HC Deb 25 February 1834 vol 21 cc776-89
Lord John Russell

said, he rose for the purpose of moving for leave to bring in a Bill for the relief of persons dissenting from the Church of England in regard to the celebration of marriages. It was well known that, for a longtime past, Dissenters had complained of the grievance which they suffered and the violence done their consciences in being obliged, for the purpose of contracting marriage, to appear before a minister of a church from which they dissented, and to go through ceremonies inconsistent with their own forms of faith. It was likewise felt by many ministers of the Established Church as a most painful duty to have to perform the marriage ceremony for persons dissenting from the Church, who, as most frequently happened, disregarded the ceremony, and very often protested against it at its conclusion. Such being the feeling on both sides, there would not be found, he believed, a single person, whether Churchman or Dissenter, who would not be extremely pleased if a measure could be framed which, without doing any injury to the Church on the one hand, or violating the consciences of Dissenters on the other, might yet give the Dissenters relief from the grievances of which they complained. He was happy to say, that his Majesty's Ministers having turned their attention to this subject, were now enabled to propose a plan which, if it did not obviate every difficulty, or meet every objection, would, he trusted, be found sufficient to give real and substantial relief in the case he had just alluded to. The Dissenters, in calling for an alteration of the existing law, proposed one of two things—either that the Act of Marriage should be an entirely civil contract, with liberty to the parties afterwards to celebrate such religious ceremonies as were most agreeable to their feelings, or that power should be given to Dissenting ministers to celebrate marriages, and that such marriages should be held to be legal. With respect to the first of these propositions, he was ready to admit that it possessed a great advantage in its simplicity, and that it would at once obviate a great many of the difficulties with which this matter was incumbered. Yet, though it was in principle very defensible, it would be so repugnant to the feelings of a great portion of the country, that he did not think it would be wise or expedient to propose any measure of the sort. He then came to the second remedy proposed—namely, to allow Dissenting ministers to perform the marriage ceremony of persons belonging to their own congregations; and it was on this principle that the Bill which he had the honour to propose was founded. The Government did not intend to propose that every Dissenting chapel in the country should be licensed for the celebration of marriages; but, whenever twenty householders in a parish should represent by memorial or petition, that they wished to have a certain chapel in a fixed place licensed for that purpose, it should be incumbent on the magistrates at quarter sessions, or those by whom Dissenting chapels were at present licensed for the celebration of divine worship, to grant the required license, on the condition that a notice of the grant of such license be fixed upon a conspicuous part of the chapel. The minister of that chapel would then have it in his power to celebrate marriages; but this power could only be exercised on certain conditions, and in a specified manner. Parties wishing to be married according to ceremonies and rites differing from those of the Church of England, would have to proceed, in the first instance, in the same way as persons belonging to the establishment. They must either be married by bans or by license. If they chose to be married by bans, they would have to give a regular notice to the clergyman of the parish in which they resided; or if they resided in different parishes, the clergyman of each was to publish the bans. After they had been published, if the parties wished the marriage to be celebrated by a Dissenting minister, they must ask for a certificate of the due publication of the bans, and the clergyman of the parish, upon granting it, would enter in the book in which the bans were recorded, that a certificate had been granted on the application of such parties. The Dissenting minister would then have to give notice in his chapel that he would proceed in the course of the week to celebrate the marriage; and, after the ceremony, he would be required to record the marriage in a registry kept by him for that purpose. He believed that insuperable difficulty would be felt in making the parish clergyman enter on the general registry marriages celebrated by dissenting ministers, and, therefore, it was not to be denied that, in making the proposed alteration, the advantage of possessing in the registry of the Church of England a registry of all the marriages celebrated in the country would be lost. Still this defect would be compensated for by providing that registries should be kept by the Dissenting ministers, a copy of which, at the completion of every three months, should be transmitted to the registrar of the diocese. He, therefore, thought that there would exist sufficient proofs for the celebration of these marriages. There would, first of all, be the record of the bans, and of the grant of the certificate; then the registries of the Dissenting chapels: and, lastly, the copies kept by the registrars of the different dioceses. The registries at present were very irregularly kept; but it was conceived that they would be preserved in a more regular and complete manner if it were required that a fee should accompany their transmission to the registrars of the dioceses. There was, however, another difficulty with respect to this subject, to which he begged to call the attention of the House. I It was well known that the registries of the Established Church were regularly kept in a fixed and certain place; whereas Dissenting chapels were often abandoned by the religious frequenters, and, being used for other purposes than divine worship, the registries kept in them ceased to be of any value. It would therefore be provided, in the Bill which he proposed to introduce, that the magistrates at quarter sessions, on being certified by two justices of the peace that any Dissenting chapel had ceased to be frequented, should have the power at once to withdraw the license for the celebration of marriages in such chapel, and to order the original registry to be transmitted to the registrar of the diocese. Such an enactment as that would, he thought, provide against the difficulties which otherwise might be felt from the abandonment of a licensed chapel by its congregation. Another way in which marriages might be performed in this country was by license; and it would be enacted in the proposed measure, that Dissenters desiring to marry by license must make, as at present, application to the surrogate. The license having been granted, the Dissenting minister, on marrying the parties, would record the marriage in his registry. Such were the chief provisions of the proposed measure; and he thought he need not say that no little difficulty had been found in drawing them up, so as to meet the wishes of the aggrieved parties. But he was aware, that unless a disposition should be manifested to waive objections, and, to a certain degree, to give up scruples on this subject, both on the part of the Churchmen and Dissenters, no measure could be framed which would be satisfactory in its operation. He therefore trusted that concessions would be made on both sides, and that Parliament would show, that while it preserved the rights and privileges of Churchmen, had no objection, whenever any practical grievance was pointed out by the Dissenters, to inquire into the subject in the spirit of conciliation. The noble Lord concluded by moving for leave to bring in a Bill "for the relief of persons dissenting from the Church of England in regard to the celebration of marriages."

