HC Deb 22 June 1928 vol 218 cc1996-2000

Order for Second Reading read.


I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."

This Bill has been on the Order Paper for a long time, but this is the first occasion on which we have had an opportunity of saying a word on its behalf. I should like to say at the outset that only those names which appear on the back of the Bill are responsible for its introduction; the Opposition, officially, is not responsible for it. At this time of day one would have thought that the old-fashioned laws of 200 and 300 years ago would have ceased to apply, but they do operate on occasions against very poor men. I have never yet read of a prosecution for blasphemy against anyone who could write in what is described as an intellectual manner; all the prosecutions have been against men of humble origin and who have not been trained in the Universities or any of the public schools. These old laws, according to the late Lord Halsbury, if they were operating to-day would mean that at least two-thirds, if not three-fourths, of the Anglican clergy would be liable to prosecution for blasphemy. We had a long discussion on the Prayer Book some time ago and again and again we were informed, and given evidence by the Home Secretary and the Attorney-General, that certain clergymen of the Church of England were carrying out their duties outside the Ordinances of the Prayer Book. According to the Blasphemy Laws any person who does that, or: by writing, printing, teaching or speaking, does anything to deny the Christian religion to be true or the Holy Scriptures to be of Divine origin and authority, shall upon conviction or indictment or information be adjudged incapable of holding any office. And after a second conviction is to suffer other penalties and be imprisoned for three years. If that was literally carried out the present Bishop of Birmingham would be imprisoned for three years. There is no question at all that he denies, has publicly denied, considerable portions of the first four chapters of the Bible which deal with the origin of man. If he had lived a couple of hundred years ago, he would probably have been prosecuted as a heretic and imprisoned. The point I want to call special attention to is this. Under the Act of Elizabeth, according to the late Lord Halsbury, anyone is by Statute guilty of a misdemeanour who in any place: speaks anything derogatory of the Book of Common Prayer or of anything containing therein or uses any other form of prayer. That is to say that if a clergyman uses any form of prayer that is not within the four corners of the authorised Book of Common Prayer he is guilty of a misdemeanour. Any priest or minister of the Church who uses Common Prayers or administers the Sacraments is by Statute guilty of a misdemeanour if he refuses to do so in the order set out in the Book of Common Prayer. The punishment for the third offence is deprivation of all his spiritual privileges and so on, and imprisonment for life. So I am right in saying that if these precious laws were carried out you would have to build a few more prisons in order to imprison the defaulting clergy of the Church of England. The law needs only to be stated to show how utterly ridiculous it is. That such a law should be on the Statute Book is quite absurd. The Bill is simple and, like all the Bills that we have had before us this afternoon, it is very short. It merely provides that: After the passing of this Act, no criminal proceedings shall be instituted in any court against any person for schism, heresy, blasphemy, blasphemous libel or atheism. If the Lord Advocate is to deal with this matter I would put it to him that laws are brought into contempt when the authorities are not able or not inclined to administer them equally and fairly as between individual men and women. This law has never been applied in that way, at least never in modern times. The Lord Advocate cannot give us a case where anyone who has written a book to prove that the Christian religion was a fable and has done so in what is called an intellectual or literary manner, has been prosecuted. This is an offence against the Church of England: Any one who otters or publishes seditious words in derogation of the established religion is by common law guilty of a misdemeanour and is punishable by fine and imprisonment. Moreover, anyone is guilty of a misdemeanour who depraves, despises or contemns the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper by any contemptuous words or otherwise. The punishment for this offence is imprisonment and fine "at the King's pleasure." There is no question about that; that is for blasphemy. I again tell the Lord Advocate that there has never been in my recollection, certainly not in modern times, a prosecution of anyone who has attacked the Christian religion in literary language and has published books at a price which certain well-to-do people can afford to pay. I contend that if there is such a thing as blasphemy, then blasphemy is blasphemy, whether it is said in what is called a vulgar manner or is said in an intellectual manner.

It is not that I agree with those who criticise the present Bishop of Birmingham, but I say without hesitation that if the law of blasphemy, as read out, were strictly applied to-day, the Bishop of Birmingham would be put on his trial. The people who are put on trial are those who use words called vulgar and indecent language, at the street corners, or who write pamphlets and leaflets which, we are told, offend certain people. I should have thought that if you wanted a law in order to protect religion, the people to protect religion against are not those who are heard at the corner of the street by a few, but those who write learned books on the subject—men like Mr. J. M. Robertson and the people who write the literature of the Rationalist Society. They write more destructive criticisms and do more to bring the Christian religion into contempt than all the people who speak at street corners and those whom I have mentioned as having been prosecuted. The Government would not dare to prosecute the people who write the books that are published either by the Ethical Society or by the Rationalist Society or by the ordinary Free-Thought Society. Because that is so, I say again that the law is administered quite unequally.

Notice taken that 40 Members were not present; House counted, and 40 Members not being present

The House was adjourned at Four Minutes after Three of the Clock until Monday next, 25th June.

In pursuance of Standing Order No. 1 (Sittings of the House), Mr. SPEAKER has nominated Captain Robert Croft Bourne to act during this Session as a temporary Chairman of Committees when requested by the Chairman of Ways and Means.