HC Deb 02 May 1828 vol 19 cc289-300

Lord John Russell moved the order of the day for taking into consideration the Lords' Amendments to this bill.

Mr. Hudson Gurney

said, that it was extremely convenient, though it seldom happened, that an act of parliament should be so worded as to be susceptible of being understood. This did not appear to him to be the case with the Lords' Amendments to the present bill; and he rose thus early to endeavour to procure such information from his majesty's ministers, as to the sense in which the engagements introduced by the Lords were to be taken, as might direct him in his vote, whether, for the sake of passing the measure, these alterations were to be agreed to, or not.

The bill, as he understood it, as it passed through this House, involved a question between the Dissenters and the Church; but as it returned from the Lords, it appeared to him, to involve a much more important question between the Church and the State. The bill, as it passed through the Commons, required a declaration from all persons holding offices in bodies corporate, men who, to use episcopal language, had nothing to do with the laws but to obey them or to cause them to be obeyed by others, that they would never use the influence of their office to the injury of the rights by law appertaining to the Church; and a power was given to the Crown, at its discretion, to call on its ministers to subscribe a like declaration. But the Amendment of the Lords had made it imperative upon every minister of the Crown, within six months of his taking office, to declare, in the presence of Almighty God, that he would not exercise any power, authority, or influence, which he might possess, by virtue of his office, not only not to injure or weaken, but not to disturb the said Church, or the bishops and clergy of the said Church, in the possession of any rights or privileges, to which such Church, or the said bishops and clergy, are or may be, by law entitled.

Now, the proposed alteration of the law seemed to amount to this—that, whereas it was before necessary, that a man to be qualified to take office must be a member of the Church of England, or conforming to its ritual, that now the high functionaries of the State, on taking office under the Crown, must swear a vassalage to the Church, as qualifying them to act as the king's confidential advisers. It was perfectly evident, that no measure of any importance could ever pass through parliament, without more or less of the influence of the ministers of the day; and let whatever necessity exist for any the minutest interference with the affairs of the Church, civil or ecclesiastical, ministers would be met by this previous declaration, of which the same use would be made, as they had heard made, in so many instances, with respect to the Coronation Oath. The king was head of the Church, but his ministers were ministers of the State; and as ministers of the State were to advise the king according to the existing exigencies of the community. Now, admitting the extreme and spotless purity of the Church of England—that there were no difficult questions concerning tythes, the jurisdictions of Ecclesiastical Courts, tenures of Church lands, cither in England or Ireland—still you could no more say, that no alteration, either in Church discipline, or ecclesiastical privileges, should at some future time, be needed, than you could maintain, that the Church of Rome, in the time of Leo the 10th, was in the same slate, as that in which it existed in the days of saint John Polycarp. If, therefore, they acceded to the bill as now amended, the moment any change was proposed, in any thing in the remotest degree connected with the Church, the minister who should venture to make the proposition would be told at once, that he was acting in violation of his solemn declaration; and we should have an outery raised, from one end of the country to the other, and eloquent and able pamphlets published by future deans of Chester, bitterly complaining of the infraction of the engagement, and the faithless violation of the rights and privileges of the Church. This law passed, no change whatever must be made hereafter; and if such be the construction which will naturally be put upon the words introduced by the Lords, he would venture to assert, that no Popish ex-Chancellor, in times when the Great Seal was ordinarily in the hands of churchmen, would have dared to have suggested such a test to the ministers of the Crown. The legislature had once passed a bill, ordering the nailing up a house to the church door, but in this bill the ministers of the Crown were to be nailed down, for all time to come, and prevented from taking any step, which might be construed by ecclesiastical persons, to weaken or injure the Church, or to disturb them, in any thing which they might assume, in any case, to be their rights or privileges.

In conclusion, he thought the bill much deteriorated since it had left that House; but, upon the explanation which he might obtain from the members of the government opposite, of the nature of the specific amendment to which he had adverted, would depend his vote, for rejecting, or agreeing to, the bill.

