§ MR. HENRY SEYMOUR
said, he rose to ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department, When the promised Ecclesiastical Registry Bill will be introduced by 1292 the Government, and if he will lay on the table of the House the Correspondence between the Government and the Bishops, that this House may know what are the objections of the Prelates which prevent Her Majesty's Government from introducing any measure for the reform of the Ecclesiastical Courts? He had on various occasions brought this subject before the House, but unfortunately without effect. From year to year Her Majesty's Government had promised that some Bill should be introduced for the reform of those courts. In 1856 they themselves introduced a Bill, drawn by the present Lord Chancellor when Attorney General, which dealt fully with the matter, and which received the general approbation of ecclesiastical reformers in both Houses of Parliament. That Bill was, however, unfortunately defeated in the other House by a small majority; but it drew from the Irish Prelates an unanimous declaration addressed to the noble Lord at the head of the Government, thanking him for having introduced such a measure, and stating that no private emoluments for themselves or their families should induce them to stand in the way of the passing of a similar measure of reform. The Bill was thrown out by the efforts of certain English Prelates, who had misrepresented various portions of the Bill, as was afterwards proved when it was too late. Another Bill was introduced by certain Prelates who had opposed the former measure, but it then appeared that they would never consent to any Bill for the improvement of Church discipline which would not place the parochial clergy completely under their control. The head and front of the offending of the Bill of the noble Lord was that it did not do that, and that was the reason, which they dared not avow, why certain Prelates opposed it. When Lord Derby's Government came into office in a year or two afterwards another Bill was introduced to the same effect with regard to Ireland; it passed in another place, got two readings in that House, and was prevented from becoming law only by the dissolution of Parliament. That Bill provided an efficient remedy for those defects in the administration of Church discipline, and those abuses of patronage which to a very great extent he was sorry to say still disfigured ecclesiastical jurisdiction. Since that time various efforts had been made. Year after year he had himself introduced a Bill, and he had never received an an- 1293 swer to one single fact which he stated in that House, and which he brought forward upon the authority of Committees. Some fourteen years ago a Committee was presided over by his right hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. E. P. Bouverie), in which the late Sir James Graham took a distinguished part, and which pointed out abuses which prevailed and large fees which were levied for the benefit of those upon whom the Prelates wished to shower their benefits. The Report stated that these abuses were equally against ecclesiastical law and the common weal of the Kingdom, and deserved the attention of Government. Since that period a Liberal Government had sat for the greater time on the Treasury Benches; but nothing seemed to induce the Liberal Government to introduce Liberal measures with spirit. There had been a political fallow for the last four years, during which period scarcely one measure a year of any importance to the Liberal party had been introduced. In the present year, as in the last, they dragged on a miserable and sickly existence, and in the end they would be driven from the Ministerial side of the House with ignominy by those who, without declaring any policy of their own, could yet obtain possession of the Treasury Benches, simply on account of the universal disgust pervading the whole country at the inactivity of the Government. Year after year the Home Secretary had promised that this Question should receive attention—still there were no signs of the promised ecclesiastical reform. But it appeared that even a portion of the Prelates outstripped the Government in liberality, the Irish Bishops being anxious to see defects in their Church remedied, while the chief obstacles to a reform in the Irish Church were Her Majesty's Liberal advisers. On Thursday last the Archbishop of Armagh introduced in the House of Lords a Bill, in the very sense of the one brought in by Lord Derby's Government, with every prospect of success. The right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary, told him at the beginning of the Session, that a general measure of Church reform, comprehending a Church Discipline Bill, as well as a reform of the Ecclesiastical Courts and Registries, was too large a measure for the Government to undertake; and all that the right hon. Gentleman could summon up courage to attempt was a very small portion of those reforms, and introduce during the present Session a Registry 1294 Bill. Still, such a measure as that might lead to a general reform, because one of the principal impediments to improvement had been the question of registries, upon which offices there had been—for the most—expended £50,000 or £60,000 a year, levied as a tax on the laity for marriage licences and other purposes. That sum went in every bishopric to support the registries, in the offices of which, according to the Committee of 1848–9, might be traced the families of all those who had discharged the episcopal function in the dioceses of England. Some of the offices had been held by ladies, and some by children of three or four years of age. A late police magistrate was put into one of the offices by his father, a bishop, and enjoyed to the day of his death a sinecure of £400 a year, paying another to perform the duty. Another registrarship was held by an. officer in the Artillery, who likewise paid a small sum—some £100 a year—for a person to do the work; and yet some of these registrarships were worth £1,000, £1,200, or £1,400 a year. The registries were in many instances very unfit for the preservation of documents. Very few were fire-proof, so that there was great risk to all documents deposited in them. The Prelates had rejected the proposal of the Government on the subject because they wished to keep their registries in their own hands. If they were to be kept up it ought not to be by a tax on the laity—if Bishops insisted on keeping up registries to provide for their families and dependents, they ought to find the funds themselves, and ought to limit the emoluments to the salaries considered sufficient by Act of Parliament. There had been want of firmness, energy, and tact on the part of the Government in the preparation and carrying of Bills in that House. A little of these qualities might be infused into the