HC Deb 26 July 1836 vol 35 cc573-83
Dr. Bowring

rose to present a petition containing allegations against the superior authorities in the Church of Scotland. The facts of the case were these:—In the year 1820 the petitioner was, or claimed to be, ruling elder of the High Church parish of Kilmarnock, and continued to perform the duties of that sacred office until the 27th of March, 1834, on which day he presided at a public meeting of the people for the purpose of petitioning the Legislature for the severance of the Church from the State. In less than twenty-four hours afterwards he was summoned to appear before the High Court of Session to answer for his conduct, which having done, he was threatened with the censure of the Superior Courts of the Church unless he confessed his fault, and apologized for attending the said meeting. But, notwithstanding his appeals to the Presbytery of Irvine and the Synod of Glasgow and Ayr, and the General Assemblies of 1834 and 1835, he was deposed from his high and respectable situation in the Scottish Church. The petitioner was not served with notice, stating the alleged offence or offences committed by him, nor any reason for such a cruel attempt to disgrace him as a magistrate in public estimation, to ruin his character, to destroy his usefulness, and to lower him in society. And although the petitioner's case is a solitary one, it has become an important and national case, inasmuch as the privileges and reputation of Magistrates, and the honour and purity of the Church of Scotland, as a body, are deeply involved; and he alleges that the latter, through its representations, had been guilty of a gross and daring persecution towards him. For, in the first instance, the General Assembly of 1834, when applied to by the Presbytery of Irvine for advice in this case, did without allowing the petitioner to be heard in his defence or exculpation, instruct the said Presbytery to depose him instanter from the office of eldership, unless he retracted certain unrecorded sentiments alleged to have been expressed by him; secondly, because the Presbytery of Irvine in consequence of the Assembly's award, did pronounce sentence of deposition on him, without granting him the opportunity of vindicating his character. That petitioner applied to the Synod of Glasgow and Ayr against the unjust treatment of the Synod of Irvine, but instead of being dealt with according to the laws of the Church, he was assailed with the vilest aspersions, and denounced by a reverend Gentleman as "a person who was courting an infamous notoriety." That the General Assembly of 1835, when appealed to against the illegal manner in which the petitioner was treated in all the preceding stages of this harassing case, instead of reversing the sentence of deposition from the office of eldership which had been recorded against him, finally confirmed it. The petitioner maintained that in presiding at the meeting he acted both magisterially and ministerially, and he could not conceive what authority there was under such circumstances to deprive him of his office, and to hold him up to his fellow citizens as one unworthy of confidence. He had not suffered, however, in his political status, as the inhabitants of Kilmarnock had again and again elected him as the baillie of that town. The petitioner went on to state the different appeals made for redress, but without effect, and asserted that though his was a solitary case, it was, nevertheless, an important one. The Church of Scotland had no more zealous member than he had always been, and he hoped the House would interfere and not sanction such a case of great injustice as that a man should be condemned unheard, and deprived of his situation in a church in which he had been brought up, for having discharged a peremptory public duty. The petitioner prayed that the House would afford him such redress as it deemed fit, under the harsh injustice of his case.

Sir George Clerk

said, that it was with great regret he felt it his duty to take an objection in limine to the reception of this petition. He was as ready as any Member of that House could be to throw open the door as wide as possible for the reception of the petitions and complaints of the people, but he thought that the House would act wisely in refusing to receive a petition which called upon it to do that which it was not in its power to do. But he would take still higher ground in opposing the reception of this petition; and with all due deference for the authority of that House, he would deny its right to interfere at all in the matter to which the petition referred. He would call upon the House to refuse to receive the petition, on the ground that the church of Scotland did not admit of the interference of any civil authority in matters relating to the internal discipline of that church. That right was sanctioned by the claim of rights presented by Scotland to King William III. at the revolution—it was sanctioned and established by the convention Parliament then held in Scotland—and it was guaranteed to the Church of Scotland by the act of union. He was ready to admit—the church of Scotland was ready to admit—that in all civil matters connected with that Church the Legislature had a right to interfere. The Church of Scotland did not refuse to render unto Cæ sar the things that were Cæsar's, but it would not allow of an interference with its spiritual and ecclesiastical rights, ratified as they had been in the manner he had stated, and which constituted the independence of the church government of Scotland, as represented in Presbytery boards, provincial synods, and the General Assembly. He would not enter into the merits of the case stated in the petition. He knew nothing of the meeting to which it referred, but circumstances had occurred at that meeting which induced the parochial session to deprive the petitioner of his office for his conduct there. From the decision of the presbytery of Irvine the petitioner appealed to the provincial synod of Glasgow, which confirmed that decision; and then on two several occasions he appealed to the General Assembly, which also confirmed the decision against him. How could the House of Commons possibly interfere in such a case? The petitioner had been deposed from the situation of elder by the only court competent to judge in the last resort. If they received this petition, complaining of a judgment pronounced by the appellate jurisdiction of the church of Scotland, they might just as well receive a petition from some other person, complaining of a decision of the House of Lords, acting in its judicial capacity as an appellate jurisdiction from the courts below. The case of the petitioner had gone through a regular trial, and the decision was final. Such was the argument which might be drawn from matters purely civil; but the question raised by this petition related entirely to church discipline, and on the ground that they could not interfere with that discipline, he (Sir G. Clerk) if he stood alone, would resist the reception of this petition.

