HL Deb 07 February 1831 vol 2 cc195-202
Lord King

said, seeing several right reverend Pielates in their place?, he would take that opportunity of presenting several Petitions against Tithes, which he should not have thought it fair to present in their absence. The first petition he should present was from persons residing in Somersetshire, and it was very numerously signed—being signed, indeed, by several thousand people connected with agriculture. They said, that their petition was directed against the pernicious tithe system. They stated that they were in great distress; that the farmers could get no profit, and the labourers no employment, on account of the tithe. They stated that tithes, in their origin, were intended to answer very different purposes from that to which they were applied at present; that originally the tithes were divided into three portions—one went to the clergyman, another to repair the church, and the third to maintain the poor. But these petitioners stated, that they had now to maintain all the poor, and keep the church in repair, and that the whole of the tithes went to the minister. The mode in which the tithes were collected, they described as a barrier against improvement, and he must say, that there was great truth in the sentiments of the petition. He knew that it was said that tithes were property; and so they were, but very different from individual property. It was said that tithes were the property of the Church, and it was asked, if it were not as sacred as other property? But the property of the Church stood upon a different footing from individual property. The Church Establishment was the creature of the State; it was paid for, and in such a manner, as the State pleased. In that respect, then, it was perfectly different from individual property. A reverend Prelate had stated, on a former evening, that Church property was more ancient than other property; it might be more ancient than some other property, but it was at all times the creature of the State, and public property: it was conferred by the State, and it was held as public property, intended for the benefit of the State. It was different from private property, which was necessary for the good of society. Without private property, we should have nothing but the spontaneous produce of the earth; but without tithes we should have a great deal more valuable produce of art and skill than at present. Tithes, then, and private property, operated in different ways. The institution of private property increased the produce; the institution of tithes lessened it. They were a tax on production; they hindered capital from being applied to the land; and, but for them, more capital would be applied, and more produce obtained. It was now necessary to pay tithe on the gross produce of the land, and of capital, and labour united, which prevented the application of capital to land, and prevented the employment of labour. Nothing was more prejudicial than a tax on the gross produce of the land; and it was one which any prudent rulers of the Church would now try to have commuted. He said commuted; because the time for composition was gone by. There must be a commutation measured in a fixed corn-rent, not liable to alteration, and which would not give a greater than a fixed share of the produce to the tithe-owner, not increasing with the capital employed. He believed that, a few years ago, when the Church proposed composition, it might have done; but now nothing short of commutation would do. The right reverend Prelates would now find it prudent to come to some moderate commutation. His Lordship concluded by presenting a petition from Somersetshire, praying for a Commutation of Tithes.

The Bishop of Lincoln

was understood to say, that notwithstanding the confidence with which the noble Baron made his assertions, he would find it difficult to prove that tithes were public property. He must maintain, that tithes were not established by the State for a State service. In many cases they were granted by individuals who had the power, in order to provide for the due performance of religious service in every parish in the kingdom. The individuals who granted tithes did not intend them to be the property of the State. The question was, what was property? The law gave power to men to appropriate and use certain things? Ft gave such a power to the tithe-owner, or a property in the tithes, as it gave to the land-owner a property in his land. Tithes, therefore, stood upon the same footing as other property. He remembered, that at the period of the French Revolution, the people who argued against tithes also contended, that the landlords were nothing more than the stewards for the people, and that rent was the salary which was paid to them for distributing the produce of the land. He did not know why the Church property should be subject to attacks more than other property, unless it could be shown that it weighed heavier than other property on the springs of national industry. Was that the case? He believed not. Was land free from tithes better cultivated than land subject to tithes? Was that the case? He denied that it was. The right rev. Prelate then quoted a communication from a clergyman, to show "that the tithes were only in his parish one-sixth of the rent. The clergyman stated, that he had had several communications with land-surveyors and other persons, who assured him that, generally, the clergymen took from twenty to thirty per cent less than their due claim for tithes. The agriculturists, the clergyman stated, were not injured by tithes; for, generally, tithe-free land was not better, or so well cultivated as land subject to tithes. In those parishes, too, he stated, which were exempted from tithes, the poor-rates were higher than in parishes which had tithes, though he did not state that the high rates were connected with the exemption from tithes." For himself, he doubted, therefore that the tithe-system was so noxious as the noble Baron described it. He wished it, however, to be understood, that he was not opposed to a commutation from tithes on a fair principle. It was necessary, he believed, that the Church should make some sacrifice, and every commutation must involve a sacrifice; but on that account he should not object to a commutation. On the whole, he denied that tithes were public property, or were the cause of distress.

