HC Deb 06 May 1834 vol 23 cc610-22

On the question, that several petitions which had been presented for relief to the Dissenters do lie on the Table,

Mr. Gisborne

rose to make a few observations upon the petitions he had presented to the House from the Dissenters of various parts of the country. He supported the petitions so far as they prayed for the redress of all practical grievances; but as a separation between Church and State could not be effected without lacerating the religious feelings of an immense portion of the community, he was opposed to the prayer of all petitions that desired a severance of Church and State. His own opinion certainly was hostile to the union between Church and State, but he felt himself bound to pay some attention to the long established custom of the country, and to the feelings which that had engendered. Several of the petitioners were impressed with feelings of deep and sincere gratitude towards the two noble Lords he now saw in their places (Lord Althorp and John Russell) for the warm attachment they had on many former occasions evinced towards the Dissenters; and while they regretted, that very trifling measures of relief had been introduced by his Majesty's Government, they expressed a hope that those noble Lords would see the justice of further concession to the well-founded claims of the Dissenters.

Mr. Poulett Thomson

wished to say a few words upon the petition which was yesterday presented from the inhabitants of Manchester. With regard to its respectability no question could be entertained; at the same time it must not be supposed that the sentiments contained in it expressed the opinion of the vast number of Dissenters whose signatures it bore. To that portion of the prayer for the redress of practical grievances, not a single objection had been made: but with regard to that part which prayed for the separation of the Church and State, a very considerable difference of opinion existed among those who had affixed their names to it. He was prepared to support the petition so far as it prayed to be relieved from the payment of Church-rates, for a registration of births, marriages, and deaths, and for the celebration of the rites of marriage in their own chapels, provided it were secured in such a way as to prevent the possibility of fraud. To these three articles in the prayer he gave his cordial concurrence, hut he thought it right to state in that House, as he had stated to his constituents at Manchester, his total dissent from the prayer for a separation between the Church and the State. He considered it only another term for the complete annihilation of the Church Establishment. He did not think in the present constituted state of the country such a measure would be right or proper He regretted, that the measures of relief introduced by the Government had not met the concurrence of the Dissenters, particularly as his Majesty's Ministers were actuated by a sincere desire to relieve them from all practical grievances. He could not, however, agree with those Dissenters who regarded the measure introduced by his noble friend on the subject of Church-rates as a deviation of principle. He could not understand how those persons, who sought for a separation between Church and State, could deem it such, because whether the Church-rates were paid out of the Consolidated Fund or by means of a Land-tax, still the principle existed. As a measure of relief he must give his support to the bill of his noble friend. Having expressed his opinion on the sentiments contained in the petition, and how far he agreed to and dissented from them, he had only to recommend it, in consideration of the importance of its character, and the number of the signatures affixed to it, to the serious attention of the House.

Mr. Gillon

said, that the petitions he had that morning presented from that part of the empire to which he had the honour to belong, were signed by no fewer than 50,000 persons, of the greatest respectability and character. Those petitions had come from Glasgow, and he hoped they would receive from that House the attention to which they were entitled. He trusted, that these petitions, emanating from so large and so respectable a body of his countrymen, would meet with the fair and dispassionate consideration of the House. He trusted, that hon. Members would keep their minds open to reason and argument, however strongly biassed they might be on the subject of Church Establishments; at the same time that he felt assured there was no subject on which the opinions of Members of that House, and the public out of doors, so widely differed. In formerly presenting petitions of a similar nature, when he had ventured to impress on the House the strong feeling which existed in Scotland on this subject, he had been met, not by argument, but by jeers; not by proof that he was in the wrong, but by the unsupported assertions of Members opposite. Nothing was so easy as to make such assertions; but as to proving them, he must hold it to be out of the power of hon. Members to do so; at least it had not yet been attempted. The hon. member for Glasgow had presented, with some degree of triumph, a petition from that enlightened city, against patronage, signed by 32,000 individuals, and those names had been obtained by extraordinary exertion in a period of ten or twelve weeks, during which the petition had laid for signature; and in that number were many who were also favourable to the voluntary Church principle. There was nothing inconsistent in thus signing both petitions. The petition from Glasgow, which he had now the honour to present, was signed by 49,600 individuals, and their names had been appended during nine days that it lay for signature; and every precaution had been taken by the gentleman who had the charge of the petition, to prevent names from being improperly or surreptitiously adhibited to it. The petition on the same subject, which he had last year presented, was signed by 16,000 individuals, the present one by nearly 50,000. He begged to ask, did not this prove both a strong and a growing feeling on this subject. A petition from Edinburgh had been this year presented in favour of voluntary Churches, signed by 13,000 persons, while a declaration in favour of the Established Church, which had been hawked about from door to door, by a sort of home mission, who had eagerly canvassed for signatures, had obtained only 4,243. These facts did not quite agree with the statements of the hon. member for Caithness on that occasion, of the devoted attachment of the Scotch nation to their Established Church. On the presentation of the petition from Edinburgh, in favour of voluntary Churches, the hon. member for Caithness was reported to have said—" The opinions of the petitioners were repudiated by a great majority of the people of Scotland, whether piety, numbers, wealth, influence, or attachment to our national institutions, be adopted as the standard of comparison. Of all our national institutions, none was so dear to the people of Scotland as their Church! If religion were left to the unaided efforts of the community, without any public provision for its ministers, a great part of Scotland would be converted into a moral wilderness." That his countrymen were sincerely and devotedly attached to the cause of religion, and to their own pure and simple forms of worship, he was ready and proud to admit; but that they were generally attached to an establishment connected with the State he was ready as distinctly to deny. It was very far from his motives to make professions and high-sounding declarations as to the vast majority who were favourable to the existence of an Established Church, but he (Mr. Gillon) was able to corroborate his statements by facts and figures, which they were unable to do. But let the House see how the assertions could be supported. He would read to them some Returns. In Edinburgh and Leith, as he had once before stated in 1830, the Church accommodation stood thus:—

