HC Deb 23 May 1865 vol 179 cc767-74

said, he rose to move for the appointment of a Select Committee to inquire and report to the House as to the mode in which the service of the Established Church is administered at the Church of St. Paul's, Brighton, of which the Rev. A. D. Wagner is perpetual curate, and especially as to that part of the service of the said Church called Sacramental Confession, as referred to by the said Rev. A. D. Wagner in recent proceedings before the magistrates at Trowbridge, Wiltshire, against Constance E. Kent; and generally to inquire into the like practices in other churches by clergy men of the Established Church. In justification of the Motion he might refer to Motions of a kindred nature which had been made during the present and previous Sessions, in reference especially to those proceedings of the Roman Catholic Church which affected the females professing that religion. The subject which had more recently attracted so much attention throughout the country was that which had arisen in the case of the unfortunate Constance Kent. The subject fixed itself especially upon the attention of the House, from the fact that the practice carried on at St. Paul's Church, Brighton, had come into direct collision with the law in our Courts of Justice. The terms "sacramental confession" and "seal of confession" were unknown to the laws of England, and unknown, as he believed, to the Church. They were a novelty, and a very formidable novelty, when introduced into our Church, and they were especially so when brought into collision with the administration of the law. The Roman Catholic Church deemed auricular confession a necessary and compulsory part of their religious service; while, so far as confession was adopted in the Church of England, according to the canons and rules of ecclesiastical law, it was entirely a voluntary act, and was in no way compulsory. He might quote a large number of authorities, but he would confine himself to that of the Bishop of Winchester, who, in a recent charge, ex pressing his view of auricular confession, stated that— The last matter which had engaged his attention was that of private confession—whether it was voluntary or obligatory. The canons before the Reformation recognized it, but the language of the formularies, of the Church gave no sanction to private confession, while by the homilies it was condemned. He believed the practice had been attended with the greatest danger; it was capable of being perverted to the vilest purposes, and was repugnant to the manly common sense and independent mind of the great mass of the English people. He had received many letters detailing instances of evil consequences which had arisen from auricular confession. It appeared that Mr. Wagner did himself feel the pressure of the circumstances of the case upon him, for he had volunteered an explanation in the newspapers as to how it happened that this poor young woman, Constance Kent, had given a certain sum of money to his Church. A curate of Mr. Wagner had thought fit to furnish the public with a very minute and detailed account of what was the nature of the auricular confession as administered in his Church at Brighton. Nothing could be more clear from his exposition than this, that let Constance Kent—or any other person—only consent to subject herself to the process of confession, there was an end of all her troubles—she was "purified and cleansed," and need not for a moment think of any sins she had committed. From the moment their sins were confessed to another, they themselves would be free from all imputation. Well, the people of Brighton asked why Mr. Wagner called in the assistance of the right hon. Gentleman (Sir George Grey) in order further to purify and cleanse the conscience of Constance Kent? Twenty-one months she had been under the control and guidance of Mr. Wagner and his assistants; and at the end of that time Mr. Wagner discovered that she was not completely purified and cleansed, and that nothing less than the assistance of the right hon. Gentleman, and the formidable services of the law, were necessary to complete the operation of satisfying her conscience. It was to give Mr. Wagner an opportunity of explaining these things, and to remove from the Church of England a very serious stigma, that he had ventured to ask for the Committee. The Bishop of London, on a recent occasion, when the subject was mooted in the House of Lords, stated that he very much deprecated those practices which were commonly known by the name of Puseyite or Tractarian practices, but that he had no such information of the practices as would enable him to take any effective steps for the correction of them. [The hon. Member was interrupted by cries of "Divide!" and other noises.] He begged the House to have patience while he disclosed, to the best of his ability, the task which he felt his duty imposed upon him. [Renewed cries of "Divide!"] The prevalence of these practices was as notorious as the steeple under which the Wagnerite practices were carried on. They were most obnoxious to a great majority of the members of the Church of England; but the Bishop of London said that he had no knowledge of them except by anonymous communications. This statement of the Bishop's was a most marvellous one, for he held in his hand the affidavit of Alexander James Beresford Hope—a well known name—sworn in 1855, and put in as part of a defence in the case of "Westerton v. Liddell." In that case a churchwarden of St. Paul's, Knightsbridge, endeavoured to put in force the law against the Rev. Mr. Liddell, the clergyman of that church, for practices inconsistent with the services of the Church of England, and which went on at St. Barnabas's. It was sworn by Mr. Hope, that in at least 200 churches chancel screens existed. That was one of the most obnoxious of these Puseyite arrangements. It also stated that in ninety-six churches the Lord's table was of stone, and there was another list of churches wherein candlesticks were in use. The judgment of Dr. Lushington showed the importance of candlesticks. Of the list of 400 or 500 churches given by Mr. Beresford Hope, where these obnoxious innovations existed, a great number were in the Bishop of London's own diocese—the very bishop who regretted that he had no power to interfere because he did not know of them except by anonymous communications. This was in 1855; but at the present time, from the lists published weekly in the Church Times, the news paper organ of the party, if that were any authority, the number was quadrupled. And yet the Bishop of London, who had asked for a million of money, towards which the Government was going to con tribute £15,000 a year, stated in the House of Lords that he knew nothing of these things, except by anonymous communications.


