westmoreland, complaining, that certain parts of the provisions of the Marriage act pressed on their consciences, and praying to be placed upon the same footing in that respect with the Jews and Quakers in England, and with the Unitarian Dissenters in Scotland and Ireland.

Mr. W. Smith

begged, before he opened his proposition to the House, to put in two petitions, the one from Sheffield, the other from Stockton upon Tees.

The petitions having been read,

Mr. W. Smith

proceeded. In bringing forward the present motion, he should begin by stating the grievances of which the petitioners complained. Their complaint was, that by the regulations of the act of the 26th George 2nd, commonly called the Marriage act, they were placed in a situation painful to themselves and different from that in which, previous to the passing of that act, they had been permitted to stand. It would scarcely be denied by any one that marriage was a civil ceremony. It was so considered, not only by the common law, but by the canon law; and from the year 1753, up to the passing of the act now complained of, marriages solemnized by the Dissenters in their own places of worship had been held good and valid. The act of the 26th Geo. 2nd, however, enacting that every marriage, to be held legal, must be solemnized in the church, by the Ministers of the church, and according to the ritual of the church, completely deprived the Dissenters of their before enjoyed privileges. He was one of the class of persons now praying to be relieved from the pressure of that act, and it was important to those persons, as a class, that, coming before parliament, they should stand rectus in curia. He begged, then, to aver, that the Dissenters were un-arraigned of any crime, and that they had as good a title to worship God in their own way as any members of the Church of England. Marriage was the natural right of the human species, and neither man nor woman, without the grossest injustice, could be deprived of its benefits. Yet the act of the 26th Geo. 2nd, said to the Dis- senters, "You shall comply with terms which are contrary to the dictates of your consciences, or you shall forego the advantage of that natural right." Such a holding was most unjust. It was not, indeed, without precedent, because the same course had been pursued under Louis XIV., towards the Protestants of France. The measure in France, however, though unjust, was not so inconsistent as the law in England; because the government of that country recognized at the time no religion but the Roman Catholic. To presume every Frenchman a Roman Catholic was most unjust; but, such being the presumption, there was no inconsistency, in saying, that members of the Roman Catholic church should be married according to its rites. In England, however, there was a palpable inconsistency about the arrangement. At the very time when the act of Geo. 2nd passed, the Dissenters had the benefit of the act of Toleration. At that time it so happened that the Unitarian Dissenters were in small numbers; so small, indeed that they had not a place of worship belonging to them; but the Jews and the Quakers were especially exempted from the provisions of the act. The Jews could scarcely, perhaps, be called Dissenters from the Church of England—but the Quakers were, to all intents and purposes, a sect dissenting from the Church of England, and they could have no right to any exemptions in which the Unitarians were not entitled to participate. By the canon law, marriage was nothing else but a civil contract. This was stated by high authority in this country, when, in 1813, a question respecting the validity of a Scottish marriage was discussed. The opinion of the lord chancellor was, that the Scottish law was founded on the canon law, which was the foundation of the laws respecting marriage throughout Europe, and which regarded marriage as a contract. The Marriage act had for its object the prevention of clandestine marriages. With that object he wished not to interfere, and he would, therefore, only propose the alteration of the religious part. Some religious ceremonies were common to all nations, and were highly proper, but they were not necessary. As a proof of that, he might refer to the decree of pope Innocent 3rd in council, which declared the religious solemnity not to be necessary to the validity of marriages. But the religious cere- mony ought, to be in unison with the feelings of the parties. The ritual of the Church of England was derived from the Romish church. Now, to make that ritual a necessary part of the marriage, where religious objections existed to it, was a positive absurdity. He proposed to leave out the whole of that part of the ritual which stated opinions on which the petitioners dissented from the Church of England. He concluded by moving for leave bring in a bill "for altering certain parts of the 26th Geo. 2nd, commonly called the Marriage act."

Mr. H. Gurney

did not see what possible objection there could be to Unitarians being married by their own clergymen. The whole service would then be suited to their own sentiments, and, banns being regularly proclaimed in the church, no inconvenience could arise from it. On the other hand, there were many objections to parties having the service performed by clergymen of a different persuasion. He wished, therefore, that instead of such a measure as was now proposed, the hon. and learned gentleman opposite (Dr. Phillimore) could embrace the subject in his bill.

Leave was given to bring in the bill.