HL Deb 21 February 1837 vol 36 cc757-69
Earl Fitzwilliam

presented petitions for the abolition of Church-rates from Newport and Yarmouth (Isle of Wight); from Northampton, and several other places. The noble Earl stated, under ordinary circumstances, he should have been content to lay the petitions on the table without saying one single word; but on the present occasion, he felt himself called upon to depart from the usual course. It generally happened that petitions were intrusted to those who concurred in their prayer; but on this occasion, he differed in some degree from the petitioners. It had been his duty to tell the petitioners, that he did not entirely coincide in their views on this subject, and had, therefore, offered to return the petitions to them, that they might be presented by some other noble Lord who agreed with the petitioners; they still, however, in their kindness to him, requested him to present them. It was, in his opinion, the special duty of the Legislature, to take care that the humblest individual in the kingdom possessed the right to enter a place of worship, and pay his devotion to his Creator. He did not then intend to enter upon the inquiry as to what plans had been drawn up to afford relief from the payment of Church-rates; but he considered that it was the bounden duty of Parliament to take care that the means of attending worship was afforded to all classes of the community. It was not unnatural that those who dissented from the Church should conceive that they ought to be relieved from the payment of these rates; but, at the same time, while he admitted that it might appear a hardship on those persons to continue the present system, he could not agree in any plan which would deprive the meanest subject of the realm of the right which he now had, of always being able to demand certain and fitting accommodation in those edifices devoted to the worship of God. While on this subject, he felt bound to state, that he thought that many of the demands of the Dissenters arose from the conduct of the Church of England itself. It could not escape recollection, that the clergy of the Church of England had not been so tolerant towards their dissenting brethren as its interest required. As he stated before, he knew not what plans were in contemplation, or to what it was intended to have recourse, to supply the deficiency that would be created by the abolition of Church-rates. But it was impossible to conceive that there should be any mode of supplying that deficiency, which could have the effect of making the people of England feel that they would have, as a community, no interest in the maintenance of these edifices. As he said before, and he spoke it boldly in the presence of the hierarchy of the Church of England, although he did not mean to bring this charge against those now present, but much of the soreness which existed in the minds of the Dissenters—much of those feelings by which he feared they were actuated towards the Church of England, was due to the Church itself. He trusted that the Church would not now rue its former conduct; but it was impossible for the Dissenters not to recollect, that so long as there remained a chance of maintaining those laws, by which the Dissenters were excluded from the full enjoyment of the civil privileges and rights of their fellow-countrymen, the hierarchy of the Church of England did not join with those who sought to relieve the Dissenters from the stigma under which they so long laboured, and those disabilities under which they could scarcely be said to enjoy the rights of Englishmen; on the contrary, they stood to the very last in the gap, and endeavoured to prevent the Dissenters from participating in the enjoyment of those privileges to which all the rest of their fellow-subjects were entitled. He never could, however, consent to any measure, the possible effect of which could be, that a single individual of the humblest class, in the remotest corner of England, should be unable to say, in regard to the church of the parish in which he lived, that he had not a right to go in there to worship God, and that he was not also entitled to call upon the proprietors of the land in the parish to maintain it. Would to God that the hierarchy of this country had been wiser half a century ago, and had undertaken those measures of change and improvement in the ecclesiastical arrangements of this country which were, at that time, obviously necessary. He trusted, however, that the present hierarchy would be wiser than their predecessors. He did not know that he should have another opportunity at present of addressing their Lordships upon this subject; he therefore hoped that he should be allowed to trouble the House with one or two considerations which had been forced upon his mind, in examining this subject in all its bearings. In the first place, it could not be denied by any man sincerely attached to the Church of England, by any man who was desirous of seeing that Church more deeply rooted in the affections of the people of England, that great changes and reformation were necessary in the administration of the Church. In the first place, it could not be denied by any man attached to the Church of England, by any man desirous of seeing that Church more deeply rooted in the affections of the people, that great changes were necessary. A great attempt, indeed, at change had been made, at something which its authors were pleased to call Reform, in a measure which he could not help saying, was most opposite in its nature to the name by which it was designated; and here he could not help stating, that it had been asserted in that House, that the measures that had been brought forward, with reference to the Church, had been approved of by the hierarchy, because they were at once reforming and conservative. It appeared, however, to him, that these measures were neither reforming nor conservative. They now felt that something must be done, but they had not the courage to go the right way to work. These were not reforming measures, because they removed none of those abuses which called for immediate correction. At the same time, these proposed plans