HC Deb 20 February 1872 vol 209 cc786-95

Considered in Committee.

(In the Committee.)


, in moving that the Chairman be directed to move the House, that leave be given to bring in a Bill to enable Incumbent Ministers, with the permission of the Bishop of the Diocese, to provide for the delivery of Occasional Sermons or Lectures in their Churches or Chapels by persons not in Holy Orders of the Church of England, said, he proposed the Bill as a measure of practical reform, limited in its operation, but worthy of consideration for the beneficial results it might indirectly produce. It would relate to the qualifications of persons who might be considered fit to preach occasional sermons in churches of which they were not the regular ministers, and would not affect the ordinary minister, or establish a new order of persons in the Church. The object of the Bill was to remove useless and mischievous restrictions upon the discretion of the rulers of the Church and of the incumbents of parishes. That restriction was not founded on any law of the Church, or canon, or any distinct statement in the rubric of the Prayer Book. It was not imposed by any statute; but rested on a doubtful construction of statutes taken together with passages in the Prayer Book. The restriction depended upon the interpretation given to certain words in the Preface to the Ordination Service in the Book of Common Prayer, prohibiting anyone from executing any of the functions appertaining to Bishops, priests, and deacons, without ordination. Although preaching was one of the functions of ordained ministers, the previous practice of the Church would not justify its being considered as one of their exclusive functions. In the early period of the Church there existed an obvious distinction between those sermons which formed part of the regular services of the Church and those which were not so united to any particular service. The homilies which were associated with the Communion Service could be delivered only by the clergy who officiated, or were qualified to perform that service; but lectures or discourses which were given separately and distinctly in the have of the Church might be delivered by persons not specially connected with the regular congregation and holding no office in the Church. In the very earliest period of ecclesiastical history that distinction was observed. One of the best known cases in early times was the case of Origen. While a catechist on a visit to Jerusalem, he was asked by the Bishop to expound the Scriptures publicly; and the Bishop, being called to account, defended himself by quoting many precedents of similar invitations to laymen to preach publicly in the Church. At a later period, at the fourth Council at Carthage, a canon was passed prohibiting a layman from teaching in the presence of the clergy, except they requested him to do so, from which it appeared that the custom of lay preaching was sufficiently common to require a canon for its regulation and limitation. When preaching was resorted to by members of the monastic Orders, they were not ordained ministers; and when St. Francis began to preach in 1206, he had not been ordained. The preaching of lay friars stirred up new life among the people, and their zealous activity was acknowledged to be an important addition to the ordinary ministrations of the parochial clergy. At the Reformation no prohibition of lay preaching was made, and many who were not priests or deacons were allowed by the authorities to appear in the pulpits of parish churches in England and Ireland. In the 16th century Dr. Robert Harris was allowed to preach in churches near Oxford, when only a student of law and not ordained. Usher, while he was yet a student at Trinity College, and before he had taken Orders, was requested by the ecclesiastical authorities of Dublin to deliver sermons in Christchurch Cathedral. The deficiency of qualification for preaching which prevailed at that time led to the frequent appearance of learned and eloquent laymen and of unordained ministers in the pulpits of the Established Church, and when the Act of Uniformity was framed to prevent benefices from being held by those who had not been episcopally ordained, its enactments were not especially directed against the casual and exceptional preaching of Nonconformists. The section about lecturers seemed to contemplate the delivery of lectures by men who would not read the Church Service. That the Act was not understood at the time to abolish the liberty which had previously been allowed in exceptional instances to unordained preachers was shown by the legal opinions which were recorded in The History of Baxter's Life and Times. Mr. Saunders (afterwards Lord Chief Justice) gave as his opinion, in 1675, "That if Mr. Baxter hath the Bishop's licence and be not a curate, lecturer, or other promoted ecclesiastical person mentioned in the Act, I conceive he may preach occasional sermons without conforming, and not incur any penalty within this Act." Mr. Pollexfen, in 1682, gave as his opinion "that Mr. Baxter is not restrained by the Act of Uniformity to preach any occasional sermon, so as it be within the diocese wherein he is licensed." Richard Baxter acted upon these legal opinions and preached in many parish churches in Hertfordshire without interference. John Howe, who had received congregational ordination, and had been ejected under the Act of Uniformity, was permitted in 1671 to preach in Antrim Church by the Bishop of the diocese. In 1862 Lord Cairns, Mr. Stephens, and Mr. Deane were asked whether a minister not connected with the Church of England, but who had signed the Thirty-nine Articles, and been licensed by a Bishop, would be liable to penalties for preaching; the opinion given was, that he might incur the risk of being convicted under the 21st section of the Act of Uniformity, but that the matter was involved in great uncertainty. The words "execute any of the said functions of Bishop, priest, or deacon" might mean execute those offices with all the authority incident to them; and if the words were so interpreted, they would not prohibit unordained ministers from preaching occasional sermons in churches. It followed that, there was not a clear right on the part of any Bishop to give his licence to a person not episcopally ordained, and who had not signed the declaration required by the Act of Uniformity. He (Mr. Cowper-Temple) contended that it was not desirable to retain such a restriction. Every restriction not justified by sound policy should be removed, and as much freedom given as possible in all these matters. There could be no risk of abuse if the Bishop and incumbent had the power which existed before the Act of Uniformity was passed, and before the Prayer Book was put into its present form. If either should be tempted to abuse any power he might have, he would be subject to an immediate expression of public opinion. Everyone who had observed the conduct of those who sat on the Episcopal Bench must admit that caution and moderation were their characteristics. They were not accustomed to run counter to the cherished opinions of those over whom they ruled. Incumbents were not likely to introduce into their pulpits men who differed from them widely in their views; and their congregations would hear from the invited stranger very much the same tone of teaching and the same line of thought they were accustomed to hear. There would be a double cheek upon abuse in the responsibility of both the Bishop and the incumbent. The congregation would have a check, though an indirect one. If the incumbent should disregard their wishes, they would have an opportunity of making representations to the Bishop. He wished that a direct voice could be given to them. Whenever the principle of the Parochial Councils Bill was adopted, and the congregation had representatives to give expression to their opinions, they could be consulted as to the admission of a casual preacher; but it was very difficult, in the present want of organization of parishioners, to devise any machinery by which an opinion could be obtained from them in a formal legal manner, but it was very unlikely that their feelings would be disregarded by both rector and Bishop. The operations of this Bill might be useful by increasing the power and interest of the pulpit, and by enlarging the sympathy that existed between Churchmen and Nonconformists. It would be well for some congregations to have opportunities of hearing old familiar topics handled by persons whose training and associations were different from those of their accustomed pastor, and there ought to be a authorized place in the services for the utterance of well qualified persons in addition to those of the professional clergymen. A measure of that kind would meet the feeling which was growing in the Church for some relations with men who were beyond its pale. That feeling was manifested in a way that excited much observation last summer by two eminent Prelates, distinguished for their power and influence. Their wide Christian sympathy and their desire for more extended usefulness led them to occupy the pulpit of a Presbyterian church in Scotland, and he saw no reason to doubt that the same feeling would lead them into reciprocal action, and would cause them to open pulpits in their dioceses to Presbyterian clergymen whose talents and Christian character would fit them for sound and useful teaching. What these Prelates would do might be done by others, and that event afforded an answer to those who apprehended that the power given by the Bill to Bishops would not be used. The artificial barrier which had been raised by the Act of Uniformity against the admission into the churches of any teaching except that of ordained ministers ought to be removed. It was not suitable to a national Church. He presumed that the teaching which would be delivered in the form of occasional sermons would be of a practical character, dwelling on moral duties and the mode of applying Christianity to the details of every-day life. It would, probably, be found that the various sermons to be delivered under the Bill would be practically alike, and would be such as to bring out more distinctly the unity and concord underlying all the differences of dogmas. In his opinion, it was the province of the Church of England to help to establish that concord and unity. The Church of England was the most comprehensive and tolerant religious body in existence, and he wished that Church to become still more comprehensive and tolerant. The measure he proposed, though small in its scope of operations, was a step towards removing what some people might consider an assumption of superiority on the part of the Church of England, as if she declared that there was no preaching beyond her pale worth being listened to by her congregations. By at once repealing the restriction he had adverted to, they would enable her freely and heartily to extend the hand of fellowship to other religious communities, and to acknowledge formally that there was an union in common Christianity, even where there was separation in particular doctrines. The Bill was very simple in its construction, and consisted of only two clauses, the principal one being that when the incumbent of any parish made application to the Bishop of his diocese to give permission to a person, approved by the incumbent, to enter his pulpit and preach occasionally, such person, on the permission being granted, might at once preach in the church without being episcopally ordained, and without making the declaration required from clergymen by the Church of England. There was a precedent in the Act of 1840 for enabling clergymen of the Episcopal Church of Scotland and America to preach occasionally in the pulpits of English clergymen, the difference being that, as they were members of another branch of the Church they might officiate as well as preach. The Bill would emancipate the Church authorities from a needless restriction, and would leave their responsibility unfettered. It might lead to very useful results, but at all events it would add a feature of liberality and tolerance to the Church of England. The right hon. Gentleman concluded by moving the Resolution.


