HC Deb 22 February 1849 vol 102 cc1128-33

rose to move— That this House will immediately resolve itself into a Committee, to consider of granting Relief to Persons in Holy Orders of the United Church of England and Ireland declaring their dissent therefrom. The noble Lord at the head of the Government, in moving for leave to bring in a Bill for altering the oaths which Members now took at the table of that House, said that the measure which he introduced would complete the edifice of toleration which they had been for many years building up in this country. The noble Lord was ignorant, or forgot the state, of the law to which he (Mr. Bouverie) wished to draw their attention. It might be a matter of question whether the denial of the franchise was persecution; but he apprehended there could be no question about the fact, that as long as a man might be subjected to pains and penalties—to the loss of liberty or property, for the profession of certain religious opinions, that act was a persecuting one. The Toleration Act was the great foundation of religious freedom in this country. Previously to its adoption, religious persecution, so far from being a wrong, was esteemed to be a duty. He now wished to draw the attention of the House to that Act. Provided that all persons took the oaths of supremacy and allegiance, and made a declaration against the doctrine of transubstantiation, they were relieved from the penalties imposed by the Acts respecting religious opinions, which originated in the reign of Elizabeth, and terminated in that of Charles II. It was further provided, with reference to persons in holy orders, or, as the phrase went, "pretending to holy orders," and who declared their adherence to the Articles of the Church of England, except to the third, and part of the fourth Article—that they should be exempt from the provisions of the Conventicle Act, and what was called the "Five Miles Act." It was somewhat singular that Roman Catholics, and those who denied the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, were exempt from the operations of these Acts, as wore, indeed, all persons except those in holy orders who did not declare their approbation of the Articles of the Church of England. The Act of George III. declared, that persons in holy orders, or "pretended holy orders," teaching or pretending to teach God's word, were not obliged to subscribe to the Thirty-nine Articles, provided they professed their belief in the Holy Scriptures. But his object was not to refer to a mere theoretical alteration, or to provide for hypothetical cases, but to legislate against the recurrence of such decisions as had lately taken place in the Court of Queen's Bench in the case of Mr. Shore. The Court of Queen's Bench had within the last three years decided that a minister who dissented from the Church of England had, although exempt from all statutory penalties in the common law courts, subjected himself to penal proceedings in the ecclesiastical courts. Conformity with the Toleration Act should release all persons from prosecution in the ecclesiastical courts: it did so in fact, except as regarded clergymen of the Church of England; but the Court of Queen's Bench decided that even breaches of the discipline of the Church of England, the ecclesistical court had, notwithstanding the Toleration Act, perfect cognisance of; that, in short, the Acts of toleration which had been passed did not apply to the ecclesiastical courts. The consequence of that decision was that a clergyman who had once entered into holy orders was bound hand and foot by the discipline of the Church of England, and no step which he could take in compliance with the statutes of toleration would release him from that obedience; he was, in fact, a mere villein or serf to the Church adscriptus ecclesiœ; not even deposition from holy orders would—so far as he could learn—free such a person from the penalties of the ecclesiastical court. Now, he thought that none of the great framers of the Toleration Act could have contem-plated the imposition of such penalties. No man conversant with the history of the period when the Toleration Act had its rise, would contend to that effect. This was the very grievance of which the Nonconformists complained. Richard Baxter, whose name would live as long as there was any respect for virtue, piety, or holiness, was a minister episcopally ordained; he survived the Revolution of 1688. Would any one contend that the framers of the Toleration Act would contemplate the liability of Richard Baxter to all the pains and penal ties of the ecclesiastical court after that Act passed, merely for acting according to his conscientious conviction? Now, bethought, whatever courts of law might do, that they, as legislators, were bound to carry out the spirit and intent of the Toleration Act. It was not, as he had already stated, a mere matter of theory, but a practical question, forced upon their notice by the decision of the Court of Queen's, Bench, with which, of course, he found no fault. The clergyman and defendant in the case to which he alluded, might be now, for aught he knew, a prisoner, under sentence of the ecclesiastical courts, and that gentleman, in his opinion, ought not to be incarcerated for a single moment. In the case to which he alluded a writ had been issued, and if the gentleman alluded to was not actually in prison, he might be apprehended' and thrown into gaol for the period of his life, as the law now stood. Thank Heaven they had few such bishops since the time of the Revolution, as the right rev. Prelate in the case to which he adverted! there were few bishops who strained the law for the persecution of unoffending persons—not for the cause of morality or good order, but in order to enforce obsolete rules, which were a disgrace to our Legislature. Every one knew that the first turn in this country towards religious feeling, and the arousing of the Established Church from its dormant position, were the teachings of John Wesley, who, whatever might be thought of his doctrines, was yet, for the good he had done, and the purity and sincerity of his motives, held in reverence by the ministers of the Established Church. Now, John Wesley was an episcopally ordained minister; and if the bishops of that day entertained the same opinions as a bishop of the present, John Wesley or George Whitfield might have been locked up in gaol during the remainder of their days. If anything could revolt the feelings of the great body of the people from the Church, it was proceedings of this kind. When simple-minded men saw such an illustration of the doctrines of the Church, they were sure to be indisposed to listen to its teaching. The persecutions by the Roman Catholics, in the time of Queen Mary, were the greatest means of making the people become Protestants. After dwelling at some further length upon this portion of the subject, and stating that, in his opinion, nothing could be more distasteful or revolting to the feelings of the people of England than such persecutions on account of religious opinions, the hon. Gentleman proceeded to refer the House to the opinion of the present Archbishop of Canterbury, as conveyed in a letter recently published, in which his Grace said that there ought to be some method by which clergymen might disconnect themselves from the Church of England without being subject to the penalties of the law. He would now briefly state the provisions of the measure which he intended to introduce. He proposed that clergymen of the Established Church, and who dissented from it, should, in addition to the oath which they were required to make or take, as dissenting ministers, upon seceding from the Church, make, in addition, a declaration of dissent from the Articles of the Church; that that declaration should be registered according to the Toleration Act; that a copy of that declaration should be forwarded to the bishop of the diocese in which the declarant resided or held a benefice; and that the bishop should register such declaration, which thereupon should have the full force and effect of a sentence of deprivation from the benefice and of orders in the Church, and that he should be relieved from all burdens and liabilities as a clergyman of the Church of England, and lose all rights and privileges to which, in the character of a clergyman of that Church, he was entitled; but that, at the same time, he should not be subjected to any pains or penalties for such conscientious avowal, except the negative ones he had stated. He did not profess to enter into any theological questions; but his object, and the object of the measure which he would lay upon the table (if permitted) was to place such a person, with respect to the Church of England, on the same footing as if he had not entered into holy orders at all.


