HC Deb 23 March 1898 vol 55 cc631-61
*MR. R. W. PERKS (Lincolnshire, Louth)

I beg leave to move that the Nonconformist Marriages (Attendance of Registrars) Bill be now read a second time. This Bill, Mr. Speaker, was prepared some years ago by a Joint Committee representing all the leading Nonconformist churches in this country, including the Methodists, Congregationalists, Independents, Baptists, and Presbyterians, who were all represented upon this Committee, and the Bill, substantially, which it is now proposed to read a second time, was the outcome of the work of that Committee. I think I am entitled also to say that, while there may be isolated cases in various parts of the country of ministers of different Nonconformist churches who may object to some of the provisions of this Bill, the Bill, as a whole, commends itself to the judgment of every large and recognised Nonconformist church in England and in Wales. The Registrar General's Report for last year shows that there were 228,000 marriages conducted in this country in the churches and chapels and before the registrars and sub-registrars. Out of those 228,000 marriages, 63 per cent., or 630 out of every 1,000, were conducted in the churches of the Established Church of England. With those marriages this Bill is not concerned. Now, 14 per cent. of those marriages were solemnised, if that term can be used, in the registrar's offices, and these the Bill does not in any way whatever affect. Four per cent. were solemnised in the Roman Catholic churches in England and Wales, and this Bill does apply to those marriages. Twelve per cent. were solemnised in Nonconformist places of worship, and the Bill also applies to those. From 5 to 6 per cent. were solemnised in the places of worship of the Jews and the Society of Friends, but this Bill, for reasons which I will state in a moment, does not apply to these; so that, practically, the present Bill applies to 16 per cent. of the marriages solemnised in this country, and the total number of marriages which were so solemnised last year, amounted roughly to 30,000. I may have to allude to this number shortly, when I describe the effect of this Bill on the pecuniary position of the registrars. Now, Mr. Speaker, the present law in this country affecting Nonconformist marriages rests substantially upon the Acts of 1836 and 1856, and upon one or two Amending Acts to which it is not now necessary to refer. Practically no Nonconformist, with one or two exceptions, can be at present married in this country without the attendance of the civil registrar at his wedding. That obligation, however, does not extend to the Jews and the Society of Friends. Both of these religious communities are exempted from the attendance of the civil registrar compulsorily at their marriages. There are one or two Nonconformist churches or chapels in this country which, by a somewhat singular regulation, are also entitled to marry without the presence of the registrar. One of those churches, for example, is the Aldershot church of the Methodist community, where marriages can be solemnised by the minister without the attendance of a civil registrar. The Bill which is now before the House is an attempt to apply to England and Wales and the Channel Islands the power for Nonconformists to get married by their own religious officers, or such persons who are entitled to marry or conduct marriages in their places of worship, without the compulsory attendance of the civil registrar. The Bill is purely permissive, and anybody who desires to get married, after this Bill passes, in a Nonconformist place of worship with the registrar will be perfectly entitled in do so. There is nothing in this Bill which excludes a registrar from Nonconformist places of worship, should his presence be desired. In Scotland this power has long been the privilege of the Scottish people. Since 1868 every Dissenting minister has been able to conduct a marriage service without the presence of the registrar, and in Ireland since 1863 a power which was previously enjoyed by the established Roman Catholic and Presbyterian Churches has been enjoyed by other Dissenting churches in Ireland. I may, perhaps, be permitted to refer to the evidence which was given before the Select Committee in 1893, when this subject was gone into with great care. I refer to the evidence then given by the registrar of Ireland, as to the effect of this Bill in that country. Mr. Mathieson, Secretary to the General Register Office, and assistant registrar for Ireland, was asked whether any mischief, so far as he knew, resulted from the freedom given to the Nonconformists of Ireland since 1863, and his answer was, "I am not aware of any." He was asked later on by the hon. Member for Wigan, who was a member of the Select Committee, whether it had been neces sary, in the case of any Dissenting ministers of religion in Ireland, owing to their refusal to register under the Act, to enforce the penalties under the Act, which are much heavier than are proposed under this Bill, and the registrar said, "I am not aware that we had any case of the kind." Later on the Irish registrar was asked whether there had been any case in Ireland of bogus or fraudulent marriage in the churches of Dissenting centres, and he stated that he was not aware of any. He was asked later, Question 1,323, whether there was sufficient security in these churches for the provision of registration—for the registration being properly and legally made—and he said, "We have not found any difficulty on that point." The evidence which was presented to the Committee by the Irish registrar as to the satisfactory operation of the Act was corroborated in every detail by the evidence which was given by Mr. Temple, of Edinburgh, who was deputed by the Scotch Registrar General to attend before the Committee. Mr. Temple's evidence was again corroborated in every way by the Registrar General of Scotland, who himself came before the Committee; so I submit that this Bill, which is based upon the present operation of the law in Scotland and Ireland, is not chargeable with the extraordinary criticisms which have been directed against it by the registrars of this country, who, I rather think, are more influenced by the fear of losing their fees than by their desire for careful registration in the churches of the Nonconformists. We are sometimes told that there are a number of small religious communities in this country, the names of which have generally been selected from an edition of Whitaker, which I am glad to say has now been expurgated—diminutive religious communities—which make no proper provision for the conduct of their religious services and their marriage services. It is quite true that there may be some such small sects, and if it is necessary—and this Bill goes to Committee—to make provision, as has already been made in the Irish Act., for the protection of the people against the loss of registers, or the due solemnisation of marriages, the promoters of this Bill will not object to any reasonable provision being made. I venture to point out that the report of the Registrar General for the last year shows that in England and Wales there are 11,600 places of worship which are licensed for the solemnisation of marriage, which have been suffering under the somewhat unhappy prohibition of the law of 1836, and the great percentage of those churches belong to what I may call the recognised Dissenting religious bodies. In this Report, of the 11,600 churches returned only 643 belong to these small sects. Out of the 11,600 places of worship registered in England and Wales 11,000 belong to what I may call the seven largest recognised religious bodies in this country: Presbyterian, 382; Congregational, 2,477; Baptist, 2,093; Roman Catholic, 1,049; Unitarian, 155; Bible Christians, 139; Wesleyan and other Methodists, 4,671. Now, the places of worship connected with these religious communities are settled on most carefully prepared trusts, and are, for the most part, under the control of a central authority; and it is impossible that in the Wesleyan Church a fraudulent, irregular, or bogus marriage could be conducted and solemnised under this Bill. Now, I have referred to the present existing law in England, Scotland, and Ireland, and I will now describe the grievance felt by the Nonconformists in this country. It is a grievance which bears very hardly upon Dissenters in rural districts, and especially upon the poor, who have, in many cases, to make long journeys to the registrar's office, and then have to go to the superintendent registrar's office, and then back again to the registrar, and afterwards to the minister of religion. All these may be 15 or 16 miles away from the village where these good people live. It is one of the most perplexing things for a village Dissenter to know how to get effectually, successfully, and legally married with the formularies of his Church, and the cost is about twice as much as that for which a person can get married in the Established Church, among the Jewish Community, or the Society of Friends. I can give the House, perhaps, a better idea of these practical grievances if I refer to one or two instances brought before the Select Committee which dealt with this subject in 1893. I have a list of no fewer than 93 cases, all arising in Wesleyan chapels, which were brought before that Committee. I will refer to two or three of them. In the first place, the couple lived six miles from the chapel, and the registrar lived five miles away. The registrar overlooked the appointment, and the parties had to drive home and come again next day, and