Sittings in Established Churches. Sittings in Dissenting Churches.
27,000 39,000

Difference in numbers of communicants much more striking.

In some places six to one—altogether three to two.
Churchmen 500,000
Dissenters 7,500,000
All the three Countries.
Dissenters 15,000,000

Since that period the relative difference had increased. But it was not to be supposed that those who built and supported their own churches, and maintained their own clergymen, besides providing for the churches and clergy of a favoured sect, would incur any great unnecessary expense; it was, therefore, fairly to be concluded that the Dissenting places of worship would be well filled, and the fact was, that they were so. This was proved by a Return which showed the comparative state of nine churches in the old town of Edinburgh, and of nine churches of the Associate Synod:—

"Nine places of worship of the Associate Synod:—Seats let, 8,472; sum drawn, 4,030l.; collection at doors in 1833, 2,410l.; gross stipend, 2,960l.; average ditto, 296l.; average price of sittings, 9s. 6d.; price paid for religious instruction per man, 7s.

"Nine churches of the Old Town:—Seats let, 4,424; sum drawn, 2,543l.; collection at doors in 1833, 862l.; gross stipend, 7,670l.; average ditto, 590l.; average price of sittings, 8s. Sd.; price paid for religious instruction per man, 1l. 7s. 6d." But what was the case as to the Established Churches in Edinburgh, after all the pious lamentations made by the adherents of the Established Church, that the people were lapsing into infidelity, owing to the want of sufficient church accommodation? We find by another Return laid before the Town Council on the 16th of December last, that there were in the Royalty of Edinburgh, in the Churches of the Establishment, 15,133 seats, of which there were let 9,218, free 1,100; unlet and unoccupied, 4,815; that the Established Church cost the city the sum of 12,300l. per annum more than the product of the nett rents, and that the seats which let the highest were comparatively well occupied, being filled by the rich, while those of low price, which were open to the means of the poor, were nearly deserted; and yet, after all this, there was an outcry to build more churches, not, as he believed, for the sake of instructing the people, but of providing stipends for more Ministers of the privileged sect.

In Glasgow the sittings were—

In Twelve Parish Churches 15,432
In Twelve Chapels of Ease 14,353
In all 29,785
In Fifty Dissenting Churches 45,151

But it was worthy of remark, that in those chapels of ease, though the hearers conformed to the doctrines and forms of the Established Church, they all partook of the voluntary principle. The force of this principle was admirably illustrated by a Return which could be thoroughly depended on. In Glasgow the church accommodation and population had been as follows:

Years. Population. Sittings in Chapels of Ease. Sittings in Dissenting Churches.
1780 43,832 &.. 8,101
1821 147,043 …… 32,397
1831 202,426 about 14,000 42,497

Thus showing at once the rapid increase of Dissenters in that city, and the facility with which the voluntary principle (for both chapels of ease and dissenting places of worship were supported by voluntary contribution) adapted itself to the increasing spiritual wants of the population.

