HC Deb 21 March 1882 vol 267 cc1548-60

Order for Second Reading read.


said, he rose for the purpose of moving the second reading of this Bill, in regard to which he was afraid there was a very erroneous impression abroad. It was not, by any means, so large a measure as some hon. Members thought. It was a Bill which had been drafted and prepared by the Free and Open Church Association, which was presided over by Earl Nelson, and which included among its patrons the Archbishop of Dublin and 26 Bishops, 14 of whom were English Bishops. Among its Vice Presidents he found the names of the Whip of the late Government, of the Whip of the present Government, of the noble Lord who, in the late Government, filled the Office of Postmaster General; and the name of the son of the Prime Minister was on the back of the Bill itself. He also found among the Vice Presidents the name of the hon. Member for the University of Oxford (Mr. J. G. Talbot), whom he was glad to see in his place, and who, he hoped, was going to support the second reading of the Bill. The object of the Bill was to assert and maintain the equal right of all parishioners to the free use of the floor of the parish church. By the ancient Common Law, the body of the parish church belonged of common right to all parishioners, and no place could be permanently appropriated to the exclusive use of any person. Lord Chief Justice Hussey, in 1492, pronounced that "no place belonged to one more than the other;" and the correctness of this judgment was endorsed by the House of Lords' Committee "on the Deficiency of the means of Spiritual Instruction and Places of Worship," who reported, nearly 400 years later—in 1858—that, Returning to the normal state of things, where it remains unaffected by any special privilege, the body of every parish church belongs of common right to all the parishioners, and this right cannot lawfully he defeated by any permanent appropriation of particular places. But the ancient Common Law, which asserted that the body of the parish church should be as free and common to all parishioners as the Queen's highway, had in the course of time become corrupted; and the practice of appropriating to the use of particular persons seats, which were properly for the use in common of all the parishioners, had become almost universal. The Bishops, for instance, when complaint was made to them by individual parishioners, invariably replied that by law it was the Churchwardens' duty to assign seats to parishioners as they thought fit. The following instances might be cited among many others:—Mr. G. W. Butler, a parishioner of Horley, Surrey, wrote last February to the Bishop of Rochester urging the legal right of the parishioners to the use in common of their parish church, and asking him to forbid the Churchwardens carrying out their publicly announced intention of assigning the seats in the church to a section of the parishioners. The Bishop replied, through his solicitor, as follows:— 7th of March, 1882. Sir—I am desired by the Bishop of Rochester to acknowledge the receipt of your letter, and to inform you that by the Ecclesiastical Law it belongs to the office of the Churchwardens to assign seats in the parish church to the parishioners, subject to the general control of the Bishop in case of need; and that, according to the decisions of the Ecclesiastical Courts, the parishioners are not at liberty to choose any seats they like.—I am, &c. (signed), ARTHUR F. DAY. Again, in the case of Stroud Parish Church, a correspondence recently took place in The Stroud News as to the appropriation of seats, and the Churchwardens wrote to the paper to explain that all the seats were appropriated. A parishioner then complained to the Bishop, who replied that "it is the duty of the Churchwardens to seat the parishioners, and for the most part rateably." The last case he would quote was that of the Parish Church of Droitwich and the Bishop of Worcester. The Rector lately gave notice in the church that the seats were free, whereupon the Church wardens complained to the Bishop, who wrote at once to the Rector as follows:—

"Hartlebury, Kidderminster,

"October 22, 1881.

"My dear Mr. Burrow,

"Mr. Beanlands told me yesterday that you have given public notice in church that the seats henceforth would be free and open to all comers, without regard to any assignment of them which may be made by the Churchwardens. If this be true, it is my duty to tell you that you have assumed a power, in opposition to the acts of the Churchwardens, which you do not possess, and have taken a step which may lead to serious mischief. I must repeat what I have already said to you—October 4, 1881—that it is the exclusive duty of the Churchwardens—subject to appeal to the Bishop—to assign seats to the parishioners; that the Rector has no power to interfere in any way with such assignment, and that if any complaint arise it should be referred to the Bishop. If the Churchwardens think it wise and good to assign seats to the parishioners as they come into the church every Sunday, they would be within the law in so doing until otherwise directed; but if, as is usual in most parish churches, they assign seats to certain persons for the whole term of their year of office, they have a right to do so, and their action cannot lawfully be hindered by the Rector.