yet this registrar says the law works well. In the next case there was a large wedding party and congregation, who, owing to the non-appearance of the registrar, had to be sent away, and the ceremony took place next day. This was in the town of Smethwick. In the next case there was a delay of an hour, owing to the registrar having forgotten all about the wedding. In the fourth case the registrar did not appear. He was telegraphed for, but there was no reply, and when the parties drove over to his house they found the family had gone out for the day, and the marriage was postponed until the next day, when the deputy registrar came. In the fifth case the ceremony had to be postponed because the registrar had not sent the certificate. In the sixth case the wedding was fixed for two o'clock, and they waited until 2.50, when the registrar arrived. The minister instantly commenced the service, when the registrar interposed and said the wedding could not proceed, as the name of the wrong chapel had been inserted in the certificate, and the wedding had to be postponed to the next day, and was solemnised at another chapel. In the next case the friends came many miles, and there was a large congregation. The registrar forgot, and did not come, and the wedding was postponed until next day. In the next case the minister was a few minutes late, and the registrar, saying he had to catch a train, proceeded to marry the parties in the vestry. When the minister arrived he performed the religious service, and, upon going to the station, found the registrar walking on the platform, waiting for the train. In the next case the registrar went for a holiday, and forgot to tell his deputy, and after three hours' delay the deputy registrar was found and brought to the church. In the next case the registrar made a mistake and did not come, and the parties waited for hours. In that case the minister had been his own registrar for 18 years in India, and also for three years at Aldershot, when his return was sent to the district registrar direct. I might go on, but that I am afraid I should only weary the House by quoting any more. Those are cases which have been selected from the Wesleyan Methodist Church, but others are exposed to the same difficulty. The House will see that the grievance is not a sentimental one, as it was said to be, and that this Bill is not introduced for the purpose of increasing the dignity of the Nonconformist preachers, but that it is a serious inconvenience felt by vast numbers of people of this country. It is not surprising that numerous attempts have been made to deal with this obnoxious condition. There was a Bill introduced by Mr. Blennerhasset in 1881. The next attempt was by the present Attorney General in 1886. Then, in 1887, there was another Bill introduced by the present Attorney General, the Solicitor General, and the hon. Member for Sheffield. I will refer in a moment to some of the difficulties which arose in connection with that thoroughly honest attempt to cope with this grievance by the Government in 1887. In 1888, the hon. Member for Wolverhampton brought in a Bill, which was supported by Mr. Richards and Mr. Illingworth. We are sometimes told that the proper way of meeting this difficulty is to put a registrar in every place of worship in this country, not only of the Nonconformists, but the Established Church; but it would be a hopeless task to try and induce the clergy of the Established Church to consent, to that, or to surrender any small emolument they receive from the marriages they solemnise. It would be difficult to persuade the members of the Established Church of this country to subject the villagers of this country who are connected with their church to all the difficulties which arise in connection with the attendance of the registrar at these marriages. But if it were necessary to say anything in reply to the critics who desire to introduce the Civil Registrar into all places of worship, it would not be necessary to do more than to refer to the arguments of Mr. Richards and Mr. Illingworth, who supported the Bill which was introduced in 1888. I think there are two fatal objections to the Bill which was introduced by the Government in 1887—two objections which would be so fatal to any scheme that it would be impossible that any such Bill could be adopted by the Nonconformists in this country. I think my hon. Friends opposite will see at once what they are. The first was the regulation which required the minister to be registered on payment of a fee of 10s. in respect of every place of worship in which he solemnised marriage. [The ATTORNEY GENERAL: We offered to waive that.] Yes, you offered to waive that in a measure by saying that the minister might be registered for a dozen places of worship. But we must remember that the Methodists have 4,000 places of worship licensed for marriage, and the ministers are all itinerant, moving from one part of the country to another. Every three years they have to leave and go, say, from Birmingham to Bristol, and move about from place to place, and any scheme which would necessitate ministers, when shifting from one part of the country to another, to pay such fees as this would be an extremely costly arrangement. The other objection was that the Bill of 1887 only permitted the exclusion of the registrar from places of worship which were under the control of the central body. That would exclude the Congregationalists and those other communities which are separately organised and independent churches not subject to, or governed by, a central church authority. Now, I might just allude to the present Bill. It is, in the first place, optional, and it is based, as I said before, not merely upon the Scotch and Irish systems, which have worked so well, but upon the Report of the Select Committee to which the question was referred in 1893. That was not a packed Committee in any sense, and upon it were several prominent members of the Established Church, some of whom are present to-day, and who will, no doubt, take part in this discussion. There were four members of the Established Church upon the Committee and five representatives of Dissenting communities, but we unanimously adopted our Report; there was no dissension of any kind, and, with one exception, this Bill is based upon the Report of that Committee; and I may say, if it should be necessary to strengthen this Bill by making any further provision to secure the due registration of marriage and the preservation of registers, those provisions will be accepted by the promoters of this Bill. We provide by this Bill that parties desiring to marry, instead of having to go to the registrar, and from him to the superintendent registrar, and then back again to the registrar, will only have to make one journey. They will go to the superintendent registrar, and will obtain from him a duly filled-up form, which will be taken by the parties intending to marry to the place of worship where the marriage is to be performed. It will be the duty of the minister to see that this form is signed by himself and two credible witnesses, and that one form is retained at the church, while the other is posted to the superintendent registrar, and sent by him in due course to the Registrar General. I may just perhaps allude in a sentence to the fees of the registrar. Last year 30,000 marriages were conducted by Nonconformist ministers, and 30,000 fees of 5s. each were paid to the registrar. The suggestion in the Bill is to reduce that fee by 2s. 6d.—to take 2s. 6d. away from the registrar and give it to the superintendent registrar; that means that the small sum of £3,750 is taken from the registrar and given to the superintendent. It is a very small amount when distributed among all the registrars, and I think we are entitled to ask why it is we have all this hubbub and excitement arising among the registrars of this country, because they think they are going to be deprived of this small emolument. In my judgment there is no more absurd objection to this Bill than that which comes from those people who say that Nonconformist ministers, by taking advantage of this Bill, would constitute themselves State officials. Was that view taken with regard to the Burial Acts? Does the Nonconformist minister, who, in burying a member of his congregation, takes advantage of the Burials Act—he subjects himself to heavy penalties if he infringes the Act—constitute himself a State official? It is absurd to say so. This Measure receives a very large amount of support from many people in this country who do not, to their misfortune, belong to the Liberal Party. I have numerous letters and communications from prominent Conservatives, who are in favour of this Bill; and, if I may be permitted, I should like to read one letter, which I have received, and which I may use, as it is not marked private, and which is signed by the most prominent and accomplished Conservative in the country to-day. It was written to a Presbyterian clergyman, who was complaining that he could not conduct marriages in Lincolnshire in the same way in which he had been in the habit of doing in Scotland—I will give the name when I have read the letter. This good man could not imagine that such an obsolete and absurd law existed in this country. He was, I think, about to marry a couple, when some technicality arose which could not have arisen in Scotland, and he then discovered that he was subject to a different law. He wrote to the fountain of authority in those days to know what was the meaning of this singular rule, and in reply to his communication he received this letter—