In Aberdeen, which was reckoned the peculiar stronghold of the church, the sittings were—

In Six Parish Churches 7,620
In Five Chapels of Ease 5,420
Total 13,040
In Twenty-two Dissenting Churches 13,734

Such were the proportions of Churchmen and Dissenters in the places to which he had referred, and in all the best educated parts of Scotland Dissenters would be found to predominate. It was only by taking in the Highlands, and comparatively uneducated districts, that the Churchmen could be brought to an equality in point of numbers. If they glanced for a moment at England, they would find by a Return laid on the Table of this House, in 1830, that in Lancashire there were in all 281 churches and chapels connected with the Establishment, while there were 590 Dissenting places of worship attended by 255,411 hearers. In Newcastle, Sunderland, Morpeth, and Bishop Wearmouth, the relative numbers were as follows:—Sittings in Established Churches 14,000, hearers 8,300; sittings in Dissenting Churches 29,633, hearers 21,035; while the relative difference in numbers of the communicants was still more striking—while the difference in point of numbers was as much as six to one in some places in favour of Dissenters over the Churchmen in all England, the former would be found to predominate by, at least, three to two. In Ireland the disparity was but too notorious, where a population of 8,000,000 were taxed and fettered, and oppressed for the support of the creed of 500,000. But of the population of the three portions of the empire he was within the truth when he said, that from 17,000,000 to 18,000,000 dissented from the Established Churches of these countries. It was but too plain that Dissenters after all the promises made by the Government were to expect no effectual relief. They were now pretty generally convinced throughout the country that such was the case. In this opinion they must be confirmed by the result of the interview of the deputation who had come from Glasgow with this petition, with the noble Lord at the head of his Majesty's Government, whose opinions on that occasion had given such unqualified satisfaction to one of the ultra Tory party in another place. His Lordship seemed to be equally misinformed as to the number of Dissenters in the country, and as to the nature of the churches which he professed himself so anxious to defend. When informed that the petition from Glasgow had been signed not only by many of the Magistrates of Glasgow, but by many churchmen, he is reported to have said, that those were only members of the Kirk of Scotland. What was meant by this expression he could but guess—that it was necessary to have mitres, and crosiers, and lawn sleeves, to have an episcopal staff of Bishops, and prebends, and rectors—to have pampered dignitaries and starving curates—to have wealth, and pomp, and worldly show, in order to entitle any body of professing Christians to the name of a Church. They rejoiced in Scotland that they had put from them these things, that the Churches there of all denominations were based on the rock of poverty, and appealed not to the senses but to the consciences of men. The Dissenters made no war upon the Church, they aimed rather at her purification and exaltation; and he held himself to be not the less worthy of being a Member of that body, that he would object to the bond which bound him with the state in an unscriptural and unholy union. The proposition of the noble Lord, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, in regard to Church-rates, was an insult to the understandings of Dissenters. As he had before ventured to express, the proposition involved a direct tax on the people of Scotland, however the noble Lord might attempt to cloak or conceal this fact by laying the 250,000l. of the public resources which was to be appropriated to the payment of Church-rates on the Land-tax of England and Wales. But, said the noble Lord, sums had been allotted already from the public treasury for the building of churches in Scotland, and increasing the stipends of the clergymen. This was certainly very consolatory to the Dissenters of Scotland, to hear this kind of language:—"We tax you" it was said, for the support of a dominant Church in your own country; we further give certain sums out of the public revenue, to which you contribute your share, in further aid of this privileged sect; and we now call upon you, in consideration of these manifold blessings and kindnesses, to contribute to the support of the Established Church of England." And let it be further recollected that in aid of this Established Church one million had been granted for the building of Churches; that another million had been lent to the established clergy of Ireland, to remunerate them for the deficiency of the tithes, which with all their Bills for composition, for commutation, and coercion—with all their military and armed police—notwithstanding all the innocent blood that had been shed in the various tithe affrays which had taken place, they had not been able to