HC Deb 10 June 1844 vol 75 cc468-75

House in Committee on the Vestries in Churches Bill,

Mr. Roebuck

said, he did not know what the Bill was about. He thought it would be well if measures of such importance were introduced to the House fully and fairly, and not brought forward in this extraordinary manner. He hoped that another instance of this mode of carrying on the business of legislation would not occur.

Sir R. Inglis

believed that this was as harmless a piece of legislation as ever took place in that House. The evil which the Bill meant to remedy was acknowledged. It consisted of those scenes of contention and bitterness which so frequently occurred in the metropolitan parishes and parishes of great towns—scenes of the greatest impropriety, amounting at times almost to personal violence. He hoped the House would not object to go Clause by Clause through the Bill.

Mr. S. O'Brien

assured the House that he had no wish whatever to take it by surprise, or press the Bill, without due consideration. The Bill had been introduced at an early period of the Session, and had subsequently undergone many alterations. He had only to say, that he had received letters from various parts of the country, not only from Churchmen but Dissenters, expressing their approval of the principle of the measure.

Mr. Roebuck

observed, that this Bill contained matters of ecclesiastical cognizance, but a Bill had been lately introduced regulating the law with respect to ecclesiastical cognizance; and he was then to ask why matters of ecclesiastical cognizance should not be discussed in ecclesiastical buildings? According to this Bill the place of meeting was to be approved by the Bishop, although from time immemorial such matters were discussed in parish churches. Now, however, there existed a new-fashioned prudery about these matters which said you may levy the money off the people, but you may not have those matters discussed in churches, for want of decorum. He wished to know how it was that those gen- tlemen, and in particular the hon. Member for the University of Oxford, who were so much in love with the wisdom of our ancestors, by whom the Church of England was taken from the Catholics, and founded in the godly times of Queen Elizabeth, and by whom it was said that these questions of ecclesiastical cognizance were to be discussed in the church; he wished to know how it was that they now all of a sudden sprung up, according to the novel notion of Young England, or, as sometimes called, Little Britain, to deprecate this ancient custom. How could they agree to this, namely, that it was not right to discuss matters in churches which from time immemorial, had been discussed in the church, unless approved of by the Bishop? It was introducing a totally distinct rule in the Church of England. If this, which was a matter which trenched upon every parish in England, and upon every community connected with the Church of England, and which infringed upon their rights and privileges, was to be brought forward by a private member of the Church, who entertained some fancied opinion of decorum on his own part, he must say that it would not be decorous of the House to entertain it so far as to throw this power into the hands of the Bishops. He contended, that what was fit to be levied for Church purposes might be discussed within the walls of the church without any indecorum or impropriety. Could the walls in any way be polluted by any one saying some foolish thing? If that were the case, such walls had been defiled enough. He wanted the hon. Member who had brought forward this measure to tell him not of something indecorous having been done in London, but to bring forward facts to support the necessity of his measure, and let the House judge whether they were indecorous or not, and whether they had commenced with the Clergy or the people; and whether that indecorum was to be made a plea for robbing the whole people of a right which they had possessed from time immemorial, and for giving new powers to the Bishops? The Bishops had power enough already, and he would rather curtail that power than increase it. Would the hon. Member produce his facts? [Mr. S. O'Brien: Yes; I will.] Then the House would have a bill of indictment against the people of England, and a plea for robbing them of a privilege which they had enjoyed from time immemorial. Then the House would say how many strange things were conglomerated together to make out a case to justify that robbery, and to give fresh power to the Bishops, as was proposed under the 3rd Clause, which gave the Bishop power to direct where a meeting should be held at the expense of the parishioners, but not under the dome and established roof in which they had been accustomed to assemble, and which, if it possessed the reverence which was ascribed to it, must certainly tend to increase that order and decorum which the hon. Gentleman desired.