"19th December, 1885.

"Reverend Sir,—I have the honour to acknowledge your letter of the 16th inst. The matter which you mention has been one that has been a good deal under our consideration. I am quite sensible that there is no reason for the presence of the registrar in a great many cases where he is now required, and I think that some alteration in the law is well worth the consideration of the Legislature. Yours faithfully,—SALISBURY."

I think I am entitled to say that this alteration in the law is necessary. The Attorney General says we shall not get much comfort out of that letter, but we shall get this—namely, the admission of the head of the Conservative Party that the placing of the registrar in a Nonconformist place of worship is a grievance which it is the duty of the Legislature to remove. I trust we shall hear some proposition from the Government to-day, and that we shall receive some practical assistance in getting rid of this obnoxious regulation when the Bill is in Committee, and we shall effect this reform which the Nonconformists so earnestly desire. I beg to move that the Bill be read a second time.

*MR. M. OLDROYD (Dewsbury)

In seconding this Bill I must say that I feel it refreshing to take part in this Debate under the ægis of the Prime Minister. I second this Motion because the Bill constitutes the best proposal for the reform of the Nonconformist grievance which has ever been submitted to the House. I do not touch on either of the other Hills which have preceded this—sufficient reference to which has been made by my hon. Friend—but leave them without further discussion. But, Sir, the intention of this Bill, as my hon. Friend has explained, is to remove from the Nonconformists the inconveniences and the annoyances which arise from the delays, irregularities, and some-times the unseemly conduct of registrars. I am bound to say—and I think it is but right that I should say—that registrars have generally conducted themselves in our Nonconformist places of worship with marked propriety. There have, however, been exceptions to the rule, when, for instance, a registrar sat on a communion table with his hat on and persistently refused to remove from that position. I can only observe, Sir, that if I had been interested in that particular ceremony he would have had to be a very strong man to have maintained that position. These inconveniences, instances of which my hon. Friend has just quoted, may amuse hon. Members opposite, but I fancy that if hon. Members themselves were the subjects of such experiences they would not be so ready to smile. Another point that we have in view in this Bill is the abolition of the distinction that now exists between the Church of England and the chapels of Nonconformists. As the law now stands, a clergyman has full power to tie the nuptial knot effectively in his place of worship, whereas the Nonconformist minister has no such power, and the real effective part of the ceremony lies in the hands, and is dependent upon the personal presence of the registrar at the ceremony. Now, Sir, we have no objections to registration. We are as anxious as any Member of the House can be, whatever their views, that the registration of the marriages taking place in Nonconformist chapels shall be as effective and as thorough as can possibly be desired; but at the same time we feel that the necessity for the presence of the registrar is a grievance of which we have a right to complain, and in respect of which, by this Measure, we are seeking redress. Our desire is that the Nonconformist minister shall be fully competent to officiate in his own chapel and conduct the marriage ceremony solemnly and effectively in his own person. A great many Nonconformists—and I must confess myself one of them—feel that this solemn ceremony, so fraught with serious consequences to the whole of one's life, should be conducted, as far as possible, under the very highest sanction, and as long as Nonconformists in Ireland and Scotland and Nonconformists in England of the persuasion of the Society of Friends, or members of the Church of England, can have this privilege, we do not see why it should be refused to those who are attached to other Nonconformist bodies. Now, Sir, I will not traverse all the arguments my hon. Friend has so ably laid before the House, but I will advert, in a very few words, to the position which Nonconformist ministers take upon this question. They feel that the distinction made between themselves and the clergy of the Church of England is a reflection upon themselves, and one which they have seriously determined to repudiate, and which this Legislature, I think, ought to be willing to recognise. The difference that is made between the clergyman and the minister gives countenance to the statement which is continually made by over-zealous curates when they are making visitations—namely, that those who want marrying, and marrying effectively, must come to the Church of England, as the curate or the vicar—as the case may be—is the only person who can effectually perform the ceremony. Now, Sir, there is no doubt, as my hon. Friend has already said, that the great body of Nonconformist ministers are in favour of this Bill. I am willing to admit that there are a few who object to the Bill on the ground that it will make them civil servants, but the number entertaining that opinion is comparatively few, and there is a large number of Nonconformist ministers, I believe, who think that the better method of procedure would be to retain the civil registrar in our chapels, and to set him on the same footing in the Church of England. I appeal to hon. Members opposite, who are adherents and supporters of that Church, whether there is any probability that such a law would ever be passed, or passed within a reasonable time; and if that be the case, I think we can claim that until public opinion in the Church of England itself has come round to that point of view—in the intermediate time—this grievance shall be removed from the Nonconformists. And, Sir, such being the view of the ministers in Nonconformist churches, what is the opinion of the laity? Well, they are anxious, I believe—or the great bulk of them are anxious—for the withdrawal of the registrar from these ceremonies, because they feel it is undesirable to give too great a prominence to the civil contract which is made on these occasions. Then, Sir, the aspersion under which the minister lies in the present state of the law is felt also by the laity, because I would have the House remember that the relationship between the ministers of Nonconformist churches and their adherents is a peculiar one. They are men of their own selection, and of their own choice. They support those ministers by their free-will offerings and contributions. They look up to those ministers with respect and with veneration, and I am happy to say that in a great many cases the young people—I do not refer to the older ones who are undertaking the matrimonial contract for the second or third time—but the young people who are going to be married are, in the main, adherents of those churches in which they are married; they received their earliest moral and religious training from the men who are to perform that ceremony, and they feel it an indignity to those ministers whom they so highly respect that they are unable to officiate fully and completely in the ceremony without the intervention of the registrar. And, Sir, if there are, as there may be, some Members of the Nonconformist bodies who desire that the registrar should be present, I need only point out that the Bill is purely optional, and that the existing system can be adopted if