said, that the right hon. Gentleman had given them a very interesting discourse—he wonld not say occasional sermon—and had gone so fully into the objects of the Bill, that he felt obliged to state his objections to it more fully than it was usual for an opponent to do on the occasion of asking leave to introduce a measure. The Bill laboured under an ordinary difficulty—namely, that the intentions with which many persons would receive or would decline it would be far larger than the ostensible intentions of its authors. It might seem, on the face of it, a somewhat innocent proposal; but a closer examination robbed it of that character. The right hon. Gentleman had dwelt upon the supposed analogy that might be drawn from the primitive practice of the Church in allowing laymen to preach; but it must be remembered that that permission rested on the manifest and undoubted basis—that the persons enjoying the permission were in full and complete harmony and communion with the body in whose churches they preached, and derived their authority from the very fact of that harmony. It was therefore manifest that in this practice, no precedent, but the reverse, could be found for any proposal to allow ministers of other and hostile denominations to occupy the pulpits of the Church of England. The right hon. Gentleman had dwelt on the importance of bringing into prominence the many points on which all denominations of Christians were agreed, as well as those on which they differed; and they would all confess that such a thing would be well worth doing, if it was to be done, and that it was, indeed, but the enunciation of the first law of Gospel charity. But he feared that this Bill would have no such happy result. It was clear that upon the clergyman who was anxious to bring a stranger into his pulpit would devolve the preliminary task of selecting him, because it was not to be supposed that the clergy of the Establishment would advertise in the religious journals, that any Dissenting minister anxious to occupy their pulpits on a particular evening would be at liberty to do so. A selection would have to be made, some would be taken, and the rest left out in the cold, and that somewhat invidious process would hardly be conducive to Christian harmony, or improve the amiability of those Dissenting clergymen who found that they were not selected, and who would necessarily consider that a mark of inferiority had thus been stamped upon them. Then the Dissenting clergyman who was invited to occupy the alien pulpit would not be free to speak his whole mind in it—the antecedent condition would be that he must fight in gloves, or, otherwise, if he were free to reveal his innermost belief, a Church of England congregation might chance to find, in their own edifice, the superior merits of Dissent pressed upon their attention. The Dissenter would not be a Dissenter if he were not convinced of the spiritual superiority of his denomination over the Church, and yet he would be bound in honour not to point out what he believed to be the more excellent way. He would be expected to keep within certain limits, and to confine himself to certain subjects—a course that would not be conducive to straightforwardness, but rather calculated to substitute sophistical and superficial relations of false forbearance for the attitude of honest and manly antagonism that now prevailed between the Establishment and the Nonconformists. Again, in what frame of mind would the congregation go to church to hear the well-advertised Dissenting preacher? It would certainly not be in that spirit of gravity and sobriety proper to be carried to all public devotion, but rather in the excited mood of persons who were about to see something sensational that would divert and distract, and, perhaps, astonish them; for, of course, the minister selected would be a man of mark—one who brought with him a reputation that raised him above the level of the other Dissenting preachers in the land, and would be expected not to disappoint his backers. And if the principle of the Bill was sound, why should it not be extended to laymen; and why should a church-going layman be set aside for a professed opponent of the Church? [Mr. COWPER-TEMPLE: It is.] Then that would simply introduce chaos. It must not be supposed that the men who would most press forward to be heard would be those who were best worth hearing—quite the reverse. The quiet modest, writers and thinkers would still prefer to fill the role of the listeners. Mouthy, ill-educated, restless, conceited, self-sufficient men, speaking out of the abundance of their ignorance, stimulated by their want of common sense and their plentiful supply of self-sufficiency, would hasten forward to take advantage of the Bill; but, in all other respects, and to all other persons, of what advantage could it be? The man who had anything to say would, they might be sure, select one of the many other channels of publicity already open to everyone—conferences, public meetings, lectures, the Press, &c—as hitherto; it was not such persons who would have their preaching mouths opened by the Bill. He had no doubt, for example, that the right hon. Gentleman could, if he chose, preach a very good sermon from a pulpit; but he was equally certain that it could be with no idea of availing himself of its provisions that the right hon. Gentleman now brought forward the Bill.

