HC Deb 27 February 1834 vol 21 cc925-40
Mr. Sinclair

said, that the subject to which he should now have the honour to call the attention of the House, was one which, at the present moment, excited throughout Scotland an intense and universal interest. In proof of this assertion, he might appeal, first, to the personal knowledge of all the Scotch Members, whom he saw around him; next, to the many public meetings lately held in every quarter of this country, and which had been attended by many eminent ministers, enlightened elders, and other individuals distinguished by their piety, their intelligence, and their attachment to that admirable and Apostolic Church, which God had planted in our land; and lastly, to the multiplicity of petitions transmitted to the House, during the present and former Sessions, remarkable not only for the number, but the respectability, of the signatures appended to them. It had been his intention, and he should only have done his duty, to have entered at great length into the merits of the question; but as his Majesty's Ministers, with a readiness which reflected the highest credit on their patriotism, and which must secure to them the grateful attachment of the people of Scotland, had acceded to his proposition for the appointment of a Committee to investigate the subject, he thought it better to abstain from any remarks, which might lead to unnecessary discussion, and should, therefore, content himself with moving "for the appointment of a Select Committee to inquire into the state of the right of patronage of Churches in Scotland."

The Lord Advocate

said, that having determined not to oppose going into a Committee, and being anxious that gentlemen should go into it as free as possible from pledges to a particular course, and with minds open to the impressions which the evidence, and discussions which awaited them were fitted to produce, he should follow the example of his hon. friend in abstaining from any argument or statement of opinion on the present occasion. As his hon. friend however, had had the advantage of explaining to the House, on a variety of former occasions, the views he entertained on the subject, it was right that, in acceding to the Motion, he should so far guard himself from misconstruction as to state that he did so accede to it, and did go into the committee, with different views, different wishes, and different anticipations of the result, from those of his hon. friend. He concurred entirely in opinion as to the importance of the subject; and would add his testimony as to the extraordinary interest it now excited in every part of Scotland—an interest and an excitement which, in his opinion, made the parliamentary discussion of the subject no longer a matter of choice, but of necessity. He also believed that his hon. friend and he, however they might now differ as to the means, had but one end in view—the removal of abuses in the appointment of the ministers of religion, and the restoration of the Established Church of Scotland to the highest possible degree both of purity and popularity. In consenting to the appointment of a committee, he did not deny that it was substantially' implied that some change or correction was necessary in the existing law, or the practice under that law; and such was undoubtedly his impression. But even those who were most convinced of that necessity, must admit that there was great hazard in such changes, and that the correction, in order to be either safe or salutary, must be gone about with the utmost caution, and with as close an adherence as possible to the known principles and most approved usage of the ecclesiastical constitution. He should not trespass further on the attention of the House than merely to express his confident expectation, that those who went into the Committee with these ends and these principles in view, would come out of it much more nearly agreed as to the practical measures that should be adopted, than any debate in the present immature state of the question could give reason to believe. He had great pleasure, therefore, in acceding to the motion of his hon. friend.

Captain William Gordon

opposed the Motion, and expressed his surprise that it should have originated in the quarter it had, as well as at the manner in which it had been supported by the learned Lord opposite. He conceived, that the subject to which the present Motion was directed could be much more properly discussed by the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland—a body to which the hon. Mover himself belonged, and which was fully competent to alter and arrange the discipline of that Church. If any alteration should be thought necessary by the General Assembly, it would be then ample time to apply for the intervention of the Legislature. He was at a loss to know what was the object sought to be attained by the Motion; for, in the first place the system of patronage now existing had been established for the last hundred and twenty years, and had been fully recognized by the Church Courts in Scotland. If the inquiry was to be directed to individual appointments, he felt satisfied that the clergy of Scotland would be found to be most unexceptionable both as to character and conduct. He knew very well that, upon inquiry it would be found, that since the accession of the present Ministry to office, the Crown patronge had been applied and disposed of for political considerations, and, in particular, he knew such an instance in a parish in the county he had the honour to represent, where a noble Lord was proprietor of four-fifths of the parish; another proprietor, the possessor of only two farms in the parish, and whose residence was at a distance of seven miles, had obtained the presentation from the political support his family had given to the present Government; and if the object of the Motion was an investigation into this matter with a view to an amendment in the system, he confessed he should not regret the inquiry being commenced; but, on the other hand, if the object of the present Motion went to disturb the whole system of Church patronage (which had existed from the days of John Knox up to the present moment with only two short interruptions), and to substitute in its stead a mode of popular election, he entertained a perfect conviction that it would lead to the utter destruction of the whole Church establishment in Scotland. He therefore must object to the appointment of any Committee of inquiry, as not only premature, but because the House could not properly legislate upon the subject without the entire approbation and consent of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.