they so prefer. Well, I do not know what opposition may be developed in this House, but it does seem to me that the registrars are conspicuous amongst the critics outside this House. In the Times this morning I notice that there is a letter signed by Mr. Charles Townley, who is the president of the Associated Registrars of England and Wales, and he says— The Bill, which is down for Second Reading on Wednesday, ostensibly proposes to meet a Nonconformist grievance carefully cultivated by the Liberation Society. I do not know what my Friend in front of me (Mr. Carvell Williams) may have to say on this subject, but I have the honour to be a member of the Liberation Society, and a member of its executive, and I am not aware of any special cultivation on the part of that society of this "Nonconformist grievance." No, Mr. Speaker, these grievances require no cultivation. They cultivate themselves. They are continually cropping up, and those who take an active part in the management of Nonconformist places of worship are continually met by grievances which arise out of the existing state of the law. Mr. Townley goes on to say that the Bill does not remove the inequality in respect of the Church of England and Nonconformist ministers. Well, Sir, I contend that this Bill does remove the inequality, because it puts the Nonconformist in the same capacity to effectually marry a couple as the Church clergyman. There is not exactly the same procedure with regard to registration, but the equality secured by the Bill is the equality which we think to be desired. Now, Sir, hon. Members have been put in possession of a document within the last few days which gives some reasons why this Bill should not be passed. That document has no signature attached to it; but it is very evident from whom the document comes, and I think this same Mr. Townley, who has favoured us with a letter in the Times this monring, is the author of that document, judging from the phraseology and from the arguments that are used in the letter and in the document to which I have just referred. Well, Sir, my hon. Friend has already shown how very small would be the loss which registrars would sustain if the office should be demolished, a loss which I think need not weigh heavily upon the minds of Members in the consideration of this Bill. The registrars complain, first of all, that in the Bill now before the House there is unhappily the uncertainty of registration. As my hon. Friend has already said, if the provisions with regard to registrars in the Bill are not satisfactory, let the House in Committee improve those provisions and make them more stringent if they need it. But so far as we, as Nonconformists, are concerned, we are perfectly satisfied with the provisions of the Bill, and if they are good enough for us, who are immediately concerned, I do not think Members in this House need distress their minds by anxiety on this subject. These regulations are very similar to those now existing in Ireland and in Scotland, and I think we need not argue further on the subject. But the registrars seem to think that there is a possibility that no registration at all will take place. What are the facts of the case? The facts are that the 30,000 marriages taking place annually in Nonconformist places of worship are the marriages of persons who are the adherents of that very place of worship in which the marriage takes place. The officiating minister is a man who has a personal and direct interest in the well-being of the persons who are so married, and is it to be supposed that the minister will forget the very simple duty of posting the fully made up return to the superintendent registrar after he has performed the ceremony? And, Sir, I need not say that every security is taken that the ministers will do their duty in this respect by the imposition of a penalty under Clause 2, and in addition thereto another security is arranged in imposing upon the registrar, after a lapse of three months, without any return being made, the duty of making inquiries whether the wedding was celebrated or not. Then, Sir, another argument used is that it would be a retrograde step to remove a grievance from a section of the community by the adoption of another which will be dangerous to all. Well, Sir, I do not see where the "danger to all" comes in. If those who are concerned in a wedding—the specific wedding now under discussion—are satisfied, and if they themselves and their ministers, and the Nonconformist body generally, approve the regulations in this Bill—or other regulations which may be put in their place—I think there is no room for any complaint. Then, Sir, we have the suggestion that fraudulent and clandestine marriages will be celebrated and increased in number by the adoption of this Measure. Sir, is it reasonable to suppose that Gretna Green marriages and irregular marriages of that kind are to recur in the history of this country by the passage of this Bill? Nonconformist places of worship are not open to everybody, and those who have the management of those places of worship have certainly some sense of propriety and decorum, and they will take good care—in fact, they do take good care—as has been proved by the evidence to which my hon. Friend has referred, that no such irregularities take place there. I am quite sure it is quite a bogus idea, and a bogus difficulty, raised by the registrars, and that there is no foundation for the suggestion. Then, Sir, another objection is raised on the ground that Nonconformists are not agreed as to the details of this Bill and the provisions that are made in it. Are we, then, because there is a variety of opinion amongst Nonconformists as to the details of this Bill, to postpone legislation until everybody is agreed? Why, Sir, there would be very little legislation in this House if we had to wait until everybody concurred in the details of the Measures submitted. Another objection is raised on the ground that 20 per cent. of the registrations in the Church of England at the present moment are faulty. I do not know where the registrars have got their figures from, but I hold in my hands the returns which were prepared under that head of the marriages which took place in 1891 hi the Church of England, and I find that there are 1,310 technical irregularities in the registration by the clergymen, and that number arose out of a total marriage list of 158,139. I think there is an over-anxiety on the part of these registrars to make a bad case against the Church of England for their irregularities, in order to ground the assumption that similar irregularities will occur amongst the Dissenting ministers. I believe that the statement in this paper is an exaggeration, and I believe that Nonconformist ministers will prove themselves in practice equal to the duties which will be imposed upon them by this Bill. And then, Sir, another argument raised by the registrar is that this is merely a private Members' Bill, that it is proceeding to deal with this question piecemeal, and that we ought to wait until the Government will take up the question, and that, instead of taking the registrar out of the Nonconformist places of worship we should have one put into the Church of England. Well, Sir, I have already adverted to that point. We believe that the time is long distant when the Church of England will consent to any such regulations, and in the meantime the grievances of which we complain are substantial, and ought to be removed. On these grounds, Sir, and in the firm belief that this House will recognise that this is a grievance which calls for immediate redress, I have very great pleasure in seconding the Motion.