"Yours faithfully,

"(Signed) H. WORCESTER.

"The Rev. R. F. Burrow."

These instances would be sufficient to show that it was the opinion in high places that the Churchwardens were empowered to appropriate seats for the year; and it would be found on inquiry that the opinion of the Bishops was almost universal throughout the country. But he contended that the Churchwardens had no such power; that their duty as guardians of order was—in the words of Canon 85—"to see that in every meeting of the congregation peace be well kept," and that no one should be allowed to obstruct the common right. He contended, further, that the use of the church was common to all the parishioners; that this Common Law right was inherent in themselves, and could not be taken away from them by the Bishop, or by the parishioners' own elected officers, the Churchwardens. There was one objection to the provisions of the Bill commonly made by persons who had not sufficiently studied the subject, and that was, that if the Bill passed into law, one of the most important sources of Church revenue would be lost. That, however, would not be the case, because the only effect of the operation of the Bill would be to prevent the appropriation of seats and the levying of pew rents in those churches which were not legally authorized to levy pew rents by virtue of special Acts of Parliament. In those churches the appropriation of seats would be no longer admissible; but in all oases where the Ecclesiastical Commissioners had, under the powers vested in them by Acts of Parliament—powers which they acted upon whenever they thought necessary—authorized the levying of pew rents, such pew rents might still be legally levied. The existing rights in this respect would not be interrupted, nor would the legal powers of the Ecclesiastical Commissioners to authorize in the future the levying of pew rents be touched by the present measure. He did not wish to weary the House at that late hour, and trusted he had said enough to make clear what were the objects of the Bill. He trusted the House would agree to the second reading of a Bill which aimed at the reform of a system which he maintained to be injurious to the Church, destructive to religion, and creative of class dislikes. He held it to be wrong that the pews in the churches, which belonged to all, should be appropriated to the use of the few; that the poor, for whom the Church primarily existed, should be robbed of their rights. What wonder, then, he asked, that the poor, who found themselves thus excluded from the Church, should come to look upon it with dislike, and regard it not as the Church of the poor, but as the Church of the well-to-do—the Church of a sect in which they had no place? Could it be a matter of surprise that they should forsake the Church and swell the ranks of Nonconformity? Therefore, with the wish to make the Church of England what it should be, and what it professed to be—the Church of the people—he asked the House to pass this Bill, which restored to all the parishioners their common and equal right to the accommodation which the Church afforded.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."—(Mr. A. Grey.)


said, the hon. Member for Northumberland had been good enough to infer, from his presence in the House at that late hour, that he was in favour of the Bill. With the general objects of the measure, and with the sentiments expressed by the hon. Member in connection with it, he heartily sympathized; but he was bound also to add that he thought the Bill, as it stood, was not one which could safely be allowed to pass the House; and, although he was quite ready to vote for its second reading, in the event of its passing that stage, he should feel it his duty to move certain Amendments in Committee which would indicate alterations that in his view were necessary before the measure took its place amongst the Statutes of the country. He would shortly refer to two points which deserved the attention of the hon. Member and the House, and in connection with which it seemed to him absolutely necessary to amend the Bill. In the first place, he thought it would be impossible to prohibit all appropriation of seats. He agreed that there should be no payment for pews in the old parish churches of the country; and on that point, therefore, he was entirely in accord with the hon. Member opposite. But he did not think it would be safe to forbid appropriation in all parish churches. There was an instance strongly fixed in his mind of a church at which he had the pleasure of meeting the hon. Member—one of the parish churches of the country, in which the concourse of persons was so great, owing to the popularity of the clergyman and the character of the service, and where the effect of non-appropriation of seats would produce the very result the hon. Member wished to prevent—that was to say, the driving out of the poor by the incursion of strangers. It was, therefore, a mistake to say that appropriation meant always appropriation to the rich and the driving out of the poor. In the case he referred to, the appropriation by the Churchwardens took place for the benefit of the parishioners; and the hon. Member would see that, under such conditions, it would be dangerous to the very class whom he sought to protect to prohibit the appropriation of seats. Again, it seemed to him that the Bill, as worded, would prohibit the letting of seats hereafter in all churches, even those already built under the Church Buildings Act, and those to be built.


