HC Deb 17 May 1836 vol 33 cc1032-40
Sir William Rae

rose to move an address to his Majesty, that he would be graciously pleased to require the Church of Scotland Endowment Commissioners to report forthwith on the matters referred to them, in so far as the same relate to the city of Edinburgh. He trusted that some satisfactory Report on this subject would be returned as soon as possible. A number of petitions had been forwarded to the House, to show that the Commission had not been able to provide for the wants of the Church, and the poor were therefore deprived of the means of religious instruction. The citizens had themselves subscribed a large sum to provide religious instruction for the poor, and all that was required was, that Government would enable them to bring down the seat-rents, so as that the poorer classes might enjoy the advantage. He had felt it his duty to bring the question before the House on a former occasion, and he had made a motion to that effect, on which a debate was taken. The question was decided by the noble Lord opposite requesting him to withdraw his motion, and assuring him that the Government would appoint a Commission to inquire into the subject. The Commission was appointed accordingly; and he appealed to the recollection of every hon. Member who was present, whether the instruction to them to report from time to time, was not understood to mean for the purpose of applying a remedy to those places where the want of church accommodation was most pressingly felt? Yet what was the result? Instead of any remedy being applied, the Commissioners up to this moment had actually made no Report at all; and, what was still worse, he learned from high authority that none would be made this Session. Nay, he had heard that one of the Commissioners doubted whether a Report should be made at all. Under these circumstances he felt called upon to bring the subject once again before Parliament, for the purpose of compelling the Commissioners to report to the House, or to state their reasons for withholding it. The question at issue was, whether or no there was to be a grant made for church accommodation in Scotland? If there was, why not ascertain at once where it was most needed, and apply it without delay? If not, where was the use or the advantage of keeping up an expensive Commission? That Commission had now been a year in operation; it cost the country 10,090l., and no one was aware of what it had done as yet, inasmuch as there was no fruit of its labours apparent. It was proposed, moreover, to keep it on foot for several years longer. In that case it would consume more money than twice or even thrice the amount of the entire grant required. A hundred churches might be endowed out of the sum already expended. He had been informed that the Edinburgh district was completed, and that the Glasgow was nearly finished. Why should not the Commissioners report on the former, or on both, if ready? Under these circumstances he felt bound to press his motion. If, however, the noble Lord opposite would give him an assurance that he would obtain a Report in the present Session of Parliament, so as to make it available for legislation, he would withdraw it, otherwise he should consider it his duty to take the sense of the House on the subject. The hon. Baronet concluded by moving the address.

Lord John Russell

thought that it was a very unusual course to address the Crown to require a Commission to report forthwith respecting an inquiry which was not concluded, without regard to the state of preparation in which it might be, thus taking out of the hands of the Crown the direction of a Commission appointed by the Crown. It was his belief, that if the Government to which the right hon. Gentleman belonged, or the Government of which he himself was a member, had asked the House for a grant of money to the Church of Scotland, without sufficient proof that that grant was necessary, and that the Church of Scotland did not supply abundant means for religious instruction, the House would have declined, and he thought very properly, to advance that grant without further inquiry. He had not felt justified in proposing such a grant without further inquiry, and many hon. Members had been of opinion that it would be improper to do so. The instructions which had been issued to the Commission comprehended a great variety of objects, demanding much investigation, both as to the state of the Established Church and the Dissenters, as to the numbers of those who attended public worship, either in Established churches or in Dissenting chapels, and requiring a statement of the means which were applicable to the religious wants of the country. The Commission had been appointed about the beginning of August, and began its labours about the end of September. A great portion of their time—two or three months—had been taken up in framing queries and instructions, and devising modes by which their investigation could be best pursued. They had issued 1,000 circulars, requesting very detailed information, and had received answers from ministers of the Established Church and the Dissenting community, with many valuable communications respecting the objects of their inquiry. In January last they had proceeded to Edinburgh, and examined many witnesses, among them the principal clergy of the town. Immediately afterwards they had gone to Glasgow, where they examined about 200 witnesses. He thought it was not at all wonderful, that having been so occupied, very often from seven to eight hours a-day, they should not yet have been able to make any Report of their labours to Parliament. The circumstance which prevented the Report from Edinburgh being received was this:—One of the members of the commission, who had undertaken to draw up that part of the Report, became unable, from ill health, to fulfill his engagement, and as he had in his possession the data on which it was to be founded, the Commissioners were prevented from completing it. He was not sure that they could make the Report perfect; that they would be able to show what funds were available for the purpose of religious instruction; and if it were presented to the House, he was not prepared to say that it would afford sufficient grounds for the grant of a sum of money to the Church of Scotland. He thought, however, that when they had had the advantage of consulting the gentleman to whom he had re- ferred, it would be more advisable for them to make a Report relative to Edinburgh immediately, than to defer it to the end of the Session. He had expressed that opinion previously to them, and it was certainly his intention to express it again; at the same time he was not inclined to send any official order, any peremptory summons, requiring them to make this Report. He was satisfied that they had conducted the inquiry with great care and impartiality, and he did not think that any opinion he could form as to the time when their Report might be made, would be so well-worthy of attention as the mature decision at which they would themselves arrive in the close of their labours. A private intimation appeared to him to be the best course of proceeding he could adopt. With regard to the examinations of witnesses by the Commission, he believed they had been conducted with perfect fairness, and its members had acted together with a most praiseworthy spirit of harmony and anxiety for the public interests. The noble Lord concluded by saying, that he should move as an amendment, that there be laid before the House a copy of the letter from the Secretary of the Church of Scotland Endowment Commission, addressed to the Under Secretary of State for the Home Department, in May, 1836.

