HC Deb 07 July 1840 vol 55 cc545-53

said, that it was with no inconsiderable embarrassment that he rose to address the House, feeling that the subject to which he was about to draw their attention would have been much better and more advantageously placed in other and abler hands. He sincerely hoped that the question of Church-rates would cease to be considered one of a political nature, and that it would be looked to, not as a matter of strife between two antagonist parties in that House, but as a question affecting the interests, the happiness, and the religious character of a large part of the population of this country. The object of his motion was, to obtain leave to bring in a bill to exonerate Dissenters from the burden of Church-rates. The bill would have plainly and simply for its object the exemption of Dissenters from the payment of Church-rates, and the mode by which he should carry out his proposition was, that when a person was summoned for the payment of any rate, his solemn declaration that he was a Dissenter should be taken to be proof of his being entitled to relief. He knew that it might be stated, that this was too simple a plan to be safe, and that it would operate as a premium for dissent. He thought, however, that the more that part of the question was examined, the less ground would be discovered to exist for the objection. If it were true that it would be an inducement to persons to avow themselves Dissenters, surely that objection must fail, for the same inducement existed under the present law. Persons who desired to avoid the payment of Church-rates by any means now, had only to go to the parish meetings on Easter Monday, and out-numbering those who were in favour of the rate, to prevent its being carried. His proposition was not without a precedent. The Roman Catholic religion was the established religion of the province of Lower Canada, and the law there was, that if any Member of the Episcopal church declared himself to be so, that was taken to be evidence of the fact, his lands were exempted from tithes, and he was exonerated from all assessments in favour of the Canadian church, to which otherwise he would be liable. It had been so frequently stated that church-rates were a grievance, and severe burden upon the consciences of Dissenters, by persons of high authority in that House, that he should deem it hardly necessary to advert further to it, if he had not, on some occasions, heard the proposition controverted. In the debate on the subject of Church-rates, on the 21st April, 1834, when Lord Althorp moved a resolution to abolish Church-rates, and to substitute for them a charge of 250,000l. on the land tax, that noble Lord stated —[The hon. Member quoted Lord Althorp's opinion, and the opinion of Lord Stanley delivered on the day mentioned. The hon. Member also quoted the opinion of the Attorney-General delivered on March 14, 1837. On the same point for all which see Hansard, days mentioned.] He was confident, the hon. Member continued, that even those who were most zealous for the Established Church, if they would relinquish their prejudices and enter upon this subject with an impartial and unbiassed judgment, would see sufficient inducement to look carefully, seriously, and kindly at the question, and then they must see that the Established Church, so far from being a gainer by Church-rates, so far from profiting by the unseemly and unholy strife which attended their collection, was, on the contrary, in all really essential respects, a loser by them. As a sample and an evidence of the state of the public feeling on the subject, he would state what had occurred in the town which he had himself the honour to represent. It was only one instance out of many which, if he did not fear to weary the House, he could bring forward. In Leicester there were five parishes: in four of them Church-rates were abolished by that sort of resistance that is always attended with pain to those serious people who feel obliged to resort to it, and disadvantage to those against whom it was brought to bear. One of those parishes contained upwards of 20,000 persons. In the fifth parish, Church-rates were still attempted to be collected; but what was the result? That there were now twenty-six persons liable to citation in the Ecclesiastical courts. One had already been cited. A writ was issued, but execution was stayed. The conditional rule that had been obtained, however, was subsequently discharged; and the party in question now stood every moment exposed to the expected punishment of imprisonment. This individual was not a poor man, unable to maintain himself, but a person possessing considerable property, of undoubted respectability, of the mildest disposition and manner, and the object of a general sympathy. His conscientious feelings determined him to go to prison rather than submit to the payment of an impost which he regarded as essentially unjust. He was not considered, even by those opposed to him, to be an obstinate or factious man, but a kind, industrious, and respectable member of society, labouring, in common with his neighbours, under an oppression of conscience; and he had, in the full expectation of being incarcerated in a prison, prepared and arranged his affairs in the best way he could. What was all this for? The Dissenters, and he hoped many members of the Established Church would ask why was all this? Was it that those who were now in possession of the Church property, and who had it under their control, might continue to have the mismanagement of it—to have the power of preventing the property from being as productive as it might be if administered