Mr. Secretary Peel

said, he did not admit the right of the hon. member to put any question to him as to any amendments made in the bill in the other House. He would not, however, decline the explanation, as he did not see the slightest difficulty in the hon. member's objections. There was nothing in the amendments which ought to induce that House to reject the bill, or any on which a doubt could be raised as to the true meaning of the act. The hon. member objected, that the amendments took away the discretion of the Crown, as to the taking of the Declaration by ministers, or persons high in office; but then the question was, what did the Declaration require of them? That they would not exercise any power, authority, or influence, which they might possess in virtue of their office, to injure or weaken the Protestant Church as by law established. He begged to call the attention of the hon. member to those words. The Protestant Church was permanently established by the act of Union between England and Scotland, and also by the act of Union between England and Ireland. The fifth article of the latter act said, "That the Church of England and Ireland shall be united into one Protestant Church, to be called the United Church of Great Britain and Ireland; and that the doctrine, worship, discipline, and government, of the said United Church shall remain and continue as by law established; and that the continuance and preservation for ever of the said United Church, as the Established Church of the said United Kingdom, called England and Ireland, shall be deemed and taken to be an essential and fundamental article and condition of the Union." It was clear that the amendments did nothing for the Church which was not done before. All that it required was, that the party taking office should declare that he would not use the influence or authority of his office to weaken, injure, or disturb in its rights or privileges, the Protestant Church so declared to be permanently established by law. There was no alteration made in the bill, of any consequence, except that could be so considered which substituted the words "in England" for the words "within this realm." The addition of the words, "I sincerely, in the presence of God, profess, testify, and declare upon the true faith of a Christian, "did not make any material difference. He was unwilling to throw any difficulty in the way of parties making the Declaration, but he did not think that the addition could raise any objection in the minds of the most scrupulous. Any member of any Dissenting communion might subscribe this Declaration. If it was objected, that these words, "in the presence of God," gave a religious sanction to the Declaration, he must say that it came badly from those who made no objection whatever to taking oaths of allegiance and abjuration. The Oath of Allegiance was, "I do solemnly promise and swear to bear true allegiance to our sovereign lord the king, his heirs and successors. So help me God." This oath was under a religious sanction, yet no objection was made to it. Neither was any made to the Oath of Abjuration. It did not appear that any new difficulty was placed by those amendments in the way of parties who might be called upon to subscribe to this Declaration. They gave to it a religious sanction, but did not alter the object contemplated. Me would repeat, that he was not responsible for the insertion of those words; but though he considered their introduction by no means essential to the act, he did not think they threw any additional difficulty in the way of those whom it was intended to relieve, nor did they warrant the inference which the hon. member had drawn from them.

Mr. H. Gurney

repealed his objection to the alteration in the bill which took from the Crown the power of dispensing with the taking of the oaths by ministers of the Crown.

Mr. Secretary Peel

said, that the object of that part of the bill was, not to relieve ministers or others in high office, but was intended to apply to persons in subordinate situations, clerks, and others, in whose favour he could wish to see an exemption from taking a declaration which he trusted would bind all who took it. The dispensing power of the Crown was not intended to apply to ministers of the Crown, or others holding high offices. The oath did not apply to members of the legislature; it was only to persons taking office, and in that, view he did not see why the originally proposed dispensing power should be extended by the Crown to its own servants.

Mr. Croker

was sorry that the bill had not come from the Lords in the same state in which it had gone from that House. He would venture to say, that those by whom these alterations were made were not aware of the results to which they led. The object of the bill was to relieve those for whom the legislature had to pass an Act of Indemnity every year. Now, those amendments would render it necessary to continue the present, or to have another, Act of Indemnity, for the safety of members of the Church of England; and if this measure remained in force, it would be found as inconvenient, in many respects, as the former state of the law. It was strange that the framers of this clause did not see the propriety of allowing the Declaration to be made at the same times and places as the other declarations and oaths. By this bill the Declaration was to be made within six months: by another act the oaths were to be taken within three months. By former acts, the oaths might be taken in the Courts of Exchequer or Common Pleas, but this did not permit that course. He had little doubt that when the Act of Indemnity was removed, this bill would not stand: if it did, it would require another Act of Indemnity to accompany it; and he was sure that the first business of the next session would be either to repeal this, or to pass another act to relieve those affected by it from its pressure.