Colonel Leith Hay

supported the Motion. He would not have said a word on the subject in its present stage, had it not been for the very pointed allusion made by his hon. friend the member for Aberdeenshire, to a case in which a near relative of his own was concerned. His hon. friend must be aware, that he had mis-stated the real facts of that case. He must be aware that no presentation had in that instance yet taken place, and that the delay was occasioned by the forms necessarily gone through to do away an annexation carried in to effect by a former Administration, at the earnest request of the noble Lord, for the purposes of personal convenience; such annexation being at variance with the interests of the community, and one that upon every principle of reason and expediency, as well as in accordance with the wishes of the inhabitants of both parishes, ought to be done away. When such an arrangement had been effected, he (Colonel Leith Hay) had reason to believe the nomination mentioned by the gallant Member would be carried into effect; and when it was, he should be prepared to prove in the first place, that it was granted from no unworthy motives; and, secondly, bestowed upon a person calculated to satisfactorily perform his important duties. He thought his hon. friend who had spoken last had laid down no good grounds against going into an inquiry. The hon. Gentleman had stated, that since the present Government had come into office improper dispositions had been made of the Crown patronage in Scotland. He did not believe that in reality there had been any such case, but, whether or not, it most assuredly could not be considered an argument against granting the Committee moved for by the hon. member for Caithness. The subject of Church patronage now engrossed the attention of a large portion of the people of Scotland. He never had agreed with the party in the Church of which his hon. friend, the member for Caithness was one, but disagreeing as he did on the extent of innovation proposed in the system of election, he also considered he had an important duty to perform in advocating inquiry, and if possible devising such alterations as might prove satisfactory to the conscientious feelings of a large body of excited and enlightened men, and practically useful in strengthening that Church which had for ages conferred benefits of inestimable value upon the community over whom its pure and unassuming influence had been exercised. He was confirmed in supporting the present Motion by a letter lately received from a highly respected individual, one of the leaders of what had been denominated the moderate party in the Church of Scotland, who said, that the subject ought to be taken up by Parliament, and dealt with accordingly. With regard to the point raised, that it would be improper to interfere without the approbation of the General Assembly, he would merely say, that the Committee, if appointed by the House (as he trusted it would) could not have concluded its labours before the next meeting of the General Assembly.

Major Cumming Bruce,

felt assured that if the Motion were carried it would produce the greatest evils to the Church of Scotland. It was very well known to the House and to the public that, practically, the appointment of such a committee as that now moved for would imply a condemnation of the system of that Church. The question had already been before the general Assembly of the Church, and, by taking it out of their hands, and placing it in those of the House, they would be taking it out of the hands of a much better, and putting it into the hands of a much worse, tribunal. He did not think that even his hon. friend who called upon the House to appoint a Committee would assert that any persons could be found better acquainted with the constitution of the Church, more zealously attached to its interests, or more desirous to uphold its highest objects—the maintenance of true religion—than the General Assembly, or that it was possible to supply from that House a tribunal possessing such qualifications in a higher degree. Who were to be the Committee? Was it to be composed of persons of the communion of the Church of Scotland? or were they to submit its affairs and interests to gentlemen of so many opposite and extreme opinions? He would say, that, in common wisdom, they were bound to avoid all these difficulties, and to leave the experiment of curing the defects in the system of patronage to be tried by the General Assembly. The adoption of the Motion might put the House in a very awkward predicament hereafter. The Committee might come to a Resolution which the General Assembly might think it inconsistent with their duty to adopt. This was a difficulty which had at all events be better avoided, by the House waiting to see what course of proceeding the General Assembly would recommend. Upon these grounds he was sorry the motion had been made, and must oppose it. He would admit, that there were abuses in the mode in which lay patronage was administered in Scotland; but that did not arise from the existing state of the law, but from the abuse of the law. He thought therefore great caution should be used before any step should be taken at all calculated to interfere with the ecclesiastical constitution of the country. There were certain powerful parties in Scotland, who had undoubtedly in some instances taken away from the people the power they ought to exercise upon an election of their ministers. He wished to sec their just power restored and maintained; but he denied that they ever legally exercised, or were entitled to the power of nomination. Before incurring the dangers involved in this Motion he thought the House had better consider the effects which had been produced by the Church of Scotland even under the system in which such abuses did exist. If any man took a fair and candid view of the condition of Scotland—of the character of the people—their advancement in moral education, and their disposition to obey the laws, he must admit that the ecclesiastical constitution as it at present stood had worked substantial benefits for that country. The subject was, as he had already stated, under the consideration of the General Assembly, by whom much progress would be made with regard to it without any legislative interference. The last time the question was brought before the General Assembly, it was lost by a very small majority, and the majority of the clerical members of that body voted for it.