Mr. Hume

was disposed to think that we had adopted a very bad principle upon the subject of the registration of births and marriages. Marriages should be a civil act, and then the registration would be matter of little difficulty, as was found to be the case in almost every foreign country. The evil here, however, was that every thing of that sort must go through the Church for the benefit of the Church; and hence the difficulties and irregularities, of which the people of this country had so much more reason to complain, than those of all other countries. We should, in the matter of registration, follow their example. Persons to be married, should go before the Civil Magistrate, who could and would keep an intelligible registry, which could be of easy access to all the parties interested in it. Our present system was too complex, and should be simplified as speedily as possible. In short, every thing should be done by the Government, which could put an end to jealousies between the people. He could see but little utility in the proposed regulations of the noble Lord; and, he would ask, were the marriages of the Jews to come under the operation of this Bill? The noble Lord had said nothing about them, although they were as much the King's subjects as any other class of people in the empire. The Bill proposed by the noble Lord, was a partial Bill, but, as it was a step towards improvement, he would not object to it. He would only say that a civil registration would answer every purpose, better than that existing at present, and also far better than that now proposed by the noble Lord.

Sir Robert Inglis

expressed his hope that, in whatever might be done upon this subject, the House would not reject the Protestant Church, though the hon. Member seemed to say he would reject it. [Mr. Hume: No, indeed, I did not say so.] He was glad when he heard that the hon. Member would not reject the Church; and he hoped the hon. Member would support that in all its essential rights and privileges. He thought, as far as he could judge of the noble Lord's plan, that it was too complicated for the House to be able at this instant, to give any opinion upon it. He felt that he could give no opinion. The noble Lord had stated in what places marriages were to be performed, but he had not stated by whom they were to be performed. Were licenses to perform the marriage ceremony to be given, without any examination? But at present he would say nothing more upon the subject, nor until he saw the Bill, with its details, in a printed form.

