HC Deb 29 March 1855 vol 137 cc1355-69

, in moving for leave to introduce a Bill for the abolition of church-rates, said it was not necessary for him to trespass but for a very short time on the patience of the House, as it was not his intention to touch upon debateable ground, or to enter upon arguments calculated to provoke opposition. The main object of his present measure was the total abolition of church-rates, in which respect it was similar to the Bill which he had introduced last year. He felt, however, that in abolishing church-rates certain substitutes would become necessary, and were, in fact, the consequence, or, more strictly speaking, the complement of the abolition of the church-rates. The right hon. Member for the University of Oxford (Mr. Gladstone) had, in the discussion of the previous year, alluded to certain difficulties which, in the event of church-rates being abolished must stand in the way of defraying by voluntary contributions expenses which were now defrayed by the rate. He (Sir W. Clay) had not been unaware of the difficulty, and had therefore not thought the right hon. Gentleman's suggestion unreasonable. He had since then looked carefully into the state of the law, and had endeavoured in the Bill he now asked leave to bring in, to find a way by which they might be obviated. If Parliament, on the one hand, abolished church-rates, it was bound, on the other, to remove all obstacles to Members of the church, by free-will offerings, maintaining her fabrics, and supporting the decent performance of her services and rites. The present Bill, like that of last Session, would provide for the continuance of church-rates in all cases where charges had been contracted upon them as a security under the authority of exsiting Acts of Parliament. The first purpose to which the new provisions of the measure were directed was to meet the condition of affairs that would exist after this impost had been removed. They would provide for the new position in which churchwardens would be placed in their relation to those persons who might voluntarily subscribe towards the support of the edifices and the ministrations of the Church, and also for cases in which churchwardens might be reluctant to undertake such functions. It would likewise give the contributors to this voluntary fund a control over its application. It would be seen, therefore, that the general principle and tendency of the Bill were based on an entire reliance upon the willingness of the Members of the Church of England to maintain the edifices of the Church, and to defray the expenses incident to the performance of her rites. The next object which its provisions sought to attain was to empower parishes, if so disposed, to allot a certain portion of the area of their churches for pews, to affix a rent to those pews, and to apply its produce to those purposes for which church-rates might now be legally appropriated. Such an application of pew-rents was consistent both with precedent and with widely-spread practice under the sanction of existing local and general Acts of Parliament. The measure required that in no case should more than a given proportion of the church be devoted to pews, and that another portion should be allotted for free sittings. This part of the Bill was, however, in no way compulsory—every parish would decide in regard to it as it thought fit. Such, then, were the main provisions added by this measure to the absolute removal of church-rates. They had been framed in a desire to alter the law as little as possible consistently with the attainment of their immediate object. With the important exception of the absolute repeal of this objectionable impost, they were of an enabling rather than of an imperative character. He had not the least intention to change the status of the Established Church, to diminish the rights or the authority of her dignitaries and ministers, and still less to impair, by a single iota, the powers, privileges, or immunities of the inhabitants of any parish, or to deprive any subject of the realm of whatever rights or advantages he enjoyed in regard to the Church as it now by law existed. This Bill might not satisfy those who thought either that no alteration, or that but a very slight one, should be made in the present state of the law; but he certainly hoped that it would meet the views of those who, admitting the necessity not only of some considerable change, but of the entire abolition of church-rates, were yet impressed with a sense of the difficulties incident to such a proposition. These provisions would make the Bill workable in a practical shape. If the House would now consent to the introduction of the measure he would take care that it should be in the hands of Members immediately after the Easter recess, and that ample time should be given for the consideration of its details.


seconded the Motion.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That leave be given to bring in a Bill for the Abolition of Church-rates."