Mr. Gillon

had read the evidence given before the Commission, and it appeared to him that the Dissenters were not precluded by the highness of their seat-rents from supplying religious instruction to the poorer members of their congregations. He took this opportunity of protesting in behalf of the Dissenters against the Report of the Commission, as the Report of a one-sided body. He very much regretted that Government had been induced to appoint that Commission, and he could see no good that was likely to result from it. The effect of it would be to increase the religious dissensions which unfortunately prevailed to such an extent in Scotland". If the Commission recommended an endowment to one particular sect in that country, at present denominated the Established Church, it would take a one sided view of the subject, and if Government granted a sum in compliance with that recommendation, the measure would be productive of much dissatisfaction among the people of Scotland.

Sir George Clerk

said, that the hon. Member who bad just sat down took every opportunity of manifesting his hostility to the Church of Scotland, and therefore it was, that he protested in anticipation against the Report of the Commissioners. He (Sir George Clerk) had no earthly objection to the hon. Member espousing the cause of the Dissenters with as much zeal as he thought necessary; but he strongly objected to his doing so at the expense of the character and feelings of others. On a late occasion, the hon. Member had, in a manner, and in language, altogether unworthy of him, taken an opportunity of reviling and vilifying one of the purest, the most learned and the most pious bodies of men in Europe—the clergy of the Church of Scotland in Edinburgh. With respect to the question before the House, it was undeniable that there was a want of church accommodation for the poor in Scotland. It was also undeniable that the understanding was on the appointment of the Commission, that it should report from time to time, for the purpose of applying the remedy provided for by the grant to those places which more immediately were in need of it. He admitted, that the course proposed by his right hon. Friend, to address the Crown, for the purpose of making the Commissioners report was an unusual one; and he would beg to suggest one which was less startling, and which he was sure would have the support of the hon. Member for Middlesex. He would propose that the vote of 10,000l. included in the miscellaneous estimates to be brought on next Friday, should be withheld until the Commissioners' had shown the House what they had done to deserve it. If that would not be more effectual than the private admonition of the noble Lord he was very much mistaken.