Dr. Lushington

was not inclined to deny that, if in the existing state of society, general principles could be carried into effect, it might be considered a most advisable, simple, and efficient plan, to render marriage (after due publicity had been attained by some mode of publication) a civil ceremony, leaving it to the parties at a subsequent period to comply with such religious ceremonies as their own feelings and consciences might dictate; but the country was not precisely in that state and condition, for it contained persons of a great variety of sentiments on the subject of marriage, and the nature of the contract; and he was perfectly confident, whatever might be his own judgment, that it would be exceedingly difficult to carry into complete and universal effect the principle to which he had adverted without violating the conscientious feelings of a very large proportion of those who were attached to the Established Church. If we could find a practical remedy for the present grievances—if we could remove from the minds of the Dissenters the present unpleasant and painful feelings which they experienced—without violating the feelings of members of the Established Church, it would be expedient to do so. He was afraid, however, that there was no such middle course as might be found acceptable to the great majority of all opinions, and, therefore, the advantage which would be derived from the measure proposed by his noble friend was this, that, as on the one hand, the most scrupulous judgment could not possibly find any sound reason or ground for objecting to the present Bill being carried into effect, so he thought no honest and well-judging Dissenter would hesitate to comply with those terms and preliminaries which were essential to the due publication of the intention of the parties, and for the prevention of those fraudulent marriages which were the cause of such measures taking place. He was well aware that this measure was fraught with difficulties, but the difficulties concerning registration were very great. He was well aware, that a system of universal registration must be exceedingly advantageous; but he had read the report and the evidence, and he was prepared to say, that to the establishment of that universal registry there were difficulties which he could not overcome. In the first place, as concerned the registration of births, he was convinced that that would never be done voluntarily by the people of this country. His hon. friend, the member for Oxford, had said, that this was a complicated measure. He had never witnessed a measure on this subject, more simple than the measure now proposed. A Dissenter wished to be married in his own chapel—his bans were put up in the ordinary and accustomed forms; there was no difference made—no alteration in the law whatever; but this Bill, if it were passed into a law, would give him the power of going to the minister of the Church where the bans were published, and say,—"Give me a certificate and a declaration, that I may be married in a particular chapel." On looking to the history of the marriage-law in this country, he was inclined to think that, by agreeing to this Bill, the House would be doing no more than adverting to the ancient system. In ancient days, the intervention of a priest was not necessary; and when it became the custom, it was not for the purpose of rendering the contract of marriage good and valid, for as far as the year 1756, in 99 cases out of 100, a promise given de prœsenti between two individuals, was sufficient to make a marriage binding. Lord Hardwicke's Marriage Act was the original innovation; an Act, which, although it was calculated to put an end to some of the evils which prevailed, the evils of clandestine marriage, yet introduced other evils and mischiefs, surely as great as those which it was intended to suppress. That Act was fraught with great injustice, for it compelled the honest Dissenter, who conscientiously differed from the doctrines of the Church of England, who considered the marriage service, however sacred and venerable in the opinions of members of the Church of England, as an adaptation of forms of which in his conscience he disapproved—it compelled him, before he could enter into the bonds of matrimony, to begin by violating his own conscience. He was sure that every one in the House would feel most desirous to adopt any measure which could relieve the Dissenters. Not only every man of honesty, but every individual who revered a ceremony, such as the marriage ceremony of the Established Church, and did not wish to see it constantly disregarded, would be desirous of supporting a measure such as that which had been introduced by his noble friend. He should be exceedingly sorry, if, in giving this just and well-deserved measure of relief to the Dissenters, the Legislature were under the necessity of violating the rights and consciences of members of the Established Church; but when he said that there was nothing but the publication of the bans, which told whether the parties belonged to the Established or the Dissenters' Church, he was at a loss to conceive how the most tender conscience that ever raised a scruple, could by possibility be offended at having so simple a reform. This publication was requisite to avoid what otherwise might take place with so much facility—viz., the contracting and the performing of clandestine marriages. There was no chance of the marriages of Dissenters being more clandestine than the marriages of members of the Church of England. He trusted that this Bill would be recognized and hailed by all Dissenters as a great measure of relief.

Sir George Grey

expressed his regret with the hon. member for Middlesex, that this country seemed so far behind all others in Europe, with regard to registration. A large portion of the community, under the present system, were altogether excluded from its benefits; and it was quite necessary that a complete and extensive change should be introduced. He hailed with satisfaction the measure of the noble Lord, as the first step towards concessions to Dissenters of their just claims. He said the first step, because he had no doubt the noble Lord agreed with him in thinking that they could not stop here. There were some demands made by Dissenters, which he, as a member of the Established Church, considered both unjust and unreasonable, but there might be a difference of opinion on such matters, and, at all events, he should ever be found a decided advocate for the practical redress of every existing grievance, while the demand for it was just and reasonable.

Mr. Estcourt

said, he was induced to believe, from the sentiments which had fallen from the hon. Members who had preceded him, that the measure now proposed, was only a preliminary proceeding to one of a more general and extensive nature. The House was, however, in the meantime, in possession of this easy and simple measure which had been proposed by the noble Lord. But notwithstanding this, he felt anxious to state that he could not agree with the noble Lord. With respect to a statement made by the hon. member for Middlesex, that registers were made out negligently, he would observe, that it was a duty imposed upon the clergy by Act of Parliament, and that they were compelled to the due discharge of this duty, whatever might be the inconvenience attending it.