Mr. Hume

said, that the objection taken by the right hon. Baronet to the reception of the petition could not be maintained. If the Church of Scotland were situated as the Catholic Church of Ireland was, and if it was not recognized by the law of this country, then indeed there would be something in the objection. It was upon the ground that the law of this country did not sanction the Catholic Establishment in Ireland that the petition relating to the discipline of that Church was on a former occasion refused to be received. But if that House had a right to interfere with the discipline and proceedings of the Church of England, it possessed an equal right with regard to the Church of Scotland, and every individual member of that Church was as much under the protection of the Legislature as the members of the Church of England. Various acts had been passed which proved the existence of such a power on the part of the imperial Legislature. The right hon. Baronet had said, that the Church of Scotland was ready to render unto Cæsar the things that were Cæsar's. He had cheered that sentiment, remembering, as he did, how often the Church of Scotland had come to that House begging for money. They granted 50,000l. at once to that Church, and they voted it 10,000l. annually. Should it be said after this vote of the public, that the King, who was the head of the Church of England and of the Church of Ireland, possessed not the same power through his commissioner over the Church of Scotland? His Majesty was represented by his commissioner, who presided over the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. Surely if the Church of Scotland should overstep its bounds, and take upon itself to interfere with the civil and political rights of an individual—if it should do that towards a member of its communion which would form a just ground of complaint on the part of a member of the Established Church of England, had not Parliament a right to interpose and give redress? The present petitioner, occupying, as he did, a distinguished situation amongst his fellow townsmen, presided at a public meeting held there. This displeased the local presbytery, and the offending party was dismissed from his situation of elder, without being allowed an opportunity to be heard before the tribunal that condemned him. Here was persecution of the highest kind—the employment of religious means to punish an individual for a political offence. If there existed no law empowering the Legislature to interfere in such a case and to give the subject relief, it was high time that such a law should be passed. He believed, however, that under the existing law the House had full power to interfere in such a matter. The House should not reject a petition which, like the present, was worded with the greatest propriety. There might be a question raised if his hon. Friend proposed some remedy that would interfere with the power of Presbyteries and Synods. There might be a difference of opinion on that point, and he was not at present able to say what he would propose in regard to it; but as to the reception of the petition he thought the House should not hesitate a moment in receiving it.

Mr. Fox Maule

said, that as regarded the reception of the petition he would leave it to the House whether a petition that was respectfully worded might not be received and laid upon the table. But with regard to the question whether the House could afford any remedy in this instance, he for one would deny the right of that House to interfere with the regulations and discipline of the Church of Scotland. The Church of Scotland recognized not such a right of interference, either on the part of Parliament or of the Government. On one occasion an order was sent down to Scotland to make certain alterations in the liturgy, and the Church of Scotland at once refused to recognize any such authority on the part of the Crown. He would put it, therefore, to his hon. and learned Friend whether, as it was clear that the House had no right to interfere, and would afford no remedy in this case, he would persist in laying the petition on the table of the House. He imagined that his hon. Friend's object was now fully gained in drawing public attention to the subject matter of the petition, and he would recommend him, under such circumstances to withdraw it.

Dr. Bowring

said, that the complaint of the petitioner was, that the Scotch Church had interfered in a matter where it had no right to interfere. The petitioner conceived that he had suffered a great grievance, and that he was bound to call the attention of Parliament to it. He thought, that when the Church of Scotland came to that House asking for money, it, of necessity, admitted the right of that House to control its proceedings where they were irregular and unjust. He was ready to withdraw the petition, if it was the opinion of the Speaker that it could not be received.

