HC Deb 18 July 1933 vol 280 cc1729-32

5.52 p.m.


I beg to move to leave out the Clause.

I should like to say, while we have been discussing Scottish affairs, legal and ecclesiastical, how much I appreciate and welcome the Bill as one necessary in the new life which is now being infused into the Church of Scotland as a result of the Union of 1929. This Bill is very necessary to smooth out the working of the new machinery, but it seems to me and to many of those with whom I have been in conversation that this Clause may create certain difficulties and not promote the harmony that we all would wish to see. The objections to it are twofold, firstly on sentimental or traditional grounds. I am the last person in the world to appeal to sentiment in any sloppy sense, but in Scottish ecclesiastial affairs sentiment has always played a very large part indeed. Under the Clause as at present constituted, it seems to me that there is a danger that the General Assembly might conceivably make use of the powers vested in it in a somewhat arbitrary fashion. The Clause is devised to meet the needs of parishes where there may be two or more ecclesiastical buildings, and the General Assembly is here given the power to say, in the event of a dispute arising, which building is to become the permanent place of worship and no mention is made of the congregation, the Kirk Session, the Presbytery or the Synod concerned. It is merely left, if need be, in the hands of an all-powerful General Assembly, which may or may not take into consideration the factors, sentimental or otherwise, which may govern the case. In Scotland we have very few gems of architecture such as are to be met with up and down the parishes of England, but our buildings, plain though they are in the great majority of cases, are held none the less dear than the parish church in England. I cannot help recalling the rhyme of the old metrical version of the Psalms: Thy saints take pleasure in her stones, Their very dust to them is clear. The interest taken by Church of Scotland congregations in their ecclesiastical affairs is a very real and live one, and I wish to see it fostered in every right and proper way.

The other objection that suggests itself to my mind is that the Clause seems to me to be rather against the genius of the Presbyterian system of Church government. It is a republican system. There is a regular gradation of Church courts, beginning with the Kirk Session and passing up to the Presbytery and the Synod to the General Assembly, and it seems here that we are going to sweep away the minor courts and pass right on to the General Assembly, which may or may not take into consideration the special circumstances of the case. After all, when I think of all the bloodshed and controversy that has taken place in the past about the best system of Church government to employ in Scotland, it seems that now, when we have this wonderful coming together of the two great Presbyterian Churches, we ought to resist by every means within our power any encroachment of a prelatical nature. I am not for a moment suggesting that this is likely to become a formidable possibility by the passage of this Bill into law, but in this Clause you have just the germ of such a thing becoming possible. Of course, we have to take into consideration the question of authority, and also that of the liberty of the individual. We have to hold the balance be- tween these two in matters ecclesiastical as well as in matters political. Here we are dealing certainly with the powers of the priesthood. The Church of Scotland, while recognising the power of the keys, has also insisted upon the essential priesthood of all believers. That is how I see the danger that might conceivably arise under this Clause, and I hope the right hon. Gentleman will give us an assurance that the General Assembly will not seek to use the powers here conferred upon it in any arbitrary way. The people of Scotland have always jealously guarded their inalienable rights. We do not wish to stifle, we wish to develop the interest that has always been taken by them in ecclesiastical history and in theological speculation, and it would truly be an ill day for our national life if we were to depart from our historic attitude in this direction. If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget her cunning.

5.59 p.m.


I beg to second the Amendment, partly on the grounds put forward by my hon. Friend, that the Clause is contrary both to the history and to the spirit of the Church of Scotland, and also because it seems to us illogical that an appeal should go direct to the General Assembly without consultation with the minor church courts. It seems to me to be just as though in an ordinary action at law the case is to be heard straight away by the House of Lords, completely ignoring the Sheriff substitute, the Sheriff principal and the Court of Session. I do not think the Clause is likely to promote peace within the Church. I know that the argument may be advanced that if you consult merely the congregation of kirk in session you will be running the risk of the real issue being lost sight of. At the same time, I do not think that that is altogether correct, because even though the congregation in kirk session may tend to take a parochial view, they have the wider body of the Presbytery and the still wider body of the Synod. Accordingly, it seems to us that it would be very much better that the minor courts of the Church of Scotland should have some say on a very important and, it may be, very controversial subject affecting a parish church. It is for that reason that we move to omit the Clause. We hope that the Lord Advocate may be able to give an assurance upon this point. If not, we shall be compelled to express the opinion that so far from the Clause being of benefit to the Church of Scotland, it is likely to prove, not possibly a curse, but at least a very serious disadvantage.

6.2 p.m.


The very last thing we desire to do is to discriminate in any way whatever between parish ministers within a parish or parish churches within a parish, but the hon. Member must face the situation. Suppose, for example, you take a concrete case and that you have a trust deed which sets up an endowment of a parish to be administered by the minister, and as a result of the Scottish Church Union, instead of having one minister of the parish, you have three or four ministers of the parish, who is to administer that trust? The very last thing we want is litigation or local controversies starting in kirk sessions, and going on to presbyteries, and to synods, and then on to the General Assembly. Some power to determine a question of that kind must be vested somewhere, and it is proposed by the Bill to give a plenary power in that matter to the supreme court of the Church. I do not think that die hon. Member need be at all afraid of the General Assembly having what he called prelatic tendencies. The General Assembly will consider the pros and cons of each case as it arises—there will not be very many—and I have no doubt that they will come to a decision satisfactory, not only to the parishioners concerned, but to the whole community. I therefore hope that my hon. Friend will see his way not to press the Amendment.


The right hon. and learned Gentleman has dealt with some rare cases—questions of endowment and the like. I was dealing with the right of congregations to decide on the maintenance of a particular church building, but in view of what the Lord Advocate has said, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.