Mr. Buckingham

said, that he had listened to the speech of the noble Lord who introduced the subject of the Debate, with that attention which its great interest demanded; and he thought the statements it contained so clear, that no one could misapprehend them. Throughout the whole of that speech, the aim of the noble Lord was, to show that his Majesty's Ministers were very desirous of affording relief to the Dissenters, and to prove that this measure would effectually secure the relief they desired. But after hearing the speech of the hon. and learned member for the Tower Hamlets (Dr. Lushington), he found that, though the measure was one professing to have for its main object the relief of the Dissenters, yet that a deference to the authority of the Church was still to be maintained, and great pains taken to prevent anything being done, that should displease the members of the Establishment. For his own part, he confessed that he saw no sufficient reason for this tenderness towards the feelings of churchmen, for since it was a Bill intended to regulate the marriages of Dissenters, he could not understand why churchmen should either assume, or be permitted to have, any interest whatever in the matter. The hon. and learned member for the Tower Hamlets had given it as the result of his experience, that the people of England belonging to the Established Church would be grievously wounded if the marriages of Dissenters were to be celebrated wholly by, and among themselves, without the Church having any cognizance of the matter. Now, with all deference to the experience of the hon. and learned member, he (Mr. Buckingham) must take leave to say that, as far as his experience went—and it was as varied and extensive, perhaps, as that of the learned Civilian—though possibly among different classes of society, he should say that he had never met with any lay members of the Church, who had not expressed their readiness to concede to the Dissenters the entire management of their marriages, burials, and all other ordinances of this description, without the interference of the Church in any way whatever. To the clergy of the Establishment, who had a pecuniary interest in the preservation of the emoluments which flowed from these ordinances, the transfer of their celebration to the Dissenters might perhaps be objectionable; but, as far as the general feeling of their congregations were engaged, he believed that few or no objections would be taken by them to such a transfer as fully and completely as the Dissenters themselves could desire. The question had been raised as to whether marriage was generally regarded in this country as a civil contract, or a religious one; and undoubtedly it was important to settle that point, in order to legislate on a sound basis for its future regulation. The reasons which induced him to think that, even in England, it was regarded much more in the light of a civil than a religious act, was this.—First, that though the solemnization of marriage was accompanied by a religious ceremony, all the obligations imposed by the contract were purely civil, and recognized only by the civil law. If there be at any time a breach of the promise to marry, a violation of the marriage vow after marriage has taken place, a desertion of the wife by the husband, an infidelity in either party, or any other departure from the duties of the married state, they were cognizable only by the civil law; they were prosecuted in Courts of Justice, and tried like other offences against the law, without any reference whatever to the peculiar creed of the parties. Secondly, that in acts purely religious, the magistrate was never consulted or applied to; nor could any human authority be justly exercised either to allow or to prevent them. When, for instance, any individual, as a purely religious act, associated himself with some religious community, entered himself as a member of some particular sect, and joined with his religious brethren in all the duties which his union to them imposed, neither the civil magistrate nor the clerical authority were ever applied to, or their jurisdiction admitted in any way whatever. It was clear then, from this, that marriage was not regarded as a religious act, either by the law, or by the community; while its subjection to civil prosecutions and civil penalties, for breaches of any part of its contracts, gave it a civil character in almost every stage, from its first contraction to its ultimate annulment by divorce. It would have been far better, then, he thought, since an alteration was to be made, had the whole subject been regarded as to its civil obligations; and these secured upon a firm and general basis; while the religious solemnization of the contract by different sects might have been left entirely to the direction of the several sects themselves. Among the provisions contained in the Bill, was one which still made it imperative upon the parties to have the bans of their marriage published in the parish church. Now, he asked, what was the intention of the publication of bans at all? It was undoubtedly to prevent clandestine and improper marriages, by giving such ample notice of the intended union to the community at large, as to allow all who could state any objections to such union, to come forward and prevent it in time. But when Dissenters were about to be married, where could there be so proper a place for the publication of their bans, as in the chapel, and among the congregation to which they belonged? All their friends, connexions, and associates would be there: and every thing respecting them be generally and accurately known; while, in the parish church, which, being Dissenters, they would certainly not frequent, they would be as unknown as in another town, and the whole object of the publication of the bans be thus neutralized or defeated. Besides which, all those who were in the habit of hearing the bans published in the parish churches of large and populous districts, must be well aware, that the multiplicity of the names called over, was such as to become tiresome in the extreme, and lead to great inattention, while the divisions of the whole mass into the smaller portions which they would form, if the minister of each Dissenting chapel published the bans of all persons belonging to his congregation, would leave only a few names to be announced on each Sabbath; and these would obtain greater attention, and greater publicity—in the very places where it was most important that that publicity should be given. There was one consideration, however, which presented itself to him with greater force than all the rest. The noble Lord, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, had objected, and most reasonably, to the introduction of so partial a measure as the Bill proposed by the hon. and learned member for Dublin for the improvement of that Corporation only, while a great general measure was in preparation for improving other Corporations as well. Exactly the same objection, he thought, might be made to the present Bill, introduced by the noble Lord, the Paymaster of the Forces. As a part of those measures of relief which the Dissenters sought, it was acceptable as far as it went; but it was deeply to be regretted that it should stop there. If it were really the wish of his Majesty's Government to afford relief to the Dissenters—and that was their professed object in introducing this measure—it would be well to ask, what were the points on which the Dissenters asked such relief? Did they confine themselves exclusively to the desire of being able to celebrate their own marriages in their own way? Certainly not. Whether the House consulted the memorials transmitted from the various bodies of Dissenters to Lord Grey, or the petitions from them presented to the House, they all prayed for much more. First, for a general registration of births, instead of baptisms, to secure them that legal evidence on which the transmission of property, and various other rights, so materially depended; secondly, for a general registration of marriages, unconnected entirely with any religious authority, and leaving the mode of solemnization open to all; thirdly, for a power to inter their dead in parochial cemeteries, without the intervention of the Established clergy, and by a funeral service of their own; and fourthly, for an equal admission to, and participation in, all the honours of the Universities, without subscribing to religious tests, or being at all called upon to adhere to any particular opinions. If the noble Lord or his Majesty's Ministers, would introduce at once a Bill conferring on the Dissenters of England all these rights, he doubted not but that it would be hailed by the whole of that large portion of his Majesty's subjects, with the greatest gratitude and joy; but the present measure, he feared, would be regarded as partial and insufficient: and since he was persuaded that, before the close of the present Session, attempts would be made to secure for the Dissenters, each and all of these objects of their desire, he ventured still to hope that his Majesty's Government would anticipate their wishes, by framing one general and comprehensive measure, which should embrace all these objects, and thus complete the great work of religious freedom, by emancipating all sects from any subjection or subordination to any dominant ecclesiastical power.