Mr. Pringle

said, that he could not sit silent after the confusion of ideas which had been exhibited on this subject by the two hon. Members opposite. He would maintain that the Church of Scotland had very properly dismissed this individual from the spiritual office of elder on account of his presiding at a meeting whose proceedings were incompatible with the duties of such an office, and he would further maintain, that the decision then come to was final, and that the Legislature had no right or power to disturb it. The hon. Member for Middlesex was quite mistaken in his idea of the position in which the Church of Scotland stood. That position had been most accurately stated by the hon. Member for Perthshire. While dependent in some temporal matters connected with the State, the Church of Scotland was, in spiritual matters, entirely independent. As to the King's commissioner, he merely sat in the assembly that he might be able to report to the King what had been done. In all that regarded spiritual jurisdiction and authority the King's commissioner was not entitled to interfere. In the same manner, the Church of Scotland was entirely independent of the authority of the Legislature, and that independence was guaranteed to it by acts of Parliament. He must protest, then, against any countenance being afforded to a petition like this, that called upon them to interfere with the discipline of the Church of Scotland. The reception of such a petition would diffuse general dissatisfaction throughout Scotland. The case was quite different as regarded the Church of England. The line of demarcation was not there drawn with the distinctness that it was in the instance of the Church of Scotland. He would defy any hon. Member to produce a precedent for legislative interference in a matter of the kind relating to the spiritual jurisdiction of the Church of Scotland.

Mr. Cutlar Fergusson

said, that he fully agreed with his hon. Friend, the Member for Perthshire, that the House had no right to interfere in this affair, and that it could not take cognizance of a mere matter of spiritual jurisdiction connected with the Church of Scotland. The petitioner had appealed to the highest tribunal in his Church, and he would say, that he not only ought to have been dismissed from his office of elder, but that it was impossible for the Church authorities of Scotland to have done any thing else. The petitioner presided at a meeting which was called upon to decide upon the separation of Church and State—in fact to put an end to the Established Church in Scotland. The petitioner besides, in his petition, stated, that there never would be peace in Scotland until such a separation was effected. Could the man that held such sentiments be continued for one day as an elder of that Church? He would not oppose the reception of the petition, but he hoped it would be withdrawn.

Mr. O'Connell

said, that upon one point, at all events, there could be now no confusion of ideas. It had been clearly laid down by the right hon. Gentleman who had just spoken, that it was a spiritual offence to talk of the separation of the Church from the State. [Mr.C. Fergusson: I said on the part of an elder.] No matter whether elder or younger—the right hon. Gentleman had laid it down that it was a spiritual offence. [Mr. C. Fergusson regarded it as a matter of spiritual discipline.] It mattered not whether the right hon. Gentleman regarded it as a matter of faith or discipline, his position remained the same. The Church and State must not be separated, and yet the State must have nothing to do with the spiritual jurisdiction of the Church. Was the Church of Scotland in a position to entitle it to claim that right, while it maintained its connexion with the State? He should be glad to see the State have no control over the spiritual affairs of the Church of Scotland, He thought that no church should have its spiritual affairs subject to the control or interference of the State; but he thought, at the same time, that no Church should be connected with the State. He quite agreed in the present instance with his Friend the petitioner, Baillie Craig. Suppose the Church of Scotland deprived a man of an office because he was a Tory, would that be justifiable? A Tory was not a very spiritual thing; indeed, it was the least in the world so. Now suppose the Church of Scotland deprived a man of a valuable benefice, because he was—what many considered a very laudable thing—a Tory; would not such an overstepping of the bounds of its spiritual jurisdiction by the Church of Scotland, and such a meddling in temporal matters, call for the interference of that House? The case of the petitioner was precisely of that description. He was deprived of his spiritual office, |because he had presided at a political meeting. Why, the same might have been done to him for presiding formerly at a meeting to petition that House for a reform in Parliament. What business had the spiritual court in Scotland to interfere in such matters? Those who contended that the Church and State should not be separated and who, at the same time, justified such a proceeding, were for placing, the Church over the State. He should be glad to see the petition laid on the table, though no man more entirely concurred in the opinion that the Legislature should not interfere in the spiritual affairs of any church.

Mr. Cutlar Fergusson

, in explanation, begged to say, that what he had said was, that an elder was a spiritual office, and that the spiritual court had a right to deprive the petitioner of it.