It certainly is not in the interest of the registrars, nor is it in the interest of the Church of England, that I question the propriety of passing this Bill, unless, indeed, it is so altered in Committee that its own fathers will not know it. I question the propriety of passing this Bill in the interests of all those who, after the passing of it, will be married otherwise than in accordance with the present law. I think when a Bill is brought in to alter the Marriage Laws we ought to consider the purpose for which those Marriage Laws have been enacted. Certainly marriage is not only generally—I wish it were always—a religious contract, but it is the most important civil contract into which parties can enter, and it is very essential that the State should take care of certain things with regard to that contract. It should take care that only those enter into it whom the State allows to do so. Other contracts may be entered into by all sorts of people with very much less care and caution than the marriage contract, because such contracts generally affect only the parties to them, but the marriage contract affects many besides the parties, and especially unborn chil dren. It, therefore, is important that care should be taken that only those enter into the contract of marriage whom the State considers proper to do so. It also seems to me that sufficient safeguards should be taken previously to secure that adequate publicity should be given of the intention of the parties to enter into this contract. It is further necessary that the State should be satisfied that the marriage ceremony is duly performed by officials who will take care that those previous requirements have been attended to; and it is necessary that there should be a sufficiently binding ceremony, and that proper records should be kept, so that proof of the marriage may be easy of access. When, therefore, I see a Bill that is going to alter the Marriage Laws I look to see whether those requirements, which I think every Member of this House will readily admit to be essential to the marriage contract, are sufficiently safeguarded; and it is because I think they are not sufficiently safeguarded by this Bill, but very much the reverse, that I gave notice of my intention to oppose it. In olden times we know it was the clergyman alone who could perform the marriage ceremony, and we all know the circumstances which rendered it necessary that the State should take this important matter into its own hands. Well, the State did so, and thus removed the grievances of those who did not like to be married by a clergyman. But, at the same time, it made stringent laws, and while it allowed marriages to be performed in the presence of registrars it required, amongst other things, a duplicate register to be kept in the office of the chief registrar of the district. But what does this Bill propose? It proposes to leave the power in the hands of the clergy; it proposes to leave the power in the hands of the registrar; and then it proposes to add certain other people, but whom? The hon. Members who moved and seconded the Second Reading of this Bill spoke as if the only other persons authorised to act were the recognised ministers of recognised religious persuasions. If that were the case, and this Bill removed the suggested disability, the objection that I have now taken to the Bill would not arise; but it does not do that. Nonconformist ministers at present have no power of celebrating marriages, and the promoters of the Bill assert that it will give them the power. But I can find no such enactment in the Bill, or any mention of Nonconformist ministers, unless, indeed, to use a phrase which has become classical, it is "reverentially embalmed in the preamble." The preamble says— Whereas it is lawful for clergymen of the Church of England to solemnise marriage without the presence of a registrar of marriages; and whereas it is desirable that the power of solemnising marriage without the presence of a registrar should be extended to other religious bodies. The Church and chapels do not perform marriages; can it be that by religious bodies Nonconformist ministers are meant? The Bill, however, recognises that hitherto the law has been that marriages must take place either in churches of the Church of England, or in chapels, or in the office of the registrar, and that there must be either a clergyman or a registrar to perform the ceremony or to see that the requirements of the law have been complied with. The only phrase I see in this Bill is, "the person officiating," and if it passes as it is introduced to this House it will empower not recognised Nonconformist ministers only, but any man, woman, or child in the Kingdom to perform the marriage ceremony—to look at the certificate of the registrar to see that it is all in order, to see whether or not the declarations are made which this Act requires, and that there is nothing to cause the marriage to be voided. Sir, there is nothing in the Bill to prevent that being done by a boy of 14, or by a woman of any age. Now, I am quite sure that that could not be the intention of the authors; their intention was to limit the power to Nonconformist ministers. Now, if Nonconformist ministers feel it is a slur upon their position that they are unable to do that which the Church of England clergymen can do, are they prepared to accept the conditions upon which clergymen hold their position? No man can be ordained except in accordance with laws made by Parliament. It is at any time easy to ascertain whether a man is a clergyman or not, and if he acts improperly he can be brought to book by the bishop. In placing this grave duty in a clergyman's hands we have thus a man who is more or less a State official. Will Nonconformist ministers, who now glory in their freedom, like to be put in the same position? If not, they should see that there is no slur upon them. If there were, I would be the first to try to remove it. But this view of the matter impresses me strongly. It is not enough to have the legal requirements attended to, and the ceremony performed, and the evidence of the marriage preserved to the satisfaction of the parties only, as the Member for Dewsbury contended. Have we not all known, or heard, of cases in which a wicked man has seduced a girl by pretending to go through a form of marriage with her, a common plan being to have it performed by a man who pretended to be a clergyman? It is a breach of the law which subjects the offender to severe punishment to pretend to be a clergyman. It is not a crime for a layman to pretend to be, or act, as a Nonconformist minister; and as any man can hire a room, register it as a chapel for a fee of 5s., and then pretend to be a minister, this Bill would make it far too easy for designing villains in this way to get innocent girls into their power. The difficulties in the way of obtaining the attendance of registrars have been much exaggerated. We have not heard what the registrars had to say in the cases quoted by the horn. Member for Louth. Probably the fault often lay with the parties. At any rate, there is no difficulty all over the Continent of Europe. I really wish that the Government would take the matter in hand, and propose some simple form of marriage contract, and that this should be made imperative in every case. All parties marrying should be required to agree to this civil contract in the presence of a State official, after due public notification, following this up by any religious ceremony they may prefer, and asking the sanction and blessing of the Almighty upon the most important act of their lives. This is the universal law on the Continent. As this Bill will be read a second time, I hope that material alterations will be made in it by the Committee of the whole House, so as to guard against the dangers I have pointed out, and in order to secure discussion I move pro formâ that it be read a second time six months hence.

