HC Deb 21 May 1856 vol 142 cc467-76

in moving the second reading of this Bill, said that the principle of church rates had been recognised by that House, had been affirmed by a Commission which sat some years ago to inquire into the subject, and had not been impugned by a Committee of that House which contained Nonconformist Members, including two members of the Society of Friends, a sect which of all others was most, perhaps, opposed to church rates. Successive Bills, however, for the abolition of church rates had been introduced into that House, and there was at present one before the House, introduced by the hon. Member for the Tower Hamlets (Sir W. Clay), to which it was understood the Government were prepared to give their consent, on the condition of certain clauses being introduced into it. Those clauses, however, would, in his opinion, give an entirely different character to the Bill. One of the proposed clauses enacted that, after church rates had ceased to be collected for the space of five years in any parish, they should cease for ever in such parish, thus leaving open for that time fertile ground for agitation. Another clause provided that any man who should declare himself not to be a member of the Church of England should not be called upon for the payment of church rates. Now, he entirely approved of the principle of allowing any man to worship God in the place he thought most fitting, not be could no more understand giving a man the power of freeing himself from the obligation of contributing to the repair of the established church than he could understand giving him the power of declaring himself not a subject of the State in which he was born. The right hon. Gentleman opposite (Sir G. Grey) had, on a previous occasion, assumed that there had been a decision against the legality of church rates, but he (Mr. Packe) was prepared to join issue with him upon that point. The question upon which the decision to which the right hon. Gentleman had referred was as to the legality of rates levied by the churchwardens or by a minority of the parishioners. As to the legal question of levying church rates, causes had been decided as to whether it were competent for the churchwardens or for the minority of the parishioners to levy a rate. In 1837, the celebrated Braintree case of Burden v. Veley was tried in the Consistorial Court of London in which a rate had been levied by the churchwardens alone, and Dr. Lushington pronounced in favour of the rate, but the Courts of Queen's Bench and the Exchequer Chamber, to which the case was ultimately carried, decided against a rate thus levied. The opinion of Chief Justice Tindal was decisive upon the point of the necessity of a rate being levied for the repair of the Established Church, and he said that the only question to be considered was the best means by which it could be levied among the parishioners. The question of whether the minority could make a rate was then submitted for the consideration of the Courts. In the Consistorial Court, Dr. Lushington pronounced against the rate; the Court of Arches reversed his decision; the Court of Queen's Bench agreed with the judgment of the Arches Court, and judgment was given in favour of the rate. The case was then carried before the Exchequer Chamber, where the decision of the Court of Queen's Bench was affirmed by four judges to three, Baron Rolfe, the present Lord Chancellor, being in the majority. After that the case went before the House of Lords who, before giving their decision, took the opinions of ten of the judges, who were equally divided on the subject referred to them. The House of Lords then gave a decision against the rate. It was the opinion of Baron Rolfe that if a majority chose to stand out, and say that there should be no rate, selections might be made from the recusants, who might be proceeded against and punished; and Lord Truro said it was his conviction that the people of this country were much too right-minded and estimated too correctly the benefits derived from allegiance to the law to run counter to its spirit. Lord Truro, however, in pronouncing that judgment, could hardly have imagined that the Government, in introducing their clauses into the Bill of the hon. Member opposite, would have taken precisely the course which his Lordship said right-minded people throughout the country would not be inclined to follow. He would now make some comments on a book published by the hon. Baronet opposite (Sir W. Clay), and which was founded on a speech delivered by him in April last, and after that speech he was astonished that the hon. Gentleman should have concurred in the clause introduced by the Government. The book began by stating that church rates were in some places legally abolished, a state of things which he (Mr. Packe) had shown not to be the case; on the contrary, the persons opposing the rate were under existing circumstances guilty of opposing the law. But one part of the hon. Baronet's speech referred to the alteration proposed to be made by the Government in the Bill. The speech which was interpreted in the book, referred to the unseemly discussion which often took place in the vestry under the present system. It said that the victories obtained were productive of no advantage to the Church, they were dearly bought, and were productive of none but mere pecuniary benefit. That was a much better answer than he (Mr. Packe) could give to the clauses introduced by the Government. Alluding to the proposal of