HC Deb 16 July 1833 vol 19 cc704-18
Mr. Sinclair

said, that in pursuance of his notice, he now moved for leave to bring in a Bill for emancipating the Church of Scotland from the thraldom of patronage which had so long deformed its beauty, impaired its usefulness, and grieved the hearts and consciences of its most attached and zealous friends. The length of his observations should be proportioned to the magnitude of the question to which they referred. At so late an hour of the night—at so advanced a period of the Session—and after such a series of complicated and multifarious discussions—he felt that any lengthened discussion of a new subject could not lead to any practical result. But he thought it necessary to introduce the question—first, that he might account to the people of Scotland for the delay which had intervened between the announcement and the introduction of this Motion. His hon. friend, the member for Montrose had given notice of his intention to bring this subject before the House on the very first day of the Session; but having learnt that another individual had been devoting much attention to the cause, the hon. Member with the greatest courtesy and kindness, not only consented, but requested that he would bring it before the House. It had been deemed expedient by the Scotch Members to postpone the discussion until after the meeting of the General Assembly, for the purpose of enabling his Majesty's Ministers to mature their views upon a subject so deeply interesting to the people of Scotland. That object had now been attained, and he must confess that he contemplated the decisions of that venerable body with feelings of regret and disappointment. He hoped, indeed, that the passing of the Burgh Reform Bill, as well as the general manifestation of public feeling, might materially influence the returns to future General Assemblies, and the consequent tenor of their proceedings. But they seemed at present to be actuated by an error, which had often been fatal to ecclesiastical and civil rulers—that of deferring concessions until they came too late—until they were tendered with no grace, and received with no gratitude, because they were extorted from their fears, and not volunteered by their good will. Nor was it less dangerous to imagine, that the quantum of sacrifice, which would content the people at one time, would, under altered circumstances, prove equally satisfactory. Some arrangements as to the call might, some years ago, have been hailed with thankfulness; but such were the tone and temper of the times, that he thought the people would never be satisfied, until patronage was consigned to schedule A; indemnifying, as in the case of the heritable jurisdictions, those who had acquired this right by purchase or hereditary descent. He should not enter largely into the anomalies which patronage presented; but his own opinion was, that the privilege of choosing a pastor partook largely of a spiritual character, and should be connected with Church Members' rights. He should move for the repeal of the Act of Anne, that he might remove an impediment which stood in the way of the General Assembly; and by proposing that the repeal should take effect two years after the passing of the Bill, which he wished to introduce, full time would be given to the General Assembly, in concurrence with all the true friends of the Church, to adopt, if needful, with the aid of the Legislature, such arrangements for conferring the right of suffrage on the Church members in the various parishes, as would gratify the feelings of the people, induce and enable Dissenters to return to the communion of the Church, and promote the prosperity and the permanence of the establishment. At present, a religious congregation was, in a great measure, at the mercy of a patron, who might be an infidel, or an enemy to the peculiar doctrines of our standards; and unless we did away the law of patronage—the original ground of dissent—introduced by an obnoxious Administration, and protested against for seventy years by the successive General Assemblies, the Voluntary Church principles would become more and more predominant, and the safety of that establishment endangered, on which the national happiness and morality of Scotland so materially depended. He apologised once more for having, at that late hour, and when labouring under severe illness, so inadequately pleaded the cause of the Christian people of his native land.

