HL Deb 09 March 1837 vol 37 cc147-59
The Archbishop of Canterbury

had to present to their Lordships a considerable number of petitions on the subject of Church-rates, the prayer of which, precisely the same as was contained in the petitions already presented by the right rev. Prelates who had preceded him in the course of the evening, was against the abolition of Church-rates. Although it was not his habit to address their Lordships on presenting petitions, still he trusted, considering the general feeling of anxiety which prevailed on this subject, that he would be permitted to claim their Lordships' attention for a short time. In consequence of the number of petitions against Church-rates which had been laid on the table, as well as from the meetings that had taken place in different parts of the kingdom, it was supposed by many that the country in general was hostile to the continuance of those rates. But if they looked to the mass of petitions which had been presented on the other side, strongly deprecating any improper interference with those rates they would be justified in coming to a very different conclusion. Petitions from agricultural districts had been placed in his hands, in which the petitioners "denied that Church-rates were unpopular amongst them." They said they "could not bear the idea of the sacred buildings devoted to religious worship being left to ruin and dilapidation which they feared would be the case if Church-rates were abolished;" and such he believed to be the general feeling throughout the country. The objection to Church-rates had been almost entirely confined to Dissenters, and particularly to certain populous districts; and those who thus opposed them had almost declared in terms that they had ulterior objects in view. It was proper, then, that all those who had the welfare of the Church at heart should be upon their guard. They had been told that the measure about to be introduced in the House of Commons would be satisfactory to all parties. He wished it were so. He should be pleased with any measure that was likely to be satisfactory to all parties. In that case he would not have troubled their Lordships with the presentation of those petitions without first ascertaining from the parties by whom they were signed whether they still were anxious that they should be presented. But when he looked to the plan brought forward in the House of Commons, he could not bring himself to think that it would be satisfactory to those petitioners. He felt astonished how any person could consider that the plan would be satisfactory to the friends of the Church. The principle of the bill and its outline were so unkind to the Church, the measure seemed to be so pregnant with mischief in its consequences, that he certainly never would give his assent to its becoming law. It took property from the Church which had belonged to it from time immemorial, and appropriated it to purposes which hitherto had been otherwise provided for. Who complained of those rates? Certainly not those out of whose pockets they chiefly came. Did the possessors of property complain of the burden of Church-rates? No. They would be ashamed to complain of an impost which was laid upon them for the maintenance of the church of the country, for the maintenance of religion, and, he might say, for the preservation of the morals of the lower orders. The measure to which he had alluded was intended for the relief and satisfaction of the Dissenters, who objected to pay these rates on principle, because it was a contribution to the maintenance of the Established Church. But their only principle was to get that property relieved from the payment of Church-rates which they had bought subject to those rates. Now, if the Church had funds at its disposal, why should they not be laid out in providing Church-room and pastoral instruction for that large body of members of the establishment who were at the present moment, deprived of the means of religious instruction? Statements had been made, founded on truth and not on speculation, that there were thousands of people, nay he might say hundreds of thousands, in that situation. There were nearly 2,000,000 persons in various parts of the country almost destitute of religious instruction in consequence of the want of accommodation in the churches. In the neighbourhood of the metropolis there was a district with a population of 160,000 souls, and only thirteen clergymen; and in Lancashire, Cheshire, and other places, the deficiency was still greater. And yet with these facts staring them in the face they were called on to remove a tax, the pressure of which was hardly felt by any party, and to shift it to property which was never intended to bear it. When the wants of the Church population of the country were so pressing, it would in his opinion be most unjust and impolitic to apply any surplus of Church property otherwise than to the spiritual wants of members of the established religion. The plan proposed however diverted Church properly from the uses of churchmen. A mode of raising money on Church property was to be resorted to, not to provide spiritual instruction for members of the Church, but to relieve those who dissented from the Church. If other plans were rejected as being objectionable on various grounds, what were they to say to the plan now proposed? It contemplated nothing more nor less than the sequestration of the estates belonging to the dignitaries of the Church—the archbishops, bishops, deans, and chapters. Those estates were to be placed under the management of a Board of Commissioners, invested with full powers for granting leases, for selling reversions, for mortgaging or alienating church property, as they might think advisable. Now, he would ask, was any noble Lord so blind as not to see that the effect of the plan would be to make the dignitaries of the Church (using the mildest term) mere annuitants, to deprive them of all the influence and advantages which were annexed to the possession of land, and to render them dependent on a Board of Commissioners nominated by the Government? Why, considering the very violent changes that had taken place at different times, a conjuncture of affairs might arise, in which the whole of this Church property might be swept away, in the process of amendment. He believed that he had said enough to show the injustice of the scheme that was proposed, its degrading effects on the dignitaries of the church, and the danger with which it menaced the interests of the Church itself. Objections without end could be urged against the measure; but, as many of them were matters of detail, although involving principles of importance, he would not enter into them on this occasion. He was, however, obliged to come forward, not only in obedience to his own feelings on the subject, but because he had been authorised to express the sentiments of others. A meeting of bishops had been held that morning, at which they assembled to the number of fifteen (being nearly all the prelates who were in town), and he had been authorised by them to declare their unanimous concurrence in the sentiments which he had expressed, and their determination to resist the proposed measure by all proper and just means. There was another consideration which impelled him to address their Lordships—it was, that the names of the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, and of the Bishop of Llandaff, as dean of St. Paul's, were placed in the list of Commissioners for the management of those estates, and the disposal of Church property. An opinion had in consequence been formed that they were privy to the plan, and that it had met with their approbation and concurrence. Such, however, was not the case. He mentioned this to obviate the notion which had got abroad amongst the clergy, and which had excited a great deal of alarm, that they were privy to the plan, and approved of it, and he took that opportunity to relieve himself and his rev. Friends from the imputation. The most rev. Prelate concluded by presenting several petitions against the abolition of Church-rates.