the hon. and learned Member for Tavistock (Mr. R. Phillimore), the book said that it compelled a Dissenter before he could take advantage of it to declare himself a Dissenter, and had never found much favour with either the Church or the Nonconformist. It was opposed by the hon. Member for Sheffield (Mr. Hadfield), who at least had the merit of consistency, and who described it as a measure open to fraud and hypocrisy. That was the judgment passed on one of the clauses introduced by the Government. The book went on to advert to the inconvenience of setting large minorities against small majorities, which was an answer to the Government plan of acting solely by majorities, it said that terrible dissension would ensue, and yet the hon. Member for the Tower Hamlets acquiesced in the Causes which comprised all these mischiefs. When one parish refused a rate the adjoining parish would be kept in continual hot water till it got rid of the rate, according to the plan proposed by the Government. Then there was another point to which he must advert. Although the Nonconformist member so disclaimed paying church rates, the members of the Church of England were compelled to pay for the Dissenters' chapel without appeal. Under the Burial Act there were nonconformist chapels to, the expenses of which Churchmen were compelled to subscribe, yet Churchmen made no complaints or objections, as were made by the Nonconformists in the parallel case. In the hon. Baronet's Bill it was provided that a third of the pews should be left as free sittings for the poor of the parish. Now, there were very few rural districts divided into the rich, who would pay the rate, and the poor who could not in that proportion. In most cases, at least two-thirds were not in a position to pay the rates, and the provision would therefore be productive of great inconveniences. Many churches had been built on the principle that all the sittings should be free, and unappropriated for ever. It would be the highest injustice therefore, to do away with these free sittings, and to override the charitable intentions of the founders of those churches. As to the proposed provision on the subject of rent-charges, he believed it would open the door to endless litigation. Rent-charges were to be given to defray expenses now chargeable on church rates, "provided always that the amount of such rent-charge or of all such rent-charges (if more than one, given to any one church) shall not exceed the yearly sum of £100." Now, perhaps one man dying might have £70 in this way, another might leave £20, another £30, and so on, until the total sums amounted to considerably more than £100; and then no end of disputes would arise as to what portion of these different charges was to form the £100 specified. There would also be this difficulty:—In the course of time the lands liable to these rent-charges might fall into the hands of Dissenters, who would perhaps say, "We are not members of the Church of England, and we object to paying these charges." There would then be the same agitation as now, and in his view Dissenters so placed would have as much right to object to these payments as any other occupier whom they now proposed to absolve from payment. So much then for Bill of the hon. Member opposite, and the clauses proposed to be introduced into it by the Government. He would now come to his own Bill. He went further than the Government, inasmuch as he absolved all Dissenters at once from paying towards the services of the Church. That he considered was taking the bull by the horns as to cases of conscience. But he could not see his way, if church rates were all abolished, towards preventing the churches of this country tumbling into dust. That was going on at the present moment—an application was made, not to the parishes who were unable to provide for their reparation, but to the bishop of the diocess. It was a very serious tax on the bishops of the several diocesses, a tax which would be increased under the proposed system of the Government. People wrote all over the country for assistance to persons who had a few pounds to spare, and to his own certain knowledge within the last ten years these applications to people unconnected with the Church had most seriously increased. One of the finest structures he knew was the old parish church at Nottingham. Money could not be got for the purpose of repairing it in the town, the church was going into dilapidation in consequence of their not being able to obtain a rate. He wished to meet fairly the conscientious scruples of Dissenters, who were entirely to be relieved from payment to church services to which they objected; but he did not think that the noble buildings created by our ancestors, as well as our own, would be allowed to fall to ruin by any right-minded Dissenters on account of the very small payment of the church rate. This Bill followed the recommendation of a Commission which sat some years ago, composed of the First Law Officers of the Crown, the heads of the Church and other persons of talent, which Commission recommended the same principle he now proposed. The same plan received last year the sanction of the Members of Convocation, who followed the plan recommended by the Commission. The plan followed the principle of the poor rate; it enforced the same law of taxing all for what was for the benefit of the whole community; it was on that principle he had framed the Bill which he now begged leave to move should be read a second time.