Mr. Horatio Ross

said, that he could not refrain from saying a few words in seconding the Motion of his hon. friend, the member for Caithness, though he seldom took any part in the Debates of that House. He thanked the hon. Member for the very kind and handsome terms in which he had been pleased to allude to himself, and to assure him that he heartily rejoiced that the management of this most important question had fallen into his hands. He was sure no one had paid more attention to it, or would more zealously struggle to regain the rights of which the people of Scotland had been most unjustly deprived. He should not detain the House by entering into details, as his hon. friend had stated his case clearly, and the views and opinions of the hon. Member were so much in unison with his own. He might, however, be permitted to say, that his chief ground for supporting the Motion was, because he considered that the Members of the Church of Scotland had, by the original constitution of that Church, a direct voice and control in the election of their Ministers; of this they had been unjustly deprived by the Act of Anne, which his hon. friend now proposed to repeal. He was aware, that it would be urged the present system had worked well, and that the clergymen selected by the patrons had been in every way deserving of the confidence and esteem of their parishioners. He did not, however, allow that the system had worked well, although, as a body, no men could have discharged their duties with greater zeal and assiduity than the clergy of the Church of Scotland; but if, notwithstanding the able and zealous manner in which the duties of the Church had been performed, thousands who did not differ from it in the slightest degree in doctrine had seceded from it and become its bitterest enemies, and that secession was still going on, he thought he was justified in saying, that the present system had not worked well; and in stating, that thousands had seceded on account of the present state of the law of patronage, he was by no means exaggerating the case; the number of seceders had increased to a most alarming extent; they had united with the Dissenters in forming a voluntary Church Association, the avowed object of which was to crush the Established Church altogether, and although he trusted the day was far distant when there was any chance of their machinations proving successful, yet they ought not. to shut their eyes to the march of opinion upon this or any other subject. He was the last man who would yield to mere popular clamour; but he would not stubbornly shut his ears to the call of the people for a restitution of their old privileges, particularly when he considered their demands were founded strictly in justice, and that the denial of them would endanger the very existence of our most sacred institutions. No man was more warmly attached than he was to the Established Church of Scotland, or would more zealously defend all its just privileges, but in supporting the Motion of his hon. friend, in his endeavour to alter the law of patronage, he felt convinced he was steering that course which, so far from weakening, would add to the strength and permanency of that Church. There was little doubt that those who had seceded from the Established Church, not on account of any difference with its doctrines, but because they considered the system of patronage at present in force contrary to the original and pure constitution of the Church, would return to its bosom and cease to be members of a voluntary Church Association, or the allies of Dissenters anxiously and zealously labouring to overthrow it. He was quite aware that objections would he taken to the proposition to place the power of election in the hands of the people—that we should run the risk of causing dissensions in parishes—that upon a vacancy occurring, the parish would be canvassed—and that in the event of defeat, which would happen in most cases, the defeated party would secede from the Church, and probably build a church for the defeated candidate. He was ready to admit, that occasions might occur when this would be the case; but in legislating upon this subject, we ought to consider whether greater advantage might not be gained by yielding to the almost unanimous wishes of the people of Scotland than by resisting them. He could assure the House that nineteen out of every twenty of the people of Scotland were most anxious for the restoration of their old rights, and there was no measure of Reform which would give greater satisfaction to them than that proposed by his hon. friend. Already upwards of 150 petitions had been laid upon the Table of the House praying for an alteration of the law of patronage, and he was sure, that as soon as it was known that the question was fairly mooted in that House every parish in Scotland would petition. He therefore trusted, that his Majesty's Ministers would coincide with his hon. friend and give him their support. If, however, unfortunately they resisted his Motion, and succeeded in defeating it, he was sure his hon. friend would again bring it forward at an early period of the next Session, and that ultimately he must be successful. At all times the question should have his cordial support, both upon the grounds of justice and expediency, and because he was satisfied he could confer no greater benefit on the Established Church of Scotland.

