HC Deb 13 June 1834 vol 24 cc421-5
Mr. Emerson Tennent

held in his hand a Petition, to which he felt a more than ordinary anxiety to direct the attention of the House, as well from the intrinsic importance of its prayer, as from the fact of its deeply involving the interests of one class of the community, in whose behalf, whatever differences of opinion might exist with regard to other points connected with the Church of Ireland, he (Mr. Emerson Tennent) believed there existed but one feeling of respect, and, he regretted to add, of commiseration; he referred to the working clergy of the Established Church in that country. Their present appeal was one directed, not to the feelings of the House as sectarians or partisans, but to their sense of justice as Legislators, and to their feelings of humanity as men; and he trusted although he was not prepared to bring forward any specific motion on the subject of the petition, this notice of its prayer would not be without practical and beneficial effects to the petitioners. It would be in the recollection of the House, that by an Act of 1803 (the 43rd of Geo. 3rd, c. 106), the Commissioners of First Fruits in Ireland, were empowered to advance certain sums of money without interest, to the clergy of the Established Church, for the erection and repairs of glebe-houses in their several parishes. The amount of these sums was to be calculated in proportion to the value of the respective livings, and never exceeded he believed one and a half or two years net income of the several incumbents, which was to be refunded by sixteen instalments of six per cent each, and one of four per cent, payable to the Treasury by the various recipients. This Act was amended by a subsequent one in 1823 (the 4th George 4th, c. 86), by which it was enacted, that all balances then owing, and all loans to be thereafter made, were to be repaid by twenty-five annual instalments of four per cent each, recoverable by summary process by the Commissioners of First Fruits; and thus the law at present stood, exclusive grants having under its provisions been made to numbers of the Irish clergy proportionally, as he before stated, to the annual value of their living. It was needless to remind the House, that since that period, immense reductions had by various events been made in the incomes of the Irish clergy, as well by the peculiar circumstances of the country as by the legislative measures for their relief, and particularly by the regulation of tithes and the heavy percentage payable on the advances made to the clergy under the Million Act (3rd and 4th William 4th, c. 100.) In numerous instances, these reductions had amounted to thirty per cent. He knew of one case in his own immediate neighbourhood where the reduction was thirty-four per cent, and he had reason to believe, that they had mounted so high as even fifty-six per cent on the net income of the incumbent. The House were likewise well aware that, even under these circumstances of decline in the amount, the clergy in several districts of Ireland, had found it impossible for some time past, more especially in the years 1832 and 1833, to collect even the residue of the nominal incomes, and that in numerous instances they had been reduced, with their families, to a state of houseless and literal destitution. During this period, the instalments of these loans from the Board of First Fruits had remained, and still remained, for the most part unpaid, and payment of these was now promptly demanded by the Board of Ecclesiastical Commissioners. Should this demand be enforced, attended as such a process must be by the costs of law proceedings, the results must be, to many of the clergy, of the most ruinous and disastrous kind. The petition which he had then to present, after briefly setting forth these circumstances, sought from the House what he conceived to be a most moderate and reasonable species of relief. With regard to the arrears accumulated during the last two years, the petitioners asked not for their remission, though even this he could scarcely, under such trying circumstances, consider an unreasonable request; but simply, that the payment, instead of being summarily insisted upon now, should be postponed to the end of the term, at which it was originally calculated that the whole sum should have been refunded, and that these two last years should be regarded altogether as anni non; in other words, that the term for the repayment of the sums advanced should be extended from twenty-five to twenty-seven years. As a mere matter of computation, the loss of interest on the debt which would thus be incurred, would be but trifling in comparison to the benefits which would result from the measure. The total amount of instalments due on the 1st of July, 1832, amounted to 7,564l. 19s. 4d. Of this a small proportion had been paid; as much, at least, as would be an equivalent for any increase to the original debt, by sums which had since been lent. So that he might fairly say, taking the amount due in 1833 to be the same as in 1832, that the entire arrears did not exceed 15,000l., which the Irish clergy asked an extension of time to enable them to refund. Under all the pressure of existing circumstances, and the admitted sufferings of the parties, he hoped that such a request would not be without its due weight in the quarter by which relief could be afforded. But the petition contained likewise another prayer, which on every principle of justice and of equity he considered to be entitled to consideration. By the intention as well as by the operation of the Acts of 1803 and 1823, the advances to be made by the Board of First Fruits were to be calculated in proportion to the existing annual value of the livings for the benefit of which they were designed; that was to say, that the sums thus expended were to be in proportion to the means and ability of the clergy for their repayment. Those means had now been diminished, chiefly by the operation of the law itself; and the petitioners now asked, as they were entitled to ask, that the instalments for which they were responsible should be reduced in a like proportion. The House would at once perceive, that this was a very different demand from that of any private individual who might wish to deviate from a previous contract for his own private advantage; for in this case the incumbent, who was in the position of a debtor to the Commissioners, was in reality contributing from his private income for the erection of houses which were hereafter to be the property of his successors in the Church, and in such a point it was the duty of the Government to lighten, as far as was just and equitable, the burthen of his contribution. The Petition contained likewise some suggestions for the regulation of some minor points connected with the subject; but, as he had alluded to its more important suggestions, he would not further trouble the House. He had felt it his duty to say thus much on behalf of a class of men whose merits, though much and deservedly extolled, were still, he believed, but imperfectly known—the really working clergy of the Irish Church. The reform which he would wish to see introduced into our Church Establishments would tend to give a permanent relief and an honourable independence to the men on whose exertions the maintenance of the Church and the extension of its doctrines really depended. And if, instead of proceeding to violate what he considered to be a legal and an equitable right—the right of the Church to its endowments and its property—if, instead of proceeding to violate this, and to secularize that which was designed by its donors for ecclesiastical purposes alone, the Legislature, as guardians of the trust, would make such a fresh appropriation of the property of the Church as would take from the pampered prelates and overpaid dignitaries of the Establishment, to bestow the surplus on the struggling clergy and the indigent curates, they would be effecting such a reform as the Church really required and the country had a right to demand. Nor did he believe, if that were effected,—if a fair and substantial independence were conferred upon every member of the Establishment,—that the funds of the Church would be found too ample for the purpose, or that any "surplus" would remain to excite the envy or give rise to the contentions of other sects. The Petition, in addition to other clergy, was signed by the Rectors, Prebends, and Vicars, and the Archdeacons, Deans, and other dignitaries of the dioceses of Down, Armagh, and Dromore.

Petition to lie on the Table.

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