overset all the episcopal boundaries which had hitherto existed in this country. They made great changes, but they were made in a manner which would produce no possible beneficial effect in the administration of the affairs of the Church. If he might presume, and he did it with great deference, to express an opinion on the subject, he should say, they ought to have undertaken their task in a bolder manner. They ought to have gone through with the determination of placing the ecclesiastical functions of this country upon such a footing as that in each diocese it would have been possible for the head of it, well and perfectly to superintend the whole clergy of that diocese. But what had been the case? He would refer to the parts with which he was personally acquainted. He would look to the great diocese of York, which he took to be a complete anomaly, which ought at once to be altered. It was held by an archbishop, and he believed that the most reverend prelate, at the head of the Church, also had to superintend a very expensive diocese. They had each then a diocese of their own to attend to within their archbishoprics, and he would ask in what situation was a diocese such as that of York placed? It remained of a magnitude and extent, that it was almost impossible for any man, however great the energies of his mind, or the strength of his body, to superintend it; he defied any man to superintend properly that diocese, as it at present stood. He gave these as samples of the whole scheme, which appeared to him, he was sorry to say, neither reforming nor conservative. It had changed much, but reformed little; because, if he understood the meaning of reform, it was a change for a beneficial object. But here it was without any beneficial result. If there was any beneficial result, it was so trifling, that it was not worth speaking of, and no advantage whatever had been derived from it. The House might perhaps think that he was indulging in digressions from the immediate object before the House, which was, that he should lay before them the petitions he had presented, praying for the abolition of Church-rates. If he had indulged in any digression, he had done so as the organ of those who had confided these petitions to his hands; but he begged it to be understood, that he could not sanction by his vote, any measure which should contemplate the bare possibility of there being any human being in the country who should see his Church dilapidated, and not have the sanction of the Legislature for the maintenance of the edifice in which he might worship his Creator. He would say more—attached as he was to the Church of England, he thought that there was nothing would add more to the honour of that Church, than that it should strip itself of every semblance of intolerance; and not only of every semblance of intolerance, but of every symptom of jealousy of any other sect. Though I cannot, said the noble Earl, consent to believe those who may think that the payment of these rates is attended with some grievance upon their feelings, nevertheless, as a member of the Church of England, I should rejoice to see that day come in which the members of the Church of England and the Dissenters, to whatever congregation they might belong, should agree together to worship their God within the same walls. Whenever that time may come—whenever the hierarchy and the clergy of the Church of England shall say to the Dissenting ministers, in their respective parishes, that it shall be permitted to them to worship their God under the same roof, and within the same walls (of course I do not mean at the same time), then I will say that the Church of England will have gained that title to toleration which she has so long appropriated to herslf, but in my opinion most mistakenly. There is another point upon which I, as an insulated individual, in consequence of that insulation, and because I do not by stating it compromise my opinions, or that of any other individual; but there is another point upon which I, as a member of the Church of England, have strong opinions, and which I will not hesitate now to avow. My Lords, in looking round this country, I believe that few indeed are the places in which the members of the Church of England do not outnumber to a degree hardly conceivable, not only individual sects of Dissenters, but all their sects put together. I am not aware, from all the experience I have had in those parts of England with which I am connected, in which the Dissenters, I do not mean one sect, but all sects of Dissenters, are not infinitely inferior in numbers to the Church of England. If there is any place where the Dissenters out-number the members of the Church of England, it is a certain town in the county of Northampton. Now, my Lords, having stated that I shall that day as one of the utmost glory to the Church when the Anglican, the Independent, the Presbyterian, and the Baptist, may all meet together in the same place to worship, I go further, and say this, that, if it could be proved to me that in any parish in England any other sect is more numerous than the Church of England, I, as a member of that Church, should have no objection to surrender to that sect the ecclesiastical property within that parish. I think, if the members of Dissenting congregations were more numerous in any place, for a certain length of time, than the members of the Church of England, they would be entitled to be invested with all the ecclesiastical rights in that parish. Whether to the majority of those present or not I do not know, but I well know that to the majority of your Lordships' House, who are not present, this doctrine will appear highly subversive of the Church of England. But it appears to me that the only real and solid grounds on which the Church of England can rest, are the immutable decrees of justice; and it is not consistent, that if in any parish that Church shall be inferior in numbers, she should assume those attributes which ought only to be given to those who are superior in number. I am afraid I have taken up too much time in stating my opinion, and I now lay upon your Lordships' table these numerous petitions.