said, as far as he could gather from the statement of the hon. baronet, the present bill was exactly the same in effect as that of last year, notwithstanding the alterations which it was proposed to introduce into it. As far as he could understand the hon. baronet's explanation, it did not differ either in principle or substance from the previous measure. It was simply a Bill to abolish church rates. There, however, appeared to be in addition to that a provision to enable persons voluntarily to contribute towards the support of the national Church; but without a Parliamentary enactment, he apprehended that enabling clause would be found in many cases wholly inoperative. It was also, he understood, proposed to allow money to be raised for the purpose by letting the pews. In many parts of the country, especially in the rural districts, that would be very objectionable. There might be no very great objection to it, probably, in some of the large towns, where wealthy persons generally occupy the pews, who would be willing not only to pay for their sittings, but also to contribute towards the maintenance of the fabric of the church, and the ministration of the elements; but in the country parishes any such provision would be wholly ineffective. Generally speaking, those parishes were too poor to raise funds for supporting or upholding the church, and if they failed, as he believed they would, in raising the funds by voluntary contributions, he much feared that they would not be able to let their pews. On a former occasion it had been shown that neither in point of law nor principle was the demand for the abolition of church rates founded upon any plea of justice or expediency. The land of the country was as much bound to the payment of that impost as any other to which it was liable. It was a common law obligation attaching to the land, of which the owners were aware when they came into possession of the property. The demand for the abolition could not, therefore, rest upon any plea of justice. Then, with regard to expediency, the national churches were the national property of the country; they tended to the public good, and the promotion of morality and religion, and in that respect the Dissenters were as much interested in upholding them as members of the Established Church themselves. It was clear, then, that on the ground of expediency there was no plea for the abolition of the impost. The plea, and the only plea, ever put forward for the abolition of church-rates was, that it was a violation of the rights of conscience to call upon one portion of the community to compel them to contribute towards the maintenance of a religious fabric and the performance of religious services in which they did not concur. That was the principle involved in the present Bill, and if it prevailed it would be pressed hereafter to the extent of abolishing all religious endowments. To that principle he was opposed, and he trusted the House would not give its assent to it so far even as to allow the Bill of the hon. baronet to be introduced. A promise had been given by the late Government to introduce a Bill to remedy the anomaly of the law which the decision of the House of Lords (in the Braintree case, in which it was declared that though, by law, the burden rested upon the land, the option of carrying that law into effect rested with the majority of the parishioners) had created. If the present Government would fulfil the pledge so given, the inconvenience arising from the present state of the law would be obviated, and the proposal of the hon. baronet would be unnecessary.


said he fully concurred in the observations of the hon. and learned Gentleman who had just addressed the House. He considered such a Bill as that under consideration would increase the difficulty that already existed, but it would change the complaining parties from the Dissenters to the Churchmen. It appeared to him that the object, so far as the conscientious ground was concerned, might be effected without any violation of public rights. They might deal with church-rates, he thought, on the same principle as they had dealt with tithes under the Tithes Commutation Act, and place the expense of supporting the fabric of the churches as a rent charge upon the land, leaving the elements of worship to be provided by the voluntary offerings of those who joined in the holy ordinances. With regard to raising a fund from pew rents in the country parishes, he believed it would be impracticable. In the two counties with which he was connected, there was not a single parish in which the pews were paid for.


said, he cordially concurred in the wish that had been expressed by the hon. Gentleman opposite, that Government would bring in a measure to settle this long-vexed question; at the same time, he was not inclined to offer any opposition to the first reading of the Bill of the hon. Baronet. He thought it due to the House and to the subject that hon. Members should have the opportunity of reading the clauses of the Bill before they were called upon to decide upon them. If, however, the hon. Baronet imagined that he held out any inducement to Churchmen to concur in his object by the proposal to let the area of the church to the best bidders, he would find himself greatly mistaken. He was astonished, when he heard the hon. Baronet say, that he proposed to make but a very slight alteration in the law of the land. Why, it was impossible to make a more serious alteration in the common law of the land than to make the whole area of the church divisible into pews, to be let to the highest bidder. To this part of the measure he should give his most unqualified opposition. He was aware that in some parishes such an expedient was resorted to, but that was the exception; and in the very last Church Building Act a clause had been introduced to remedy the evil. In the hon. Baronet's Bill, however, this, which was one of the worst anomalies of the Church of England, would be continued, and that which was now the exception made the rule. He should be glad to know from the hon. Baronet, whether he proposed to include Scotland in the operation of his Bill? He had never yet heard any argument why the consciences of the Dissenters in Scotland should not be relieved as well as the consciences of English Dissenters.