Mr. Ewart

agreed with his hon. friend that this was a national question, and should be considered in its general importance and bearings as a national question. The measure that had been proposed was, in his opinion, not sufficiently comprehensive. He, as the Representative of a large body of Dissenters, felt a warm interest in the subject, and therefore could not refrain from asking the question, was it not felt that births, marriages, and deaths, should be properly recorded?

Mr. Faithfull

, characterized it as an act of injustice, that the rights of Dissenters should have been so long withheld from them, and that Bill was no restitution of their rights. Many petitions had been presented to the House on this subject, (with the whole of which he did not agree in sentiment); and many more would be presented, of which opportunities he would avail himself to express his opinions more fully and decidedly. A great deal had been said of clandestine marriages. Now the fact was, that there were fewer clandestine marriages among the Quakers and I Jews, who were not subject to those laws, than there were in the Established Church. Why not allow Dissenters to celebrate marriage in their own way, as the Jews and Quakers were permitted to do? He would leave the noble Lord to reconcile this difference. The measure proposed by the noble Lord was a minute and contemptible one. He would attend to the progress of it, and, on the second reading, would do it as complete justice as his ability would permit.

Lord John Russell

, in reply, said, the objections would be more properly discussed in some future stage. The hon. Member who spoke last, said the measure was minute and contemptible. It certainly did not go so far as totally to extinguish the Established Church, or to separate Church and State, as the hon. Member wished. It was not one of those grand and decisive measures which involved total overthrow. He did not mean to deny the advantages of a general registration, but there were difficulties and objections which the member for Middle- sex did not seem to have considered. A general registry might be kept in two ways, either by the clergy of the Church of England, or it might be a civil registry. There were objections to the latter. It would require much complicated machinery, and would involve compulsion. The Dissenters would no doubt object to the former. The great difficulty was, that if the Dissenters registered their own marriages, they might be celebrated in obscure places, which would give rise to difficulties.

Leave given, and Bill ordered to be brought in.