Would you make him eligible to a seat in this House?


Yes; I shall propose it. The hon. Gentleman concluded by moving the resolutions stated above.


said, he regretted that the hon. Member for Kilmarnock had thought it necessary to pass a censure on the proceedings in the ecclesiastical courts. He doubted whether this was at all warranted. The hon. Gentleman was certainly not correct in drawing a parallel between the proceedings of Mr. Shore and those of John Wesley. At the time John Wesley commenced his missionary operations, he was as much attached to the Articles of the Church of England as any bishop on the bench; and he would sooner have burnt off his right hand than have subscribed the declaration which it was proposed that Dissenting clergymen should be permitted to subscribe. What he (Mr. Gladstone) had understood of the case recently before the ecclesiastical courts was, that the Bishop of Exeter was perfectly willing to concur with Mr. Shore in expediting a process in the ecclesiastical courts, for the purpose of liberating the latter from his responsibilities, and at the same time depriving him of his character of clergyman; and that in point of fact this was prevented, either by the defect of the law, or the disinclination of Mr. Shore to take the declaration required, but that it was not the disposition of the Bishop of Exeter to insist on fastening on Mr. Shore the obligations of a clergyman, after he had become convinced in his own conscience that he ought not to continue such. However that might be, he heartily concurred with his hon. Friend in the object he had in view; and, provided there were no difficulty as to the details, he should be much surprised and much grieved if it did not give general satisfaction. No doubt it was an important change in the law, to enable a person entirely to free himself from the obligations which accompanied so solemn and important a step as the taking of holy orders. Some might doubt as to the propriety of the provision for enabling a clergyman to resume his eligibility for a seat in that House, on declaring himself a Dissenter. That, however, was a political question, on which no religious difference could take place. As to the principle of obligation to the Church, he heartily concurred with his hon. Friend in thinking that when a clergyman had deliberately changed his mind on the vows taken at his ordination, it was no longer the business of the law to dive into the opinions he might entertain. The measure proposed judiciously set aside all inquiry into theological questions; the House was not called on to affirm or deny any theological proposition whatever, but merely to apply the general principle of liberty of conscience to the case of clergymen, and to adopt a fair, equal, and well-balanced measure by which a clergyman desiring to exempt himself from the obligations of his position should have the power of doing so, being at the same time, as a matter of equal justice, deprived of the privileges of that position. Without the latter provision, the measure would only tend to introduce confusion; as it was, he thought it would effect a valuable improvement in the law, besides affording relief to the individuals concerned.


said, he had not drawn a parallel between John Wesley and Mr. Shore; he had only said that a bishop might have proceeded against John Wesley for preaching without a license, and he might have been thrown into prison.

The Motion was then agreed to, and the House went into Committee.

Matter considered in Committee:— Resolved—That the Chairman be directed to move the House, That leave be given to bring in a Bill for the relief of persons in Holy Orders of the United Church of England and Ireland declaring their dissent therefrom.

Resolution reported; Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Bernai, Mr. Beuverie, and Mr. Lushington.