said, the hon. Member was wrong in supposing that that would be the effect of the Bill. In all cases the Commissioners, under the powers which they possessed, could authorize the levying of pew-rents and the appropriation of pews where they were satisfied that the available sources of revenue were not sufficient.


said, his contention was that the wording of the Bill, as it then stood, did not sufficiently carry out the hon. Member's proposition. However, as he had stated that that was not the object he had in view, he would not, of course, oppose the introduction of words that would make the point perfectly clear. Those were his reasons for saying that he could not allow the Bill to pass in its present form without asking the House to consider the Amendments which he should move in Committee for the purposes indicated. It was a question whether the Bill, which dealt with a subject of great national interest and importance, had been brought forward at an hour when it was likely to receive the amount of consideration and discussion which was due to it? That, however, was a point that he should not take up the time of the House in arguing. The hon. Member opposite, as he was aware, was under the same difficulty which all private Members were exposed to in reference to bringing forward their Bills late at night; and it was the duty of all hon. Members who had objections to urge to them to remain until they came on for discussion. In conclusion, while he concurred with the hon. Member in the endeavour to make the parish churches, so far as possible, the churches of all classes of the people, he was not prepared to allow the Bill to pass through Committee in its present form.


said, in consequence of what the hon. Gentleman opposite had told him privately, he had been induced not to put down a Notice which would have prevented the Bill coming forward at that hour. Still, he was bound to point out that there were many Gentlemen who desired to take part in the debate, and who, like himself, did not agree with the hon. Member that the Bill would be advantageous in every way to the poor. His experience with regard to Church matters had been long and varied, and it led him to believe that it would not be possible to prevent persons who wished to endow and build churches from levying pew rents. He could say of many of the churches with which he had been con- nected that, had pew rents not been established, it would have been simply impossible for those churches to have been in existence. Without going into the various Acts of Parliament bearing upon the subject, the whole question could not be satisfactorily considered. But it was impossible to enter upon those Acts at so late an hour (2.15); and, therefore, considering that he had not blocked the Motion of the hon. Member, he would ask him whether he was not willing to postpone the further consideration of the Bill until another day? There were many hon. Gentlemen who desired to take part in the discussion, but who, owing to the late hour at which it had been reached, were unfortunately absent; and, for his own part, he had not expected, considering all the subjects connected with it, that the Bill would have been proceeded with that evening. They all agreed that the hon. Member had no other wish than to do all the good in his power for the Church of England, and it was to be hoped that he gave hon. Members on those Benches credit for the same intention; but the Bill, in his opinion, was too important to be disposed of at that hour of the night, and he appealed to the hon. Member to postpone it to a period when it could be more properly discussed.


wished to join in the appeal which had been made to the hon. Member in charge of the Bill by the hon. and gallant Member for Truro. It appeared to him that, apart from any question as to the precise merits of this measure, there could be no doubt that it was one of very considerable importance, and that it aimed at effecting in the arrangements of the Church of England, so far as our parish churches were concerned, something which amounted almost to a revolution. The merits of the Bill he would rather not enter into on that occasion at any length. He felt sure that many hon. Members present, who had remained in the House for the purpose of watching the progress of the Bill, would be very unwilling to keep from the House those observations which, on a more favourable occasion, they would have been anxious to offer. While he agreed with some of the observations which had fallen from his hon. Friend the Member for the University of Oxford (Mr. J. G. Talbot), he was unable to go the same length as he went in being able to promise a general concurrence with the measure. He presumed there were few hon. Members who would not wish to see some provision made by law for the freedom of the seats in parish churches. But he confessed to holding the opinion that the provision which was made by the 3rd clause of the Bill, for preventing appropriation in all parish churches, would be little else than a prohibition of family worship in the parish churches of the country. Therefore, he trusted that the hon. Member, having regard to the great consideration shown by Gentlemen who did not quite agree with him, in not putting a blocking Notice on the Paper, would be content to allow the debate to be adjourned to some more favourable time, when he need expect no factious opposition, but simply the expression of opinions intended to make the Bill a practical and useful measure for the benefit of the Church of England, and the carrying out of some, at least, of the objects which he had in view.


