HC Deb 24 February 1891 vol 350 cc1541-56

Order for Second Reading read.

(10.38.) MR. ATKINSON (Boston)

I beg to move the Second Reading of this Bill. I do so knowing that the principle has been approved again and again, and that hon. Members now present will not allow any longer to exist a religious disability in the case of the members of the Wesleyan Methodist Society. I brought in the Bill once before, and this Government once brought it in, but we were obstructed by those who ought to have helped us to pass it, and the reason they gave was that a Bill of this kind, being in relief of religious disabilities, ought not to come from this side, but from, the other side, of the House. I presume the other side propose to bring in the Bill when they are in power, but, my opinion is, that that time is a very long way off, and that, therefore, they should take the reform when they have the chance, from whichever side it is offered. I am a Wesleyan Methodist and a Conservative—a person called by my brethren on the other side of the House, from political motives, a monstrosity. I do not mention this in any bitterness at all, because I know it is not true, and therefore it recoils on those who say it. When I was canvassing at elections in Cornwall and North Lincolnshire, Liberal Methodists told me they were ashamed of a House of Commons which left on the Statute Book an Act which placed Wesleyans at such a disadvantage as compared with members of the Church of England. I mentioned this matter to my chiefs in Parliament, and they would scarcely believe that such a law existed. But let me tell the House what the disability is which we have to undergo. Members of the Church of England can have a legal marriage performed by their clergyman, but when any Nonconformist goes to have his children married by a man whom they consider quite good enough to light the way to Heaven and to teach them and baptise their children, they are told that in consequence of what Parliament has done, in the dark ages probably, they are not allowed to have any spiritual adviser to marry their children, but that the marriage must be conducted by some lawyer's clerk, who may come in a fit state to marry, or in a state more spirituous than spiritual. I object and protest, and have always objected and protested against such a measure being left on the Statute Book, because my idea of Conservatism always has been that it is safe progress, and I think that it is very safe progress to remove out of the way such a stumbling-block as that. I say that I have as much right to go to my minister to marry my children as any Churchman has to go to his spiritual pastor. The Wesleyan ministers are an educated body, containing men of recognised eminence, such as Dr. Moulton, who was placed on the Revision Committee, and is frequently hand and glove with Bishop Ellicot. Wesleyans naturally object to being told that one of their ministers cannot legally celebrate a marriage without the attendance of a registrar or his representative. Sometimes, under the present law, a marriage has to be delayed three or four hours' waiting for the registrar, owing to that official having failed to keep his appointment. The object of the Bill is to dispense with the attendance of registrars at the marriages of Nonconformists, by providing that before a marriage a form shall be obtained from the registrar, and that the minister who solemnises the marriage shall be made responsible, under a penalty of £2, for the subsequent registration. I appeal to the legal leader on the Front Opposition Bench to support the Bill! [Sir C. RUSSELL: "Hear, hear"] of which I move the Second Reading, claiming the votes of my Friends opposite who, although they think that the Bill should have come from their side, are all of them in favour of religious liberty.

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

(10.48.) MR. LEES KNOWLES (Salford, W.)

I wish to support the speech that has been made by my hon. Friend, who says he has moved the Second Reading as a Wesleyan Methodist. I am in favour of the Bill as a Churchman. In my election address of 1885 I stated that I was anxious to support such a measure, and I repeated that statement in my election address of 1886. Since then I have backed such a Bill as this on two occasions. My hon. Friend has made a statement as to the grievance under which Nonconformists labour. It is a grievance which is emphasised, I think, by the fact that at least two among religious bodies, namely, the Jews and the Quakers, do not suffer under it. It seems tome that that is an anomaly, and that if the presence of a Registrar is not necessary at the marriages of Jews and Quakers, there is, under certain conditions, no reason why he should be present at the marriages of Nonconformists. Furthermore, I think it is desirable that the difficulty, if it is a difficulty, in the way of matrimony should be removed. I know that my hon. and learned Friend the Attorney General has, on former occasions, introduced a Bill dealing with this subject, and I have every confidence that to-night he will support the measure of my hon. Friend. I did not see the Bill before it was printed, so that I am not answerable for its drafting, although my name is on the back of it. I think that probably in its drafting, and in its provisions, it may need some alteration and amendment, which can be made in Committee. That, however, does not affect the question of the Second Reading, because in voting for the Second Reading we simply vote that we are in favour of the principle of the Bill.

