HC Deb 07 June 1905 vol 147 cc972-80

In asking leave to introduce this Bill, I trust the House will grant me the indulgence of allowing me to deal with this matter on the footing that every Member is as familiar with the existing ecclesiastical situation in Scotland as the Scottish Members have, unfortunately, to make themselves. The judgment of the House of Lords in the Scottish Church case had the effect of declaring with regard to the property with which they dealt that the United Free Church had no right to it, but that it belonged to the Free Church, subject, however—and I trust this will be Kept in view—to the trusts under which it was held at the time of the union. Following on that judgment, further litigation has ensued, and, as the House is aware, a Royal Commission was appointed to inquire into the matters. The Commission reported, amongst other points, to the effect that the Free Church could not adequately execute all the trusts, and that in dealing with the property liberal provision should be made for the equipment of the Free Church.

We propose in the Bill to proceed on the main lines indicated by the Report of that Commission. In the first place we purpose to set up an Executive Commission consisting of five members. The names I am not yet in a position to mention to the House, but they will be in due course submitted. That Commission is to have power to deal with all the property belonging to the United Free Church at the date of the union in October, 1900. They are to allocate it between the two Churches as seems to them fair and equitable, subject to the provisions of the statute, and in particular they are to make adequate provision for the education of students of the Free Church; for the support of aged and infirm ministers, and the widows and orphans of ministers of that Church, for supplementing congregational contributions towards the support of ministers of the Free Church, and for the general purposes of that Church; and for these objects they are to be entitled to take such part of the property as they think proper. As regards congregational property, they are to allot, that to the Free Church or its congregations in all cases where the members and adherents of the Free Church congregation are in number equivalent to one-third of what in the opinion of the Commissioners the congregations would have amounted to if the union had not taken place. The orders which the Commissioners think necessary for carrying into effect any allocation are to have statutory force, and they may make interim orders, which are to have temporary effect. The proceedings of the Commissioners are not to be reviewed or interfered with by the Courts of Law. All litigation and difference between the Churches as to the property in dispute are to be sifted or stayed, and no further such proceedings are to be instituted before the property has been allocated by the Commissioners. The Commissioners are to have power to appoint Assistant Commissioners, and both Commissioners and Assistant Commissioners are to be entitled to examine witnesses on oath. The expenses of the Commission are to be defrayed out of the funds in question.

That, I think, indicates in the main the general principles upon which we propose that the Commission should deal with the allocation of the property, the powers they are to have, and the freedom from interference by the ordinary Courts of Law. But the question has been raised as to whether conditions should not be imposed on these who are to receive the property under the orders of the Commission, as to the administration of it, and the terms on which it is to be held. This, in the opinion of the Government, raises large issues, which have been further complicated by certain proceedings in the General Assemblies held last month. May I remind the House that the Free Church has, in accordance with the resolution of the General Assembly, represented to the Government their claim of right of 1842–43. The United Free Church has put forward an assertion and protest that she has independent and exclusive jurisdiction and power of legislating in all matters of doctrine, worship, discipline, and government of the Church, including therein the right from time to time to alter, change, add to, or modify her constitution, law, subordinate standards, and church formulas; and it is declared that the Church holds her property and funds present and future in conformity with these principles. The Church of Scotland, by unanimous declaration of her General Assembly, has asked for power to relax the formula in connection with the Confession of Faith at present required to be subscribed by her ministers and professors.

The claims of the Church of Scotland may be explained by saying that she desires to be free from the strict terms of the Act of 1693 as to the subscription of ministers, and the corresponding statute of 1708 as to the subscription of professors. The Act of 1693 has always been regarded in many quarters as impinging on the revolution settlement of 1688–90 and especially on the liberties of the Church under the statute of 1690. That statute provided that the Confession of Faith was ratified and established and approved as the public and avowed Confession of the Church, and that statute still remains. The Church desires, however, to have the freedom that she enjoyed under that statute before the Act of 1693 was passed to prescribe the precise terms of the formula of subscription which will be exacted from her ministers and professors. She has that power as to her elders, and she desires to have the same power as to her ministers and professors.