said, he was not in a position to say that he was opposed to any portion of the Bill; but the hon. Member, in supporting his Motion for the second reading, had certainly made use of some arguments with which he entirely disagreed. For instance, he said it was only the want of accommodation which gave people a dislike to the Established Church. Now, he was acquainted with many parish churches throughout the length and breadth of the country, and in the course of his experience he had never yet known or heard of any body of parishioners who refused to go to church because there was no accommodation. He had known them stay away from church because they disliked the parson. So far as the appropriation of seats was concerned, the opinion expressed by the hon. Member was not universal; and he was quite sure that in many places the parishioners liked to see the squire in his place at church, and would be very unwilling that the seat should be taken away from a person who was looked up to with the greatest respect. He repeated that he did not believe the churches were deserted on account of the appropriation of pews; but, whether or not that was so, he appealed to the hon. Member in charge of the Bill to postpone the discus- sion upon it until a future time. Hon. Members opposite objected to this course; but he ventured to think that the measure had not been sufficiently considered by those persons throughout the country who were concerned in its provisions. He very much doubted whether many clergymen of the Church of England had seen the Bill yet, because it was only printed on the 8th of March, and when it was distributed he knew not. However trivial the title of the Bill might sound, its contents were of the greatest importance, inasmuch as it affected the interests of the Church of England; and, therefore, he renewed his appeal to the hon. Member to agree to the postponement of the debate.


said, he was quite sure the hon. Member in charge of the Bill would not desire that it should pass into law without proper discussion; and he would suggest to hon. Gentlemen opposite, after the remarks which had fallen from the hon. Member for the University of Oxford (Mr. J. G. Talbot), to consider whether the Bill might not be allowed to be read a second time. The matter had been very fairly discussed by those who were opposed to the Bill. Hon. Gentlemen would lose nothing by allowing the measure to be read a second time that night, because they would have the control of it when it went into Committee. He was surprised to hear the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Preston (Mr. Raikes) call what was now proposed a complete revolution. As he understood the law, the parish church was absolutely free to the parishioners, and the Churchwardens could not let or sell a pew except under the authority of an Act of Parliament. What was there revolutionary in the Bill? It only limited the powers of the Churchwardens in appropriating the pews, and made the pews more free. Under the present law, Churchwardens could not let or sell a pew in the parish church except under Act of Parliament, and neither could a private person do so, and Clause 7 of the present Bill entirely protected those rights. He appealed to hon. Gentlemen opposite to allow the Bill to pass the second reading, and take the opportunity, if they wished, of amending it in Committee.


said, that, as his name appeared on. the back of the Bill, he might, perhaps, be allowed to make a few remarks. It was urged by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Preston (Mr. Raikes) that the Bill had not been sufficiently considered by the clergy throughout the country. He was not in the House at the moment his hon. Friend (Mr. A. Grey) moved the second reading of the Bill; but he thought it ought to be distinctly understood that the measure had been brought in after careful consideration by an Association consisting chiefly of clergymen. Among the list of Vice Presidents of the Association, he found the names of one Archbishop, 24 Bishops, and six Deans, and the Bill was fully approved by the Committee of the Association. The Bill was very simple in its provisions; it was, in fact, only a declaratory Bill, which re-enacted the provisions of former Bills. As the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Home Secretary had pointed out, Clause 7 distinctly re-enacted that the provisions of former Acts should be carried out and not interfered with. Clause 6 of the New Parishes Act of 1856 stated— Provided always, That one-half, at least, of the whole number of pews and sittings in such church shall be free sittings, and that it shall be shown to the satisfaction of the Sub-Commissioners that the said free sittings will, in respect to position and convenience, be as advantageously situated as those which may be rented and reserved. He would ask hon. Members whether those provisions were honestly carried out in all the parish churches throughout the country? His experience was that free sittings were generally reserved at the lower end, and in parts of the church from which nothing could be seen or heard. He was persuaded that if the House would take the second reading that night his hon. Friend (Mr. A. Grey) would be quite prepared to meet, in as honest and fair a spirit as had been displayed on the opposite side, any Amendment which might be made in Committee.


