HL Deb 30 August 1831 vol 6 cc854-63

The Archbishop of Canterbury moved the second reading of the Plurality of Benefices Bill. It was not his intention to detain their Lordships at any great length, but it was necessary to state the circumstances under which the Church at present was placed with regard to pluralities of benefices, and the objects intended to be effected by this Bill. The holding of Benefices, in respect to Pluralities, was regulated partly by the old Canon-law, and partly by the Statute of the 21st of Henry 8th. By the Canon-law pluralities were strictly prohibited under the severest penalties, extending even to excommunication of persons holding more than a single benefice. At the same time an exception was made in favour of high and learned persons. This indulgence was abused in the highest degree; dispensations were, in in fact, granted without regard to number, distance, or qualification. They might be obtained, at fixed prices, for two, three, or more benefices, and even without limitation of number or value. Of the extent to which this abuse was carried, a proof might be found in a list of pluralists towards the end of the thirteenth century, (to be seen in Gibson's Codex), several of whom held between ten and twenty, and one, twenty-three benefices. These abuses the Statute of Henry 8th. was designed to correct; but that extends only to benefices with cure of souls above the value of 8l. reckoned by the King's books. In respect to benefices of this description, the Statute agrees with the Canon-law in the general prohibition of pluralities; but it admits many exceptions to the general rule, and empowers spiritual persons, being sons of noblemen, and other persons of rank, or graduates of the Universities, or Chaplains to the King, the Royal Family, Peers, &c., to hold two livings by dispensation: to spiritual persons being of the King's Council, it allows three; and provides for the free exercise of the King's prerogative in bestowing as many benefices as he may think proper on his own Chaplains. With these exceptions, no one may take more than two benefices above the value of 8l. To these limitations others are added by the Canon, in respect to qualifications, distance, and residence, which, however, affect only this description of benefices—all other Church preferments being left, as before the Statute of Henry 8th., under the old Canon-law. In consequence, there was no restriction on the holding of dignities in cathedral or collegiate churches, except such as might be imposed by their own Statutes; and any number of benefices under 8l. might be holden together, without any other check than the power of the patron to present to the benefice first held, and that of the Ordinary, by a judicial sentence, to declare it void; the latter of which powers was, he believed, never exercised, and the former very seldom. Hence arose the distinction of benefices into void and voidable:—a benefice above 8l. is made void by taking a second; a benefice under that value is rendered only voidable. In fact, there were instances of three, four, or even five of these latter being holden together by the same person. But the abuse which most required correction arose from the want of limitation in point of distance. An incumbent of a populous parish might take up his residence on a small living under value, at the distance of 200 miles, and leave the concern, which is of far the greatest importance, to the care of a single curate. The inconvenience arising from this state of the law was two-fold. Preferment was sometimes invidiously accumulated on one individual, to the discouragement of meritorious clergymen, who might otherwise hope for a better provision; and the parishes suffered from want of due attention, more especially when the benefices so holden together are of very small value, in which case the incumbent was often unable to keep up the buildings, or allow an adequate stipend to the curate. The object of the present Bill was to remedy these evils. With this view it repeals those enactments of the 21st Henry 8th., which regard the value of benefices in the King's books, and determine the qualifications for obtaining dispensations. It then enacts, that if any one holding a deanery or other dignity, in any cathedral or collegiate church, shall accept of any dignity, &c., in any other such church, the first shall be void. An exception would be introduced into the Committee in favour of Archdeacons—the most efficient and the worst paid officers of the Church. It next proceeds to enact, that if any person, having one benefice with cure of souls, shall take a second benefice with cure of souls, the first (without regard to its value) shall be void. In consequence the patron would be bound to present, under pain of lapse, though he have received no notice of vacancy. The distinction of value in the King's books and its consequences is hereby totally done away. It was nevertheless enacted, that spiritual persons may hold two benefices by license or dispensation, provided the distance