Viscount Melbourne

had listened to what had fallen from the most rev. Prelate with the greatest attention; he had listened to him with that respect which he was always anxious to pay to him, and which he was the more inclined to observe on the present occasion, when the most rev. Prelate spoke not only his own sentiments, but the sentiments of many of his right rev. brethren. He heard, he repeated, the most rev. Prelate with the greatest respect and the most anxious attention; but, he must add, with the deepest sorrow and concern. He had listened with deep concern, because he felt that the most rev. Prelate's opinion might have some effect with reference to the measure about to be introduced to the other House of Parliament—a measure which, he was convinced, would be highly beneficial in its operation—advantageous to the Church—advantageous to the country, and which was, therefore, loudly called for, in the circumstances in which the country was at present placed. He had listened to the most rev. Prelate with deep concern, on account of the effect which his observations might have on the success of that measure; he had listened to the most rev. Prelate with deep concern with reference to the interests of the Church itself. The most rev. Prelate had expressed himself anxious for the preservation and the efficiency of the Church; but he would say, that the course which the most rev. Prelate had taken was one which could not be maintained or defended, and which was not calculated to conciliate for the Church that reverence and respect which he was desirous that it should command. He would put it to the most rev. Prelate himself whether there was not something of haste and precipitation in the course which he had adopted? Whether he had not stood forward unduly and unfitly to make those observations? Whether he was not put forward on this occasion by those who had more guile and entertained deeper designs than himself, in order that his expressed opinions might produce some effect on that and on the other House of Parliament, in order that they might produce some effect on the decision which was to be come to in another place? Considering this as a measure of peace and quiet—considering this as a measure for the relief of persons complaining of a serious grievance—[Laughter.'] Noble Lords might laugh; but this was a question of grave and serious importance. Considering the measure referred to as a measure of peace and concord—considering it as a measure for the relief of a portion of his Majesty's subjects—considering it as a measure intended to put an end to a state of things admitted by the most rev. Prelate himself to be inconvenient, and which, therefore, ought to be put an end to—for the most rev. Prelate did not deny that he would give his consent to a satisfactory measure for effecting an alteration in the mode of collecting and assessing Church-rates,—considering all this, he did think that it would have been more fitting, more proper, more decent, and more wise, if the most rev. Prelate had waited for the regular time and period for the discussion of the question, and not have pronounced with such precipitate haste his intentions with respect to the measure. The most rev. Prelate had been, for a considerable time, in possession of the whole of the details of the plan; and if he had formed in his own mind an objection to its general principle, or to its details, sufficient opportunities would occur for him to state that objection at length: but certainly the present occasion was not the proper one for entering on the subject. Considering the importance of this measure—considering the object and intention of it—surely it would have been more fitting and becoming if the most rev. Prelate had adopted the customary course, and reserved his observations till the proper time came to discuss the question. The most rev. Prelate had stated that there was a deep anxiety to preserve the system of Church-rates, throughout a great part of this country—that the abolition of those rates was in a high degree unpopular—that the people of England were attached to their Churches, and were fearful of seeing them fall into ruin and decay. He believed that the people did participate in those feelings. But the question was whether the proposed measure was described fairly to the people? Whether there was not a misrepresentation of the measure? Whether they had not been deceived with respect to what was meant to be done on this subject? The people were told, no doubt, that the Church-rates were to be abolished, but they were not told that a fund was to be provided in lieu of them. If they had been told that such a fund would be provided, and that they would be relieved from the payment of rates, he would ask, whether it was to be supposed, in reason or common