The Government contribution is, I believe, £15,000 in all.


said, he was under the impression it was £15,000 a year for some successive years. The Bishop said in his speech in the House of Lords—


The hon. Member cannot quote a speech made in the other House of Parliament.


It had been said, that whatever these grievances, it was most inexpedient to introduce the affairs of the Church into this House, and that they could be dealt with by the laws which regulated the Church. But he believed he was fully justified in introducing them even if in the case of this Mr. Wagner these practices bad not been brought, as it were, in collision with the laws of the country; and the more so as the Bishop of London was of opinion that the difficulties which presented themselves to the application of any remedies were absolutely insuperable. The Bishop said that he had instituted proceedings in respect to the practices of St. Alban's, Holborn; but that he despaired of bringing the matter to a satisfactory termination. If anything more than his Lordship's testimony on this point was required the House need only refer to the case of "Westerton v. Liddell," in which that model churchwarden, Mr. Westerton, for five years had endeavoured to enforce the law against the hon. and rev. Mr. Liddell who had been able to defy him. He had established in every court the fact that the law was on his side; lie bad had the decisions of Dr. Lushington, Dr. Dodson, and the Committee of Privy Council all in his favour. Yet Dr. Robertson, when applied to to enforce their monitions, said he had no jurisdiction, and the whole of the proceedings were futile and fruitless. The judgment of Dr. Lushington in the "Westterton v. Liddell" case, showed why stone communion tables, altar screens, and candlesticks, things perfectly innocent in themselves, had become of importance, and had been suppressed in old times, be cause they led, or might lead, to the revival of superstitious practices. If it were said that if he did not like the Church of England he might leave it, his answer was that he declined to leave it. And here he must express his disapproval of the course taken by the right hon. Gentle man (Sir George Grey) at St. George's-in-the-East, to which church he sent a policeman for every three of the congregation to suppress the expression of the just and legitimate indignation of the people. He could quote whole pages of facts to justify the institution of an inquiry into the nature and extent of these Wagnerite practices, which the Bishop of London joined with him in deprecating. It was impossible to exaggerate the cruelty, the hardship, the pain, and the suffering inflicted undeservedly upon members of the Church of England and their families by them. When he said "undeservedly" he meant this—the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. Newdegate) from time to time brought before the notice of the House cases of hardship inflicted upon inmates of Roman Catholic houses of religion; but those persons had more or less accepted the position, the duties, and the obligations of the religion they professed. But in the cases to which he (Mr. Whalley) was referring earnest members of the Church of England found themselves and their families involved in a net, out of which they had no more power of escape than fishes of the sea when encircled by the meshes of the fisherman. That this was no imaginary grievance he might mention that a memorial had been presented to Her Majesty on this subject, the signatures to which extended to the length of twelve yards. The hon. Member, whose speech had been listened to with great impatience, concluded by moving the Resolution.


seconded the Motion.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That a Select Committee be appointed to inquire and report to this House as to the mode in which the service of the Established Church is administered at the church of St. Paul's, Brighton, of which the Reverend A. D. Wagner is perpetual curate, and especially as to that part of the service of the said church called Sacramental Confession, as referred to by the said Reverend A. D. Wagner in recent proceedings before the magistrates at Trowbridge, Wiltshire, against Constance E. Kent; and, generally to inquire into the like practices in other churches by clergymen of the Established Church,"—(Mr. Whalley,)