Mr. Cutlar Fergusson

said, that the opposition which was made to the appointment of a Committee, on the part of the hon. members for Aberdeenshire and Inverness, was grounded on the assumption that the matter of Church patronage was fit for the consideration of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, and not of Parliament, and that they ought to wait for the decision of that body in a matter which was peculiarly of their cognizance; and the hon. member for Aberdeenshire seemed to say, that the General Assembly of the Church, acknowledging no head of the Church upon earth, might not consider themselves bound to abide by what might be done in Parliament on the subject of this question. To this extraordinary doctrine, he (Mr. Fergusson) would only say, that the General Assembly had no power or authority to legislate in the matter; and that if the lights of patronage were to be in any way touched or affected by the measure which was contemplated, the General Assembly was wholly powerless in such a matter. But did the hon. Member not know, that this was not the first occasion on which Parliament had been called upon to legislate, and, without any sanction from the General Assembly of the Church, did legislate in this very matter. If Parliament had never legislated in this matter, the House would not have been called upon that day, to deliberate on the subject. In the reign of Queen Anne, during the Jacobite Administration of that Queen, and with the express purpose, as the memoirs of that time inform us, of exciting discontent in that country, and of favouring the cause of the Pretender, and obstructing the expected succession of the House of Hanover, the right of the parish, through the elders and heritors, to present o the vacant benefices, which right they lad exercised and enjoyed, without abuse, under the control of the Church Courts, and by the authority of the Act of the Scottish Parliament of 1690, was taken from them, and given, or, as it is said, restored to the patron. The preamble of the Act of Queen Anne, asserted an untruth, namely—" that the Act of 1690 bad occasioned great heats and divisions among those who by that Act were instructed to call Ministers," whereas, in point of fact, as had been shown by Sir Harry Moncrief, in his work on the Constitution of the Church of Scotland, there never was a period, during which the settlements of ministers were so free from such beats and animosities, and when they gave such great satisfaction to the people of Scotland, as during the period from the passing of the Act of 1690, to that of the Act of Queen Anne, It appears, that although there were many cases, during that period, appealed to the Church Courts, the final decision was always acquiesced in, and that there was no instance in those days of a church being deserted on account of the settlement of any Minister. He regretted to say, that a very different state of things had prevailed since the restoration, as it was called, of the ancient right of patrons. He would give no opinion on the best means of remedying the abuses, which were admitted by all to rest on the exercise of that right. Whether the parish, or the heritor and elders representing the parish, should solicit and propose to the patron the persons whom they should deem fit to succeed to vacant livings, and such choice should be subject to the approbation or rejection of the patron, or whether the patron should propose, and the parish approve or reject, and whether any difference, or want of concurrence between the parties, should be submitted to the decision of the Church Courts—and whether such selection of the ministers should partake more or less of the nature of popular elections—were questions for the Committee, on which he would not then offer any opinion. All he was then disposed to contend for, was, that every means should be taken to prevent the intrusion upon a parish of a minister, against the declared sense and will of the congregation. This had been at all times considered as the leading principle of the constitution of the Church of Scotland; and he had often said, and he would then repeat it, that no plan should have his support, that did not give to the people of Scotland a real, substantial, and, he was inclined to add, a prevailing voice in the nomination of the ministers of religion. He need not impress upon the House the great importance of the subject. No question had ever excited so intense and deep an interest as this question, in the country to which he belonged. The universal voice of the people of Scotland called for some important change in the system of patronage. He was a determined friend to the establishment of the Church of Scotland; and it was as a friend to that establishment, that he supported the proposition of his hon. friend, for the appointment of this Committee; and he earnestly hoped and believed, that the result of the labours of that Committee would be to maintain and strengthen the foundation of that Church, to which he considered Scotland to be chiefly indebted for her present condition of moral and religious welfare. To maintain and preserve the true principles of the constitution of that Church, he would give his cordial assent to the inquiry sought to be instituted by his hon. friend, the member for Caithness.