do not exceed thirty statute miles, measured from church to church. The effect of these regulations would probably be, that whereas, at present, any number of benefices under 8l. may be holden together, without regard to actual value, or distance, and two benefices above 8l., at a distance of thirty reputed, equal to forty-five statute, miles, which, being measured from the boundaries of the two parishes, make fifty the average between the churches; after the passing of this Act, no more than two benefices, however inconsiderable in value, could be holden together—and that only, where the churches are not more than thirty miles from each other. He was fully aware that this alteration would operate harshly on some individuals, and perhaps in some instances inconveniently even with respect to the church. In some cases family livings, now tenable together, would cease to be so if this Bill should pass into a law. In others, meritorious clergymen, employed in the care of poor and populous parishes, might be reduced to the alternative of either leaving a place in which they are eminently useful, and retiring to comparative inaction, or of refusing a benefice far greater in value, and at the same time less laborious. On the whole, however, the surplus of advantage was in favour of the reduction. From returns made to the House, it appeared that about 2,100 benefices are holden by pluralists. Of these the greatest number are under 8l. in the King's books. Of the reduction to be expected in this class of pluralities, as they are not limited by distance, no certain judgment could be formed. With respect to benefices above 8l. some tolerable calculation might be made. If fifty miles is the distance at present allowed, and thirty, as lessened by the Bill, every church might be considered as the centre of a circle, of which the area will be in proportion to the diameter, and in this particular case the greater circle will be to the smaller as about one to three; and consequently, the number of benefices now tenable together by dispensation, will be less, by two-thirds, than at present. Allow a similar reduction for livings under 8l. (which he conceived to be under the mark), and it might fairly be concluded that the number of pluralists would, in the end, be reduced from upwards of 2,000 to about 700. He would, in the next place, speak of qualifications. In the place of those prescribed by 21 Henry 8th, it is proposed to take University degrees as the sole qualification for dispensations, adding to those allowed by the statute, the degree of Master of Arts—in conformity to the direction of the 41st Canon, and abolishing all privileges of rank or retainer, with the single exception of the King's chaplains, who are allowed to hold two benefices by dispensation. In consideration, however, of the small value of many benefices, and from due regard to the claims of many excellent clergymen who have no degree, this qualification will not be required for holding two benefices under a certain value, 400l., for which purpose the Archbishop would be authorized to grant a licence, and arrangements would be made to render the expense very moderate. In respect to dispensations, for the holding together of benefices of greater value, no alteration was proposed. It was, however, to be observed, that the granting or withholding of licences, as well as dispensations, is left to the discretion of the Archbishop of Canterbury, subject to an appeal to the Court of Chancery, for which it is intended, in Committee, to substitute the King in Council. He apprehended that such a power was meant to be lodged in his hands by the Act of Henry 8th; but he could not venture to say in what degree the exercise of this power had been affected by its not having been commonly used. He knew of no instance on record of dispensations having been refused to persons duly qualified according to law; but it must be observed, that the Archbishops had always insisted on conditions not required by the statute—with respect, for instance, to distance, residence, and employment of curates, which implies the exercise of discretion. The Archbishop would be further authorized by the Bill to annex to the dispensation, or licence, such conditions, in regard to residence, performance of duty, employment of curates, and it was proposed to add the erection and reparation of houses of residence, as he might think proper. From what had already been said, it would appear that this was no new power, but a more convenient modification of the power which he at present exercised, in conformity to the directions of the 41st Canon. That canon prescribes the number of sermons to be preached, and the quantum of residence on that benefice, on which the least residence is allowed. The application of the same rule to all cases, however useful in some, would be generally inconvenient in practice. A discretion admitting some latitude in respect to the condition of residence is therefore proposed. An incumbent, for instance, has two benefices; the one a populous town; the