(10.52.) MR. ILLINGWORTH (Bradford, W.)

The hasty manner in which the Bill has been presented to the House has probably prevented the hon. Member in charge of it from giving a full explanation of its scope. The title does not at all agree with the body of the Bill, but is altogether misleading; and I can only wonder that an hon. Member, who is himself labouring under a religious disability, should forget that other Nonconformists belonging to other denominations are under the same disability.


I have offered over and over again to admit all Nonconformists to the Bill who will come into it. I had them in before, but they obstructed me instead of helping me.


The hon. Member must excuse my saying that I think his consistency is still at fault, because he knows very well that the substance of the Bill does not agree with its title. This is not a Nonconformist Bill, but a Bill for the relief of a single Nonconformist body—though I admit a very influential and respectable body. I protest against the other Nonconformist bodies being left out in the cold. No one on these Benches would think of applying to the hon. Member opposite the epithet "monstrosity;" but I think if he were described as a "curiosity" he would well deserve the description; particularly because I find that the respectable denomination to which the hon. Member says he belongs has through its Committee of Privileges passed a resolution condemning this measure.


I object to the word "says." I do belong to the Wesleyan-Methodist body.


I wished to pay a compliment to the hon. Member, because it is not for me to describe the religious opinions of anyone. I took the fact from his own statement; but my point was that this Bill had been condemned by the Committee of Privileges of the Wesleyan body, and that the Committee had expressed an opinion in favour of the Bill introduced by the hon. Member for the Louth Division of Lincolnshire.


I was present myself at the meeting of the Committee of Privileges, although the partner of the hon. Member for Wolverhampton was not present. At that meeting the Bill was approved. At another meeting, however, when I was not present, but when the political secretary, who is partner of the Member for Wolver-hampton, was present, together with the Rev. Hugh Price Hughes, another resoution was passed.


I am afraid the explanation does not mend the case, and the hon. Member must take the second meeting as expressing the revised opinion of the denomination. A few minutes ago the hon. Member was engaged in endeavouring to save the time of the House, but now he seems anxious to fritter it away. ["No, no."] Well then, why should he have included in this Bill only one of the Nonconformist bodies? The provisions of the hon. Member's Bill do not seem to me to be satisfactory in regard to the civil aspect of marriages—although, of course, I admit the desirability of paying due regard to their religious solemnity. This is scarcely the time to make suggestions; but, in the long run, I believe that this country will incline to the course of separating the two parts of the ceremony altogether, and not making one part hang upon the other. I think the civil ceremony should go first. The Registrar should attend at his office, the parties should go before him, and the marriage ceremony should take place, so that, so far as the law was concerned, all the consequences that might follow from the marriage should be secured. It is a mistake to consider that the religious ceremony would be in any way depreciated or deteriorated by the civil marriage. According to the Bill, in the case of non-compliance with the requirements as to registration a fine of 40s. would be imposed, but I do not think that would be sufficiently binding in all cases. Altogether, I think the hon. Member would be well advised if he did not press the Second Reading of his measure to-night. If he would introduce a Bill dealing with all Nonconformist bodies, I should be very happy to accept the proposal as coming from him. What we want is the removal of the disability, and that it should apply to all classes of Her Majesty's subjects. I feel sure the hon. Member will not wish to stand convicted of pushing the claims of the one religious denomination with which he happens to be identified; and as it is manifest that the measure only covers a corner of a wide area, I trust he will not press it to a Division.

