HC Deb 12 February 1861 vol 161 cc361-5

moved for leave to bring in a Bill to amend the Law of Church Rates. The hon. Gentleman said that the Bill in its essentials was the counterpart of his Bill of last Session, but in some minor respects it would be found calculated to carry out more comprehensively the object in view. He should best explain the measure by passing its provisions in review. In the first place it was proposed to remove the difficulties which were supposed to exist with regard to permissable objects, by defining the objects for which church rates might be lawfully levied. It then proposed to remove a grievance which was much complained of by Churchmen who were compelled to pay rates, not only for their own district churches, but for the parish churches. One clause of the Bill therefore proposed to give district churches the power of rating themselves. Another clause was directed to the assimilation of the law of church rate and the law of poor rate, so as to give greater facilities for the assessment of small sums leviable upon small tenements. Another clause would have the effect of removing the jurisdiction in disputed matters of church rates from the Ecclesiastical Courts, but without affecting the authority of the Ordinary or his officers in the visitation of churches and the direction of the necessary repairs. The most important provision of the Bill, and the one that was most likely to provoke discussion, was that by which it was proposed to deal with the scruples of those who had objections to church rates upon principle. In approaching the consideration of that part of the Bill, he begged the House to understand that he did so with two distinct propositions in view. The first was that the National Church of England was to be maintained in all its prerogatives; and the second, that as the great principles of religious liberty were the accepted rule of Government in this country, the conscientious feelings of certain portions of the community should be viewed in a liberal spirit. It was, therefore, proposed that any person might by a simple declaration emancipate himself from the payment of church rates in respect of a particular property, whether he were the landlord or tenant of that property. He would only ask those member who supported church rates, to consider the claims of Nonconformists in a candid and liberal spirit, and he would ask those who opposed church rates, to remember that the Church of England, as the Church of the nation, had also her rights, which she was bound to vindicate and maintain.


seconded the Motion.


thought the hon. Member could hardly expect the House to agree to the Bill which he asked leave to bring in. He (Mr. Hadfield) should not, however, oppose its introduction. The declaration required by it was one which would not be made. Last year they successfully resisted a clause in the Census Bill, to compel by force of law Nonconformists to declare their religious sentiments; and such a declaration would never be exacted to escape a few pence or shillings under a church rate. Any consequences would be suffered by thousands sooner than make it. Did the hon. Gentleman suppose that those terms would be accepted? They might call it a concession, but such a concession would never be accepted. A declaration from year to year would, in fact, be even more distasteful to the majority of Dissenters than the rate itself. And in return for what would they be called upon to make the declaration? At present there were 4,000 churches not entitled by law to levy church rates; yet the Bill proposed to grant them power to make a rate. But this Bill would, in every case where the rates were rejected, give facilities for renewing them. One-third of the population of the country, or more, were at this moment freed from the rates altogether. This Bill would give facilities for collecting them in those districts. It would bring 4,000 churches under the rate which now had no rate, and it would give facilities for obtaining a rate which did not now exist, and never ought to exist. And for the small advantage of being permitted to sign a declaration once a year they were to concede those immense advantages to the Church of England. He should like to know whether even upon this small concession the party opposite were unanimous (" Hear!") He was very doubtful of it. He understood that they were very much disunited, and that some would concede no principle whatever. It was said two or three years ago, by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster that the rate produced about £260,000 a year; but the expenses of collecting the rate were considerable. He did not think the net amount exceeded £200,000 a year, and yet all this immense excitement in the country was to be kept up in order to give this pittance to the richest Church in the world. His own opinion respecting this rate was, that it was not the money that they cared for, it was fur the superiority—the supremacy—the prestige—which the Church of England claimed over the rest of the community. Now, he would call attention to the state of the country, and appeal to hon. Gentlemen whether it was a fitting time to agitate this question, or to resist any longer the concession that was demanded? They had been challenged by his hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, last year, to take the new census on the same principle that it had been taken last time; but the fact was known that at the last census the majority of attendances in places of worship was greater in the ease of Nonconformists by more than 300,000 than in the case of the Church of England. The people of Scotland did not belong to the Episcopal Established Church, and the great majority of the people of Ireland were not members of that Church. In fact, upon an estimate which had been carefully taken, it appeared that there were in the United Kingdom at least 5,000,000 of population more out of the pale of the Church than within it. But even if the Dissenters were in a minority in the United Kingdom, was it proper to keep up the excitement which existed in regard to this subject? It could only be done in defiance of what he should consider true Christian principles and of sound policy. He thought the present Bill was a one-sided concession, and he felt confident it would never pass into law.


thought this Bill was an honourable attempt to settle a question which had much agitated the country. No doubt it would be opposed on that account by sectarian fanaticism on the one hand, and by Tory bigotry on the other. A great portion of the moderate Dissenters would, he believed, readily accept the olive branch held out to them by his hon. Friend, were they not prevented by those who called themselves their champions in and out of this House. When the Conservatives were in office, a Bill embodying the principle that Dissenters should be relieved from the payment of church rates was proposed by a member of the Cabinet; and, therefore, it would now ill become the Conservatives to resist a proposition of this kind. Was Nusquam tuta fides to be their motto? Did the Conservatives intend to have two sets of principles—one set to act upon whilst they occupied the Government side of the House, and the other whilst they sat on the Opposition benches? If so, their conduct would be open to the same reproach as that which they so frequently imputed to the Members occupying the opposite benches, and they would lose character in the eyes of the country. Why should the advocates of church rates abolition attempt, for the sake of relieving the Dissenters in a few towns, to upset the ecclesiastical system in the thousands of rural parishes where the people were satisfied with the present system? Great objection had been made to the proposed declaration of dissent required from Dissenters as the means of relieving them from liability to the payment of church rates; but, if all the practical difference which remained between us was reduced to a paper document, it was making a mountain of a molehill to describe that declaration as a great grievance.

Motion agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. HUBBARD and Lord ROBERT CECIL.

Bill presented, and read 1°.

House adjourned at Seven o'clock.