Sir James Graham

was never more surprised than by the speech just delivered by the hon. member for Kilkenny, recollecting as he did, that no subject had been more dwelt upon in the speeches, the addresses, and the letters, of that hon. Member, than the fact that the people of Scotland had, with their "good broadswords," achieved the independence of the Church. Was it for the hon. Member, who so repeatedly referred with praise to that fact in the history of Scotland, now to turn round and call for legislative interference with the spiritual authority of that Church? What the people of Scotland had conquered with heir arms had been recognised and guaranteed to them by repeated acts of Parliament, and the Act of Union had recognized the independence of their Church as complete and entire. He quite agreed with what had fallen from the Under Secretary of State (Mr. F. Maule). The Church of Scotland acknowledged the right of no authority to interfere with their ecclesiastical government. They recognized not the Sovereign of these realms as the head of their Church. The head of the Church of Scotland was an elective body, chosen partly of the laity, and partly of the clergy, and that head was the General Assembly. This petitioner had twice brought his case before that assembly, and twice it decided against him. This was no case of the loss of civil franchise. If, indeed, a civil injury had been sustained, there might be a civil remedy. It was a case of removal from an ecclesiastical office by the competent authorities of the Church. The hon. Member had no right to talk in the jesting way he did of "elders" and "youngers." The office of elder was a responsible and respectable one. With presbyters and moderators it formed a portion of that government for which the Scotch people had bled and conqured, and he (Sir J. Graham) would always contend for the privileges which that Church had guaranteed to it by the union. The question here regarded not the connexion of Church and State; it was whether the ecclesiastical authority of the Church of Scotland should be controlled by the Legislature, of which it was perfectly independent? The present petition was an attempt to interfere with that authority, and he hoped that the hon. Member would not press its reception. They had already enough of. disputed questions regarding church government, without interfering with the Church of Scotland. He would vote against its reception.

Mr. O'Connell

begged, in explanation, to say, that in the words he had used, to which the right hon. Baronet had alluded, he had not meant the slightest disrespect to any office in the Church of Scotland. He had always spoken of that Church with the greatest respect. He never intended to say anything disrespectful of any of its Members.

Mr. Hardy

did not see why the House should receive a petition where it could not afford a remedy.

Mr. Hume

contended, that where a subject complained of an injury his petition should be received.

Mr. Potter

said, that if the Church of Scotland was so independent and so spiritual, why did it come to that House for money?

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

said, that if the reception of the petition should be pressed to a division, he should vote for it. Though the House might not be able to afford a remedy, that was no reason for rejecting a petition. He hoped that it was not argued on the other side that the independence of the Scotch Church had been so guaranteed to it, that even if it exceeded its jurisdiction, and applied its powers to temporal matters, complaints against it for so doing could not be entertained by that House. He was glad to hear that that distinction was allowed. It was admitted he believed, on all hands, that with the spiritual powers exercised by the Scotch in this instance the Legislature had no right to interfere; but were they to go a step further, and to say, that in every case where a petition prayed for a remedy which the House had no means of affording, it should be rejected? If such a rule were strictly enforced, much of the time of the House might certainly be saved, for it was in the habit daily of receiving petitions of that kind. It was only the other day they had a petition before them (he referred to the Troutbeck case) which actually prayed for a new trial; and upon such a principle as he had mentioned, the petitions of which they had so many formerly, for the repeal of the union would have been rejected. The best rule, he thought, was to leave the matter to the discretion of hon. Members, and where petitions were respectfully worded, they should, generally speaking, be received. If they laid down an opposite rule, the House might appear to sanction, pro tanto, the contents of any petition it received. It was to the discretion of the hon. Member for Bandon that the House appealed when it called upon him to withdraw a petition from a Catholic Clergyman (Dr. Mulholland), praying for redress in a matter in which the House could not possibly interfere. He joined in the appeal of his hon. Friend, the Member for Perthshire to his hon. Friend, the Member for Kilmarnock, not to persist in presenting this petition. At the same time, if the hon. Member pressed it, he should vote for it. He quite agreed in the position that the House had no right to interfere in the matter.

Mr. Clay

hoped his hon. Friend would not withdraw the petition. The House could not see whether the Church of Scotland had overstepped the hounds of its spiritual jurisdiction if they refused to receive the petition.

Mr. Goulburn

hoped, that the hon. Member for Kilmarnock would answer the appeal of the Chancellor of the Exchequer by withdrawing the petition. If pressed to a division he would vote against it. He did not think it right to receive a petition when the House admitted it had no power to remedy, and no right to interfere.

Petition withdrawn.

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