The Lord Advocate

agreed with the hon. member for Caithness, both as to the importance of the subject, and the great interest taken in it by the people of Scotland. He hoped, however, that any abuses, and he did not deny that there were abuses, might be satisfactorily arranged; and he submitted to the hon. Member, that it was not expedient to bring forward a Motion of such importance at that late period of the Session, when it was impossible that it could lead to any beneficial or practical result. There was another and important reason why the present Motion should not be passed. It was highly probable that the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland would of itself come to a satisfactory resolution on the subject. At the last meeting of the General Assembly in May, a Motion which had been brought forward by Doctor Chalmers, for a Resolution to give the inhabitants of parishes the right of negativing the presentation of Clergymen appointed by the patrons to the charge of parishes, was negatived by a majority of twelve only out of an assembly consisting of upwards of 300 Members. It was probable, therefore, from the smallness of the majority, that at the next meeting of the Assembly, a Resolution in favour of some change would be entered into, and he submitted that it would be inexpedient to attempt to legislate upon the subject in the meantime. He doubted, too, if the Repeal of the Act, which was the subject of the hon. Member's Motion, would of itself have the effect expected from it by the hon. Member. By repealing the Act of Anne, the Act of William, passed in 1690, would be revived, which would give still less satisfaction to the people of Scotland. He therefore recommended to the hon. Member to withdraw his Motion, and to abide by another decision of the General Assembly, by which all the regulations touching the Church of Scotland since the time of John Knox had been framed. After such a decision was come to, the real grievance complained of would be known, and the House would have an opportunity of legislating on a sure and safe foundation. In the meantime he deprecated all premature discussion upon a matter of such great importance. The right hon. Gentleman concluded by requesting the hon. Gentleman to postpone his Motion for more mature deliberation.

Sir Robert Peel

would not presume to say a word upon the subject, had he not had the honour for some years, of advising the Crown in its disposal of its patronage in the Church of Scotland. He agreed in the postponement recommended by the learned Lord opposite; but he differed from the learned Lord in supposing that any thing but a calm would be produced in the Church of Scotland, by devolving upon the people of each parish the right of electing their own pastor. Nor did he think that the characters of the Ministers of the Church would be raised by the change. Feuds and discords would arise which now were unheard, and which must prevail, but for the corrective of patronage. He did not contest the point for the sake of the patronage; for whilst he had the honour of advising the Crown with respect to its disposal, it never once occurred that a benefice was disposed of from any political views. If he had any reason to suppose that the majority of the respectable inhabitants of a parish were agreed in the choice of a Minister, he advised the Crown to appoint that Minister; but if he found canvassing going on, and all the artifices of election had recourse to, in favour of different candidates, he advised the Crown to listen to neither party, but to exercise its right, and make some appointment above all exception. This was not done by taking the nominee of this, or of that person, but by consulting some of the most eminent men in the Scottish Church, and taking from obscurity, perhaps, some person of merit, whose deserts deserved to be thus rewarded. If there were abuses in the patronage exercised by the Crown, or by individuals, he saw no reason why such abuses should not be corrected by the General Assembly of the Kirk, if it had the means of correcting them. All opposed the principle of devolving the right of election on the inhabitants of a parish. The dissent pointed out did not, he believed, arise from abuses in the disposal of patronage but from other causes. The question, however, was surrounded with difficulties which had not even been hinted at. Who were to be the electors? And in answering this question, it must be remembered that the object was to ensure harmony in the parish. Were the heritors to exercise this right? That would exclude a great portion of the religious part of the parish. Were the communicants to be the electors? Could it be contended that they were all qualified to join in the choice of a Minister? But wherever the right of election was fixed, dissatisfaction would be excited. As there were many persons in Scotland, unprovided with benefices, there would be no lack of candidates for a vacancy. A sort of public trial would take place between them, which would offer a most imperfect means of judging of their merits—a radical defect—since a mistake was irremediable, for the party was elected for life. No doubt the patron might possibly make a bad choice; but he believed that the operation of public opinion would act more strongly upon him than upon individual electors, and make him the fit depository of this power. The election arts which might not be objectionable in contests for civil offices, would certainly tend to lower the respect for religion, when used in a contest for a religious office. Besides, if an election were carried only by a small majority, it was clear that a very large part of the parish would be irritated against their pastor, who would, of course, have as little influence over them, as over the majority, under whose influence he had been elected. One of the bad effects, therefore, of popular election would be, its tendency to diminish the independence of the Minister. He trusted the House, therefore, would not rashly affirm the principle now proposed, but would be ready to apply itself to the removal of any real abuses in the Church of Scotland.