SIR F. S. POWELL (Wigan)

This is a question in which I have taken a deep interest for many years. I do not know whether hon. Members are aware of it or not, but only lately many clergymen in the Church of England were unable to marry members of their own flock in their own church. A relation of mine, who is a clergyman in the borough which I have the honour to represent, was not able to marry members of his flock on this account, and although the relations between my relative and the rector who was authorised to perform the marriages were of a friendly character, nevertheless there is a sense of inferiority shown by the law which is galling to the mind of the clergy. I therefore approach this subject with great feelings of sympathy towards the promoters of the Bill, and I lay down this general proposition that it is not in the interests of the Church of England, except some great question of principle is involved, to have any privilege which is not enjoyed by our Nonconformist friends. I am perfectly sure myself—and I have had to deal with this subject for many years—that the true course of the Church of England, and a course which has proved successful by the experience of the past, is that of friendship and conciliation towards the Nonconformist body. I therefore think that a Bill in this sense should be passed, and I do hope that we shall not have the discussion on the Second Reading disturbed by the importation of details which may be of very great importance, but which are, nevertheless, subjects rather for the Committee than for the present stage of the Bill. Having gone so far in my argument, I may refer for one or two moments to my lessons of experience. I served on the Committee, as my hon. Friend has stated, and I had the honour of being chairman upon one occasion. Now, the evidence given to us from Ireland was remarkable. It was given by Mr. Matheson, the Assistant Registrar General. It describes the? condition of affairs in Ireland, which are, to use a familiar phrase, "more liberal" than the arrangements which prevail in this country at the present time. This question was put to him by the Chairman of the Committee— Now, inasmuch as in Ireland, both for the Irish Church as established and for the Roman Catholic Church, and for what may be called the Dissenters, there is no presence of the registrar required, I ask you have any mischiefs, so far as you know, resulted from that freedom? The witness replied, emphatically, "I am not aware of any." A similar question was put to Mr. Agnew, the Registrar General for Scotland, and the question ran in these words, and was put by my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury— In your capacity as Registrar General for Scotland you have already said that you testify to the general satisfaction which the present system of legislation gives, but do you know, in your official capacity, of any irregularities that have arisen? The answer was "No." There we have the testimony of the very highest official in Scotland, and we have from Ireland the testimony of the official who is next to the highest, and their testimony is not only unanimous, but emphatic, and fully justifies us in embarking upon the important step which the right hon. Member who introduced the Bill has taken. I represent a certain number of Roman Catholics, and it may be interesting to mention that Cardinal Vaughan in 1893 gave his testimony in favour of such a proposal as that which the Bill contains. He said, in answer to the Chairman of the Committee which sat in 1893— That so far as the alteration of the law proposed by the Bill of that year is concerned, I consider it a decided gain in the direction which I think is in the public interest. I think I am fully entitled to give that testimony of Cardinal Vaughan, representing as I do a very considerable number of Roman Catholic constituents. Now, as regards the evidence adduced of the irregularities and want of punctuality shown by registrars and ministers, I think my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall rather laughed at that testimony. Well, it is possible there may have been exaggerations, but, admitting that the evidence was highly coloured, I believe there is a solemn statement of fact on the subject, and I do not think that our Nonconformist brethren ought to be sub mitted to the inconvenience arising from irregularities of this kind. As regards registrars, I believe they are entitled to compensation. It is always given to officials who undergo any change of position by an alteration of the law. As regards America, I do not want to go into that subject, but I had the opportunity of examining many American statutes, having a collection of them in my house, and I find that in America each State makes its own law. But the whole idea of the United States appears to be that the marriage must be celebrated by some recognised official person, and they vary the definition according to the circumstances of each State. I had the honour when I was a member of the Committee of submitting resolutions to my colleagues. They were not formally proposed, because they were embodied in the resolution of the Chairman of the Committee. I laid down this proposition— That the attendance of the registrar as a necessary condition is undesirable. I certainly do hope that the House will give a Second Reading of the Bill. I believe that real grievances will be removed by the Bill, and I certainly feel that the only thing we have to consider is that nothing will be done in the Bill which will at all favour immorality; and, secondly, that every precaution will be taken that the marriages will be duly registered, and that no doubt can arise hereafter as to the status of the parties, the condition of the children, or any right of property, which every civilised State must depend upon more or less.


