HC Deb 19 February 1861 vol 161 cc650-5

* Sir, the object of the Bill of which I have given notice, and which I now ask the House to permit me to introduce, and to be read the first time, is to remove a grievance under which all classes of Nonconformists at the present moment suffer, and which they deem to be a serious disability; and I assure the House that in its introduction I am actuated by no feeling of hostility to the Church of England: on the contrary, I believe that were the measure I ask to introduce to become the law of the land, one of the causes of offence now existing would be removed. And if the Church of England is to prosper, I am sure it can only be by the exercise of a large-minded, large-hearted charity; by the adaptation of itself to the spirit of the times; and by its seeking the good of the community at large—not by an exclusive action, but by an earnest co-operation in works of faith and labours of love, with all those denominations of Christians who, while differing in forms of worship and views of ecclesiastical polity, are yet united in the belief that the Bible is the only rule of faith, and the revealed will of God the only guide to fallible man. In the reign of Charles II., in the year 1661, the rubric of the Church of England, founded on an Act of Parliament, became law; and in that rubric there are three classes excluded from Christian burial—the suicide, the excommunicated, and the unbaptized. Now there is a large class of Her Majesty's subjects holding the New Testament as their sole guide in matters of Church discipline, and as their only rule of faith, who baptize only those persons who, by credible evidence, show sincere repentance towards God, and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ; and thus their children who are unbaptized suffer the disability of the loss of Christian burial, and they themselves the indignity of being classed with the excommunicate and the suicide. There is another class of Her Majesty's subjects, of whom we have some four or five hon. Members of this House, (I refer to the Society of Friends,) who hold that the ordinance of baptism is not binding on their conscience, and therefore do not practise it in their communion. Now I would at once ask the House to refer but to one instance in that communion, the late Mrs. Pry, whether there is one hon. Member of this House who would for a moment—having reference to her holy life, her unceasing benevolence, her thorough devotion to all that is good—feel that that could be just which would refuse to her Christian burial, and class her with the self-murderer and the excommunicate? I must now ask the kindness of the House in permitting me to show them that this is no mere sentimental grievance. I must first refer to an event which occurred in the county of Norfolk during the past year. The child of some Primitive Methodists died, nine months old. On applying to the clergyman of the parish, he permitted the child to be buried but no service to be held. Outside the churchyard an address was given, and prayer offered to Almighty God. After the child had been interred, two verses of a beautiful hymn were sung on retiring from the grave, by the mourning family and friends. A prosecution was instituted by the clergyman for this offence; and under what Act does the House suppose the prosecution was granted? The one passed last year to remedy the disturbances which have so disgracefully characterized the services at St. George's-in-the-East, and which provides for the punishment of persons, "guilty of rioting, violent, indecent conduct and behaviour in any cathedral, church, parochial church, district church, or burial-ground; or molest, vex, disquiet, or misuse any preacher." The magistrates trying the case were two clergymen of the Church of England, the patron of the living, and the lay impropriator of the tithes of the parish, who fined these poor peasants the sum of fourteen shillings. Now does the House, for a moment, conceive that such an act as this could be beneficial to the Church itself, could be conducive to Christian union, or he likely either to increase the power or extend the communion of the Church?

I must now ask the kind attention of the House to another case. The Rev. Mr. Long, of Newton Flotman, in Norfolk, has for several years been in the habit of carting soil from the north side of his churchyard for the manuring of his glebe. This last autumn he took away about fifty cart-loads. This caused much discomfort in his parish, and excited much observation in the entire district. On the matter being taken serious notice of, what does the House suppose Mr. Long's excuse to be? Why, that the portion of the churchyard from which he had carted the soil was the part which had been used for the burial of Methodists, Nonconformists, and the un-baptized. A gentleman in Norwich went to Newton Flotman to inquire into the truth of this case, and on going on to the rectory glebe found the evidence over the entire soil; and in the offices of the Mayor of Norwich may be seen by any hon. Member who may visit that city a skull taken from the glebe itself. Now, does the House imagine that that class of Her Majesty's subjects which, according to the last census, comprises a majority, can view the fact of the very bones of the deceased being used by a clergyman of the Church of England for the purposes of manure, and yet retain any feeling of union or desire for any cooperation with an Establishment which contains within its pale men who can so demean and disgrace themselves? Happily, I believe their number is but few; and my twelve years' experience of this House leads me to know how strong a feeling of reprobation such conduct would meet with here. I could adduce almost numberless cases of absolute refusal to bury, and their attendant evil consequences. Amongst many I select the case of Hopton, in Norfolk, where the peasantry have to take their children which are un-baptized a distance of six miles to a churchyard where the clergyman is more liberal. My position, as Treasurer of the Baptist Missionary Society, occasions my often being appealed to in cases of this kind; and sometimes these refusals are attended with that which can only be deemed insulting, such as permission to bury in the middle of the night, the sexton himself not being permitted to dig the grave. I believe, Sir, this Act, if passed by the House, would be held generally by the clergy of the Church of England as a measure of relief to themselves. At least, the opinion of the Archbishop of Canterbury given for their conduct would lead me to that conclusion. Some time since, on his being applied to for his view as to what should he done in such cases, the answer of his Grace was, "that he would suggest that no curious inquiries should be made in instances where burial was required for children."