according to the dictates of wisdom and common sense. Was it that they might refuse to adopt a course which would not only be a great gain to the community at large, but also put an end to a system of cruelty and oppression? With the particular case of John Thorogood he did not propose to interfere; but at the same time he could not but feel that the situation of that individual was intimately connected with this question. A short time only would elapse before many others would follow his example, when not only Chelmsford gaol would contain its prisoner, the victim of religious persecution, but throughout the kingdom the same oppression would produce the same results. If the resistance to Church-rates thus extended, if the feeling against them became, as he was convinced it would become, almost universal, he put it to the hon. Baronet, the Member for the University of Oxford, whether it would be possible any longer, with even partial success, to levy them on the Dissenters? But when and where would they stop? Not, he feared, until resistance had brought about alienation, and destroyed much of that reverence and respect which were still felt for the Established Church. Would they continue to disregard the feelings of the Dissenters until such results as these were produced, or would they now redress the grievances which were so justly complained of. The House must already be aware of the great advance this question had made in the public mind. Within a very short period 584 petitions, signed by 67,135 persons, had been presented to that House to obtain relief from the burthen of these unjust and onerous rates. How many petitions had been presented in favour of their continuance? Only two, and the signatures to those two amounted to only 275. He had that day presented a petition from Beccles in Suffolk, signed by the rector of the place, and other clergy of the Establishment, by justices of the peace, by the mayor, the deputy mayor, and several of the aldermen and councillors, by many members of the legal and medical professions, and a number of the dissenting clergy, recommending another provision for the maintenance of the Church, and that church rates should be abolished. He put it to the House whether any advantage arising from the existing system could, in the opinion of even the most sceptical on the subject, counterbalance its disadvantages, or make up for the loss of that peace and good will which the abolition of church-rates would produce? Was it not better at once to put a stop to the system than to risk the consequences of the continuance of this fierce conflict? What would ultimately be the result on the subject had been, as he had already said, clearly laid down by the Attorney-general when in 1837 he gave it as his deliberate opinion that even if the non-payment of church-rates were made in law a crime, still it would be impossible to collect them, and the hostility would go on increasing. Was not the hon. and learned Gentleman right in his prediction? Had not that hostility gone on increasing until it had become absolutely the duty of the Legislature to interpose some remedy? In Manchester the resistance had been successful. In Sheffield it had also succeeded. The same result had followed the same exertions in Nottingham, Bradford, Coventry, Wolverhampton, Birmingham, and in most of the large towns in the north. The resistance was not, however, confined to the larger towns—the contagion had spread to the villages; and ere long, if the law was not altered, instead of there being only one victim to church-rates in Chelmsford gaol, there would be a victim in every gaol throughout the kingdom. With such a state of public feeling, ought the system to prevail any longer? He had already stated on Undoubted authority, that the expenses provided for by the church-rates ought to be paid for out of the property of the Church. It might be said that the property of the Church was insufficient. That objection had also been disposed of. But even supposing that the property of the Church was insufficient, who was there belonging to the Church that did not feel that its friends were too much attached to it not to provide for those expenses which were now the cause of so much strife and conflict? There could, however, be no doubt that the property of the Church, under a wise and thrifty management, might be made fully able to bear all its burthens. It was not, therefore, to be wondered at that the Dissenters did think this imposition hard, and that they were determined to employ every means in their power to relieve themselves from this burthen. Be the effects what they might, they felt that their first duty was, to protect their own consciences; and therefore, by every legitimate means in their power, to resist church-rates. Under such circumstances as these, it became the friends of the Church to consider whether they could not have recourse to some other means for the production of the necessary funds rather than church-rates, which were, and inevitably must continue to be, the source of increasing disturbance and conflict. He had been unable to state all the reasons which occurred to his own mind in reflecting on this subject. It was a subject, however, which presented itself in a form so plain and intelligible that, although he had been able only so feebly to advocate the cause, he could not suppose it would be without the sympathy and support of that House, or that there could be any effectual resistance to the motion with which he would conclude—" That leave be given to bring in a bill to relieve Dissenters from the Established Church of England from the payment of church-rates."