Sir Robert Peel

said, that, in his opinion, it would be waste of time to enter into arguments on the subject of Church patronage at this time, when a Committee was about to be appointed for the purpose of inquiry. Any arguments which he might be prepared to state against the Committee when the learned Lord had consented to the Motion, he was sure would be overruled. The hon. member for Kirkcudbright said, that the question must be decided by argument, but he (Sir Robert Peel) had not heard a single argument on the subject. The hon. Member also said, that there was a universal demand in Scotland for a change in the system of patronage. How was the House to judge of that feeling?—By petitions. There had been only ten petitions on the subject of Church patronage from Scotland presented during the whole of the present Session. The feeling was, therefore, not so strong as the advocates of a change would have them to believe. But supposing, that many petitions were presented, yet it was plain, that the object of them was to deprive one class of men of their rights, in order that they should be transferred to others. These rights had been recognised for upwards of 130 years, and they were as sacred as the rights of advowson in the Established Church of England. No inquiry could now be instituted into the conduct of the Parliament which established those rights, because such inquiry would lead to the destruction of the rights by which every species of property was held. If, as had been admitted, the patronage of the Crown was exercised with proper judgment—if there was a disposition to conciliate the prevailing feelings of the people, but, at the same time, to maintain such a control over them as to prevent an improper appointment—he thought such a privilege existed for a most useful purpose, serving as the link between the Church and the Crown which was sanctioned by the law. If that power and authority were exercised for the purposes of political partisanship, he would say such conduct constituted good grounds for investigation; but if it were honestly exercised for the purpose of rewarding young men of merit, who, though they might be unknown to, and unconnected with any parish, might still, if appointed to it, be of great service to the inhabitants, he would maintain, that the power of the Crown, so far from being diminished, should, if possible, he extended. But the real object of this Committee, was to introduce popular elections into the Church of Scotland, and he much doubted if the change would be found of advantage. It would lead to canvassing, and all the other evils of that species of election. If the result of the labours of the Committee were to destroy the patronage of the Crown, and place it in the hands of heritors, so far would the change be from doing good, that it would give less security for the choice of proper persons to officiate in the ministry than at present. Nay, more, by such a change, the harmony of parishes would be risked, in consequence of the bitter enmities which the opposing interests in a canvass would engender. For these reasons, he could see no prospect of improvement in the state of the Church of Scotland, from any alteration in the present laws.

Mr. Colquhoun

said, that the right hon. Baronet (Sir Robert Peel) had complained, that his hon. friend (Mr. Sinclair) had not stated sufficient grounds for his Motion for a Committee. His hon. friend had unquestionably felt, that in a case, at once so simple and so strong, it was sufficient to rest upon the proposal itself as its own justification; and so strong, indeed, had the case appeared to his Majesty's Government, that however averse they were to entertain the question, they had felt it impossible, with any colour of reason, to refuse his hon. friend's motion. What was his hon. friend's proposal? An Act of Parliament, the law of the land, was declared to be at variance with the canons and express constitution of the Church of Scotland. His hon. friend did not call upon them to repeal this—that was not then his proposal; he called upon them to inquire, through a Select Committee, whether the law was thus, indeed, at variance with the constitution of the Church, and what effect such a state of law produced upon the efficacy of the Church, and the feelings of the people. The right hon. Baronet compared this to an attack upon the right of advowson in the Church of England. Was there any canon in the discipline of the Church of England—was there any part of the constitution of that Church, which declared the right of advowson to be inconsistent with her principles? Yet, in the Church of Scotland, the right of patronage was specifically declared to be inconsistent with her discipline, and publicly denounced. Here, then, was an evident distinction between the two cases—in the one, a legal right to which the Church entirely conformed; in the other, a legal right, with which the constitution of the Church, and that the Established Church of part of this empire, was at direct variance. Was it unreasonable, that his hon. friend should call upon them to inquire into this singular anomaly—to examine, and, at least, to appreciate this diversity between the law of the land, and the law of the Church. His hon. friend sought for no declaration of opinion from the House, against the rights of patrons—he sought for nothing but a Committee of Inquiry, to discover what these rights were, and what the constitution of the Church was, to which they were said to be opposed. He would not follow hon. Members into the discussion of the question of patronage, nor would he be induced to take up the question mooted by the right hon. Baronet, of popular election of ministers. This only he would observe, that many individuals in the Church of Scotland, ministers of that Church, eminent in it for learning, were as opposed as the right hon. Baronet could be to a plan of popular election; and yet, holding that opinion, they not the less strongly maintained, that the rights of patrons were inconsistent with the principles of the Church, and ought to be extinguished. The question of popular election, therefore, was in no way involved in the present discussion. Believing, therefore, that his hon. friend's proposal was one so simple and equitable, that no reasonable opposition could be made to it, he trusted, that the House would feel, that his hon. friend had a fair and adequate claim for the Committee which he sought.