said, he did not mean to trouble the House by entering into a discussion upon the general character of the measure under their consideration. He could not, however, refrain from entering his protest against its being brought forward at a period of the Session, when many hon. Members who took a deep interest in the question were precluded from recording their opinions upon the propositions which the hon. Baronet had just submitted to the House. They had received no intimation whatever as to the course which Her Majesty's Ministers intended to pursue in reference to the Bill; but, as we no longer suffered under the affliction of possessing a coalition Government, he had no doubt that noble Lords and right hon. and hon. Gentlemen upon the Treasury bench, whose antecedents were of a character so similar, would at all events unite in the decision at which they might arrive with regard to a subject so important as the abolition of church-rates, and would adhere to the opinion which had been expressed in opposition to a measure similar to that now before the House by one of their colleagues last year. He found that the noble Lord the Member for London had expressed himself, when the question was last under their consideration, to the effect that in his opinion it would not be wise or consistent with the position which the Established Church held in this country to abolish church-rates. That noble Lord had also stated that "to assent to the abolition of church-rates without any modification would, he believed, be a concession dangerous to the Established Church, and through it to the peace and welfare of this country." Now, having had that assurance from the noble Lord, and having reason to place confidence in the unanimity of the Government, he could entertain no doubt as to the course which they would feel it to be their duty to take with reference to the measure under discussion. At all events, he was justified in assuming that the noble Lord the Member for the City of London would, if he were in his place, vote against that measure. For his own part, he should at all times give to it his most strenuous opposition.


said, he apprehended that it was the wish of the House that no protracted discussion should take place upon that occasion with reference to the measure of the hon. Baronet opposite, but that such discussion should be postponed until the second reading of the Bill. That, no doubt, was the most reasonable course to adopt. At the same time, he must observe, that, as the measure contained so few details, and was so explicit—there being involved in it only one question of principle—it was matter of little importance whether the discussion of its provisions were to take place that evening or when it came to be read a second time. Everybody concurred in the opinion that the present state of the law with respect to church-rates was highly unsatisfactory. Looking back upon the history of the question, from the time of the Reform Bill in 1832 up to the present moment, he could not find that any Government had expressed its satisfaction with the existing state of the law. Almost every Government had, since then, tried its hand at the amendment of that law, but in that endeavour Minister after Minister had successively failed. The position in which they at present stood in relation to the question was, in his opinion, that if, after a period of more than twenty years, any amendment of the law could be introduced to meet the views of the Nonconformists and the Churchmen, such alteration should, at all events, receive a favourable consideration at their hands. They were therefore called upon to entertain a proposition for the amendment of the existing law, which dealt with that law in the only manner in which he believed it could now be placed on a satisfactory footing. As to the ministerial measure which had been promised to the House last Session, he could not say that he looked forward to its introduction with any great degree of hope. There had, for the last twenty years, been many Ministerial measures laid upon the table of that House for the purpose of remedying the defects of the existing law with reference to church-rates; but, as he had previously stated, none of those numerous measures had ever received the approbation of the Legislature. The provisions of the Bill now under their notice, he did not think the present was the time to discuss; but there was one proposal of the hon. Baronet which he conceived was liable to be misunderstood—he alluded to that by which the hon. Baronet meant to provide for the reception of voluntary contributions for the repairs of our churches. The difficulty which that proposition had been framed to meet was, he apprehended, that the churchwarden being, under the law as it stood, responsible for the repairs of the church, a hostile churchwarden might, even now, not only refuse to take any part in raising a rate, but might decline to apply subscriptions received for that purpose. Pew rents were matters of detail; the hon. Baronet (Sir W. Clay) he believed did not mean that the whole area of the churches should be appropriated on that footing, but that the larger portion should be left open and free. [Sir W. CLAY: Hear, hear!] These, however, were only matters of detail, the time for discussing which had not arrived, and, therefore, without pledging himself to ap- prove of the measure, he (Lord Stanley) thought the House were bound to give it a fair trial, in the absence of any other proposition to amend the law, the state of which was admitted by all to be most unsatisfactory.