Now, Sir, I can easily conceive that where the conduct of the clergyman is determined by religious principle, and not by maxims of mere policy—where he has given his "assent and consent" to all that the rubric contains—that such advice would not remove the difficulty felt; and I, therefore, trust I shall have the support of his Grace and the whole body of the clergy in this matter. With regard to the case of the suicide or self-murderer, my Bill in no way interferes: it has been the custom, I believe, of all civilized nations, to refuse Christian burial in such cases; and Sir John Nicholl says, "Self-murderers or suicides are supposed to die in the commission of mortal sin, and in the contempt of the Saviour and his precepts, and to have renounced Christianity."

Now, Sir, with regard to the excommunicate, the canons of the Church place all Nonconformists in the realm in this position of disability, whether they be ministers or laymen. Nay more, Sir, I believe a very large body of hon. Members in this House are at the present moment ipso facto excommunicate; for if these canons are enforced, the representatives of no person could claim Christian burial, unless they could shew "that they had received the holy sacrament, at least, at the previous Easter." Now, my Bill will have the merit of removing hon. Members of this House from this disability; and I trust they will see with me that if canon law is good for one it is good for all; for that law cannot be entitled to the respect of the community which is only partially administered. Now, Sir, with the permission of the House, I will proceed shortly to describe the clauses in the Bill and their effect. Clause 2 provides for the burial of all unbaptised persons and all Nonconformists without the use of the burial service in the Prayer Book. Clause 3 legalizes the appointment of "any person not being a clergyman" to conduct a burial service; this phrase being used because it permits Quakers to hold a service in consonance with their views, though none of their recognized ministers be present, and because it includes all Nonconformist ministers. Clause 4 is based upon the terms of the rubric, which requires "convenient" notice to be given to the minister of the parish, and provides against any clashing with the services of the Church by requiring him to appoint a reasonable time for the burial. The difficulty lies in giving him the notice: some clergymen do not re- side in their parishes, several live at distances of from four to ten miles. Others are occasionally absent during the week, and although their functions may be discharged by neighbouring clergymen during such absence, it is evident that those gentlemen could not make the necessary appointment. To provide for all such cases, therefore, it is proposed to use the Post-office; and in case no appointment is made within twenty-four hours, the burial may be arranged for by the parties conducting the funeral. The proviso reads, "After the expiration of twenty-four hours, either from the delivery of such notice, or from the leaving of the same at the Post office, to be forwarded as aforesaid." The time being limited to twenty-four hours, to provide for contagious epidemics. Clause 5 secures payment of all fees legally due and payable. The necessity of dealing with the variable customs of the different parishes is thereby obviated.

Now, Sir, having described the clauses of the Bill, and having shown the House its necessity, it is my duty to adduce a still stronger argument in its favour than any which I have yet used; and the class of argument which has more weight with, the House than any which can be used, namely, that of precedent. By 5 Geo. 4, cap. 25, applicable to Ireland, the law is as follows:—That it is not necessary that any officiating minister of the Church of Ireland shall celebrate the service, unless by particular desire; and, further, that ministers of other congregations or churches may do so. Now, the object of my Bill is, simply to assimilate the law of England to that of Ireland. I have made inquiries of those best informed, and I learn the consequences of this act to be everything that can be desired. Where heartburning and discontent previously existed, arising from the disability to which I have referred, a feeling of satisfaction and content has taken place. The Church of Ireland itself has not been injured, its privileges have not been curtailed, and yet these good results have been realized; and why, Sir, should we object to copy from the sister-country, when only good can be anticipated as the result? I can assure the House that all that Nonconformists desire is to be left to carry out their convictions of truth and duty. They claim only that which they are justly entitled to have, and short of which, nothing will content them: namely equal rights and privileges with their brethren of the Church of England. I gratefully acknowledge in this House that its course of legislation within the last few years has tended to this good end; and the perfecting of this work will do more for strengthening the Church of England than any other course which could be pursued. The abolition of the Test Act, and other measures, have done much to create a better feeling; and I beseech the House not to hesitate in its onward course. What is the first book which you place in the hands of your children—which most interests them? Is it not the Pilgrim's Progress of John Bunyan? And yet the spirit which dictated this rubric imprisoned John Bunyan himself for twelve years in Bedford Gaol. And Nonconformists have their martyrology as extensive in its character as any Fox ever wrote. But I rejoice that in the present day a better feeling exists. You do not value Milton's immortal works the less because they were written by a Baptist; and I beseech you to join with me in an effort to prevent our differences being exhibited at the grave, where, at least, we might hope the differences of life would be forgotten, and the mourners be permitted to resign to their last resting-place the precious remains of their friends in that way which would be most in consonance with their own feelings and those of the deceased. I beg, Sir, to move the introduction of the Bill.


asked if the Bill imposed upon the minister the obligation of performing the burial service according to the forms of the Church.


replied in the negative. The Bill simply gave the clergyman the power to grant permission for the funeral service being performed by a minister of another denomination, at the time when the clergyman himself shall have named.

Motion agreed to. Bill to make further provision with respect to the Burial of persons not being Members of the Church of England as by Law established, ordered to be brought in by Sir MORTON PETO, Mr. FRANK CROSSLEY, and Mr. KINNAIRD.