said, that, as a member of the Free and Open Church Association, and as a Churchwarden of some years' experience, he felt bound to support the Bill. Personally, he was disposed to assent to the second reading that night, though he was not unmindful of the fact that, in Committee, it would be requisite to propose certain Amendments. He thought the House would almost stultify itself if it did not express its approval of the Bill, because they had already shown their disposition to proceed in the direction suggested by the Bill in their own parish church of St. Margaret, where, some years ago, there was a large portion of the church reserved for the Members of the House of Commons, very few of whom, however, availed themselves of the accommodation. Now, no hon. Member who went to the church failed to get a seat; but, at the same time, there was ample provision made for other worshippers. He trusted the second reading would be agreed to, and that, in Committee, the hon. Member (Mr. A. Grey) would consent to certain modifications.


said, the present was not a cheerful hour of the morning to enter on the discussion of so important a question as that submitted to them by the hon. Member (Mr. A. Grey). He did not think, however, that the people of the country—speaking of those who were the adherents of the Established Church, as well as of those who held his views—could have any great objection to a Bill which declared that the parish churches of the country belonged to the people of the parish. But what good it could do he could not understand. It was a matter of universal knowledge that the parish churches belonged to the people of the parish; but in spite of that knowledge the pews in parish churches were appropriated, and rents were paid for them, and this practice was common to all parts of the country. Now, he ventured to put this to the House—that when Bills had been brought forward for the removal, say, of various Dissenting grievances—such as the abolition of church rates, and the alteration of the Marriage Laws—it was by no means usual to enter on those very important ecclesiastical changes between 2 and 3 o'clock in the morning. They were not anxious that questions of Church Reform should take the form of smuggled legislation; and in the interest of the House of Commons, and in the interest of the legislation they were asked to undertake, he objected to the Bill being taken so late in a Sitting. There was a reasonable time when they might be asked to go into matters of that kind. For his own part, he had no objection to the Bill, although he believed it to be utterly useless. He was bound to point out that there were evidences that they were going to be flooded with Bills for the reform of the Church of England in every branch; and he warned hon. Gentlemen to be prepared to sit late on many occasions, for there was not a single department of the Church which did not want a radical reform, according to the views of one or other of the conflicting parties which went to make up the Church Establishment.


said, he would not take up the time of the House for more than a moment. He thought the friends of the Church should be very distrustful of the insidious friendship of the hon. Member for Bradford (Mr. Illingworth) in any proposal of this kind. He remembered that the hon. Member for Bradford adopted a similar course with regard to the Church Patronage Bill. He blocked its successful passage through the House by threatening Motions for Adjournment. Gentlemen like the hon. Member were always clamouring for Church Reform outside, and always preventing it inside the House. Reforms required might be radical, as the hon. Member stated; but his real object, and that of the Liberation Society, which he represented, was the complete destruction of the Church. That, he hoped, was yet far distant. The proposal of the Home Secretary was a sound and fair one—namely, that the second reading should be passed. It was only right that the Bill should be advanced a stage, if the hon. Gentleman in charge of the measure would give them assurances that it should be fully discussed in Committee.


said, if anything could have induced him to meet the appeal in the largest and most liberal manner possible, it would have been the kind and chivalrous way in which the appeal had been made to him by the hon. Member for the University of Oxford (Mr. J. G. Talbot) and the hon. and gallant Member for Truro (Sir James M'Garel-Hogg). He owed a special debt of gratitude to the hon. and gallant Member for Truro, for it was by a kindly act of forbearance on his part in not putting a block to the measure that he (Mr. Grey) had been able to propose the second reading of the Bill that night. He trusted hon. Gentlemen would be satisfied with the proposal that had been made by the Home Secretary, and would allow the Bill to be read a second time, on the fullest assurance from himself that he would give every possible opportunity to discuss the details of the Bill in Committee.

Motion agreed to.

Bill read a second time, and committed for To-morrow.