Sir, it is just because I agree in the "major premise" of the noble Lord's proposition that I have arrived at an exactly opposite conclusion. It is because the measure differs in no respect from other similar measures, and that there can be no reason why we should not state our opinions upon it at this stage, that I oppose its introduction. Sir, this whole question is another instance of the many which we have seen since the Reform Bill of an error persisted in by our rulers till it becomes intolerable, and forces on the people something which they think is an amendment, but which always is, and never can be other than, a complete revolution. The evil insisted on for years is the partition of churches into pews. Nothing I have ever heard has justified—nothing can ever justify—this, which has now become a most intolerable nuisance. Next, there is the gross injustice of applying rates to rites of worship which they were never intended to support. When you admitted the principle of toleration to Dissenters, they had a right to object to have anything raised from them for the rites and worship of the Established Church. But the churches of England are national property. And you cannot separate this question from another. The only way in which you can deal with the Church here (however you may dispute elsewhere as to the meaning of the word) is by looking to the buildings in which the members of the Church assemble for worship and the salaries of the ministers who preside over them. With every other meaning of the word we have nothing to do. And the moment you admit that it is not a national obligation to uphold those buildings and pay those ministers, you had better do the bold and honest thing, which nine-tenths of the supporters of this measure mean and desire to do—that is to pull down the Established Church—[loud cries of "Hear, hear," and "No, no"]. I say that is what you mean. And why are you not manly enough to bring it forward, instead of tinkering and haggling about it in this way; trying to undermine the material fabric of the Church. You mean that. When that comes down, then the whole Establishment falls. This, Sir, is a middle-class movement — that middle class who have bought houses with this burden upon them, and who now want to get rid of it—robbing the Church on one hand and cheating the poor on the other. Robbing the Church of the rate and cheating the poor of the pews, to which they now have a right. Parcelling the churches out into pews, and letting them out to the highest bidders, to make the most money out of them. If the churches are not national, and to be supported by the people at large, let the Government take them, and let the houses be valued, and the fair amount of their liability to church-rate estimated and paid into the Exchequer as a fund, out of which to maintain them. Whenever any revolutionary measure is proposed, it is professed to be in order to "uphold our institutions," and now you are wanting to pull down the churches by way of upholding the Church. Why repair the Royal Palaces, and why uphold the Civil List? They stand on the same footing as church-rates. And if you declined to maintain them longer, what would become of Royalty in this country! Put down church-rates, you put down the Church; and, depend upon it, you can never uphold it by withholding support from its buildings.

MR. E. BALL said

the hon. Gentleman who had just sat down down had cast upon the hon. Baronet the Member for the Tower Hamlets (Sir W. Clay) imputations of a most ungenerous and unfounded nature. The hon. Member for West Norfolk had objected to the introduction of this measure, because the House was about to adjourn till after Easter; but he (Mr. E. Ball) thought that that was just the reason why the Bill ought to be introduced now, because in the Easter recess hon. Gentlemen would have an opportunity of considering it. The hon. and learned Member for the University of Cambridge (Mr. Wigram) had said that the great objection to this measure was, that, if it were passed great difficulties would be experienced in obtaining money to repair churches in country places. He (Mr. E. Ball) presumed that the poorer part of the population in those places were Dissenters, and yet they contrived to build and repair their chapels and to support their ministers. You could scarcely find one country place throughout the whole of this magnificent kingdom, in which there were not Dissenting chapels which were supported by the voluntary contributions of Dissenters. Why, then, should any fear be entertained that the wealthy part of our population would not support the Church of which they were members? If there was any ground for such a fear, he must suppose one of two things—either that they were unwilling to support their own Church, and did not take so deep an interest in religion as Dissenters did, or that they objected to the principle of voluntary contributions. But he should be very unwilling to impute either of those things to the rich members of the Church of England. But the law, even as it stood at present, was not compulsory with regard to the repair of the fabric of the Established Church. Without the assent of the majority of the ratepayers, a church-rate could not be imposed either in towns or in country places. And, gradually, the whole of the country would refuse to give their assent to the levying of church-rates. Very little, therefore was to be gained by the members of the Church of England succeeding in resisting this Bill. The hon. Gentleman opposite (Mr. Drummond), who was always ready to cast imputations upon the motives of those who differed from him, had said that nine-tenths of the supporters of this Bill aimed at the destruction of the Church. Now he strenuously denied that such was their intention. He was as sincerely attached to the Church as was the hon. Gentleman himself. If the hon. Gentleman was affectionately attached to the Church, why did he not propose to set her free from the odium which the leveying of church-rates and other matters brought upon her, whereby the affection of multitudes of the people of this country was alienated from her? Dissenters were not unwilling to contribute voluntarily to the repair of the fabric of the Church, and it ought to be the policy of the Church to deal affectionately, and not harshly, towards them. The Dissenters were nearly, if not altogether, the majority of the people of this country. They were training 3,000,000 of children, the greater part of whom were taught, not by the catechism, but by the New Testament. Those children were the rising generation of the country, and it ought to be the policy of the Church of England not to insult, but to treat them affectionately when they came to the age of maturity.