(10.58.) MR. DE LISLE (Leicester, Mid)

I ask leave to say a few words in a certain sense as a Nonconformist. From a Catholic point of view the Established Church is a Nonconformist body, but here I am speaking from an English point of view. I object to this Bill absolutely and in toto, and in so doing I am, I believe, expressing the view of the Roman Catholic Bishops of England. I do not oppose it for the reasons given by the hon. Gentleman opposite, namely, because it does not include every Nonconformist body, but I object to any alteration of the law. Nothing is more important, from a social point of view, than to have an unchallengable marriage register about which there can be no doubt. It is quite true that from a Catholic point of view it is felt to be a disability to a certain extent that marriages simply by a priest are not recognised in this country. On the other hand, the Catholics recognise that they are only a small minority; their only wish is to see the law as stable as possible, as they are, generally I believe, quite content with the existing order of things. The religious ceremony has no force in the eyes of the law, but when performed duly in the presence of the Registrar the marriage becomes legal, and is entitled to the same status as a marriage in the Church of England. As I had the happiness to go through the ceremony myself some two years ago I gave particular attention to the law on the subject. A few years ago I do not know whether it was necessary for the Registrar to put the legal questions, but now the whole ceremony can proceed at the altar, and it is not even necessary to go to the vestry in order to sign the register. In my own case the Bishop of Clifton put the legal questions at the altar, and the register was signed at the altar. So far as the Catholics are concerned, it would be impossible to have the civil act before a Magistrate or a Registrar first, and the religious act afterwards. The Council of Trent has not been promulgated in this country, and therefore the ceremony before the parson or the civil official renders the contracting parties man and wife, and to repeat the ceremony religiously would be a sacrilege. I may be pardoned for referring to Roman Catholic theology, but the question is one of great social importance. It would be impossible for me to agree to the Second Reading of this Bill, because it comes into conflict with our views as to what constitutes the essentials of matrimony.


I did not say that the civil marriage should precede the religious ceremony. I simply had in my own mind the ultimate consequences.


I have no doubt the hon. Member would agree to such Amendments as would satisfy Roman Catholics; but how can you distinguish the 200 sects claiming equality as Nonconformists before the law? In fact, I do not see why the same argument which is applicable to the ministers of one form of religion should not be applicable to another; so that if the principle of this Bill be admitted we might have Atheistic ministers performing the marriage rites, because if you once admit the ministers of one form of religion I do not see where you can possibly draw the line. It is for these reasons, and because of the uncertainty which might arise, that I ask the House to reject this Bill.

(10.0.) MR. WOODALL (Hanley)

I quite agree with the hon. Member who introduced this Bill in saying that the grievance it proposes to remedy is one that is very extensively and painfully felt throughout the country. No one who has any relations with the Nonconformist body can help sym pathising with the extreme humiliation they must feel in being obliged to secure the presence of the Registrar in order to validate the marriages which take place in Nonconformist places of worship. This must be the more severely felt, because the ministers of the Established Church are able to celebrate marriages without any such condition. But the disability is one which is experienced not only by Wesleyans, but by every other Nonconformist Body. The whole of the Methodists, Primitive Methodists, Baptists, Independents, and every other Nonconformist section are excluded from this Bill. Why is this, when there are bodies whose ministers have a more settled status than even that of the Wesleyan Body, and who might, therefore, be held to be more trustworthy agents of the State, for the puposes of registration? The hon. Member (Mr. Atkinson) has, no doubt, assured us that although the Bill is drawn in the interests of one section of religionists only, he is willing to make it applicable to the other Nonconformist Bodies; but why should not the Roman Catholics be put in the same position as the Nonconformists? Supposing the Bill is amended in the fullest and most literal sense, where will it land us? With regard to our Marriage Laws, it is impossible in any civilised country to find such a condition of things as exists here. In Scotland, Ireland, and England the Statutes are contradictory; almost every denomination has special provision. Why should we allow these denominational and polemical differences of ours to prevent our arriving at a simple solution of this question, with a conscientious regard, as sincere religionists, to the requirements of the Civil Law? Surely we can hardly be ignorant of the fact that under the Code Napoleon, in France and Italy, and, I think, most of the countries of Continental Europe, the one end about which the State troubles itself is that there shall have been a civil marriage contracted before the Mayor or some other civil authority, which shall assure to the parties concerned and to their offspring the fullest protection that the State can afford. I believe I am right in saying that although the law requires the civil contract, yet in France more than 90 per cent. of the marriages before the civil officer are duly completed by the religious ceremony.