sense, that the people would entertain any objection to such a plan? He felt certain, if the measure had been properly explained to them, that it would have been next to impossible for them to have expressed any objection to it. In his opinion the measure, if properly carried out, would be satisfactory to all the interests concerned; and it was equally important to all, that the question should be finally arranged and settled. It was not intended to produce any collateral effect—it was not introduced to satisfy the claims of any particular body of men, or to assist any party whatever, or to encourage any encroachments on the Church, but to put an end to a state of affairs which was much to be lamented. To put an end to those dissensions on this subject which were acknowledged by right rev. Prelates themselves to be injurious to the Church—a state of things which there was not one right rev. Prelate on the bench could deny to be at this moment both scandalous and inconvenient—a state of things which, if not now checked, would evidently be extended and carried much further than it was at present, and to which there could be no conclusion other than the adoption of some measure similar to that which would hereafter be laid before their Lordships. With respect to the plan proposed he had never heard but that Church lands by better management, and by doing away with the system of life tenures, could be rendered far more valuable than they were at present. He had never heard of anything else. He was not prepared at that moment to go through all the calculations on which the measure was founded; but if there was any one point connected with it on which he entertained no doubt whatever, it was on the financial part of it. He was quite convinced that these funds, placed under a better system of management, would be amply sufficient for all the purposes to which they were to be applied. The question, then, came to this—How could they best apply these funds? He admitted that that was the real question to be decided. There might be a doubt as to whether they ought to be applied to the purposes to which his Majesty's ministers intended to apply them, or whether they ought to be applied to supply what were called the spiritual wants of the Church. The objects which his Majesty's Government sought to accomplish by their application of them were freedom from dissension, freedom from disturbance—in a word, religious peace and harmony. To realise Christian har- mony and Christian tranquillity were the first objects of a Christian Legislature, and therefore ought to be the first objects of a Christian hierarchy. For his own part he thought that in the application of these funds preference ought to be given—although he gave it with reluctance, being as anxious as any of the right rev. Prelates behind him for the augmentation of small livings—to the plan which had been detailed, not by him, but by the most rev. Prelate, to their Lordships. The most rev. Prelate had asked him, whether, if these funds could be got from the improved management of the Church property, they were to be given to any particular sect? To that question he answered distinctly "No." They were to be applied to the general interests of the community—to secure objects which it was most desirable to secure—namely, the peace, tranquillity, concord, and property of the country—which he confessed were great objects with him, whatever they might be with the right rev. Prelates behind him. The most rev. Prelate had made many observations in the course of his speech on the mode of carrying this plan into effect. Now, if this plan were carried into effect, either for the purposes of this measure, or for the augmentation of small livings, it must be carried into effect in the mode proposed by his Majesty's Government. Either the Legislature must leave these funds altogether untouched, or it must seek to improve them in this way, which the right rev. Prelate declares to be derogatory from the Church upon objections which vanished into thin air, if dispassionately and impartially considered. He confessed that he had listened to the right rev. Prelate with great sorrow and with great concern; but he had also listened to him with great respect and great attention. He had been afflicted, greatly afflicted, at finding that his Majesty's Government was to experience the opposition of the right rev. Prelate and of his rev. Brethren behind him. He could, however, assure them firmly, but respectfully, that their opposition would not alter his course. He considered the measure to be just—he considered it to be advantageous to the Church—he considered it to be in every respect beneficial to the community—and, being so, he should most undoubtedly persevere in proposing it to the consideration of Parliament.