Mr. Gillon

said, that if the General Assembly were inclined to legislate on the subject, they had not power; and if they had the power, still they had not the inclination. The demand for a change was universal, from one end of the country to the other, and he thought, that it was then full time to make inquiry regarding it. The right hon. Baronet had objected to the election being put in the hands of the heritors; but did the right hon. Baronet know, that the heritors were but a very small portion of the intelligent inhabitants of a parish? There were many among the inhabitants of Scotch parishes, who were not heritors, yet were as intelligent, as well educated, and as proper judges of the qualifications requisite in their pastors, as any heritors could possibly be. He did not think, that the powers of election should be confined to the higher classes of society. If an Established Church meant anything, it meant, that the Church was established, not for the advantage of any particular class, but for the whole body of the people. He was confident, that nothing would satisfy the people of Scotland but giving to householders the right of choosing their own ministers. This was the feeling abroad. The call for a change was loud and incessant. He would support the Motion of the hon. member for Caithness, for he thought it would tend to detach the Church from the aristocracy, whose influence had always been baneful to its interests, as they employed the patronage for the purposes of political partizanship, rather than morality.

Mr. Sinclair

said, he had been reproached for having adduced no arguments in support of the proposition which he had submitted. He had adopted this course in order to save the time of the House, especially at so late an hour, and because he was not aware that any opposition would be offered to the Motion, or that any Scotch Members would turn a deaf ear to the prayers of so large a portion of the Scotch people. His hon. friend, the member for Aberdeenshire, had justly stated, that the Church of Scotland acknowledged no head but Jesus Christ. He wished that this doctrine had been held and acted on by the Tories of 1712. He should then have been spared the task of endeavouring to rescue the Christian population of Scotland from that galling yoke which Jacobite high-churchmen had imposed at that most inauspicious period. It had been maintained that patronage had at all times existed in the Church of Scotland. He had intended to have tried that system by the three-fold test of Scripture, Church usage, and expediency; but should not now enter on so wide a field, as he had so much reason to hope, that the subject was about to undergo a complete and dispassionate investigation. He himself had often expressed, and still continued to entertain, a strong opinion in favour of the rights of Christian people; but he should listen with the utmost attention to the sentiments of others, whose knowledge and experience entitled them to deference and respect. The General Assembly, whose sittings were limited to a few days, and which was employed, not only in debating many other important questions, but in hearing appeals from the decisions of the inferior judicatories, could not devote to the consideration of this question all the time which its importance required. In fact, he was only following up the views entertained and expressed by former Assemblies, from the reign of Queen Anne, until 1784, when the opposition to patronage was suspended, partly from the spiritual apathy which that system engenders, and partly from the utter hopelessness of success, whilst a Tory faction continued to lord it with a high hand over the dearest rights of the Scotch people. He had in his possession abundant proofs of the abhorrence in which this Church held patronage in her better and purer days; but should only read at present a few extracts from the declaration of the General Assembly in 1736. The hon. Member read the following extract:— Edinburgh, May 22, 1736. The General Assembly having taken in to their serious and deliberate consideration the Report of the Commissioners from the last General Assembly, sent to London to apply for redress of the grievance of patronage; and that in order to deliberate what resolution was proper for this assembly or this church to take, as to their future conduct with relation to this grievance; did thereupon agree upon this opinion and resolution—'That the Church of Scotland is, by her duty and interest, obliged still to persist in using her best endeavours, from time to time, to be relieved from the grievance of patronage, until the same shall, by the blessing of God, prove successful, and, for that end, that this Assembly shall impower and direct the commission to be appointed by them, to make due application to the King and Parliament for redress of the said grievance, in case a favourable