collect. He presumed that no one expected that this loan was to be repaid; and the Government was about to add 5,000,000l. to the capital of the national debt, in order to maintain the Episcopal Church of England, the richest as it was, and the most corrupt Church in the world, and which, it would appear, had so little hold on the affections of its votaries, that they could not be induced to contribute 10d. per man, for that was the amount it would cost each individual, to preserve its sacred edifices from tumbling to decay. The ignorance that prevailed on Church subjects was very great. Members generally were impressed with the belief, that no Church-rate was paid in Scotland—there could not be a greater mistake. No money was paid under that name, but Churchmen and Dissenters alike, besides paying stipend to the Established clergy, were called on to contribute to the building and repairing of churches, of church- yard walls, and of the manses of the established clergy. He had been informed, not a month ago, by one of his constituents in the town of Falkirk, that, being a Dissenter and an heritor in an adjoining parish to the amount of about 200l. per annum, he had lately been assessed 80l. for the building of a Church in that parish. Another species of Church-rate pressed heavily on the people of Scotland, and which was nearly entirely overlooked by hon. Members; he meant the sums yearly wasted in litigation concerning assessments, augmentations of stipend, &c. He had returns which showed, that these burthens, in a parish with which he was acquainted, the parish of Denny, had amounted in the last thirty-two years, to the enormous sum of 7,171l. 9s. 1d., or 224l. 2s. 2d. for each year, besides all the bad blood and unchristian spirit which had thus been generated. These were the fruits of an Established Church. Was it for a moment to be supposed, that this large body, of which he had spoken, would continue to suffer, without complaint, the grievous injustice under which they now laboured, of being taxed for supporting Churches and Establishments from which they conscientiously dissented? This, he maintained, was equally an outrage upon common sense and upon those rights of conscience which every one was free to enjoy. It was part and parcel of that spirit of bigotry and intolerance which formerly caused men to be burnt at the stake—which deprived them of civil rights and privileges—because they could not mould their consciences to suit the dictation of the rulers of the day. These disqualifications had been in part removed, many still remained, and the bad principle was still in force, while compulsory assessments continued to be levied. An Established Church must be based on the assumption, that its form and tenets were right, and that those of other sects were erroneous; and yet it so happened, that in the British dominions, there were established churches, all, of course, right, and yet all essentially differing from each other. It had been frequently thrown out as a charge against those who adopted the voluntary principle, that they wished to overthrow all religion, and to appropriate to themselves the property of the Church. No accusation could be more false or base. Their known piety sufficiently rescued them from the one, neither did they seek to require for themselves any portion of the Church property, notwithstanding the example set them by the aristocracy at the period of the Reformation. It was not difficult to see why such zeal was manifested by the latter class for the stability of the Church, when it was recollected how many of their relations and dependents were thus conveniently quartered on the public. If Church establishments were, as he contended, the mere work of men's hands, they might be altered or abolished when the times demanded such a change. If they were ordained in Scripture he should bow to them, but only when their supporters should be able to point out to him such high authority. The noble Lord, the Paymaster of the Forces had said, that "tithes were the invention of a barbarous age;" with equal propriety might the same be said of Church Establishments. They existed not in the earlier and purer ages of Christianity; they had been the means of introducing corruption, and hatred, and bloodshed among Christians; they were unscriptural in their origin, and unjust in their operation. Christianity would never shine out in full lustre, till this veil were removed which concealed its brightness. The Church of Christ would never appear in its proper position till relieved from the trammels of legislation, and from those State obstacles by which her progress had been hitherto impeded. That House was bound to legislate for the protection and happiness of the people in all temporal matters; but rulers stepped beyond the limits of all just authority who dared to interfere between man and his Creator, or who wished to dictate to any one the tenets he was to profess, or the forms of worship he was to adopt, in addressing himself to the all-bounteous Author of his being.

