HC Deb 28 May 1852 vol 121 cc1352-62

rose to call the attention of the House to the statement made by the Chancellor of the Exchequer as to the result of the inquiry made of the law officers of the Crown in respect of the institution of Mr. Bennett, to the vicarage of Frome. He should detain the House but a very few moments, as he had given notice that on Tuesday, the 8th of June, he should move for a Committee of Inquiry into all the circumstances connected with the nomination of Mr. Bennett to the vicarage of Frome; but he should ask the House in the meanwhile to understand the position in which it stood with regard to the law of the case, of which they had already heard something from the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The right hon. Gentleman said that the Government had intended to undertake the inquiry, but that they had been stopped in the outset by finding that there was a mode of redress under the ordinary law for parties who had any ground of complaint of which the present complainants had not availed themselves; and he therefore came to the conclusion, and invited the House to come to the conclusion, that while there was this mode of redress open, it would be very improper for the Government to institute an inquiry. It was quite evident that if under such circumstances it was improper for the Govern ment, it would be equally improper for the House of Commons to interfere, and therefore the right hon. Gentleman condemned by anticipation the Motion which he (Mr. Horsman) was about to make. The right hon. Gentleman had made this statement when there was no Motion before the House, and when consequently it was impossible for him (Mr. Horsman) to reply to him. Now, he would call the attention of the House to what was really the law of the case, in order that the inquiry for which he was about to move, might not be prejudiced by the right hon. Gentleman's statement of the law. The inquiry which he wished the House to institute was an inquiry into the conduct of the Bishop of Bath and Wells in instituting Mr. Bennett. The sole point of the inquiry, he repeated, was as to the conduct of the Bishop. That inquiry was undertaken by the Government, and then the right hon. Gentleman came down to the House and told them that all the circumstances had been laid before the law advisers of the Crown, and they had found that parties complaining had a mode of redress under the Church Discipline Act. This statement showed that the law advisers of the Crown had answered one point laid before them, but it did not give any answer upon the other point mooted; it showed that there was redress in the case of a clerk offending, but not whether there was redress in the case of a bishop offending. The clerk could be brought before the bishop's court, either in the diocese in which he held preferment, or in that in which the offence was committed. Now supposing there was this mode of address, and supposing this course was taken in the diocese of Bath and Wells, the court would consist of five clergymen nominated by the Bishop, and would be presided over by the Vicar General, the archdeacon, or the rural dean; and the court thus constituted would decide whether there was a primâ facie case for inquiry. Then with regard to the court of the Bishop of London, there was a second Clause in the Church Discipline Act, to which the Chancellor of the Exchequer had not referred. If a complaint were made against a clerk, it must be made within two years of the offence; and Mr. Bennett had left the diocese of London more than one year. But Mr. Bennett was not charged with one particular offence; the great point was, that he had been pronounced by his Bishop to be unfaithful; that his conduct through a course of years had given rise to inconvenience and scandal; and that his continuing in his benefice in the diocese of London was prejudicial to the good order of the Church; that the Bishop had therefore called upon him to resign, and had procured his resignation. The parties complaining, therefore, in the first instance, would have to prove as to the particular offence committed; next, that it had been committed within two years; and there was this further difficulty, that in being called upon to resign his living by the Bishop of London, Mr. Bennett had been so far punished for the offences which he was declared to have committed in that diocese. There was a third point, too, connected with the case, for if the offence complained of had been committed abroad, it could not be brought under the Church Discipline Act at all. It was obvious that, even in the case of an offending clergyman, redress under the Church Discipline Act was purely a nominal one. As long as Mr. Bennett was merely a presentee, it was against him that the parishioners were entitled to complain; but as soon as he was instituted, it was the Bishop against whom the complaint must be preferred; and it was against the Bishop of Bath and Wells that the Motion he had made was directed. The right hon. Gentleman had declined to state whether he had ascertained there was an appeal against the Bishop to the Archbishop, or whether there was any court to which an appeal might be carried; and he had declined also to lay upon the table of the House the opinion of the law advisers. He (Mr. Horsman) was prepared for these answers, and between what the Government told them, and what they had left untold, he had ascertained these facts: that if a bishop chose to institute any presentee to a living, whatever might be his religious opinions, even if he openly and notoriously belonged to another Church—if even Dr. Wiseman himself were to go to the Bishop of Bath and Wells, show that he had been duly presented, and sign the usual documents, there was no law under which redress could be obtained, no court in which it could be obtained, and no penalty which could be inflicted upon the Bishop. This he (Mr. Horsman) believed to be the state of the law. With regard to an offending clergyman, there was only a nominal means of redress, and in the case of a bishop there was no law and no court to give any redress whatever. He did not wish to raise any discussion, or even to ask the Attorney General to assent to any statement of the law which he had just made, because his silence would he quite as eloquent as his admissions could be. He made this statement now because many Gentlemen would be extremely unwilling to entertain any inquiry if they thought a redress was open in law to the complainants. The House was now in the same position as it was upon the day he made the Motion. He (Mr. Horsman) should go fully into the facts of the case when he brought forward his Motion on the 8th of June, and had only made the present explanation in order that the position of the case might be fully understood.