The Government have given the matters I have referred to their most anxious and careful consideration, and they have come to the opinion that they ought all to be dealt with at the same time. Accordingly by this Bill we propose that the Free Church shall be vested in the property allocated to her free from all the original trusts, and subject only to its being applied to the purposes of the Free Church as I have already indicated. We propose, similarly, that the United Free Church, even after that declaration of her power to alter her subordinate standards and formulæ, should receive the property allocated to her, subject only to this condition that it shall, so far as possible, remain in the hands of the United Free Church, appropriated to the same or similar purposes as it now stands appropriated to. That is to say. Home Mission property will stand appropriated for Home Missions, Foreign Missions, property for Foreign Missions, and so on, but otherwise no conditions shall be attached to the property to be given to the United Free Church. We propose, further, that the Church of Scotland shall be empowered to substitute for the existing formula of subscript on of her ministers and professors such formula as may be prescribed by act of the General Assembly of the said Church with the assent of the majority of the Presbytery thereof. That is to say, that the large representation of laymen which is allowed in our Scottish Presbyterian Church Court—that the laymen and clergymen shall be consulted; that the Presbytery by a majority must approve, but subject to the provisions of the Barrier Act the Church of Scotland shall get this relaxation. We believe that in dealing with this matter in this way we are dealing with it fairly and justly. We think that the claims of the Church are sympathised with by many outside her own bounds, and we trust that the proposals I have indicated, and which really, in the main, set out all the proposals of the Bill, will be regarded, as we regard them, as being in every respect generous, as being in all respects just, and as being those which will conduce to the settlement of difficult questions in a manner acceptable to the people of Scotland, to whatever Church they may belong. And believing that, we trust the House will accept the Bill as a settlement of these questions. I beg to move.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide for the settlement, of certain questions between the Free Church and the United Free Church in Scotland, and to make certain Amendments of the Law with respect to the Church of Scotland."—(The Lord-Advocate.)


I think the Government have taken a wise course in introducing this Bill by the summary procedure which we know as the ten minutes rule, and that not because of the small importance of the Bill, but because of the immense importance of it, and the necessity at the earliest possible moment of placing the provisions of the Bill before the people of Scotland, who have been hungering and thirsting for it for at least a month, and thus enabling a well-informed judgment to be arrived at on the subject before any decision is expressed here. While agreeing with the bringing forward of the Bill in this way, at the same time I think it is well I should say this by way of caveat for the future—that the circumstances of this case are so abnormal, so exceptional, that I hope it will not be taken as a precedent for introducing large and important Bills of this sort in this summary manner.

Now I proceed to the Bill. The right hon. Gentleman has very properly not recited to the House the circumstances under which this legislation arises. I will say at once that the idea of referring the matter to a Statutory Executive Commission is the right idea. It is the idea which occurred to very many of us early last autumn. I remember myself making a speech in Edinburgh—where people sometimes make speeches—and I then suggested this very course. The Government have proceeded in a tentative manner. They appointed a Commission of Inquiry, exceedingly well conducted by Lord Elgin and his colleagues, and therefore I think they strengthened their hands before proposing this somewhat drastic course. The proposal, therefore, of the Bill for dealing with the case generally will, I hope, be such as shall win our approval. We shall approve anything which shall be simple, complete, and effective, and as immediate as possible in its work and general effect, because it cannot be doubted the longer this matter has been delayed the wider has been the divorce between legality on the one hand and equity, common-sense, and, I would almost say, decency, on the other. I trust, therefore, that the earliest possible time will be that at which this Commission will be put in operation in order to put a stop to a state of things which cannot be called otherwise than scandalous.