I venture to intervene thus early in the Debate because I think that in all probability it may simplify if not shorten the discussion, and because I think it is right that the promoters of the Bill should know exactly the views of the Government on this matter. No one, I think, will accuse me of rising in any spirit of hostility to this Bill. The mover of the Bill has been good enough to recognise that a few years ago, on several occasions, I did my best to meet these griev ances, and I possess and I value the testimony from many Nonconformist churches, thanking me for the part I took in endeavouring to get rid of these grievances, which undoubtedly exist. Mr. Speaker, if this Bill had proceeded upon the lines which formed the principal Resolutions of the Select Committee I should have been able to give it a heartier support than I can to-day, but I shall have to point out the very serious matters of principle in which it departs from the Report of that Committee, though I hope the House will read the Bill a second time. At the same time I wish to point out the more grave matters of principle in respect to which it has departed from the Report of the Select Committee. In order that I may at once be perfectly frank, I may say I could not assent to this Bill going to the Grand Committee on Law. This is a practical and not a legal question. It is a question of what is the best way of insuring that there shall be an efficient registration, and of dealing with the returns of papers and of issued papers, and, therefore, either we ought to have the responsibility of a Select Committee or the experience of the whole House. Personally, myself, I should have been glad to have seen a Bill which I could have supported, but I am entirely in the hands of the House, and if the promoters prefer to leave it to the Committee of the whole House I shall be willing to support it; but I shall be obliged to propose its reference to the Committee on Law. I, however, wish to point out in what respect this Measure differs from the recommendations of the Select Committee. The Report of that Committee was very clear, and upon than I ought to make one observation. The Committee recognised the grievances which I recognised, and were desirous of removing the necessity for the attendance of the registrar personally during the ceremony, or, at any rate, in the place where the ceremony was to take place. They recognised also that there should be every precaution taken to secure accurate registration. Here I must differ a little from the hon. Member for Dewsbury, who says— If the precautions satisfy us, surely that is good enough for the State. I am sure if the hon. Member had had my experience of what has happened with regard to registration he would be quite satisfied that what is sufficient for the parties is not sufficient for the State. Now I go to paragraph 4 on page 8 of the Committee's Report, which states— That the most satisfactory plan for securing such accurate registration is to make it the duty of the person officiating at the marriage, who shall be duly authorised by the trustees or other governing body of the place of worship wherein the marriage is solemnised, himself to register the marriage in a permanent register-book to be kept at the church or chapel, the contracting parties and two witnesses also signing the register at the time of the marriage, and it shall be the duty of the person officiating to return to the registrar a copy. I call attention at once to two important matters which are laid down in this Report, and in respect of which I think the Bill is not sufficiently safeguarded, and that is that the person officiating must be duly authorised by the trustees or other governing body of the place of worship, and that the registration shall be kept in a permanent register-book in the church or chapel. Now, what does that Bill propose? I am not going into detail or into matters which could be cured by the ordinary course of amendment in Committee. This Bill proposes practically this: that all registrars or superintendent registrars shall supply the parties with a form; that that form shall be taken to the place where the marriage is to be solemnised; and that that form, having been tilled in, shall be returned. There is absolutely nothing in the Bill which controls the person who is to be allowed to register it—namely, that he shall be authorised by the trustees or other governing body of the place. That is going as far as the hon. Member for Walsall goes, and I am quite satisfied that those who have studied this question will agree that, in regard to a very large number of very important Nonconformist bodies, there is no central governing body who can authorise, or whom the minister will be willing to authorise. This is a most important safeguard which the Bill has totally disregarded.


Though it may be correct that there is no central governing body. I am not aware of any sect in which there are not responsible trustees for each individual place of worship.