said, that if it had been the intention of the hon. Member to raise no discussion, his best course would have been to abstain from making any observations upon this case. The hon. Gentleman had not confined himself to a mere statement of the law, but had entered into the facts of the case, and had altogether done a great deal to provoke discussion. With regard to the course pursued by the Government, the hon. Gentleman had stated that the Government had promised to inquire into this case, and rather intimated an opinion that they had failed in that pledge. [Mr. HORSMAN: I did not intend to convey any such impression.] That was, at least, the necessary inference from what the hon. Gentleman had said; but it would be found that there had been no breach of faith on the part of the Government. It was absolutely essential that the Government should ascertain whether there was any possibility of instituting the inquiry promised, and that, of course, entirely depended upon the state of the law. In order to arrive at a knowledge of the law, the opinion of the legal advisers of the Crown was sought, and that opinion was obtained. It was perfectly impossible for the Government to pledge itself to issue a Commission for the purpose of instituting inquiries into this matter, because any such Commission must have entirely failed of its object. A Commission issued by the Crown was almost powerless; it could not compel the attendance of witnessess, or compulsorily obtain any evidence whatever, and therefore it would be futile to issue such a Commission, which must end in a total failure. As to the law, he was ready to admit that, as far as the hon. Gentleman went, he had stated it correctly. If a bishop instituted a clergyman to whom there was an objection on certain points of doctrine or morals, there was no possibility of questioning that institution. The law seemed to have placed confidence in a bishop, who was entrusted with a discretion on the subject; and if he exercised that discretion improperly, he (the Attorney General) was not aware of any mode in which it could be corrected. If the bishop refused institution to a clergyman, the case was different; the latter had a grievance to complain of, and, as had been seen in a recent case, he could appeal against the decision of the bishop, and if that decision was erroneous, it would be overruled. So it was with regard to the institution of Mr. Bennett. His right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer was perfectly correct when he stated that, supposing Mr. Bennett should exhibit unsoundness in doctrine, that would be an ecclesiastical offence, for which he would be amenable under the Church Discipline Act, if the offence were committed within two years. It might be taken cognisance of either on the application of a parishioner, followed by the institution of a commission of inquiry (which was a sort of grand jury to see whether there was any ground for prosecuting the charge), or the bishop of the diocese where the party held preferment, or the bishop of the diocese where the offence was committed, might send the case, by letters of request, before the Ecclesiastical Court. The hon. Gentleman was quite correct in stating that if the offence was committed more than two years ago, or out of this country, there were no means by law of calling a clergyman to account. He thought that under these circumstances the House would be of opinion that his right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Government had pursued the only course open to them. They promised there should be an inquiry, and before it was possible that they could proceed in the manner suggested, it was necessary to ascertain the state of the law. From the law officers they had ascertained that there was no means of proceeding in the way contemplated, and it was therefore quite impossible for them to advise the issue of a Commission, which would certainly be a complete failure, from the want of a means to compel witnesses to attend and give evidence.