Mr. Colquhoun

supported the Motion for leave to bring in the Bill, the object of which simply was to repeal an Act passed during the servile and disgraceful administration of Harley and St. John, in concealment and secrecy, and in direct violation of the constitution of the Church of Scotland. He hoped the first Session of the reformed House of Commons would not be allowed to terminate without repealing this Act, passed unconstitutionally by a most profligate and servile administration. The Motion was one in which the people of Scotland were deeply interested, and he hoped it would not be withdrawn on no stronger grounds, than that the Session was advanced, and the people were late in their application.

Mr. Gillon

said, that the feelings of the people of Scotland upon this important subject were, that the constitution of the present system of church patronage in Scotland was corrupt, unjust, and impolitic, as regarded the interests of that Church itself; and he was convinced, that this sentiment and opinion would daily gain ground to a degree that it would be impossible to resist the demand for a remedy. He should therefore most cordially support the Motion of his hon. friend.

Mr. Andrew Johnston

said, that the yoke of patronage had long galled the neck of the Scottish Church, and had carried away from its protection many valuable friends. Under the existing system men had been lifted into the sacred pulpits in the Scottish Church by the assistance of an armed force, against the wishes and the hearts of the best lovers of the religion of their country. It was the abuse of the system now existing which alone induced his hon. friend to bring forward his Motion for the introduction of a Bill to remedy those abuses and to solicit its adoption by the Legislature of the country. From experience he was convinced, that it would be more beneficial to the advancement of religion to place the patronage of the Church of Scotland in the hands of the General Assembly, than to leave it as at present, in the hands of any Government. He denied the statement which had been advanced, that the Church patronage of Scotland stood on the same footing as that of England, for since the Reformation no pastor could be set over any congregation in Scotland against their consent, without a direct violation of the constitution of the Church of that country. By the proposed Bill it was sought to remedy such a violation, and was sought, he must insist, in justice to the people. In asking its adoption he was not advocating popular rights, but merely a measure for the welfare and well-being of the Church itself.

Mr. Abercromby

had the greatest deference for the feelings and wishes of his countrymen, especially on so serious and important a question, but he confessed he could not consent to carry that deference so far as to induce him to concur in the measure sought to be introduced. He was happy to bear, in the presence of the right hon. Baronet, the member for Tam- worth, his testimony to the fairness of the right hon. Baronet's distribution of the Scottish Church patronage, and to add, that it gave general satisfaction in Scotland. The right hon. Baronet, in stating his general views with respect to the dispensation of patronage, adverted to the difference between choosing a clergyman and a civil officer. If this were a question which they had to decide simply in the abstract, he should be inclined to concur in his general reasoning, but a feeling of quite a contrary nature was very widely spread in Scotland. He was assured, also, of the fact, that a very large proportion of the secession from the Established Church of Scotland had originated in the question of patronage. It was the opinion of many conscientious, reasonable, and intelligent persons in Scotland, that the establishment could not be maintained except by this concession. That was the opinion of many. But admitting all that, he must freely state, that to proceed to the destruction of the present system without knowing what they were to substitute for it—to overthrow that which had been long established—that which had been sanctioned and approved by the General Assembly, would be a course on the part of the House so unadvised and so rash, that, with all his desire to defer to what he believed the wishes of a very great proportion of his constituents, he could not consent to it. The only proper course to pursue on the present occasion was, to leave the consideration of the question to the Church itself. It would, in his apprehension, be a most indecent proceeding on the part of the House, when they knew that there was a Church Parliament in Scotland, to legislate upon that subject without previously ascertaining the sentiments of that body, which alone would include the expression of a large body of public opinion. He should be sorry, at all events, to enter into any engagement which he thought would be against the constitution of the country. And what could be more inconsistent than pretending to have an established religion with no connexion with the State? But all connexion between the State and the Church of Scotland would be dissolved, if the patronage were placed in the hands of the people. He could understand the arguments of those Gentlemen who said, "We do not want an establishment at all," but he must say, it was rather an anomalous proceeding in those who support an establishment to take a step which must dissolve the connexion between Church and State. It would be a rash measure in the House to take such a step without more consideration than could be given to it in the species of debate they had had this evening. He apprehended, therefore, that the only course which his right hon. friend could possibly take was, to leave this question to the decision of the General Assembly. He wished justice to be done to all,—he wished the subject to be fully canvassed and considered by those who were competent to deliberate and decide upon it; and if it should eventually appear, that there were no other means of satisfying the general wishes of the people of Scotland; Parliament would then be competent to come to a decision upon this question. In his opinion the only feasible course was, to leave the decision of the question to the General Assembly. Nothing could be more rash, nothing more unwise, than to proceed to the destruction of the patronage of the Scotch Church without knowing what should be substituted in its place. For these reasons he recommended the hon. Member to withdraw the Motion.