The religious marriage in Catholic countries always precedes the civil.


I think I am correct, but the circumstance is new to me. I hope the hon. Gentleman will not think I am questioning his authority on the subject if I say that I think I am still right. One of the most popular writers of France dwelt very picturesquely on the simplicity and bareness of the civil ceremony compared with the ornate and extremely interesting character of the religious ceremony which followed on the next day. At any rate, the point I wish to urge is, that while the State recognises civil marriages, the religious ceremony is regarded as necessary to the completeness of the marriage. I think we may dismiss from our minds the idea that we shall do away with the sanctity of marriage if we increase the facilities for the civil contract. There is, however, one objection to the Bill, which I think the Attorney General will endorse. I refer to the evidence furnished by the Reports of the Registrar General and by the experience of the Attorney General and every lawyer in this House, of the extremely dangerous way in which the Registers have been, and even now are, kept by the clergy of the Established Church. Serious scandals have repeatedly occurred, and grievous wrong has frequently been inflicted, owing to the lax system which has prevailed. Nevertheless, the ministers of the Established Church, whatever their faults or shortcomings, do reside in their parishes; whereas the Wesleyan ministers and those of the Methodist Bodies are usually stationed in one district for a period of three years only—a term which is very rarely exceeded. Doubtless, this itinerant system has largely contributed to the efficiency of these ministers and to the general advantage of the Religious Bodies over which they exercise their ministerial functions. But, on the other hand, it is evident that as regards registration purposes these itinerant ministers must necessarily be less trustworthy than the resident clergy of the Established Church. It is said that the Nonconformist ministers are not to keep the registers, but merely to deliver certificates within a week to the parochial officer. I venture to say that the provisions of this Bill are such as will make it still more necessary than at present to enact additional legislation, because they will more than ever complicate the varied system of our existing Marriage Laws, while failing to effect a perfect solution of the present difficulties. I trust, however, that the effort now made will induce the Government to consider the propriety of endeavouring to frame some statesmanlike measure that may prove an adequate solution of this important question, creating something like a uniform system throughout the country; but if that be impossible, at any rate so amending the existing law as to render it more satisfactory to the general community.

MR. DE COBAIN (Belfast, E.)

I trust that the measure introduced by my hon. Friend will at least be allowed to pass a Second Reading, so that the principle it embodies—a principle in which the different sections of the great Nonconformist Body are in cordial agreement—may be affirmed by this House, leaving the defects which have already been pointed out, and which undoubtedly exist in the drafting of some of its clauses, to be dealt with in Committee.

(11.15.) MR. T. W. RUSSELL (Tyrone, S.)

The hon. Member for Bradford (Mr. Illingworth) has advised the hon. Member opposite to withdraw his Bill on the ground that the Member for the Brigg Division of Lincolnshire (Mr. Waddy) is about to introduce a Bill that will cover the ground more completely. I hope my hon. Friend will not listen to that advice. I say so for this reason: first of all, the hon. Member for the Brigg Division is not here; and, in the second place, we do not know when he may have an opportunity of bringing in the measure he desires to see carried. The fact that the present Bill only covers one section of Nonconformists and does not cover the rest is no reason why the House of Commons should refuse to assent to the principle of the measure, when the House knows that if the Bill goes into Committee all the other sections may be added. I confess that I do not like the opposition offered to the Bill by some hon. Members on this side of the House. It proposes to remedy a long-standing grievance in the Nonconformist community, and it certainly is an awkward fact that the main opposition to it should come not from Members on the other side of the House, but from those who sit on these Benches—men who admit the grievance which they profess to be anxious to remedy, but who are mainly anxious to show that Codlin is the friend and not Short.


The measure to which I referred was in the House last Session and, I believe, the Session before.


It was not in the House last Session.


Perhaps I may be allowed to explain——


I hope I did not convey that impression. I have received many communications from the Wesleyan Methodists of Ireland about this Bill, and I hope the House will waive all these minor considerations in favour of a Bill which, if it does not go far enough in favour of the principle they desire to see adopted, can at all events be amended and extended in Committee.