said, that he had not the slightest intention to reflect upon the Government. He was extremely obliged to the hon. and learned Gentleman for his declaration of the law, from which it was plain that no other tribunal than Parliament could deal with the case.


said, that he did not profess to have a strong opinion, either for or against Mr. Bennett, who was the party accused or prosecuted in this case. Having listened to the interpellations which had taken place that night and on former occasions, he thought that Her Majesty's Government had fully done their duty with respect to this case, and had not failed in any particular that could reasonably be expected from them. What, then, was the grievance complained of in this case? No law had been infringed, but there was a difference of opinion between portions of certain congregations in this country with regard to particular doctrines, and, in fact, with regard to the Articles of the Church. Now, the real question was whether, if a bishop and the constituted authorities in the Church saw no unsoundness in the doctrine entertained by a clergyman, that House should take part with the minority of the congregation, and set itself up as an authority over those who had been heretofore recognised as the authorities in the Church. Now, he thought that upon consideration the House would see that they were not exactly the tribunal to settle these minute and difficult differences of opinion which had arisen, and the existence of which he regretted. He thought they had much better abstain from the attempt; and he believed that the calmness and steadiness with which the Government had viewed this case, and had limited themselves to their proper sphere, would greatly conduce to the correct understanding of the question.


said, the hon. Member for Cockermouth had, on a former occasion, thrown out a sort of taunt that the Government had not fairly inquired into this matter. Now, he wished to know whether the hon. Gentleman had himself inquired into the statements he had made upon several occasions. Several of those statements—though he (Colonel Knox) did not stand there to defend Mr. Bennett-were, to use a mild phrase, perfectly erroneous, and he knew that the hon. Gentleman was in possession of a letter as to those statements which should have led him long ago to retract them. The statements he referred to were in regard to the conduct of Mr. Bennett at Kissengen and at Venice, and they were made on the substance of a letter from Sir J. Harrington; but he (Colonel Knox) could only say that he knew the substance of the letter, and it did not bear out the statements of the hon. Gentleman. Nothing could be more unfair or unfounded than the hon. Gentleman's representation. The hon. Gentleman said, that while Mr. Bennett was at Kissengen he never went to the Protestant church, but always to the Roman Catholic, when it was a notorious fact that that gentleman was labouring under a severe indisposition, and drinking the waters of Kissengen; and, as many hon. Gentlemen knew, those who were in the habit of drinking the waters went at seven o'clock in the morning for the purpose, and the fact of Mr. Bennett being seen walking out at that time was very much relied on by the hon. Gentleman. The substance of the accusation was the letter to which he had referred; and because the writer had neither denied nor affirmed the question put to him, it was taken for granted to be true, and was a contemptible attempt to cry down Mr. Bennett in Frome. Again, the. hon. Gentleman said that Mr. Bennett was absent from England for a year: at the time he (Colonel Knox) said "No" to that, because he knew, for a fact, that Mr. Bennett left England on the 14th of June, and returned early in November; and, as to his conduct at Venice, he (Colonel Knox) happened to be in Venice at the time, and he totally denied the allegation of Mr. Bennett's never having entered the Protestant church during the time he was abroad. He could prove the fact that Mr. Bennett attended the Protestant church during the whole time he was in Rome. Mr. Bennett was the pastor of his (Colonel Knox's) parish, and he would not allow those statements to go uncontradicted. The hon. Gentleman had so repeatedly persecuted Mr. Bennett, that he could not allow those statements to go forth without contradiction.