The Archbishop of Canterbury

had heard, partly with surprise, partly with pleasure, and partly with very different feelings, the very unexpected speech which the noble Earl had made on an occasion when it was generally understood that discussions of this sort should not be brought forward by those who presented petitions. At the same time, his respect for the noble Earl, would betray him into an irregularity of the same kind. He did not, however, intend to trespass long on their Lordships' patience. He entirely concurred in the wish expressed by the noble Earl, that there might be such an abundance of places of worship in this country, and so well preserved, that there should be no man, however poor, who should not find a place into which he should be at liberty to enter and worship his Maker. That he conceived to be the ground on which the noble Earl founded his opposition to the abolition of church-rates, and in that respect he perfectly agreed with the noble Earl, and he believed that the great majority of the people of this country would concur in that feeling. The noble Earl had made an attack upon the Church of England, or, as he was pleased to call it, the Anglican Church, as being wanting in toleration. The instance which the noble Earl had selected to show this, did not bear much upon the present day, nor did he believe it bore much upon the Church at all, at any time of the hierarchy. It was the policy of the Government of this country for a long time, to continue certain restrictions towards Dissenters; but, as far as his recollection went, on the very first occasion that the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts was proposed by the Government, it met with no opposition on the part of the Episcopal Bench. But the attack of the noble Earl was rather on their predecessors. Surely, then, the noble Earl might have done some justice to the Bishops and hierarchy of the present day. It would have been but fair. All that he (the Archbishop) could say, was, that there were many who disapproved of the conduct of the Bishops on that occasion, and he was by no means certain that it was altogether without reason. If they looked at the result, they might ay so. When the Dissenters complained of those disabilities, nothing was said by them about church-rates; but no sooner were those disabilities removed, than they raised the cry of injustice, because, in common with the rest of his Majesty's subjects, they were called upon to contribute to the support of the fabrics of the National Establishment. He was afraid the Dissenters would not agree with the noble Earl in the view which he took of this question. He rather thought they would disclaim the apology which the noble Earl had made for their mode of proceeding. He believed that the proceedings of the Dissenters were not confined merely to the abolition of church-rates. He had seen accounts of many of their meetings, and had read their resolutions, and it appeared to him that the Dissenters would not be satisfied with personal exemption from church-rates. He concluded from the latter part of the noble Earl's speech, that the day would come when the Dissenters would claim a share not only in the churches of the Establishment, but in its property also. Whether the noble Earl was then speaking his own mind merely, or speaking from a communication the noble Earl might have received from others, he did not know, but he was convinced from what he had seen, that there were others who entertained the same kind of opinions as the noble Earl. There was another point in the noble Earl's speech, to which he could not help adverting. The noble Earl had spoken much of the measures which had been taken for effecting reforms in the Church; that was, for the regulation of the Ecclesiastical Establishment; and he declared his high disapprobation of those measures, because they were neither reforming nor conservative. The noble Earl wished to carry reform a great deal further; as to Conservatism, that must be left out of the question. But would the noble Earl permit him to suggest, that the speech which he had made to-day on the division of the dioceses, ought to have been spoken last Session, when the Bill for the distribution of the dioceses was before the House? It then would have been perfectly in place. It was fully competent for the noble Earl to deliver his opinions in that House; and although he entirely differed from the view taken by the noble Earl, with respect to those measures, yet he should have listened with great attention to anything that might have fallen from the noble Earl. The noble Earl, in speaking on that question, had not considered that the arrangement respecting the bishoprics, was only a very small part of those measures which had been agreed upon by the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, among whom there were some whom he believed the noble Earl called his friends. The noble Earl had spoken as if this different disposition of the dioceses, which would render them more manageable, were the whole of the reform contemplated. When the other measures, however, came forward, he presumed their Lordships would hear the opinion of the noble Earl with respect to their efficiency; and on that occasion he hoped he should be able to convince the House that the views of the Ecclesiastical Commissioners were more correct, and more likely to be beneficial, than those entertained by the noble Earl.