opportunity for so doing shall occur during the subsistence of that commission. And this Assembly doubts not that future General Assemblies of this Church will, from time to time, be watchful and attentive to this weighty concern, and will not fail to make the like proper applications, whenever, by the Providence of God, a fit occasion shall offer itself. And as the intent of such applications are in order to procure to be restored to this Church a valuable right and privilege she was possessed of at the Union of the two Kingdoms; so the grounds and reasons of the claim of this Church to be restored to the enjoyment of that right are so strong and pregnant, that notwithstanding the unsuccessful event of the late applications, this Assembly cannot but hope, that some like application, renewed at a proper season, will prove successful. That notwithstanding the security of this our happy Establishment, in all its parts, was as great and as solemn as it was possible for human laws and constitutions to devise or execute, yet in prejudice of that security, as we apprehend, the Act in the tenth year of Queen Anne was passed, restoring to patrons the power of presenting, and suffering them at the same time to retain the valuable equivalent which they received by the 23rd Act 1690. And this act, 10th Anna;, it is well known, and always has been declared, was imposed upon this Church by means of persons of our own country, who were enemies to the Protestant succession, as they soon after discovered, in the strongest manner, and enemies to this Church, and to create discontents amongst the people therein, and to open a door for patrons arbitrarily to impose upon the people, as Ministers, persons proper for instilling into their minds principles of disloyalty and disaffection to the present happy constitution; which circumstance of the season and design of imposing this grievance, which appears to us an infringement on our established constitution, must ever afford an additional argument and encouragement in our applications to the Royal Family now reigning, and whom we daily pray to God ever to preserve and prosper. This precious memorial (he continued) of the fond attachment which our ancestors cherished towards the liberties of this Christtian people, bore him out in the assertion, that, by calling for the interposition of Parliament, he was only invoking the aid of that tribunal, to which former assemblies, from year to year, had instructed their Commissioners to appeal. Another object, which he had much at heart, was, to ascertain with precision, not only the grounds on which the original seeeders had left the Church, at the time of that unhappy and unhallowed contest, which had driven some of the ablest and most zealous champions of the Establishment from its pale (chiefly on account of the grievance of patronage); but also whether any reasonable concessions and salutary arrangements could be devised, which might enable those seceding congregations to return to the bosom of the Establishment, which had not yet cast off their allegiance to one of the fundamental principles of Presbyterianism, that there should be an indissoluble union between Church and State. Instead of entering upon any calculations of his own, he should read an extract from a communication sent to him by his excellent friend, Dr. M'Crie. The hon. Member again read the following extract:— Of Presbyterian dissenting congregations in Scotland there are 498 settled, or having Ministers, according to the Almanack. Of these, nineteen are in England, and seventy-four vacant congregations have to be added, making in all 553 congregations—half the number of parish Churches in Scotland, and 100 more. How many of these would return to the Establishment, if patronage were abolished, I cannot pretend to say; but I have no hesitation in saying that, if the abolition had taken place twenty or thirty years ago, the number would have been much greater, and every year that it is allowed to remain will render the hope of return less, and increase the ranks of those who are hostile to all Church Establishments. That surely demonstrated the expediency of appointing a Committee to inquire into this branch of the subject; one into which, for obvious reasons, the General Assembly itself could not be expected to enter. There were many other observations, which he should have been anxious to have made, but he could not think of further intruding on the attention of the House at so unseasonable an hour. He augured much benefit to the Church and people of Scotland from the appointment of this Committee. He trusted that its labours would be conducted in a spirit of calmness and forbearance, and of that wisdom which it is profitable to submit to, so that its results might be conducive to the glory of God, and to the prosperity and permanence of our Establishment.

The Committee was appointed.