I think the House will agree with me that it would be most inexpedient to grant the Committee which the hon. Member asks for. His first ground for the Motion is the legal proceedings which have taken place in regard to Constance Kent; but I believe the House will concur with me that this is not a proper time to discuss proceedings which are in the course of judicial investigation. At the same time I may say that there can be no doubt whatever that the law of the land does not recognize any privilege by which a clergyman is entitled to with hold any evidence in courts of law which may be material to the interests of justice. I believe the magistrates of Trowbridge did not admit that privilege, and that they did not allow Mr. Wagner to withhold from them any evidence that they thought essential to enable them to arrive at a conclusion as to the course they ought to pursue. I may also state that on the trial of Constance Kent—should she he placed upon her trial—if the evidence of Mr. Wagner should be deemed material, and he refuses to answer any question put to him, it will be for the presiding Judge to deal with him as with any other witness who refuses to give evidence essential to the ends of justice. Another ground upon which the hon. Gentleman supported his Motion for an inquiry was that certain rumours had reached him as to the mode in which the public service was conducted in the church of St. Paul's at Brighton, and in other churches in other places. I do not think mere rumour is a sufficient ground upon which an inquiry such as that proposed by the hon. Member ought to be instituted, even if it were desirable on other grounds. I have to express my regret that there should be in any churches belonging to the Established Church practices which are inconsistent with that pure and simple form of worship which prevails in the great majority of our churches; but, at the same time, the question is whether these practices are or are not sanctioned by ecclesiastical law. The hon. Gentleman argues that because the Bishop of London has stated that there is great difficulty in obtaining proof of the illegality of the practices in cases where a breach of the ecclesiastical laws has been committed, this inquiry ought to be instituted as to the mode in which the services are performed in all the churches through out the country, in order to obtain evidence upon which to found criminal proceedings. It is quite clear that if these practices are contrary to ecclesiastical law, they would afford matter upon which criminal proceedings might be taken, and for which penalties might be enforced. And I think the House will hesitate before it institutes an inquiry in order to obtain evidence on which criminal proceedings are to be founded. It is said that the Bishop of London has intimated his intention of taking proceedings in the case to which the hon. Gentleman has referred, and if this results in the proof that there has been a breach of the ecclesiastical law, the law must be allowed to take its course, but I hope the House will not appoint a Committee in order to interfere with those proceedings. I feel bound to express my belief that discussions of this kind do not tend to public edification, and I trust the House will not be disposed to enter into a long debate upon the subject, but will be prepared at once to express its opinion as to the expediency or inexpediency of appointing a Committee.


said, he concurred with the right hon. Baronet as to the in expediency of discussing such matters in that House, but he was compelled to bring the matter before them because there was no other way in which they could be specially dealt with. He hoped the House would grant the inquiry he asked for.


said, it appeared to him the question raised by this Motion was whether or not it was expedient, if the law in its present state was inefficient, that they should alter the law. It was notorious that in the metropolis, as well as in many other parts of the country, the pure and simple form of worship which members of the Church of England had a right to expect, and which up to within a quarter of a century ago would have been found in all the churches of England, had been departed from, and the question was whether it should continue to be performed, or whether the service of the Church of England henceforth in those places should he undistinguishable from that of the Church of Rome. He should be exceedingly sorry to make any observations which a Roman Catholic would consider a reflection on his mode of worship; but speaking as a Protestant, and from his own observation, he must say that the manner in which worship was carried on in some churches of this metropolis, although it might appeal to the fears and superstition of savages, was an insult to the commonsense of the people, and it was a disgrace to the Protestant part of the community that they should allow it to be carried on. If the law did permit this it was a gross scandal that it should be so. If the law did not permit it, it was a re- flection on the heads of the Church that they did not put the law into operation. He thought that the members of the Church of England had a right to know whether they were in a Protestant or in a Roman Catholic Church. There was the case of St. George's-in-the-East, where the Government did that which was probably right—sent a body of police to pre vent a breach of the peace, because the service was so repugnant to the feeling of the people. And what had taken place? Why, that the Rev. Bryan King, the former Incumbent of that parish, had gone over to the Church of Rome. He said it was the duty of those who had the conduct of these matters in the Church to see that the law was carried out, and if the law did not prevent such practices, there ought to be a Committee of Inquiry into the subject. This led him to inquire, what did they remunerate the bishops so highly for—to the extent of hundred of thousands a year—unless it were to superintend the performance of religious service in the churches of the country? If the bishops were unequal to the task of controlling the clergy because of the insufficiency of the law let the law be amended. He was sure that there was in this country such a growing feeling on this subject that un less those in authority took up the question the people would help themselves to a remedy in spite of any police. He should support the hon. Member if he went to a division, but he would advise him to be content with having ventilated the question, and not press the Motion to a division.

Question put, and negatived.