The Bishop of Bath and Wells, as the Petitions came from Somersetshire, had made some inquiry into the circumstances of the petitioners, and he had found that there was nothing peculiar in their situation which could justify them in coming forward to petition against tithes. He did not wish to make any observations then on the question of tithes, on the presentation of petitions, but whenever the noble Lord brought it forward, he should be prepared to give him an answer. On the subject of Commutation of Tithes, he would observe, that in a conversation which he held not long back in that House with the noble Lord, he stated to him, that no one was more desirous of the establishment of such a principle than he was, and he was sure it would be found generally to receive the approbation of the clergy. In the first living he had ever had he had commuted the tithes, and the plan had given the greatest satisfaction. It had been productive of advantage to him and of benefit to the parish.

Lord King

wished to express his satisfaction at hearing that the reverend Prelates had now come to a commutation of tithes, which was something very different from the composition of tithes proposed by a right reverend Prelate. A commutation wad very different from a composition, such as was proposed by the bill of the right rev. Prelate, which went to give a power to the tithe-owner to lease his tithes for twenty-one years. Commutation must be by a fixed rent—a certain amount of corn, not subject to vary—a payment totally different from tithe. He was glad to understand, that now commutation and not composition was agreed to, and commutation was not the plan of the right rev. Prelate. The right rev. Prelate who spoke last said, that there was nothing peculiar in the situation of the people of Somersetshire. That was true. The evils were everywhere the same, and were not confined to Somersetshire. There was nothing peculiar in the hardships they suffered. They were common, unfortunately, to all the land. The right rev. Prelate who spoke first, said, he (Lord King) would have great difficulty in making out that tithes were public property; and he stated, that tithes originated in the grants of private individuals. That was perhaps true; but the greater part of the livings of the country were now in the hands of the Church or the Crown, and these were undoubtedly public property. The advowsons belonging to individuals were of a different nature, but the advowsons belonging to the Church or the Crown were public property. It was said, that tithes were given to secure the services of the clergy. Had they had that effect? He wished to learn of the right rev. Prelates and their Lordships if this purpose had been answered? He was surprised, indeed, at that argument; for were not, he would ask, pluralities and non-residents the disgrace of the English Church? There were, he believed, about 10,500 benefices in England, and in these there were only about 6,000 residents. If the grant were intended to secure the services of the clergy, it had failed in its effect. Hardly one hall of the parishes under the Church of England had resident incumbents; they might reside in other benefices, but nearly hall the parishes of England were destitute of resident incumbents. This was one of the great and crying sins of the Church of England, from which the Church of Scotland was entirely free, He would use this circumstance as the argument ad verecundiam. With all the tithes and emoluments belonging to the English Church, it could not procure residents, but the Scotch Church obtained residents without tithes. We had Bishops and non-residents; in Scotland they had residents and no Bishops. Our hierarchy, our costly hierarchy, could not effect that which was done in Scotland without a hierarchy. This was the argument ad verecundiam. The hierarchy had no power to prevent pluralities, or, if it had the power, it did not exercise it. As to tithes being property, he must repeat, that they were very different from private property. Private property was beneficial, and it was necessary that there should be private property. Was it necessary that there should be a tax on the gross produce? Tithes were a pernicious sort of property. Under the present circumstances of the country, it would be well in our Statesmen to make a change in tithes, taking care to respect the life-interest of those who now claimed them, but making an alteration that would get rid of them. They were pernicious; all other property was beneficial. He thought it was not very wise in the right rev. Prelate to refer to the French Revolution. Their Lordships might depend on it, that in tithes there must be an alteration—that they would not be much longer suffered to exist; and by placing them on the same footing as property in land, the land-owners might expect that their property too must be altered.