Mr. W. Smith

did not think that the objections of his hon. friend (Mr. H. Gurney) were at all tenable; for there was no doubt that whenever the ministers of the Crown found it necessary to make any alteration in the discipline or government of the Church of England, it would be easy for them to make the public believe that such change was for the benefit of the country. This very act itself was an illustration of his argument; for it was truly said, that this measure would strengthen that Church; and any other measure which might be proposed hereafter, with the same tendency, would be passed with as little opposition. As to the fears of his hon. friend, that this measure would the up the hands of the ministers of the Crown from any future alteration, they were altogether groundless, and his hon. friend was only wasting his ingenuity in anticipating those cases. This bill was introduced to set at rest a question between the Dissenters and the Church of England; and as one of a numerous body of Dissenters he was satisfied with it. He was disposed to receive it, as he believed—from what he had heard in the other House from some of the dignitaries of the Church who had done themselves great honour by their conduct on this occasion—as it was in- tended; namely, as a measure which would heal up those acerbities arising from religious differences, which had existed for so many years. He could not refrain from bearing his testimony to the great liberality which had been evinced, on the discussion of the bill, in the high quarters to which he had alluded, and was sorry that any fastidious objections in other quarters had tended to diminish the effect of that liberal feeling. With respect to the Protestant Dissenters, he repeated, that the Declaration made no difference; and as to the Established Church, he thought that the passing of the act would give it additional security. However, he would not enter now into that view of the question. He would, on the whole, have no objection to profess himself well contented with the bill as it stood, and he hoped it would be received throughout the country with the same feeling.

Lord Mandeville

said, he could by no means concur in the amendments made by the other. House, and if he stood alone would object to them. He thought the introduction of the words "on the true faith of a Christian" highly objectionable. They meant nothing as they then stood. If the principle on which they were introduced was worth any thing, it ought to have been carried much further, and some explanation given of what those words meant. There were bodies of persons in the country who called themselves Christians, and who would not hesitate to make that Declaration, but who hardly admitted that the Established Church came under the denomination of Christians. In some pamphlets which they had published (one of which he held in his hand), it was said, that the Church of England was an apostate Church; that it was made up of Popery and Paganism, and that its practice was idolatrous; that it was guarded by the sword of power, and that it was a part of that city described in the Scriptures, which made a merchandise of souls. Now, when the legislature called on such persons to declare on the true faith of a Christian, it should be stated, what that faith meant—that it meant, amongst other things, a belief in the Trinity in Unity. He therefore would object to the amendment, unless after the word "God," in the Declaration, there should be inserted the words" the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost."

Lord, Sandon

hoped the noble lord would not mix up the whole body of Dissenters with the opinions of a small sect, whose opinions were not shared by that body. If the course which the noble lord suggested were adopted, it would be renewing the acts which it was the object of the present bill to repeal, and again establishing a religious Test as a qualification for office.

Mr. J. Martin

objected to the words "in the presence of God," and also "on the true faith of a Christian." These words would exclude two classes, who ought not to be excluded from the benefit of this measure; he meant the Quakers, who would object to the first part as being in the nature of an Oath, and the Jews, who could not assent to the second. He did not see why either should be exempted from the bill; or why any legislative measure should debar the latter from the enjoyment of civil rights. Those restrictions were not creditable to the good sense or sound policy of the country, and he trusted the time would come when they would be wholly done away with.

The amendment was read a second time. On the motion, that they be agreed to,

Lord J. Russell

said, he could not allow the amendments to pass without a few words as to his view of them; and he was happy to perceive that the feeling of the majority of the House seemed to be, that they were not such as to induce them to reject the bill. The words which had been added to the Declaration by the Lords, could not be considered objectionable, as a Declaration of religious opinions, for they were not so intended. The Church of the country was Christian; and to whatever denomination of Christians a man might belong, he could not object to declare, "on the true faith of a Christian;" for when a party so declared, he could be understood to mean only on the faith of that community of Christians to which he belonged. The intentions of the Lords were, that a man should give a solemn assent to Christianity, without pointing out any particular sect of Christians. He did not think the Declaration was at all necessary; for many who were not Christians would not hesitate to take it. If he were to go to the history of our own country, he should find that Bolingbroke, who had given occasion to much writing on the subject of religion, employed the latter part of his life in attacks on Chris- tianity, and at the same time in endeavouring to get into the House of Peers, where he must have taken the Oaths as a Christian. It was objected, that one part of the amendments made the taking of office without making the Declaration a misdemeanour. This he did not approve; but still he did not think it a reason why he should reject the measure. As to the other clauses, they made the bill more definite than before, by including persons in inferior situations. This he also disapproved; but still he would rather take the bill, even with this, than run any risk of losing it by opposing what he considered its objectionable parts. Taken as a measure of relief to a large class of his majesty's subjects, he was satisfied with it, and was grateful for it; and he hoped that those for whose benefit it was intended would receive it in the same feeling, and would henceforward be disposed to look with a favourable eye on any measure which might be introduced for a more general extension of the principle of religious liberty [cheers].