But now I come to what I am afraid is the crux of the position. The Government are proposing to introduce into this simple matter of settling a grave dispute between two Churches, which has been aggravated greatly, of course, by the decision of the highest Court of Law—I do not challenge that decision in the least; what we have to do with is the result of it, but into that simple matter they have introduced the question of altering the constitution of the Church of Scotland which has nothing whatever to do with the question, and as to which I may remark that we have no information whatever as to any claim or desire for this great fundamental change. I think it is a very great mistake that this new and adventitious element should be introduced. I put aside altogether the question whether an alteration of the formula of the Church of Scotland may be a good or a bad thing. We have nothing whatever to do with that at this stage. What I say is that there are many most serious objections to introducing these provisions into the Bill.

My first objection is this. The object is to restore peace, ecclesiastical peace, in Scotland, to prevent injustice, and to remove the ecclesiastical deadlock that prevails. Anything that delays that object is mischievous—and I may point out that hitherto, and I hope in the future also, in a matter which is essentially a matter of common sense, there has been no element of Party feeling whatever; no desire to make Party capital, or to treat it in a Party way at all, but there has been introduced a totally different matter, which, whether it be good or bad, will at all events take a long time to settle. You are not going in a casual way like this to give the Church of Scotland a new constitution in the expiring days of an expiring Parliament when we have no knowledge of the opinion of the people of Scotland or the opinion of the people of the Church of Scotland on it. I am quite aware that only the other day a resolution was passed in the General Assembly, but it had never been heard of until a week or two before, and after it was introduced there were amendments and difficulties raised. Then in a mysterious way an understanding was arrived at and an unanimous resolution was come to. Before you alter the constitution of the Church of Scotland you must have more than a week or two's consideration, and possibly a rushed resolution accepted by an individual General Assembly. It is impossible to expect that you could do it. We ought to know what the people of Scotland think and what the members of the Church of Scotland think.

The Government are raising here a matter to which it will be difficult to set bounds. This is not a Scotch question only. In its original scope it was a Scotch question, no doubt, and I venture to say that half-a-dozen Members of this House and half-a-dozen people from outside could adopt this Bill and easily make a scheme for an Executive Commision which would answer the purpose, which is at the heart of the people of Scotland. But if you once begin tampering with the formulas and the creeds of ecclesiastical bodies where are you to stop, and why should it be confined to the country North of the Tweed? I put it to English Members. What would they think, if some controversy or dispute as to their trust funds arose between unestablished Churches in England, or perhaps between two sections of one of those Churches, and if they became so acute and involved that it was necessary to come to Parliament for legislation in order to stop the evil and solve the difficulty, if the Government, introducing a Bill for that purpose, were to introduce clauses enabling the Church of England to rewrite its constitution? That would be an exactly parallel case. English Members can judge how serious a matter this is, and, to use a very common figure, what a spoke the Government have put into the wheel of conciliation and settlement in Scotland by introducing this absolutely uncalled-for provision relating to the formulas of the Church of Scotland.

I do not entertain anything but respect and affection for the Church of Scotland, and I am not stating a word against greater liberty for that Church or expressing any opinion on the subject at all, but I say, to put it into this Bill is to put into this ship a cargo that will make it founder, and I do not think any persons who do that are good friends of the prosperous voyage of the ship towards its destined haven, which would be the restoration of ecclesiastical peace in Scotland to the satisfaction of the desires of the Scottish people of all Churches, and the saving of farther injury to the spiritual interests of her people. I have wished to say in as clear and strong and short a method as I could the view that we take. So far as this Bill sets up an Executive Commission—we may pick holes in the Commission, I hope, not, but we cannot say until we have seen the Bill. I have no doubt that the matter could easily be composed, but the introduction of this novel element, this extraneous adventitious element, into this Bill is a fatal course, and I believe it will cause the greatest excitement and indignation throughout that country which has its interests so deeply involved in this matter.

Question agreed to. Bill ordered to be brought in by The Lord-Advocate and Mr. Attorney-General.