The Bishop of Lincoln

explained, as it was understood, that the commutation of tithes which he should look upon with satisfaction would be, to give land for them.

The Bishop of London

wished to say one word concerning non-residents. It was one of the charges of the noble Lord, that the costly hierarchy, as he called it, could not secure the residence of the clergy. It must surely excite the surprise of their Lordships to hear the noble Lord mention that; for if there was one fact better established historically than another, it was, that the absence of the clergy from different parishes was caused by lay impropriators having taken the Church property. It was owing to the system of lay impropriators that the clergy were deprived of their property, and prevented from residing in their parishes. It was the abstraction of so large a part of the property of the Church, by the lay impropriators, which was the cause of non-residence. The noble Lord imputed this to the neglect of the hierarchy. Now, the hierarchy had brought a measure into Parliament to enforce residence, which had been opposed, and rendered less efficacious than they wished, because it was said, that it would be injurious to the proprietors of lay advowsons—that it would lessen the saleable value of that which they sometimes carried to market, and the lay impropriators had caused the bill to fail. The hierarchy deplored the evil, and it was the lay impropriators to whom it might be justly ascribed.

The Earl of Winchilsea

agreed with the right rev. Prelate who spoke last, that a large part of the Church property, which had passed into the hands of laymen, was a cause of non-residence. If the Legislature should pass an Act to restore to the Church all the property that ought to belong' to it, that would do, he thought, a great service to the Church. He was the proprietor of some tithes, and he should be glad if the Legislature would pass a law to compel all those who possessed the property of the Church to restore it. He could conscientiously say, that he was in possession of property which ought not justly to be his.

The Archbishop of Canterbury

wished to say a few words, though without, a disposition to prolong the somewhat irregular and inconvenient discussion. He only wished to inform the noble Lord, that it was his intention to bring forward, or procure to be brought forward, in another place, a bill for the Composition of Tithes. He would take leave to suggest to the noble Lord, though he knew his suggestion was of little value, that great inconvenience arose from discussions of so important a nature on the presenting of petitions. If the noble Lord did enter into such discussions, he would, no doubt, have a great number of such petitions placed in his hands; but it would be better if the noble Lord would bring forward some specific measure, which would be more consistent with the dignity of their Lordships, than to argue such an important question on the presenting of petitions. — Petition laid on the Table.

Lord King

presented two other Petitions from places in Somersetshire, with the same prayer. He would take the opportunity of saying, that he had no doubt that the right rev. Prelates found the discussion very inconvenient, but he was afraid, as he understood that a great number of petitions were coming to him from different parts of the country, that they would be subject to those inconveniences de die in diem. The right rev. Prelate (the Bishop of London) found great fault with the lay impropriators, as having caused all the evils of the Church. This was something new. Hitherto he had always understood, that the lay impropriators were the prep and stay and bulwark of the Church. He had always heard, that the clergy were glad that a part of the Church property was in the hands of laymen, because they would fight their own battles, and the Church might find shelter under their guns. The right rev. Prelate found, that the abuses of the Church property, the robbery—he begged pardon, the abstraction, as the right rev. Prelate called it—of the property of the Church, was the cause of the non-residence. But the property the right rev. Prelate complained of having been abstracted from the Church was not given to the English Church, but to the Catholic Church. Before the Reformation all that property belonged to the Catholic Church. The Reformation gave its property to the English Church. The Church Establishment of England, as formed at the Reformation, was entirely the creature of the State. The right rev. Prelate, perhaps, wished to make it out, that the Church was superior to the Slate; but he must contend, that it was made by the State. He did not mean to say the Church, which was an assembly of the faithful, but the Church Establishment, which was different. The Church Establishment was the creature of the State, and nothing else. The right rev. Prelate said, that the bill prohibiting pluralities, and enforcing residence, was supported by the Bishops, and opposed by the proprietors of lay advowsons. The times, however, were now changed; let the Bishops now bring forward such a bill, and it would be more successful. Such a measure should have his support. It was not creditable to the Church of England—it was not creditable to those who had the management of it—that they should yet suffer the vice of pluralities to exist.

Petitions laid on the Table.