other a thinly-inhabited village. Was it right that he should take up his principal residence in this latter, and thus give the least share of his attention to the weightiest charge? Again, when a benefice has two or three churches or chapels, widely distant, perhaps, from each other, was it not reasonable that more than one curate should be required for the performance of the duties? But of the evils resulting from pluralities, the decay of residence houses was one of the greatest—as it might excuse and almost compel non-residence for many generations. Such conditions, then, annexed to pluralities, were surely expedient, and would operate beneficially, if adapted to particular cases, by the exercise of a sound discretion. But how were these conditions to be enforced? At present surety is taken in a bond for 200l. which never has been, and perhaps never could be recovered. In the place of this nugatory security, it was proposed to substitute the revocation of the dispensation or licence, by the authority which granted it. It could not be deemed inconsistent with equity, that he who accepts of a benefit on certain conditions, should forfeit it if he neglect or refuse to fulfil them. And this non-performance and consequent forfeiture are left to the judgment of the Archbishop of Canterbury; so that, in this whole matter of dispensations and licences, the Archbishop would be constituted the judge of the propriety of granting the indulgence in the first instance; of the terms on which it shall be granted; and of the forfeiture incurred by non-compliance with those terms. It had been suggested to him, that the Archbishop was hereby imposing on himself a very onerous and invidious task. In that he entirely agreed; knowing by experience the inconveniences of discretionary power. He who acts ministerially is without responsibility, having but one course to pursue; but he who is invested with discretion, besides the anxiety of deliberation and the pain of decision, must expect the annoyance of importunate solicitation and angry remonstrance from disappointed and offended parties. On these, and many other accounts, if he saw any better mode of regulating the affair of pluralities than intrusting to the discretion of the Archbishop, he should certainly give it the preference. It had also been said, that an exorbitant power was placed by the Bill in the hands of the Archbishop of Canterbury—and even a right of interfering with Bishops in the administration of the discipline of their diocesses; both which objections were entitled to consideration. But, perhaps, it would appear on reflection, that the powers proposed to be given to the Archbishop, though certainly greater than at present, would be subject, in their exercise, to an efficient control, independently of the appeal to the King in Council. His general rule, in regard to the granting of dispensations, will be on the side of indulgence; and exceptions, if made, will be grounded on information received from the diocesan, or the evident reason of the thing. The same with respect to conditions. In regard to the revocation of licences, he was of opinion, that the power, as the Bill stood, was not sufficiently defined and limited; and it was his intention to introduce alterations, by which the Archbishop would have to exercise this power of revocation with the concurrent agency of the dicocesan. He had entered more largely into explanations than would have been necessary, had he not been desirous of obviating objections, and stating what, at least in his own conception, was likely to be the effect of the Bill. On its general object, the abridgment of pluralities, there was a difference of opinion, at which he was little surprised when he reflected on what had passed in his own mind. This difference, perhaps, was the greatest in reference to the distance of benefices allowed to be holden together by dispensation, and it has existed from old times. By early canons it was settled at twenty-six miles; by later at thirty. The Bishops in Queen Elizabeth's days, thought twenty a reasonable distance; and the Archbishop and Bishops assembled at Lambeth are said to have approved of a Bill drawn up by Dean Prideaux, and still extant, in which it is limited to five. The distance allowed by the canon, at present, he had, before stated. In this Bill a middle course was taken; yet the allowance unquestionably would, by some persons, be considered as too large—by others too small. However that might be, he had no doubt that benefices, under value in the King's books, ought to be subject to the same regulations as those rated higher. It was known, that the valuation of Henry 8th was no criterion of the present value; and the distinction created by the Statute of void and voidable benefices, had been the occasion of many abuses. In conclusion he could truly say, that having exerted himself to the best of his ability, in endeavouring to improve this part of our ecclesiastical system, he should cheerfully acquiesce in the judgment of the House on the merits of the Bill.