Government with great benefit to the country. The right hon. Gentleman had said that the Government were ready to bring in these Bills, but that the Prelates were not unanimous on the subject, and were averse to cutting off their old sources of profit. That was natural. No doubt they required a little gentle pressure from that House and the public, and especially from the Government, to induce them to consent to these necessary measures of reform. The Irish Prelates were unanimous in their desire for a measure on the 1295 subject, and he desired to know what were the objections of the English Prelates to such a measure, and what reasons they had urged which had been apparently so effective with the Government as to induce them to postpone this reform so long? Nothing was more detrimental to public policy and to the character of the House and the Government than to appoint Committees to inquire into abuses, and when the Committees reported that abuses existed to take no step to remedy them. There seemed to be a general reticence on the part of the Government in their home as well as foreign policy. He had understood the right hon. Gentleman (Sir George Grey) to say, that though he had agreed to postpone a certain portion of the measure of ecclesiastical reform, yet that he was determined to introduce the question of a Registry Bill. When the House met he (Mr. H. Seymour) called attention to the question; and the right hon. Gentleman said it had received the careful attention of the Government, and that he thought he might promise a little bit of reform in the shape of a Registry Bill, and that he thought it would be introduced before Easter. After Easter the Bill was not ready, and as Whitsuntide was now passed it was doubtful whether, if the Bill was introduced, it would be carried this Session. He regretted that a liberal Government should have left a subject of such importance as this to the clergy to remain unsettled for four years. He would ask whether the difficulty said to exist in filling ministerial offices in the Church had not some connection with the anomalous position of the clergy in regard to their Ecclesiastical Courts? He wished to remove what many considered to be a stigma on the Prelates and the clergy. The clergy—a body of 25,000 men—were placed under the jurisdiction of the Ecclesiastical Courts in certain cases. At present the difficulty of weeding offenders out of the Church was so great, that many were allowed to remain in it. In one case a clergyman could not be proceeded against till the late Archbishop of Canterbury received from certain persons an indemnity amounting to several thousand pounds. In another case a compromise was effected in consequence of the enormous cost of carrying it through the Ecclesiastical Court. The case of Mr. Bonwell cost the Bishop of London £1,500, and he knew of a parish in which, in order to get rid of 1296 a notorious offender, a compromise had been made by which he had been induced to retire in consideration of an annuity for life. Both the clergy and the parishioners suffered from such a state of things. In justice to the clergy, to the public, and to the House, they ought to be informed why these abuses had been left so long unremedied. He begged to ask when the Ecclesiastical Registry Bill would be introduced, and whether the right hon. Gentleman would lay on the table the Correspondence he had alluded to between the Government and the Bishops, that the House might know what were the objections of the Prelates which prevented Government from introducing any measure for the reform of the Ecclesiastical Courts.
§ SIR GEORGE GREY
said, his hon. Friend had—unintentionally, no doubt— ascribed to him words which he had never used, and had not correctly represented what he had said in answer to the questions addressed to him on the subject. The hon. Gentleman seemed under the impression that he (Sir George Grey) had said that, having prepared a Bill for the reform of the Ecclesiastical Courts, he had had a correspondence with some of the Prelates; that they, front interested motives, desiring to retain in their own hands for the benefit of their families certain appointments, objected to the measure, and that the Government yielded to their objections. Nothing could be further from a correct statement of the facts. He had never said anything conveying such an imputation.
§ SIR GEORGE GREY
said, that any idea that there had been any correspondence with the Bishops on the subject, was wholly unfounded. What he stated had reference to a Bill prepared with great care by the Lord Chancellor for the reform of the Ecclesiastical Courts, and the amendment of the law of clergy discipline, and it was to this effect — that the Bill having been prepared, the noble and learned Lord had had conferences with some of the Prelates, which satisfied him that if he proposed the measure it would not receive that amount of support which would secure its success. Apart from the question as to where the funds for the prosecutions were to come from, and upon which the only proposal 1297 had been that they should be provided from the funds in the hands of the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, the main difficulty was the constitution of the ultimate court of appeal. Upon that question great difference of opinion existed, and the Lord Chancellor thought it better to endeavour if possible to devise some plan which was not open to the same objections, than to press his measure upon the House. He (Sir George Grey) stated, however, that with regard to the Ecclesiastical Registry Bill the objections that were entertained with reference to the other proposals did not exist, and that he was authorized by the Lord Chancellor to say that he hoped, in the course of the present Session, to introduce a Bill on the subject in the other House. He (Sir George Grey) never himself undertook to introduce such a measure. He regretted that the noble and learned Lord had not yet been able to give effect to his intention. There were causes which had delayed the preparation of the Bill, but he still hoped that it might be presented in the course of the present Session. He entirely agreed with his hon. Friend that it was the duty of the Government not to postpone what they considered a substantial measure of Church reform in consequence of any opposition by the Prelates; but at the same time it was desirable that any reform of this kind should be carried with as general an assent as it was possible to obtain, and he could not but think the noble and learned Lord had acted judiciously in endeavouring to meet the difficulties of the case by a conference with the Bishops. No correspondence had taken place between himself and the Bishops on the subject, and he believed the communications between the Bishops and the Lord Chancellor were entirely verbal.
§ Motion agreed to.