Colonel Evans

observed, that the tone of the petitions of the Dissenters ought to show Ministers the impolicy of half-measures on this subject. Their language and desires had become much more violent than before, since they found that his Majesty's Government was disposed to do little or nothing to relieve them. Religious establishments, in his opinion, should not be supported by large revenues, any more than civil offices should have large salaries. He could adduce several instances in the metropolis to show that compulsory payments were not necessary for the support of the Church. With regard to the admission of Dissenters to the Universities, he believed that Constantinople and Madrid were the only two metropolises besides London, where a college did not exist for all classes.

Mr. Langdale

alluded to the petition he had presented from fifty Catholic clergymen, complaining of the measure which had been introduced by Government on the subject of marriage, and urged the necessity of some effective legislative enactment on the subject. There had of late been several instances of marriages, which had taken place in Unitarian places of worship, when a simple protest had been made at the altar, and he put it to the House whether any person could desire to witness the repetition of such scenes?

Lord Althorp

admitted to the hon. Member that very considerable grievances existed on the subject of marriage. He did think it a great grievance on the Dissenters of every description to compel them to go to a Church from which they differed for the performance of what could not be fairly termed a civil ceremony, but was more properly one of a religious nature. The Bill of his noble friend removed those grievances; for although the performance of the rite of marriage was purely religious, such could not be said of the publication of bans. The Government had proposed to relieve the Dissenters in this respect, but it was well known, that the Dissenters were dissatisfied with the proposed measure on the ground that it did not go the whole length of their desires. It therefore became useless to pass a Bill of that nature. With respect to an entire separation of the Church and State—that was to say, the destruction of the established religion of the country—he was not prepared to concur in any proposition that would have that effect. The hon. member for Westminster had said, that half measures on this subject were impolitic, and that it was not till after the introduction of the Dissenters' Marriage Bill that the language of the Dissenters had assumed so violent a tone. It was, however, well-known, that such language was used long before the introduction of that Bill. It was used when it became generally known, that it was not the intention of Government to put down the Established Church. He had often stated in that House, that he was prepared to join with the Dissenters in any measures for the redress of all practical grievances, whether it was with respect to the celebration of marriage, the registration of births and burials, or the payment of Church-rates; but that those measures must be consistent with the preservation of the Church Establishment. He had hoped that the Dissenters would have been greatly relieved by the Bill he had introduced relative to the payment of Church-rates, and he still thought, if the Bill should pass, it would afford them considerable relief; but he was well aware, that when it was imagined by any class of individuals that they possessed sufficient power to carry their own wishes into execution, they were dissatisfied with every measure that did not go the whole length of their desires. Should that Bill pass, however, the distinction would not be so great hereafter as it was at present, and he earnestly hoped he should be able to carry it.

Mr. James Oswald

said, I have been requested to support the prayer of the petition from Glasgow, and I regret much, that while I concur with them on many points, I cannot go along with them in all the views which they have adopted. It appears to me, that the petitioners would have acted more wisely had they limited the prayer of their petition to the redress of grievances and the reformation of abuses. I am warranted in saying this, as I find large bodies of Dissenters who disapprove of a portion of the petition. There has hitherto existed in Scotland an exceedingly good understanding between the Church and the Dissenters. This, petition has, in my mind, tended to diminish that good feeling. The petitioners propose to separate the Church from the State—in other words, to apply the revenues of the Church to State purposes. It is very easy to make such a proposition, but is it wise to do so now, or is it all likely that such a proposal will be adopted? The Church is a very powerful body, and very powerful as a political body, independently of all considerations connected with religion. Is it likely that this very powerful body will quietly, and at once, relinquish its great power and influence? In my opinion, it will not. I feel quite satisfied, that any attempt to press such a measure would lead immediately to a fierce collision between the two parties, and would endanger the peace and tranquillity of the country. Sir, it is my determination to resist everything that will in my mind tend to so lamentable a result. While I say this, and while I declare my determination not to lend my aid to any measure which will tend to overthrow the Established Church. I am, at the same time, ready to admit that, in my opinion, the petitioners have in principle the best of the argument. If I am right in this opinion, I conceive that I am also warranted in believing, that in this age of information and inquiry the opinions of the petitioners will gain ground—will gain ground amongst those whose opinions are the most to be valued. Sir, I feel quite satisfied of the correctness of the opinion, that Church property is in fact the property of the State, except in as far as may have been acquired from private bequests, and that no man ought to be made to pay for a religion which his conscience docs not permit him to approve of. Sir, I feel gratified that these opinions are gaining ground in the country; and with all deference to those who differ from me, I may be permitted to say, that he is a very bold man, and one who has not looked accurately at the signs of the times, who will assert the contrary. If a great majority of the nation should adopt such opinions, the Church Establishment, as a matter of course, would cease to exist. I have no difficulty in supposing, that such an event may gradually and quietly take place, and without any hostile collision between the parties, and without any danger to the peace and tranquillity of the realm, and also, Sir, without any danger whatever to the interests of religion, for I will not pay so bad a compliment to the members of the Established Church as to fancy for a moment that their zeal for the interests of religion would relax or diminish on the withdrawal of the funds of the establishment. On the contrary, Sir, I believe that, in such an event, each Church would stimulate the other to increased works of piety and benevolence; but, Sir, this period has not arrived, and I cannot, therefore, support that part of the prayer of the petition which goes to do away with the Established Church.

Sir Richard Vyvyan

said, he had presented many petitions in support of the Church, all of which had his most cordial concurrence. So long as the country was governed by a King, that King must be of some religion, therefore the Church and State must be connected until the country changed from a monarchy to a republic.

Petition to lie on the Table.

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