Mr. Horsman

felt himself to a certain degree implicated by the motion of the right hon. Baronet—as he had the honour to be one of the Commissioners whose conduct was under discussion—and as, before he was a Member of that House, he was one of those on whom both individually and collectively the hon. Bart. who spoke last (Sir G. Clerk) had made his personal attacks—he trusted that the House would excuse his intruding on them for a moment to explain the position of the Commissioners, of whom the public had hitherto heard chiefly through their opponents. And first he must say, as one of those Commissioners, that he felt the motion of the right hon. Baronet was of an invidious nature. On what was it founded? Solely on his own assumption, unsupported by any evidence or argument that those Commissioners wished to avoid their duty—that they were tardy in their inquiries, and backward in making their Report. It was quite consistent that the right hon. Baronet, who did everything to oppose and decry the Commission in the first instance, should now do his utmost to thwart and misrepresent its labours. But it was not consistent in him, who at that time predicted everything that was bad from it, and that its Report would be worthless, that he should now show such an anxiety for its appearance, as if it must needs be perfect. One thing was especially gratifying in the discussion of that evening, that the right hon. Baronet who brought forward this motion, now did full justice to the character of the Commissioners; but ought not the error he formerly fell into concerning them to have made him more cautious now? He had been mistaken once about their characters—might he not be equally mistaken again about their motives? The House, however, would judge for itself how far the right hon. Baronet was justified on the very insufficient, grounds that he had shown in requiring it to adopt a course of conduct towards these Commissioners to which no Commissioners had ever been subjected before, depriving them of that discretion with which they were necessarily intended to be invested, and calling on them to make a Report before they were prepared to do it, either with satisfaction to themselves or with advantage to the public. He admitted, that there was an anxiety for this Report, and that it was desirable that it should be made as soon as possible, but he was prepared to show that no unnecessary delay had taken place. It was true that the Commission was appointed in July, as the hon. Member had just stated, but the question was not as to the date of the appointment, but the period at which their labours could be commenced. Parliament did not rise till some time after that, which was one cause of delay, and there were others over which those Commissioners had no control. No Member of this House who was in Scotland at that time, could be ignorant of the excitement that was created on the appearance of this Commission, and the difficult and delicate, and even painful situation in which the Commis- sioners at times found themselves placed. And this he must say, and he said it with no feelings of acrimony towards him now, that it was the hon. Baronet to whom he was replying that the Commissioners had to thank for the reception they had met with; for, no sooner had the names of the Commissioners been gazetted than the hon. Member for Mid Lothian rose in his place in that House, and, assuming to himself an intimate acquaintance with their characters and qualifications, put forth a statement to the public which was most unfair, most unjust, and most unfounded. He knew not how far the conduct of the clergy was to be attributed to be misrepresentations of the hon. Baronet; but this he knew, that they generally adopted his tone, and even his arguments and his facts. The General Assembly of the Church was especially convoked on the occasion, and they proceeded to record their opinion by a strong and deliberate resolution that the Commission, so constituted, could not be interested in the welfare of the Church, nor entitled to her confidence; and the temper of the discussion was such as to show that the Assembly neither recognised the legality, nor were prepared to aid in the labours of the Commission. Other similar meetings were held where similar opinions were expressed, and it was not until the end of September, that at another especial meeting of the General Assembly, Dr. Chalmers, for the first time, proposed that the hostility to the Commissioners should cease, and assistance be afforded to their inquiries. But even then considerable delays necessarily elapsed before the Commissioners could get answers to their circulars, as many of the clergy were still doubtful as to the course the body might ultimately adopt, and waited for instructions from their respective Presbyteries. Such was the situation in which the Commissioners found themselves at the end of last year. He did not state it of the clergy as a matter of complaint; on the contrary, he was satisfied that they acted from the best and purest motives. He believed that they had been misled by the discussions in that House, and that they were really alarmed by the misrepresentations of the hon. Member for Mid-Lothian, and that they were actuated in their opposition solely by a vigilant regard to the interests of the religion they were bound to protect. If, however, he had had any doubt on this subject, it would have been removed by the course the church had subsequently pursued, for no sooner had the clergy expressed their intention of co-operating with the Commissioners than they came forward to assist them, and have continued to assist them, heartily, zealously, and efficiently. So, also, had the Dissenters done, notwithstanding what had been said by the hon. Member for Falkirk, and to both parties the Commissioners were indebted for the aid they had received, and in consequence of which the Commissioners had been able to pursue their inquiries more rapidly than they could otherwise have done. They had examined in the Presbytery of Edinburgh alone, before he left them, more than 300 witnesses, principally clergy, and taken evidence there to the extent of 5,000 folio pages, and they had the satisfaction of knowing that while doing so they continued to maintain the goodwill of both parties. He begged to assure the hon. Member for Falkirk, that he had himself heard them thanked by the Dissenting Clergy, for the manner in which, they conducted their proceedings, and he begged to refer the right hon. Baronet who had brought forward the motion, to the newspaper which was considered particularly to represent the feelings of the interest of the Establishment, and which at one time, was most virulent in its opposition to the Commissioners, but which now admitted that their inquiries were carried on "with fairness and impartiality, and no small ability." Such was the position of the Commissioners now; ant having got over the first and most delicate part of their duty, and while they were conducting their inquiries with activity, and industry, and success—such was the moment selected by the right hon. Baronet for bringing forward a motion which any sensible person in Scotland will tell him is uncalled for and ill timed, and which his own parliamentary experience must convince him, is not only unusual, but absolutely unprecedented. He begged to assure the House that there was no disposition on the part of the Commissioners to put off their Report. He knew that the majority of that Commission, not with standing the character to the contrary assigned to them by the hon. Member for Mid-Lothian, were as warm friends of the Establishment as that hon. Baronet himself, or his right hon. Colleague who had brought forward this motion. The Commissioners did not feel that the question of an Establishment or no Establishment raised by the hon. Member for Falkirk, was within the scope of their inquiries. They knew that such was not intended by the House or the Government at the time of their appointment; and, therefore, when they accepted their office, they conceived that by that very acceptance they gave a pledge that they would strictly limit their duties to the subject that was intended to be remitted to them. It was their task to make a statistical inquiry, and a statistical Report, and their own characters required that that inquiry should be conducted as industriously, and that Report drawn up and presented to the House as speedily as possible, and such was the wish and intention of the Commissioners.

Lord John Russell

, in explanation, stated, that the payment of the Commissioners was not to commence from July last, when the Commission issued, but from the period when the Commission was opened.

Dr. Bowring

contended, that when this Commission was granted, it was left open to the House of Commons to decide whether any grant should be made to the Church of Scotland or not.

Mr. James Oswald

was sorry, that the Minister had, from the first, allowed the Commissioners to report from time to time; and he hoped that they would now, on no account, consent to their making any Report which did not include Glasgow as well as Edinburgh. In his own opinion, the time was gone by for making any grant to the Church of Scotland, and such a grant would only serve; the cause. Of the Dissenters, and injure, the Church.

Motion withdrawn.