The Bishop of London

wished to mention one fact which had not been alluded to by his most reverend Friend. The noble Earl had alluded to the intolerance of the Church, and he did not mean to say, that the hierarchy of the English Church had not at any time been intolerant; the hierarchy of this country had been, as in other parts of the Christian world, intolerant; but it had, in common with the rest of the world, advanced in intelligence and liberality, though perhaps not with an equal pace, nor as the foremost in the ranks of advancement; but, in due time, and after a cautious examination of all the circumstances connected with measures which, at first sight, it might be thought threatened danger to existing regulations. It was not the hierarchy who first devised the Test and Corporation Acts, for the protection, as they were intended, of the Establishment; but, having been devised by the Legislature, and regarding them as a safeguard to the Constitution, surely the hierarchy were not to be the first to propose the abolition of that safeguard. But when the repeal of those Acts was first brought forward, the hierarchy were among the foremost to support that measure. He would take leave to remind the noble Earl, too, that at an earlier period, when a measure most justly deserving the appellation of a measure of intolerance was hurried through the House of Commons, and brought up to the House of Lords, it would have passed through their Lordships' House, had it not been for the truly Christian liberality of the Episcopal Bench who sat there at that period: he alluded to the Bill against occasional conformity. As to the proposal of the noble Earl about allowing Dissenters the use of the fabrics of the Establishment, it was not the first time that it had been made; and he concluded that the noble Earl had taken his notion from a pamphlet on the subject, respecting which it had not been untruly, and somewhat numerously, remarked, that if the plan therein recommended, should be carried into effect, it would not be very easy to say what the result would be, except that every Church in England would be converted into a sort of theological Noah's ark. If they were to give an opportunity to every half-taught Christian to go to the house of God, and there hear in the morning one set of doctrines, and in the same house, and from the same pulpit, in the evening, hear those doctrines called into question, what, he would ask, would be the result to the cause of true religion? What could result to the cause of true religion, but that which they must all deprecate, if the same half-educated people were called upon to hear a Trinitarian preach in the morning, and a Unitarian preach in the evening, or a clergyman of the Church of England in the morning, and an Antipædo Baptist in the evening? The noble Earl had charged the Church Commissioners with not having gone far enough in the work of reform. They had been for some weeks pretty loudly censured with having gone too far; but he believed, upon examination, it would be found that the Commissioners had pretty nearly agreed upon the right measures. Upon all these questions, however, there must necessarily be differences of opinion; the duty, therefore of the Commissioners was, to endeavour not to meet the wishes of all parties, but not to give just offence to any, and so to satisfy, as far as was consistent with the justice of the case, all right-minded and reasonable men. It was not his desire to enter further into this subject, but he could not refrain from laying before the noble Earl his most respectful remonstrance against the course of proceeding he had taken this evening. It was evident that the noble Earl had maturely considered this subject, and had come down to the House, not knowing that even a single Prelate would be present, or, above all, anyone of the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, and had delivered himself at considerable length, and with much force on this subject, when he ought at least to have given some intimation of his intention, in order that their Lordships might have been better prepared. He did not know that it was expedient or proper that he should say more. He trusted that what he had said would not offend the noble Earl; but when a general reflection was cast on the body, of which he was an unworthy member, he could not help recalling to the noble Earl, circumstances which might mitigate his censure, and which he ought not to have forgotten.