Lord Wynford

observed, that the Bill ought to be well considered, before it passed into a law, as they were legislating, not for the day, but for futurity. He did not mean to oppose the second reading, but, as he understood the provisions of this Bill, he was inclined to suppose, that the law, as it stood at present, was sufficient to answer all the purposes of the new measure, and if such was the case, it was unnecessary, and would be improper to pass this Bill. The Archbishop of Canterbury had already a large discretion, and by the exertion of the powers already existing, the whole object of the Bill, as he conceived, would be attained. It was possible, however, that he might be wrong in that opinion, as, although he had considered the subject a good deal, he had not had any communication with any other person upon it. However, it was necessary, that time should be allowed for consideration. Certainly he objected to giving such a large power as the Bill gave to the Archbishop of Canterbury, to any individual whatever. It was placing in his hands, the control of the whole body of the clergy. He objected, also, to the appeal, but certainly, if there were to be an appeal, it should be to the King, as the supreme head of the Church. In the meantime he must observe, that the thirty miles distance, which the most reverend Prelate had mentioned, had, in practice, been considered as forty-five, and he was of opinion, that if the matter of distance was to be taken into account, the forty-five miles ought to be considered as the limit. According to the present law, it was necessary that an incumbent should reside during a certain part of the year on his livings, and that was a better provision than the distance. He should not have objected to a distance of five miles, or thereabouts, because then the clergyman could do duty every Sunday at each of his livings, but as to any efficiency in this respect, thirty miles was as objectionable as forty-five; and for the security of existing property, he thought the distance of forty-five miles ought still to be retained.

The Bishop of London

said, that the alteration of the law, to which the noble and learned Lord objected, would have the effect of limiting the number of pluralities. The universal opinion which prevailed with respect to pluralities, was a sufficient proof, that the existing law was not sufficient to effect that object. The fact was, that the present state of the law with respect to benefices arose out of an obsolete law, by which a poor clergyman was enabled, if he obtained the Bishop's consent, to hold two or more livings under the nominal value of 8l. This was the origin of the system of pluralities, under which two livings, the real value of which was 700l. yearly, might be held together.

The Earl of Carnarvon

thought, that their Lordships ought not to adopt hastily the measure which had just been introduced by the right reverend Prelate. There were some parts of the old law, which he should prefer to the proposed enactments, if they were reduced to practice; such, for instance, as that provision which compelled an incumbent, if a pluralist, to reside during a certain portion of the year upon each of the livings he held. He objected to the extraordinary power which was given by this Bill to the Archbishops, of revoking the dispensation to hold pluralities, because it gave the power to those most reverend Prelates, of depriving a clergyman of his freehold. At all events, he thought that notice ought to be given to the clergyman, before such authority was exercised by the Archbishops.

The Earl of Harrowby

adverted to the statement made by the right reverend Prelate opposite, by which it appeared, that there were 2,000 parishes deprived of the benefit of possessing resident incumbents. There could be no doubt that that was a great evil, and he saw no means of diminishing it, but by limiting the extent to which pluralities might be granted. The number of persons capable of holding two livings, and who therefore did hold them together, was much more than ten times greater than in the time of Henry 8th. The question then naturally presented itself—why not put an end to the system? but he, for one, must say, that he knew nothing that would be so fatal to the respectability of the Church, as the entire abolition of pluralities. It should be recollected, that a' great deal of property was taken away from the Church, in the time of Henry 8th, and the only means which, in many instances, now existed, of securing a proper remuneration to the clergyman, for the work which he performed, was the union of the smaller livings, He certainly considered it to be highly important that there should be considerable gradations in the Church. He should not like to see it in the power of a clergyman to start up all at once, and take his seat on the benches opposite. He ought to work his way up by degrees; for any thing approaching to equality was inconsistent with the constitution of the Church of this country. But, at the same time, it was the interest of the State, to maintain all classes of the clergy in respectability, and that object could not be obtained, if the revenue of parishes merely afforded to their incumbents a bare subsistence.

The Bill read a second time.

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