said, he very much wished to know what was the use of retaining a law that was practically inoperative? In the town which he had the honour of representing there had not been a church- rate for twenty years, and, although he himself had subscribed as much for church repairs as he should have been called on to pay had there been one, that was no reason why he should advocate that persons dissenting from the Church of England should be called upon to contribute, It was disgraceful to the Church of England to ask a Dissenter to pay church-rates. Why, one man might as well ask another to pay for his washing and lodging! The Church of England was quite able to support itself, and he believed that every real churchman was individually opposed to levying rates upon Dissenters. But it was a curious circumstance that a body of persons would frequently do that which the persons forming it would individually be ashamed to do.


said, he thought that the House ought to receive some explanation as to the course which the Government intended to pursue with respect to this measure. He had last year asked the Government what course they proposed taking with regard to church-rates, and the noble Lord the Member for London had said in reply, that he would, after the recess, state the intentions of the Government on the subject; and now he thought that it was very necessary for the House to know how far the Government approved of the measure of the hon. baronet. He himself had not heard anything to induce him not to offer a decided opposition to the measure, which appeared to him to give to church-rates an optional principle which was highly objectionable. By the levying of tithes all were called upon to contribute to the support of the clergy, and it appeared to him to be inconsistent that a provision should be kept up for the support of the clergy, while provision for the repair of the churches in which they were to preach was abandoned.


said, he did not care what course the Government intended to pursue, but, acting on his own judgment, he should oppose the Bill. He had heard with great satisfaction the speech of the hon. Member for West Surrey (Mr. Drummond). He himself was actuated by no hostile spirit to Dissenters; on the contrary, he respected them, and was honoured with the support of many of them, but he would not shrink from the duty of supporting the Established Church. He always took a straightforward course, whether right or wrong, and he felt bound to oppose a Motion which would undermine the Church, and which was supported by many hon. Members, he firmly believed, solely that they might secure their seats. It appeared to him to be the fashion of the day to subvert everything, and the result was that the country was on the verge of danger, if not of ruin. Everything in its turn was attached—the Church, the Law, the Navy, and the Military department. He had often said, let well alone, and he believed most firmly that Radicalism and the Reform Bill would prove to be the principal causes of the ruin of the country. He could only say, that his main ambition was to sacrifice his life and fortune, if it should be necessary, in his country's service.


said, he did not feel himself bound by any arguments which had been raised respecting the interests of large towns. For many years past the interests of large towns had been too exclusively considered by that House, and it was now time to consider the interests of county constituencies. They were often called upon to vote large sums for the support of such institutions as the British Museum and National Gallery, because they afforded means of instruction and education; but what institution could compete with the National Church as a great public instructor for the poorer classes, and how could they refuse the small sum required for church-rates throughout the country, when they so willingly granted large amounts for the purchase of objects of virtù or decorative ornament? If in the country church-rates were abolished, great difficulties would be experienced in maintaining the fabrics, and, therefore, if the Legislature unwisely determined to adopt the proposition of the hon. Baronet the Member for the Tower Hamlets, they would inflict a serious injury on the country by restricting the benefits of the Church, and depriving the poor of that to which they had hitherto looked with firmness and success for consolation.


said, he was of opinion that if, as was asserted, the principle of the present measure was the same as that of the Bill rejected last Session, the existing law was entitled to the same support it then received. The noble Lord the Member for London on that occasion took the high ground that church-rates stood on the same footing as the hereditary institutions of the country, and the upholders of the system might, therefore, look with some confidence to the support of a Go- vernment which, although changed, still retained many of the individual Members composing Lord Aberdeen's Administration. The hon. Member for Birmingham (Mr. Muntz) had said, would they show him any great town where for some years past they had been able to enforce church-rates? A Return had been obtained by the hon. and learned Member for Tavistock (Mr. Phillimore) which showed that, in the large parishes of this metropolis, since the agitation of the present question, church-rates had been granted in a very great number of cases. He, therefore, denied that the popular feeling was as much against church-rates as had been represented. Although he would confess that the large towns opposed the imposition of church-rates, they must place against them the 10,000 or 12,000 rural parishes, where the law was readily enforced, and was looked up to by the parishioners' with veneration and respect. He admitted, however, that with regard to Dissenters it was in an unsatisfactory position, and, being inclined to consent to some compromise on the subject, he had looked anxiously for a proposition of that nature from Her Majesty's Government. Believing that such a compromise would yet be made, he should vote in opposition to the present Motion.