Mr. Warburton

thought it right that the hon. Member who introduced the Bill should state the grounds upon which it was founded. If vestries met in public-houses their discussions would probably be assisted with a little tippling, and he confessed that he thought there would be much more brawling, though not in churches, if the vestry were to meet in public-houses instead of in ecclesiastical buildings. He thought it would be better that no vestry should be held at all than that they should be held under such restrictions as the Bishop might impose. There were, he believed, 11,000 parishes in England included in this Bill, and he did not presume that the hon. Member had corresponded with all those parishes. He contended, indeed, that the Bill was not known at all as it certainly should be, before it reached the stage in which that Bill then appeared to be. After the hon. Member should have explained the nature of the Bill, then he (Mr. Warburton) thought that the Chairman should report progress, and ask leave to sit again, because then the country would have an opportunity of expressing their opinion upon it. At present, this was the first semblance of a discussion that had been had upon the Bill.

Mr. Hume

moved that the Chairman should leave the Chair.

Mr. S. O'Brien

said, before that request was acceded to, he wished to make one or two observations; and, first, to express his regret that no Member of the Government had risen to support the Bill. It was impossible for him to answer so many objections as had been raised to the provisions of the Bill—some to the effect that it did not go far enough, others that it went too far. The hon. and learned Member for Bath asserted that the Bill originated with some persons of peculiarly sensitive feelings, or in some squeamish scruples. If the hon. and learned Member numbered him amongst those persons, he must say that he was not so obstinately bigotted in favour of old allusions as the hon. and learned Member appeared to be, refusing to bend or to arrange them to the varying circumstances of the times. So far from this Bill being a new principle, he must say, if he might be allowed to take the authority of the statute books, in opposition to what was, in his own opinion at least a much higher authority—the dictum of the hon. and learned Member for Bath, that the principle of the Bill was at least thirteen years old. He contended that the Bill was consistent with Hobhouse's Act, and he was sure the people of England would not be content to allow such scandal to continue as had taken place in their national churches. From Her Majesty's Government on the present occasion he was not fortunate enough to receive any assistance. He had not conferred with them in private, and it was utterly hopeless to confer with them in public. He feared he should be obliged to trust to his own almost unassisted efforts in endeavouring to carry out the Bill, but he certainly would not acquiesce in any proposal to get rid of it on this stage, because, he repeated, the more the people of England were made acquainted with the provisions of the Bill, the more would they be inclined to support it.

Sir R. Peel

said, there had been so much of other important business before the House, that hon. Members might fairly be excused for not directing much of their attention to this Bill. It was quite fit that opportunity should be given to form an opinion on its merits, but that was perfectly different from prohibiting the progress of the Bill altogether; he would not, therefore, sanction any Motion which would have the effect of preventing hereafter its fair consideration. Some of the objections which had been made deserved attention; for instance, he did not see what answer could be made to the alleged effect it would have on Sturges Bourne's Act. However disrespectful it might appear to his hon. Friend, that the Government had not given him any assistance on the present occasion, he begged to inform him that they found it sufficiently difficult to attend to their own Bills. He would decidedly oppose any Motion which would have the effect of extinguishing the Bill altogether, but he would advise his hon. Friend to acquiesce in the proposal, which would operate as a notice to the House, that on a future occasion he would call attention to the provisions of the measure.

Mr. Roebuck

put it to the right hon. Baronet whether, after the acknowledgment he had made that the members of the Government had hardly time enough to attend to their own Bills, they would allow such an important measure as this, which would affect the whole parish law of the country, to be brought forward by any private Member, without saying whether they were prepared to oppose or support it?

Sir R. Peel

was not prepared to go quite so far in support of the monarchical principle as the hon. and learned Gentleman advised. There were some Constitutions, having popular assemblies, where the principle was that the Crown alone should originate legislative measures. The Greek Constitution was discussed the other day, when it was proposed, that no measure should be originated by any private Member, unless he had the sanction of the Crown. He was decidedly opposed to such strong monarchical proceedings; and he thought individual Members of Parliament, notwithstanding what the hon. and learned Gentleman had said, had a perfect right to introduce such measures as they thought fit without the sanction of the Government.

House resumed.

Committee to sit again.