Motion made and Question proposed "That the Bill be now read a second time."


said, the old proverb says—two of a trade can never agree, and it would certainly appear that he and the hon. Member for South Leicestershire (Mr. Packe) were not destined to form an exception to the rule. Both professed to be church-rate reformers, but their views as to the reform required, were wide as the poles asunder. The hon. Member for South Leicestershire in his speech had scarcely touched upon the details of his own measure, but had commented with some severity upon his (Sir W. Clay's) adoption of the Government Amendments to his Bill. The present was not the fitting opportunity for discussing those Amendments, he would merely now therefore observe, that as those Amendments were not alien in principle to his Bill and would presently afford a great relief to a large portion of the community, he had felt it his duty to accept them. If they did not comprise all he could desire, yet they were a step in the right direction, and would lead beyond doubt, at no distant period, to the full accomplishment of the object he contemplated. With respect to the measure now offered to the House, he must express his surprise that such a Bill could be proposed seriously to the Legislature. From what quarter or from what party could the hon. Gentleman expect support to enable him to pass it? It was directly opposed to a principle which the House had sanctioned by a large majority. His (Sir W. Clay's) Bill, which was read a second time in March, distinctly affirmed the principle of the abolition of church rates, while the present Bill actually proposed to revive them in some cases and prolong their existence in others. The friends of the Church could scarcely be expected to support the Bill, inasmuch as it was opposed to a measure originated by the Primate of England, which fully recognised the principle of cessation of church rates, although limiting unfortunately, as he (Sir W. Clay) thought, its practical application. The hon. Member proposed to relieve the Dissenters from contributing towards the charges for the performance of Divine service, but to con- tinue their liability for the maintenance of the fabrics and the fittings of the church—the latter being defined by the 13th clause to comprise the pews, the pulpit, the bells, &c. But did the hon. Gentleman really believe that he should conciliate one single Dissenter by this concession. The objection to the impost—was to its injustice—not to its amount. The Nonconformists would, indeed, show but little of the spirit of their Puritan forefathers, if their opposition to the rate could thus be disarmed. Another feature of the Bill was the summary mode it proposed for the collection of church rates, totally abolishing appeal to the Ecclesiastical Court, and substituting a mode of collection similar to that adopted for poor rates. At the will of an officer of the church, without any kind of popular assent, rates might be levied and enforced by summary process. In many large parishes and towns church rates had ceased to be collected for the space of twenty-five years, but the Bill now proposed would revive them in all those places, for it was scarcely possible that one person would not be found who would petition the archdeacon, and then such places as Manchester or Birmingham might be subjected to a church rate, and the goods of the ratepayers seized and sold to pay them. Can the hon. Gentleman really believe such a proceeding possible? He (Sir W. Clay) doubted whether a magistrate would be found to sign the warrant under such a state of circumstances, or a constable to execute that warrant. He did not think it necessary to detain the House longer, for the Bill of the hon. Gentleman was so entirely at variance with the recent decision of that House, that he could not for an instant suppose they would stultify themselves by adopting it. The House, he was satisfied, would feel that they could scarcely follow a more dangerous or unwise course than by giving the Bill their sanction. He should move that the Bill be read a second time that day six months.


seconded the Amendment.

Amendment proposed, to leave out the word "now," and at the end of the Question to add the words "upon this day six months."

Question proposed, "That the word 'now' stand part of the Question."