Mr. Secretary Peel

said, there were some parts of the bill which he could wish had been differently worded. The words "within this realm" he thought would be much better than the word "England." He also could wish to see clerks and persons in subordinate stations exempted from the necessity of making the Declaration. However, as the noble lord had not thought it expedient to propose any alterations in those parts of the bill, he did not feel called upon to do so. In taking his leave of the bill, he would say, that he had at first opposed the measure, because, as the question had not been discussed for nearly forty years, and as there had been a cessation of religious differences, he was afraid of sanctioning the introduction of a measure, by which those differences might be renewed. He did not, however, think, nor had he stated, that such a test as the acts had imposed was necessary; but he had said that the act was the less severe by the operation of the Annual Indemnity bill. When, however, he saw that a large majority of the House was in favour of the repeal, he had to deal with a new question—whether it was better to continue the act, or go on with the repeal; and in these new circumstances he was at liberty to act as they demanded, and he did from that time cooperate, and nothing that had been said, had been sufficient to convince him that he had taken a wrong view of the case. Many persons had intimated to him, that if any opposition were continued on the part of government, it would tend to the increase of those majorities; and it was suggested that it would be better not to oppose it. He had no doubt that the majorities would have increased, but no fear of such increase had induced him to give the measure his support. He did so because, after the decided opinion of the House, he thought it would be unwise to agitate the question of a solemn Sacramental Test, or to impose that on unwilling parties, which, if taken from unworthy motives, would involve guilt of the most enormous kind. After the decision of the House, he did think that the time was arrived for abrogating that Test altogether. In the bill as it passed that House, he had proposed a Declaration, to which he did not attach a religious sanction; because he thought that, as the same parties who made that Declaration would be called upon to take the Oaths of Allegiance, Supremacy, and Abjuration, the calling in the aid of religion to the Declaration might as well be avoided; particularly as it was fair to assume, that those who were to be called upon to take the Oaths were Christians. He must admit that he did not think the bill had been improved in its progress through the House of Lords. But he agreed that the amendments there made were not of such importance as that, on their account, any risk of losing the bill should be encountered. With respect to the part taken in the discussion of the bill in the other House by the right rev. prelates, he thought it was creditable to them in the highest degree. It had been said, that the bishops were more attentive to their temporal interests than to the spiritual concerns of the Church. Never was there a more unfounded libel on any class of men. The objections to a Sacramental Test as a civil qualification was general amongst that right reverend body, and they were only reconciled to it, in any degree, by the passing of the Annual Act of Indemnity. If they had wished to maintain that Test as a qualification for civil office, there might be some reason in the charge; but, as they were opposed to its continuance, he could not conceive why they should have been made the objects of so wanton an attack.

Sir T. Acland

would have preferred the bill as it had been sent to the Lords. The amendments were agreed to, and lord John Russell was ordered to carry the bill to the Lords. On the motion, that the House at its rising do adjourn till Monday,

Mr. Brougham

said, that now that the bill was in perfect safety, before which it would have been unwise in him to offer a word that might have given rise to discussion, he rose to express his entire disapprobation of the amendments which had been made by the Lords. The entirely concurred with the hon. member who had opened the discussion, as to the injustice done to the Quakers and Jews by the amendments. The declaration, in consequence of the additions which had been made to it, was worse, by a great deal, than it was in the bill originally introduced by his noble friend. He thought that the requiring of a declaration at all was inconsistent with the principle and spirit of the bill; because it sanctioned the doctrine which he held in abhorrence—the doctrine of tests—of making religious opinions of any kind whatever the passport to civil offices. If, however, a test must be adopted, and if that test must be in the form of a declaration, he could hardly imagine that one could be devised more judicious, and less liable to serious objection, than that originally proposed by his noble friend. But that declaration had been made a great deal worse indeed in the other House, by the introduction of words which confined its application to certainly the great majority of all sects, but still excluded some sects of great weight as to number, and of the highest respectability as to character and conduct. On this account, therefore, he thought, that the declaration had been made worse in the other House, he agreed with the noble lord, who said that both too much and too little had been done in the other House. Too much had been done to please those who held that no sect ought to be excluded, and too little for those who maintained the opposite opinion. The declaration of faith was left in a very vague and indefinite state. He concurred with those who stated, that the bill would be different to understand. He believed it would puzzle the legal ingenuity of most persons I to state what the law would be after the bill passed. All the circumstances which he had stated were serious objections to the amendments; but, considering the great good that would be obtained by the carrying of the measure, even with the amendments,—considering the large step which the legislature would make in the course which it had entered into, with the view of promoting religious liberty, and leading the way to perfect toleration, he thought it would have been a misfortune; that could hardly have been contemplated with an equal mind, if, for any of these, objections the risk had been run of losing the measure itself, by sending it back altered in any way.