(11.21.) THE ATTORNEY GENERAL (Sir R. WEBSTER, Isle of Wight)

Sir, perhaps the House will allow me a few minutes to speak on a subject to which I have personally given a good deal of attention. I am bound to say that, if the hon. Member for Bradford did not take objection to the previous Bill on this side, those closely connected with him opposed it most strongly. It dealt not only with the Wesleyan, but with other Nonconformist Bodies, and yet Members sitting opposite declared that they would never allow the Conservatives to deal with this question.


I did not make any such declaration, though I do not pretend I was in favour of the Bill, which had one fatal defect—that it did not deal with Wesleyan ministers.


I had not in mind the hon. Member for Bradford, but those who are closely associated with him, and whose names I should mention were they present. The hon. Member's memory is defective, for both the Bills previous to this dealt with Wesleyan Methodist ministers. In 1886 I introduced a Bill when I was sitting on the other side of the House. It received very considerable support from the Government of the day, but that Government did not allow it to proceed. In 1887 I brought in a Bill as Attorney General; and that Bill, which can be seen in the Library, as well as the first, contained safeguards against all those matters referred to by hon. Members opposite—with regard to registration, to notice, to fees, and other matters. But that Bill was persistently opposed by hon. Members on the other side. Why I support this Bill to-night is, not that I think it contains sufficient safeguards, but that it recognises the fact that there is a grievance to be remedied, and, though it deals only with the Wesleyan Methodists, the House, in assenting to the Second Reading, will express its willingness to deal with that grievance and remove it. The hon. Member for Bradford objects that the Bill includes the Wesleyans alone. Why is that? It stands in this way: One of the difficulties besetting the question is that various bodies of Nonconformists admit to their pulpits various persons of great ability who have not the status of ministers, and some of whom, as the hon. Member for Stoke happily described it, are itinerant ministers. In the Wesleyan Body, however, the Conference have full power over the appointment of the Wesleyan ministers, and can dismiss them in case of misconduct. The ministers of the Wesleyan Methodists, therefore, have an official and recognised status which enables us to deal with them in a Bill like this, and to allow them to replace the registrar—a course which it would be difficult to follow in the case of ministers of Nonconformist Bodies who have not that recognised status. That is the difficulty we have to encounter in dealing with the matter. I have not the slightest objection to extend the application of this principle; only I observe that some Members who professed their anxiety on a former occasion to remedy this grievance are now conspicuous by their absence. We are told to wait for the Bill of the hon. Member for the Brigg Division. I do not think that Bill has either been printed or read a first time. But there is one remarkable circumstance connected with the Bill of the hon. Member for Brigg and the factious opposition to the hon. Member for Boston. It is that one of the candidates for a neighbouring division, Mr. Perks, is closely connected with that section of the Wesleyan Committee of Privileges, who have opposed the hon. Member for Boston, and Mr. Perks is extremely anxious to claim the credit of having been the first to remedy this grievance. In common justice arid fairness to those who have worked at this question for years, and in fairness to the hon. Member for Boston, I think I have shown reasons which should be sufficient to disarm the opposition to this Bill. I hope the House will recognise the principle of the Bill by reading it a second time, and with regard to the omissions, reasonable provisions may, I think, be inserted in Committee dealing with due registration and proper public notice in regard to marriages and other matters. That, I take it, would induce the hon. Member for Brigg, when he comes down to the House ready to oppose the Bill, to bow to its decision. I repeat I hope the House will read the Bill a second time, and that such clauses will be inserted in Committee as will make the Bill a working measure.

(11.31.) SIR CHARLES RUSSELL (Hackney, S.)

I should not have intervened in this Debate but for the appeal to me by the Mover of the Bill, and I say at once that I speak for myself only, and not in any representative capacity. I will not pursue the theme suggested by my hon. and learned Friend the Attorney General as to the differences existing between members of the Wesleyan Methodist Body. I shall support the Second Reading of the Bill for the reason that it aims at removing an existing disability, and I hope it will emerge from the Committee in so different a condition that its author will hardly be able to recognise it. I would suggest to the Attorney General that the title of the Bill is wide enough to cover all cases likely to come within its provisions, such, for instance, as the case of Jewish marriage.