said, he was amused at the anxiety displayed by some hon. Gentlemen on the other side of the House to relieve Nonconformists from the payment of church rates. Now, those hon. Gentlemen did not understand the Dissenters at all, whose objection was of a higher nature. They had resisted those rates for 300 years—they had endured the thumb-screw and the boot, which had gone to the tomb of the Capulets "long ago." Those rates were meant to maintain ascendancy, for he could not believe that so rich a Church would do, as he well knew they did, in one instance, for sake of money—sell the Bible of a dying man for these rates. The Bill was a caricature, and professed to do that which it did not do—a hypocritical measure, which would impose a church rate where it did not now exist. In Sheffield there were twenty churches which had not had a church rate for fifty years, but, if this Bill passed, it would have a church rate next year. Were the religious feelings of the country to be trifled with in this manner? Was the time never to come when all classes of the Queen's subjects would stand upon the same footing? The Bill, he must repeat, was a mockery, and was meant to effect an escape, and to evade the decision of the highest legal tribunal in the land. If the church rate continued, they were shaking the very foundations of the Church of England. It was of more importance to the members of the Church of England to abolish them than even to Dissenters. They had no chance of imposing church rates in the large towns, and no prescription could be set up in favour of their being levied where the ratepayers were opposed to it. The richest denomination in the kingdon could surely muster enough of money to maintain their own Church—a Church which composed nearly all the titled aristocracy, and possessed an annual income of £6,000,000. The English Dissenters never asked for a farthing to build or maintain their chapels, and not one English Dissenter ever thought of making such an application to either House of Parliament. All the Baptists, Independents, Wesleyans, and Catholics—all maintained their own establishments but the wealthy Church of England. Could such a state of things be permitted to exist? Could they allow such a disgrace to attach to their institutions? He did not believe that the Bill would pass, and he could not bring his mind to the conclusion that the noble Lord the Member for Woodstock (Marquess of Blandford) and others who agree with him, would seek to tax the whole community for the maintenance of their Church. The time was now come when all classes should be placed upon perfect equality. The Protestants, if taken alone, dwindled into a very small minority, and the Roman Catholics alone in the United Kingdom outnumbered them.


said, that having very recently stated the opinions he entertained as to the best course to be pursued upon the subject of church rates, he could hardly be expected to assent to the second reading of a Bill which was so opposed to those opinions. The hon. Gentleman who introduced the Bill appeared to think it would be wrong for the Legislature to abolish the legal obligation of church rates, but practically he did so by his own measure. As far as the charge for the performance of Divine Service was concerned, the legal obligation was to be abolished, and thus, so far, the hon. Gentleman had adopted a principle to which, in the course of his speech, he had declared himself hostile. By the second and subsequent clauses of the Bill, the obligation was to be enforced in a much more stringent manner than could be done at present. A very great alteration in the law was proposed. The archdeacon of the district in which a particular church was situated was made the sole judge, without appeal, as to whether the church required repairs, or whether the fittings were sufficient and becoming; he had the power to call upon the churchwardens to summon a vestry to make a rate to provide for any repairs he might deem necessary. In the event of the churchwardens refusing to call a vestry, or the vestry refusing to make a rate, the incumbent of the parish could apply to the Court of Queen's Bench for a mandamus, and that court could either command the churchwardens to summon a vestry, or could order the enforcement of a rate, the amount of which the archdeacon alone had power to determine. Considering the lengthened period during which church rates had been practically abolished in many places, he could not but regard as inexpedient any attempt to enforce a more stringent law upon the subject than now existed, and, therefore, he could not bring himself to vote for the second reading of the Bill now before the House.


said, he doubted very much whether the hon. Member for South Leicestershire was doing justice to his own views by pressing forward this measure at the present moment, when the whole subject must soon be seriously discussed upon the Bill of the hon. Baronet the Member for the Tower Hamlets, and the Amendments proposed by the Government. If hereafter, as he (Sir J. Pakington) hoped, it should happen that neither the Bill of the hon. Baronet (Sir W. Clay) nor the Amendments of the Government should be accepted by Parliament, then the country would be deeply indebted to the hon. Member for South Leicestershire or any other hon. Member who should devote his attention to the subject, in order to bring the matter to a fair, calm, and moderate settlement. Without entering upon the particular merits of the plan now submitted to the House, he would only observe that, while there were several points in the Bill to which he was prepared to assent, there were also some details with which he could not agree. If the hon. Member went to a division he (Sir J. Pakington) should support him, but, at the Same time, would suggest to him whether it would not be more desirable to postpone a discussion upon this measure for the present.


said, he would pledge himself that if, as he believed, neither the Bill of the hon. Member for the Tower Hamlets nor the propositions of the Government should be adopted by the House, he would introduce the present or some similar measure, but at present he would act upon the suggestion of the right hon. Baronet (Sir J. Pakington), and ask leave to withdraw the Bill.

Amendment and Motion, by leave, withdrawn; Bill withdrawn.