said, that he had never made any statement whatever on the authority of a letter from Sir John Harrington, of which he knew nothing; nor did he know that Mr. Bennett had been at Venice. He said that he had been absent from England during 1851, and not that he had been absent during the whole of that year.


said, it had been stated that Parliament was not a proper tribunal for the discussion of these questions. He (Sir B. Hall) would there- fore ask the hon. Gentleman what was the proper place? The Chancellor of the Exchequer had declared that the Ecclesiastical Court was the proper place; and as the parishioners of Frome had been desired by Her Majesty's Government to resort to that tribunal for redress, he thought it right that the House should know what was the state of that Court in the diocese of Wells, to which these unfortunate people must go. It consisted of a Judge, a registrar, and proctors. Now, the Judge was formerly an officer in the Grenadier Guards. He was a nephew of the late Bishop Law, and after that bishop was appointed he sold his commission, became a clergyman, was appointed to a valuable preferment, was made a prebendary and chancellor of the diocese, and in the latter capacity was Judge of this Ecclesiastical Court, though he no doubt knew no more of ecclesiastical law than the drummer in his hon. and gallant Friend's (Colonel Knox's) regiment. And yet he was put there to decide on those difficult and delicate points which came before Eccclesiastical Courts, and of which no Courts had more. He could not, and never could, perform the duties of his office, but he took his salary and fees; he therefore appointed as deputy Judge one of the minor canons, who performed the duties of the office for the miserable stipend of 20l. per annum. The name of this deputy Judge, he would beg the House to recollect, was the Rev. Peter Parfitt, and he begged the House would bear this in mind, as it was necessary to show the chain of events. The next officer of the Court was the registrar. His duties were important. He was bound to place in his Court a table of the fees ordered by the Canons of Canterbury, which were to be taken by the proctors practising in the Court, whose bills of costs he was bound to tax. The registrar was the son of a former Judge of the Court, and the grandson of a former bishop of the diocese; and he was appointed to transact all these duties when he was a child of five years of age, and from that time to the present moment, so far as he (Sir B. Hall) was informed, he had never acted as registrar; but of course he also received his stipend, and he actually—to use the expression which was given in evidence—let his Court out to farm. He received 400l. a year, paid quarterly. He appoints a deputy registrar. This deputy registrar is Mr. Edward Parfitt, who, not content with taking the registrar's fees, takes deputy regis- trar's fees as well; which makes up an in-come of 815l. a year more for himself. Bid he hang up a table of fees in the office? Not at all. He never even heard of the Canons of Canterbury, which enjoined them. This was the Court to which the unfortunate parishioners of Frome must go, because they had a complaint against their minister. Being pressed by the Committee, if he compounded with the registrar, he said, "I farm the Bishop's Courts with him. I pay him 400l. a year, and that is the truth." It appeared that the deputy registrar practised in twenty-five other Courts, many of which also he farmed. Amongst them was a Decanal Court; and if a suitor entered it and asked for the registrar of that Court, he was introduced to a young lady. She was the daughter of the dean. She was appointed when five years of age. Mr. Parfitt paid her a annuity, and was deputy to this female registrar. So the judge was a sinecurist. The registrar was a sinecurist. The deputy registrar practised as a proctor, his father being the deputy judge, charged fees, and taxed his own costs. He (Sir B. Hall) was bound to tell the House there had been some change since last year. The Judge, who was a nephew of the late bishop, had turned Roman Catholic, and was obliged to give up the judgeship, and the present bishop had appointed his own son to be Judge of the Court. This son lived at Castlerising, in Norfolk, of which parish he was incumbent. The Court was at Wells; he was non-resident, and he probably appointed the same Rev. Peter Parfitt as his deputy, to preside over the Court, when all these difficult questions were to be decided. Was it not a farce, that living in the latter part of the nineteenth century, there should be a tribunal which, he would undertake to say, would be considered a disgrace by any thinking person in any civilised nation? Hon. Gentlemen said, go anywhere, but don't come to Parliament. He said Parliament was the proper tribunal to inquire into the conduct of these dignitaries of the Church who would allow such abuses as these to exist, and he trusted what he had said here might be dwelt upon—might enter into men's minds—so that these degrading instances of episcopal nepotism practised in our Church, and' in these Ecclesiastical Courts, might no longer be the infamy they were at present, and that no Minister of the Crown might tell parishioners who felt aggrieved at the practices of their Puseyite clergyman to seek redress of their grievances in the debased Courts of their still more Puseyite bishops.