The Registrar does not have to be present at a Jewish marriage.


I was not aware of that. My hon. Friend the Member for the Loughborough Division of Leicestershire, who speaks with authority on these matters from the Catholic point of view, said one or two things with which I cannot agree. I fully agree with him that Catholics regard the religious service as a most important matter. They look on marriage as a sacrament, and not as a civil contract; but they also recognise that it is for their interest, as for that of other members of the community, to have preserved complete and satisfactory evidence of the marriage under conditions which the Civil Law will recognise. Therefore, I cannot entertain the difficulty which seems to occur to the hon. Member for the Loughborough Division. Provided always that the religious service is in no way affected, and also that adequate provision is made for giving notice to the Registrar, both before and after the ceremony, no objection to this Bill will be entertained. It is to the interest of Catholics as well as of members of any other Religious Body that marriages should be performed and registered as the law directs. My hon. Friend near me, who made a very excellent speech, seems to be under the impression that the religious ceremony in Catholic countries is necessarily preceded by a civil marriage. He will forgive me, perhaps, if I say he is mistaken, and that he has been misled by his reading of French romances. When once a civil marriage has taken place (except where the Catholic Church has declined to recognise such) no other ceremony is necessary, although, of course, the parties may choose to have a religious recognition of the marriage. But that religious service is not a fresh marriage; there can only be one marriage. Although the Bill as it stands seems to me to be incomplete I shall vote in favour of the Second Reading, as all the omissions may be supplied in Committee.

(11.37). MR. BRUNNER (Cheshire, Northwich)

When the hon. Member for the Loughborough Division was speaking I feared from the cry of "Order!" which was raised, when I called "No, no," that I had offended some susceptibilities by suggesting, as I certainly intended to do by the interjection, my doubts whether a recent happy event had made him a special authority on this subject. But when I recollect my own case, I must confess that I subsequently knew very little about the ceremony. The hon. Member told the House that if this right to perform the marriage ceremony, without the presence of the registrar were granted to Wesleyan Methodists other sects would claim a similar recognition by this House, and that thereupon the right would have to be granted to Religious Bodies which have no settled organisation and no recognised ministers. But I have no fears upon that score. I am satisfied that the kindly feeling among Nonconformist Bodies will make those bodies which are not large enough to be included in the privileges of the Bill perfectly ready to perform their marriage services in the places of worship of the larger Nonconformist Bodies. At present great pain is often given to Nonconformists by the insistence on the presence of the registrar at their marriages, and I congratulate myself on having been here to-night to hear from all sides of the House a condemnation of the system.

(11.40.) MR. HALLEY STEWART (Lincolnshire, Spalding)

I wish to make but a small contribution to the Debate. I must say I think the difficulty raised by the Attorney General with regard to the free and elastic system which obtains among such denominations as the Baptists and Congregationalists will be found to be a really vital one. Speaking for ministers of those denominations I can say that their main objection to the provisions of the Bill is that they do not wish to be constituted State servants, amenable to the State as registrars, and punishable by the State if they neglect their duty. I hope the Bill will be so enlarged as to provide for all the differences as to the recognition of the functions of these ministers.

(11.42.) MR. FURNESS (Hartlepool)

As a Methodist, I am pleased to witness the willingness shown on both sides of the House to do a simple act of justice to those who have suffered so much in the past. Although the Bill in its first clause refers to only one particular body, I am willing to support it on the assurance of the hon. Member for Boston and of the learned Attorney General that its defects will be supplied in Committee.

(11.43.) MR. LLOYD-GEORGE, (Carnarvon, &c.)

I, too, hope that, in Committee, the provisions of the Bill will be considerably enlarged. No doubt, in England, the Wesleyan Methodists constitute one of the most powerful among the Nonconformist Bodies; but in Wales they only rank third or fourth, and, unless the Bill is made applicable to other bodies, very few of the Welsh people will benefit by its enactment. I repeat I shall support the Second Reading in the hope that the scope of the Bill will be enlarged.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill read a second time, and committed for Monday next.