The information given to me does not agree with that given by the hon. Member, but it is a matter upon which there may be further inquiry. At any rate, I am justified in making the statement that that safeguard is not in the Bill. Now I call attention to the next question, which is a very important one, that there is no provision made for keeping a permanent register at the chapel, or for the existence of any permanent register at all there; and I shall have to point out, in connection with one or two other matters to which I shall have to call attention in a few moments, that that is a very important consideration indeed, having regard to the absolute necessity not only of correct, but of consecutive entries, because it is one of the peculiarities of the system suggested by this Bill that the records will not be entered consecutively in order of time. It is absolutely certain that the registrar to whom a copy would be sent cannot enter them in order of time, because he would have other entries to complete, and there are not sufficient precautions to enable the minister to enter them in any permanent book. I wish to make good my position in this respect, that the Bill has not availed itself of the considered judgment of the Select Committee which went fully into this matter. That Committee had before it many persons well acquainted with the subject, and who desired to find a practical remedy. I believe I am correct in saying that this Report was practically drawn by the hon. Member for Lincolnshire himself, and I therefore did expect, when he rose to present this Bill to the House, that I should have heard some explanation why these very important matters to which attention has been called elsewhere have been dropped out of the scheme now before the House. Now, Sir, there are several other points of importance. I do not suppose that the hon. Member who proposed this Measure, and even those, who are listening to him, have been able to study the Bill as I have been obliged to study it in order that I should be able to advise what course Her Majesty's Government should take in this matter. There is a very great ex tension with regard to the buildings in which marriages may be solemnised. Of course I do not need to explain to the House the question of the licensing of the buildings which applies to churches and chapels, but the Bill as now framed pro poses that every building which is registered for religious worship shall be a place in which marriages can be solemnised. That may be right, or it may be wrong, but it is a very wide extension, and it does unquestionably open the door to some of those abuses which the hon. Member for Walsall called attention to. We have, on the threshold of all this, the question of whether it is desirable to give power to solemnise marriages in any building licensed for religious worship, even though it may not be licensed for marriages. The hon. Member for Lincolnshire told us that there are a very large number of Nonconformist buildings which are licensed for marriages. I quite agree that, under proper safeguards, it ought not to be necessary that the registrar should attend at all these places, and I agree that his attendance under proper safeguards should be dispensed with altogether. But when you say that every place of worship shall be put in a similar position it is a very different matter. I am not desirous of overstating the case, but I say that any minister is allowed to solemnise a marriage in a particular building, and he may have no connection whatever with the minister in charge of the building. I think the House will see how probably and possibly there may be very great laxity in regard to this most important matter. I am quite certain the hon. Gentlemen opposite do not underrate the importance of this. I certainly do not think there is anything more important in connection with the records of men's lives than that their marriages should be safely and accurately certified, and that they should be capable of very ready and easy proof. Now, Mr. Speaker, I perhaps ought to have said earlier that I am not speaking on behalf of registrars in the least. I do not deny that the registrars may have some ground of complaint, and I am quite sure that the hon. Member who proposed this Bill, and those who are supporting him, will feel that there is a case to be dealt with, especially as the Bill calls upon the registrars to perform services for which, on the face of the Measure, they are to receive no payment. But it must not be supposed that I am in the least saying that against what I may call the principle of this Bill. I quite agree that the suggested alterations are matters entirely for the next stage of the Bill. I only rise to make this explanation in order that it may not be supposed that in doing so I have done it with the intention of supporting any plea of the registrars for compensation, but to show the House the real practical difficulty that there is in dealing with this question. I may mention that there is one matter which the hon. Member who framed the Bill has entirely overlooked, and that is the case of parties who reside in two different districts, and who might possibly be married in a third district where neither of them reside. When you come to the practical working of this Bill no direction is given as to which of the registrars is to make out the notice which is to be sent to the chapel; if two such notices are made out, and they are not consistent, which of them is to prevail? The House may possibly think that this is a very small point, but I can assure hon. Members that it is of very great importance. I wish to point out that the same difficulty does not arise when the registrar is present, because, although the notice may be inconsistent, it is the duty of the registrar to ask the parties themselves, in order to make his entry, which is the official entry, consistent with the actual facts; and from that point of view I would venture to remind the House that this recommendation in favour of the ceremony being solemnised and the marriage entered by a person who is authorised by the trustees, or other governing body, is a practical safeguard, and would, to a great extent, meet the difficulty. Then there is the case of persons who have been obliged to get their notices from different registrars. There must be the plainest direction given with regard to that matter, or otherwise we would never have anything like a consecutive entry of the marriage, or any entry of which the persons could obtain cognisance if they desired it. Then there is a provision which, if it had not come from the hon. and learned Member, I must say indicates that this question had not received sufficient consideration. We are not dealing with marriages at St. Margaret's, Westminster, St. George's, Hanover Square, the Metropolitan Tabernacle, the City Temple, on the Holborn Viaduct, or at, those great Nonconformist places of worship where there is just as much ceremony and dignity as there is in a marriage in a church; we are dealing with the humbler people, who may not have resided very long near the place in which they are going to get married. What is the position? It is provided that if within three months the minister has not returned a copy of the registration the registrar is to take such steps as he may deem necessary to ascertain whether such a marriage had been solemnised, with a view to obtaining the registration thereof. [Mr. PERKS: I would remind the Attorney General that there was a similar provision in his own Bill.] The early part of my Bill contained clauses which are in accordance with the recommendations of the Committee, namely, that the people who are going to perform the ceremony were the people who could be got at and recognised as the people who had the sanction of the governing body. It is a different thing to say that you ought to apply to these people—to anybody who may have been minister. I have had practical experience in regard to the large number of marriages that take place on Bank Holidays in towns like London, Leeds, Manchester, and other large places, where they come in considerable numbers to get married and then go away again. Now, I want to know what the registrar is to do if he does not know the name of the minister who has performed the ceremony, and if he has no means of knowing. All he knows is that three months before a document was issued by the minister, and was asked for by one of the parties to the marriage, and had never been registered. I think the hon. Member will agree with me that such a safeguard is not sufficient. The Select Committee of this House, or whoever deals with this Bill, must see that means are afforded for an official direction to be given to a competent authority, that proper notification of the marriage is given, and that there must be kept in some public or formal way an entry of the document which is filled up and signed and duplicated by the registrar himself. This, again, is a matter of principle and not a matter of detail. Nothing is said in the Bill about any duty on the part of the person who has performed the ceremony to have the custody in duplicate of documents left with him, which are equally original documents. Of course, there is nothing to force him to keep that, and we know perfectly well how lax people are in that respect if they are not directly told what they have to do. I am sure the House will understand that, in making these observations, I have not done more than point out that as it stands this is not a safe and workable Bill. I assent to the Bill only distinctly on the understanding that it remains under the control of the House, or goes to a Select Committee, for I am satisfied that if we attempt to treat the Bill as the foundation upon which our structure is to be built we will find ourselves in hopeless confusion. If this Bill goes into Committee I shall attempt to restore in the most friendly spirit a good many of the safeguards which I thought, after the most careful consideration, would be necessary in order that we might safeguard and make certain the proper registration of marriages. Moreover, the Bill proposes to repeal provisions which would permit the most extraordinary offences in connection with Quaker and Jewish marriages to go unpunished, and I have not heard the slightest reason for this. If the House were dealing with such great bodies as the Wesleyans or the Baptists there would be no difficulty. I believe myself that a very short Bill might be framed which would satisfy this House, and satisfy the public, and dispense with the attendance of registrars; and I am sure that these great bodies would co-operate with the Government of the day in thinking out a careful system to ensure accurate registration. I am not speaking of the trustees of the church or chapel; I am speaking of the central body of the Church. I am dealing with the control over ministers by a central body.


In the Congregational Church we have about 2,000 places registered for the solemnisation of marriages. There is in that case no central body.


The moment you get to a church where you have not got a central body to whom you can appeal, and where you are not certain that you will get uniformity of direction given with regard to the minister, there are various difficulties involved. I do not want to argue this case from the point of view of the small bodies; but if there can be devised a practical scheme for dealing either with the big bodies—with the greater churches—or with all the churches, having the proper safeguards, I shall heartily welcome it. I would like to see some means of solving this question by a practical Measure. The principles of this Bill—not the details—require most careful consideration. While I, on behalf of Her Majesty's Government, assent to the Second Reading of this Bill, I hope the House will not part with the subject without seeing that the safeguards are sufficient, and that in the future we will do our utmost to secure effective registration of marriages.

Bill read a second time.

Mr. SPEAKER returned after the usual interval.