Notice taken, that 40 Members were not present; House counted, and 40 Members being found present,


resumed. He deprecated the trial of such an experiment as that in the present disturbed state of the Church, when there was already more than a sufficient number of problems awaiting solution, and when there were already so many regular channels open for everyone to say whatever he thought worth saying. He thought that the right hon. Gentleman would act most wisely if he did not now attempt to push this Bill further; but if he did intend to take it to the second reading, he (Mr. Hope) should certainly offer it all the opposition possible.


said, that he did not think it would be convenient to attempt to enter upon any full discussion of this measure at the present time, when it was not possible to estimate its bearings, notwithstanding the fulness of detail into which his right hon. Friend (Mr. Cowper-Temple) had entered. He should undoubtedly watch the measure with great interest and some jealousy; because he thought it would be no trifling thing to allow the principle that persons should be allowed to assume the office of teaching in the Church of England, while they were not to be in any manner subject to her laws and discipline, or to profess any sort of conformity to her principles, or to be under any sort of obligation to follow her rules. He felt the highest respect for the motives of his right hon. Friend; but he thought such a principle was one that could not safely be adopted as the basis of legislation by that House.

Motion agreed to.

Resolved, That the Chairman be directed to move the House, that leave be given to bring in a Bill to enable Incumbent Ministers, with the permission of the Bishop of the Diocese, to provide for the delivery of Occasional Sermons or Lectures in their Churches or Chapels by persons not in Holy Orders of the Church of England.

Resolution reported:—Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. COWPER-TEMPLE and Mr. THOMAS HUGHES.

Bill presented, and read the first time. [Bill 61.]