Mr. Gillon

said, he had the more pleasure in seconding the motion of the hon. Member for Leicester, because he felt he was speaking the sentiments of his countrymen in general, and of his constituents in particular. In the assertion of the great principles of religious freedom—in resistance to tyranny over the conscience, whether from civil rulers on the one hand, or ecclesiastical ambition on the other—Scotland had never been wanting; and at the present moment, though not directly interested in a pecuniary point of view in the question before the House, there were no men, not even the Dissenters of Bungay or of Chelmsford, who felt a more lively interest in the relief of the conscientious from a burden craftily, silently, gradually imposed upon the people, as is the case in all instances of clerical usurpations, or who turned with more indignant abhorrence from the specimens of cruelty and oppression, which, in the collection of these odious rates, disgrace the cause of religion in this portion of the island. The more the origin and history of these rates were kept out of view by the clergy, the better for themselves; for the more the subject was investigated, the more would become apparent the avarice and grasping ambition of the dominant sect, and their unscrupulous use of any means, however obnoxious, to increase their own temporal supremacy—a darling object, in pursuit of which public decency and Christian charity were alike violated. He would just allude to the original appropriation of tithes into different parts, for the sustenance of the clergy, the support of the poor, and the maintenance of the altar. That this wholesome division had been altered, was the effect of priestly rapacity on the one hand, and of supine-ness and superstition on the other. On the extensive appropriation of tidies to religious houses, and of the neglect by those houses of every object but their own maintenance in splendour and luxury, the parishioners, unwilling to see their parish churches tumbling to decay, and desirous to protect themselves in their devotional exercises from the inclemency of the weather, subscribed for the repair of the churches; and that which they had thus voluntarily undertaken, it has been ever since the object of the clergy to fasten upon them as a legal obligation. Two facts are clearly traceable in the history of former times, and caused the disputes which then, as now, defaced the fabric of the Christian Church:—First, a purpose undeviatingly persevered in, of arrogating to the ecclesiastical courts a jurisdiction in matters of a civil nature as matters ecclesiastical:—Secondly, a resistance on the part of the people to those aggressions, which has at least in so far been successful, that the right to exact church-rates was never established without the previous consent of a vestry; but the rate once voted, the defaulter was handed over to the tender mercies of the ecclesiastical courts, of whose mode of dealing with them specimens were not wanting. He despised, the mawkish, hypocritical, sensibility which affected the greatest pity and horror at the sufferings of two well-fed sheriffs—to whom, from their appearance not long ago in this House, a little prison diet, had such been their fare, would seem but a wholesome corrective to civic luxury—and which feels no compassion for an honest, an amiable, a conscientious man, who prefers freedom of conscience to freedom of limb, who in his damp cell, his limbs racked by the tortures inflicted by this inquisition of modern days, defies the malice of his mitred persecutor, but whose blood will yet rise in evidence against his tormentor, and cry for revenge on that Church to whose cruel laws he is victim. It is now made quite manifest, on an investigation of the subject, that John Thorogood is kept in gaol not for the purpose of enforcing payment of the rate, but to satisfy the vengeance of the Bishop of London against a Dissenter who refuses to bow down before his authority; that a milder course than that followed was open even in order to obtain the rate, and that of two courses the Church has chosen, that which is the more vindictive and oppressive. Will the Church not consent to try a juster and a milder course? They draw, from the lands of England, to whomsoever they belong, the maintenance of their Establishment. Are six millions annually not enough to support the places of worship, to find the ecclesiastics, to nourish the honourable and reverend scions of the aristocracy who grace the Church by their well-paid labours, without taking the worldly goods, infringing the conscience, or sacrificing the life of the humble Dissenter? Can the Prelates spare nothing from ten and fifteen thousands a year to wipe off this great odium from the Church? They boast, that to their ranks belong the respectable, the wealthy, and the religious of the land. Will they not, in the fervour of their devotion, out of these large possessions with which God has blessed them, spare one little mite to save the sacred edifices of their worship from crumbling to decay? If they do not, no one will believe that it is the money they grudge. The poorest peasant would not grudge his contribution to save and maintain the altar at which he worships; but it was the principles of bigoted intolerance and tyrannical supremacy the Church of England desired to maintain. To the Church belong the edifices; will they not for their support, if for no other purpose, try the voluntary principle. Or is its form of government so obnoxious, that it must in all things necessarily rest on the odious principle of compulsion? A member of the Church, a worthy sample of a Christian pastor, Dr. Oliver, the incumbent of Wolver-hampton, tells me he believes the voluntary principle, in regard to the support o f the Church, if fairly tried, would be all-sufficient. Do you dispute his allegations when he says, that the discussion of the subject of church-rates only tends to create feud, to divide the town against itself, to set father against son, and son against father, to sever long standing friendships, and dissolve mutual ties. "When I reflect," he adds, "that the agitation of this question is little else than an outrage on the public peace of the town, I cannot consent to aim a blow so heavy, a discouragement so great, upon what I consider to be the interests of the Church." Will you listen to these simple and eloquent effusions of a spirit truly Christian? Will you attend to a warning so forcible—so pathetic? Will you ward off from your beloved Church this heavy blow and great discouragement? Will you, in the true spirit of Christianity, follow the example of this holy man, who declares that his motto is peace, and that unity is the word inscribed on the banner which he unfurls.

The Speaker

Before I put the question, I feel it my duty to call the attention of the House to what seems to me to be an objection in point of form. On the 12th February last, in the present Session of Parliament, a motion was made, and the question put upon it, for leave to bring in a bill to relieve from the payment of church-rates, that portion of her Majesty's subjects who conscientiously dissented from the Established Church. That motion was negatived, and I now have put into my hands a motion for leave to bring in a bill to relieve Dissenters from the Established Church from the payment of church-rates. Now, it appears to me, that these two questions are substantially the same; and as the House is aware, that according to the rules, the same question cannot be twice entertained in the same Session, I apprehend that they will be of opinion, that I cannot now put this question.

Motion dropped.