Viscount Melbourne

My noble Friend has acted with that fairness and manliness which belongs to his character in stating his difference of opinion with the prayer of the petitions with which he had been charged, but which, notwithstanding, those persons who had signed them, had most properly and most wisely still placed in and persevered in confiding to his hands. In the general principles stated by my noble Friend, I entirely agree. I entirely agree that there should be, in every parish in this country, an edifice connected with the national establishment, to which every portion of his Majesty's subjects should have free and unrestricted access. I entirely agree with the principles laid down upon this subject, and agree on the great importance of the subject itself. It is not, however, my intention to go into any details upon matters which will be hereafter brought under your Lordships' consideration, nor to anticipate those arguments which will be more completely developed when the whole question is regularly before you. But I beg leave, on the part of his Majesty's Government, to state that it is not their intention to introduce into Parliament any plan which would interfere with the revenues of the Church, but one which, I humbly conceive, would secure them in a much better, in a much more prudent, in a much more safe manner, and which would be less liable to insecurity and irritation than is possible in the present state of the law. I beg distinctly to state, that, in our opinion, the plan which we have to propose, will secure all, these objects, and avoid all the inconveniencies and all the evils which I believe it is admitted on all sides belong to the present state of the law, and the present mode of its administration. With respect to all those matters which have been introduced by my noble Friend, in reference to the great question between the Church and the Dissenters, and with respect to the question as to who from the beginning has been in the right, or as to which party may have at some former time been intolerant or encroaching, this is a very large historical question, to be traced through a great number of years, during which time many faults, I dare say, will be found on both sides; many that were unavoidable, and many arising out of the peculiar character of the times and of individuals; but all of which it is unnecessary to go into on the present occasion, and of which I shall, therefore, say nothing further. I also feel myself relieved from the necessity of saying anything in defence of the Commissioners by what has been said by the right rev. Prelate who spoke in this debate. My noble Friend says, we have altered too much, and altered too little—that we have made regulations that have destroyed all principle—that we have broken in upon the fabric of the Church; and at the same time, that all these alterations are useless and inefficient for any good purpose. If we have done this, we have very much failed to execute our own purposes. My own intention has been entirely different. My own intention has been to form and to propose to this House such alterations and changes as should preserve the character of the Established Church, such as it has hitherto been in this country for many, many years, being a character which I consider in itself good and beneficial—a character to which this country is accustomed and attached, and which, in my opinion, ought not lightly, or on insufficient grounds to be altered. At the same time, while preserving that character, it has been our object to propose such a measure as should increase the efficiency of the Church, and secure to it a greater power of effecting those ends for which all religious establishments are instituted. I entirely agree with what has been said by the right rev. Prelate that we have been attacked upon different grounds and upon different sides. On the one side we have been accused of acting with the recklessness of a Wat Tyler or a Jack Straw; while, on the other side, we have been accused of acting with a timidity and a hesitation that is perfectly contemptible and unsuited to the character of the times. On the one side we are told by the heated advocates of the Church, that there prevails a lay and ministerial influence in that commission, which entirely overwhelms the right rev. Prelates, and prevents them from protecting the Church; while, on the other side, we are told, that we, the Ministers, are beset with a certain number of artful and rapacious churchmen, who do with us exactly what they please. Considering the variety of these accusations, and considering their inconsistency with one another, I cannot help coming to the very same conclusion with the right rev. Prelate, that when these propositions shall come fairly to be considered, it will be found that we have hit upon something like the just medium, and upon the whole, have proposed that which is the fittest to accomplish the great objects for which that commission was appointed. Into the other matters stated by my noble Friend, I do not mean to enter further on the present occasion; but I beg leave to assure my noble Friend, that with regard to the general principle, he has laid down upon the main subject embraced in the petitions, we entirely concur with him, and that it is our object to secure that principle, and that in attaining that object we have the most sanguine hope we shall be found to have succeeded.

Petitions laid on the table.

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