said, the statement which he had made, that the aggrieved parishioners should have recourse to the proper authority, did not in any way apply to the Ecclesiastical Courts; it applied to the tribunal provided by the Church Discipline Act—a tribunal easy of access, expeditious for appeal, and the expenses of which were adapted to the spirit of the age. The hon. Baronet, therefore, might really have treated of the courts of India with as much propriety, as far as the people of Frome were concerned, as of the ecclesiastical court of Wells. The hon. Baronet had dilated on the enormity of a Minister of the Crown recommending the parishioners to appeal to the Ecclesiastical Court. That advice was never given. The statement he made was, that the mode of redress was provided by the Church Discipline Act—an excellent Act—adapted entirely to the requirements of the age, and by which expeditious and inexpensive redress would he afforded. And he must express—


rose to order, if the right hon. Gentleman in giving an explanation was going to comment on anything he had said.


was sure it could not be the wish of the House that Member after Member should make an attack upon a particular Member of the Government, and comment upon a statement he had made, without allowing that Member to say one word in reply. He had risen to explain. He had thrown himself, as he had frequently done that evening, upon the indulgence of the House—his irregular interference being consequent upon the anomalous position in which he was placed. He rose to justify himself against attacks which he must say, had been personal; and the remark he was about to make when interrupted by the hon. Baronet was, that as the hon. Member for Cockermouth had been so fortunate as to secure an early day for the discussion of the question of Mr. Bennett's institution, it could not be necessary that the House should be trapped into a general discussion now.


explained, that he should not have made the statement he had done, if he had not previously acquainted the right hon. Gentleman that he intended, when the notice of the hon. Member for Cockermouth was discussed, to call the attention of the House to the state of the Ecclesiastical court of Wells.


thought the hon. Baronet had taken a course hardly fair. The hon. Baronet had given a pungent and salient account of the ecclesiastical court of Wells. He (Mr. Henley) happened to have been a Member of the Committee from the evidence given before which the hon. Baronet had drawn his statements, and certainly he had not coloured the picture more vividly than it deserved to be painted. But the hon. Baronet, in drawing this strongly coloured but true picture, wished to make the House and the country believe that that was the court to which any party who chose to proceed against Mr. Bennett must go. That was unworthy of the hon. Baronet, because he knew that in a case of that sort, especially in a case in which the Bishop's conduct might by chance be involved, the case would be certain to be sent by a form well understood to the provincial Court of Arches.


in justice to Mr. Bennett, who, he was proud to say, was a friend of his, and whom he honoured as one of the best men living, thought it right to state that that rev. gentleman had already been judged by the parishioners of Frome. He held in his hand a memorial in the course of signature, and which had already been signed by 1,039 of his congregation, in which they expressed their sympathy for him, and their deep regret at the uncourte ous and unkind treatment he had experienced. They also expressed their admiration and respect for the Christian spirit and forbearance which had characterised his conduct, and their confidence in his sound doctrine and faithful discharge of his duties during the calumnies and falsehoods of which he had been the subject; and they added, that the crowded state of his parish church, and the increased number of communicants, afforded the best proof that he had not been thrust on an unwilling congregation. He (Mr. Yorke) trusted that, after such a memorial as that, the House would be relieved from discussions which partook somewhat of the character of persecution.