HC Deb 04 April 1922 vol 152 cc2183-6
Viscount WOLMER

I beg to move, That, in accordance with the Church of England Assembly Powers Act, 1919, this House do direct that the Representation of the Laity (Amendment) Measure, 1922, be presented to His Majesty for the Royal Assent. This is purely a formal Motion to which, so far as I know, there is no objection in any quarter of the House. I think, however, it is due to the House that I should simply explain the facts. Under the Enabling Act passed in 1919 certain powers were conferred on the Church Assembly, and the constitution of that body was referred to in the Act. Since that date it has been found desirable to introduce two or three very small unimportant Amendments in the constitution of the Church Assembly, but before they can be carried out it is necessary to get the approval of this and the other House, otherwise it might be regarded as being a different body to that on which the powers were conferred by the Enabling Act. I would remind the House that under the Enabling Act all Measures come before an Ecclesiastical Committee representative of both Houses of Parliament, and on this Free Churchmen and hon. Members who are not members of the Church of England sit. The Ecclesiastical Committee has reported upon the Measure, and it has unanimously recommended that it does not interfere with the constitutional right of any of His Majesty's subjects and recommends that it should be passed into law. The changes in constitution of the Church Assembly are very small indeed, and merely provide that diocesan conferences shall be elected every three years instead of one year, and that when the incumbent of a parish dies the Chairman of the Church Council should preside at the meetings in his place. That is the full effect of the Measure, and I hope that the House will agree to my Motion.


I beg to second the Motion.


I want to call attention to the effect of the passing of this Motion. It will be within the recollection of the House that when this Bill was passed it was said that all the Church of England wanted was to be master in her own house. It is now found that that Measure was inadequate, and the Church of England is now trying to have her cake and eat it. She is to retain all the privileges of a State Church, but wishes to be relieved of State control. Not one of her advantages or privileges as a State church are to be given up, and she is now to be allowed to say that her freedom is not sufficient. I am sure that throughout the country there is a growing desire for the divorce of the State from the Church. [HON. MEMBERS: "No!"] I know that a vast majority of the community, and every man who loves the Church, whether it be the Church of England or any other branch of the Christian Church, would wish that Church to govern itself entirely, free from the control of this House, and free from interference by any Acts we might pass. We take the view that the State Church should, if it wishes, have entire autonomy and self-government, and should frankly say that the time has passed when the Church should be dependent upon the State for its authority, and that we should have general disestablishment, because of the necessity of asserting the principle that a State and its Church should not be interlocked, so that the Church cannot pursue her spiritual development and carry on without control by the State. Those of us who take that view and supported the passing of this Bill most reluctantly now find ourselves faced with this fresh measure. All I have to say is this. [Interruption.] I am not to be stopped by the groans of hon. Gentlemen opposite who represent diverse religious interests. The hon. and gallant Member for Finsbury (Colonel Archer-Shee) will remember the position his own Church once undoubtedly occupied, and he must therefore support me in this that if by age, or tradition, or authority or any other of the blessings that have preceded in all ages any single Church should dominate the life of this country it is his Church. There is no Church other than his that has such a claim to traditional authority. This House having made very generous concessions in the past, we ought not now to allow without protest further encroachments. I am making my protest very briefly as compared with the boredom inflicted on many of us on other occasions by hon. Members who are now interrupting me—a boredom which made one wish to be in any place other than this House. I am speaking on a fundamental principle that those of us who supported the Church Enabling Bill did so on the understanding that it was to go only so far, yet now we are asked to make further concessions on the plea that the proposal is pro forma. We believe we ought not to be so asked. Having made my protest, I resume my seat.

Lieut.-Colonel NALL

I do not think it is fair that the observations of the last speaker should remain unchallenged. This Measure does not confer any additional powers on the National Assembly of the Church of England, and, if I may, I will quote the closing words of the Ecclesiastical Committee as to the effect of this Measure. They are: No infringement of the constitutional rights of the subject is involved in the proposals of the Measure, and the Committee are of opinion that it is expedient that the Measure should become law.

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