The question, Sir, now brought under the consideration of the House is undoubtedly one beset with great difficulties of both kinds. It is exceedingly difficult to maintain the law, and it is exceedingly difficult to alter it in a satisfactory mode, and those difficulties have been long felt. In the first place, the contest about church-rates keeps up animosities and religious differences between sects in a way very prejudicial, I think, to the general interests of the country, and prejudicial, I should also say, to the interests of religion itself. It must be admitted upon all hands that if an arrangement could be made which would provide adequately for the repair of churches and chapels without involving questions of religious controversy, it would be a great blessing to the country at large. There has been, for a long time, a difficulty with regard to the maintenance of the existing law, and I think that the decision which took place not long ago in regard to that law—and which was referred to by the hon. and learned Member for the University of Cambridge (Mr. Wigram)—has increased that difficulty. When it is stated by hon. Gentlemen opposite that the main- tenance of the fabric of the Church is a part of the law of the land, they appear to forget that, by recent decisions, there is no power of enforcing that law. If the law were that a compulsory power existed requiring every parish to levy a rate, then I agree that that would be the best mode of providing for the fabric of the Church, and those who wished to maintain church-rates would act consistently in supporting that law. But when the law says that the fabric of the Church must be maintained by rates which are to be raised in parishes by a vote of the majority of the parishioners, then it becomes no longer the law that the church must be maintained by rates, because it depends entirely upon the will of the parishioners whether church-rates shall be levied or not. I was sorry to hear a comparison made between the position of large towns and country parishes. That is a question which ought not to be mixed up in an argument of this kind. Though, if you come to consider what are the localities in which the largest repairs of churches are the most needed, and the largest amount of money is required, you will find that they are those very towns where the majority of the inhabitants are against raising that money by church-rates. I think, therefore, that all must feel that some change in the law is very desirable in the interest of the Church itself. How is that alteration to be made? That, undoubtedly, is a very serious question, and one on which I beg to refrain from pronouncing any decided opinion upon the present occasion. Now, it is said that the present Bill is almost identical with that which the House rejected last year. I do not think that that assertion is correct. My hon. Friend (Sir W. Clay) has shadowed out and explained shortly and clearly those modifications of his plan which renders it very different from the simple proposition for a total abolition of the tax which he made last Session. Therefore, regarding this as a subject which is well deserving of consideration, and reserving to Her Majesty's Government full freedom to deal with the measure when it shall be introduced according to their judgment of its merits, I shall certainly not oppose the introduction of the Bill.


said, he could not agree to a proposal to sweep away church-rates without any substitute being provided, but, without entering into any argument, he thought the best protest he could make against any proposition of that kind was to vote against the introduction of the Bill.


said, that the main reason given by the noble Lord for entertaining the project of a total abolition of church-rates was the alteration of the law in regard to the collection of those rates; that alteration took place in August, 1853, and yet in the year 1854 he found the noble Lord concurring with the noble Lord the Member for the City of London in a vote declaring that it would be dangerous to society to effect a total abolition of church-rates. Without entering into the merits of the question, he should take the same course as that of his right hon. Friend who had last addressed them, and vote against the introduction of the Bill.


said, the noble Lord the Member for King's Lynn (Lord Stanley) had stated that the question had been taken up by several Governments. So far, however, as he knew, no Government had done so since Mr. Spring Rice had introduced his Bill in 1847. He (Mr. Lushington) should be glad of any reasonable proposal for the settlement of the question. He hoped that such a one would emanate from the Government.

Motion made, and Question put. "That leave be given to bring in a Bill for the abolition of Church Rate's."

The House divided:—Ayes 155; Noes 76: Majority 79.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Sir WILLIAM CLAY, Mr. HUTT, and Mr. MIALL.

Bill read 1°.