Mr. Hallyburton

supported the Motion. He wished to know how they could repeal the Act establishing the present system of patronage without establishing some other system. The proposition of the hon. Member went merely to abolish the law which conferred the patronage on the Crown, for the purpose of leaving it afterwards to be determined by the House how the arrangement should be made, so as to settle the establishment on a sound footing. That was, he thought, a rational object, and he felt inclined to vote for the repeal.

Mr. Ewing

said, it had always been considered that the system of patronage, as it existed in the Church of Scotland, was an innovation on its established principles. He cordially supported the measure.

Mr. Thomas Kennedy

said, he was prepared to establish a proper mode of appointing Ministers, instead of the present system of Church patronage. He regretted that, the measure went in one sense too far, and in another not fat-enough. He should vote against it on that ground. He thought, however, that the present discussion, although no vote were come to upon the subject, would have a considerable effect on the General Assembly, and make them come to a very different decision from that which they had come to last year upon the subject.

Sir Robert Inglis

said, the Motion ostensibly referred to the appointment of ministers in the Church of Scotland; and even if its tendency were limited to the Scotch Church, as its terms implied, he would oppose it; yet, as it was perfectly clear that the principle of the Motion extended much further, and involved other establishments, he trusted the House would not think he was trespassing needlessly upon their attention while he endeavoured to point out to English Gentlemen how very much they were affected by the proposition of the hon. member for Caithness. The purport of the hon. Member's proposal was, to restore to the people of Scotland a right which, as the hon. Member said, till the 10th of Queen Anne they enjoyed. In the first place, it was much more than doubtful, how far that right was ever enjoyed by them; in fact, he believed, that in theory the right was always denied; at least, it was clear, that it never received the sanction of the General Assembly. In 1567, the General Assembly expressly declared to the Queen, that by what they had done, they did not intend in any degree to interfere with the right of patronage, but that, whomsoever her Majesty or any other patron should present with a benefice, that person should be tried by learned members of the Church, and, if found qualified, should be inducted; for, as the presentation to the benefice appertained to the patron, so the collation by law and reason belonged to the Church. In a work of authority upon this subject, the relative rights of the patron and the people were laid down and defined, and it was said, that if the patron's power to present were assumed by the people, there would be no order in the Church. The patron by law had the right of presentation, and the people had no power to divest him of it. The right of patronage in both countries was involved in the answer to this question;—who built the church, and who endowed it? If the people built or endowed the church, to the people let the patronage belong, but if it were built by one individual, and he a layman, then to him and his successors the patronage belonged. Let those who differed from the patron in their choice of a minister build and endow another church, but let them not take the right of patronage from those who had already built and endowed a church. His hon. friend, the member for Dumbartonshire, in a speech somewhat more severe than correct, endeavoured in one instance, to show, that lay patronage was destroyed when the Bishops were destroyed, and the hon. Member called upon him to declare his opinion, as if he were more interested in the question than any other hon. Member. He begged leave to assure his hon. friend, that that construction, ominous as he held it to be to the Established Church, was not more injurious to the Church than to all lay property whatsoever, for the former cry of "No Patron! no Bishop!" was soon followed by the cry of "No Bishop! no King!" But what he particularly wished the English gentlemen to recollect was this,—that if they assented to the principle contained in the proposition submitted to them by the hon. member for Caithness, they would assent to a proposition which went much further than the hon. Mover intended. He said, there was a great distinction between the Church of Scotland and the Church of England. In point of discipline there was; but in point of property they depended upon one and the same law; and the Legislature could no more take away from the lay patrons in Scotland their rights, or from the Crown its present rights of patronage, than it could take from the lay patrons of England their advowsons. Certainly, he did hope, that the learned Lord who represented in that House the Crown in that part of Great Britain, would not have made such a deprecating appeal to his hon. friend, urging him to withdraw his Motion. He expected, that the learned Lord, feeling how much such a measure would affect the rights of the Crown (he understood that the Crown possessed two-thirds of the right of patronage in Scotland), and feeling, also, how much it would affect the rights of the Established Church—he had hoped, he said, that instead of appealing to his hon. friend to withdraw his Motion, he would at once have resisted it; as he trusted after all, the learned Lord was prepared to resist it.

Mr. Oswald

recommended that the matter should be left in the hands of the General Assembly.

Mr. Robert Ferguson

said, the discussion which had taken place upon the sub- ject would answer all the ends which could be aimed at by the Motion, and he therefore recommended that it should be withdrawn.

Mr. Pryme

said, it would appear extraordinary if, when they were conferring upon the people in the burghs of Scotland the power of electing their civil officers, they were to withhold from them the power of electing a Minister, with respect to whom it was of so much importance that there should be a good feeling between him and his parishioners. It was said, that the introduction of popular election in this case would be productive of continual discord in parishes. He had lived twenty years in a town where three of the parishes enjoyed popular election, in the choice of their ministers; he had thus had an opportunity of seeing its effects; and it was his opinion, that the introduction into a parish of a person who was disagreeable to the inhabitants was at least productive of equal evil.

Lord Althorp

said, he had no wish to throw any obstacle in the way of this most important question; but it was impossible for the House to enter into the discussion of the repeal of a Statute which conferred on his Majesty certain prerogatives, without having the consent of his Majesty. He was not prepared, at this time, to give that assent. He appealed to the Speaker whether they were competent, under such circumstances, to entertain the question.

The Speaker

said, he had not before read the Act of Charles 2nd, by which the patronage in question was conferred upon the Crown; but he had since sent for it, and had read it. This was certainly a question affecting the rights and privileges of the Crown; and it was quite clear, that it could not be discussed without the consent of his Majesty.

Mr. Sinclair

stated, that he would certainly not press the Motion, but he would bring it before the House under more favourable circumstances next Session.

Mr. Pryme

should have been inclined to deny the doctrine laid down by the Chair. That, however, only showed his ignorance of the practice of Parliament; but he had thought, that the House could proceed to the repeal of any Act of Parliament without applying to his Majesty.

Lord Althorp

said, that entirely depended upon what the Act. of Parliament might be. They could not proceed to take away any right or privilege of the Crown without the consent of the Crown.

The Speaker

said, it was quite impossible to entertain the question in any shape. He was himself to blame for having put the question. He did not know the contents of the Act; but having called for it and read it, he found, that the Motion could not be entertained by the House without the consent of the Crown, intimated, as usual, through a Privy Councillor.

Motion withdrawn.