The Bishop of London

said because a body of men speaking the sentiments of the clergy, who are so deeply interested in this question, and the sentiments of the laity, who feel their interests on this subject to be identified with the clergy, come forward and protest mildly but respectfully against this spoliation of the Church, we are denounced with more than ordinary vehemence by the King's Prime Minister; and it is said that we are unmindful of the peace of the community, because we denounce this measure as a sacrilegious act of spoliation. And so when the Prime Minister tells us that a sacrifice is to be made to secure religious peace and harmony, we the Bishops of the Church of England, are not to complain of it, because the only sacrifice to be made is the sacrifice of that Protestant Church of which we are the superior ministers. But I check myself, my Lords, for fear lest I fall into that error of violence of which the noble Viscount has recently been guilty. A vehement and personal attack he did indeed make upon the Primate and the rest of the hierarchy, and if I prosecute further this part of the subject I might fall into his error. I shall therefore call the attention of your Lordships to two or three points, which are in themselves an abundant refutation of the subtlety and sophistry—for I must call the noble Viscount's speech most subtle and most sophistical—displayed by the noble Viscount in the course of his vituperation of my most rev. Friend. The noble Viscount says, that the present state of things is most scandalous—that the present dissentions of the community are scandalous. I admit that the state of things is scandalous—but to whom is it scandalous? Not to the Church, but to the small body of persons who now call upon you to relieve them from a burden which does not press heavily upon them, and under which they have inherited their property, well knowing all its liabilities. Peace! produce peace! Does not the noble Viscount know that this measure never can produce peace? Is he so blind to the experience of the past as not to see that peace will never follow concession made so absolutely at the expense of one party alone? Measure after measure have we passed to conciliate Ireland, and always under the promise that they would remove contention and promote peace; and have they not all been made the substrata for further agitation? Have we not, I would ask your Lordships, the confession of those who are most prominent in promoting the abolition of Church-rates—is it not their boast and triumph that this measure is only valuable to them as a first instalment? Has not an influential member of their body, at a large public meeting of Protestant Dissenters held in this metropolis, said—"Only one step at a time—let us not meddle with other matters, for at present they are not relevant." "Not relevant," said a Dissenting minister from Scotland—"what do you mean? Does not this measure lead to the abolition of tithe as a necessary consequence?" The reply to this question was—"Be prudent: only one step at a time." Can we, then, either talk or think of peace as a result of this measure of sacrilegious spoliation? The noble Viscount says, that he will not believe that my most rev. Friend is acting—nay more, he says that he suspects that my most rev. Friend, in coming forward to protest against this measure, is not acting upon the result of his own unbiassed inquiry, but that he is urged on by the guile and design—I think such were the words—of others to take this step. I will not say that we have not been hastened onwards in our course by something which I will not venture to characterise as I ought, but which I will venture to call not fair to some of the rev. Members of this Bench. I ask the noble Viscount whether this subject has or has not occupied the attention of the Commissioners of Ecclesiastical Inquiry? Does not the commission under which we act confide to us, as a fit subject for our inquiry, all the property of the Episcopal Bench, and for what end? To see whether we cannot make it more efficient in supplying the spiritual wants of the community. Do you suppose, my Lords, that having this subject of enquiry confided to us, we never took into our consideration the possible improvement of the Church property by the application of some such measure as this? We state distinctly in our last Report, that so far as related to the management of Episcopal property, this measure has been considered by us, and rejected as inexpedient. Some reasons are assigned by us for that conclusion, and some further reasons remain behind, especially of a financial nature, calculated to show that this scheme, as a fiscal scheme, is without any solid foundation; that the calculations on which it rests are erroneous; and that it cannot stand the test of the slightest investigation. I cannot at present state, for reasons which your Lordships will appreciate, how it came to pass that we took no further steps in consideration of that measure; but this I can state, that it was unanimously resolved by the members of the Commission—and your Lordships will recollect who the Members of that Commission are—that this scheme of improvement was impracticable and inexpedient. I assert, my Lords, that it was unanimously resolved by the Commissioners of Ecclesiastical Inquiry that it was impracticable and inexpedient. The proposition to alter the tenure of Church property—to submit to Parliament—

Viscount Melbourne

I beg leave distinctly to assert that there was no such unanimous resolution on the part of the Commissioners. For my own part I always asserted it to be my opinion that the scheme was both expedient and practicable.

The Bishop of London

I may have been mistaken as to the opinion of the noble Viscount: but this I know, that other Ministers of the Crown, who were more frequent in their attendance on the Commission, and who paid more attention to the subject-matter of inquiry by the Commissioners, were of a contrary opinion to that expressed by the noble Lords. I am sorry to have been forced to make this disclosure, but so the fact is. My most rev. Friend, the Primate, asked your Lordships, and he asked you with great force, "Is it just, is it expedient, is it politic, to the Church and to the people of England, that a measure deemed inexpedient by the Commissioners of Ecclesiastical Inquiry, when it was proposed with a view of making a better provision for the spiritual wants of the Church, should be deemed expedient when it was proposed with a view of relieving a body of men who have no equitable claim whatever to relief?" My Lords, I can assure you that I should not have troubled you with any remarks on this subject, had it not been for the appeal which the noble Viscount made to the hierarchy as ministers of peace—ministers of peace, said he, banded together to prevent the passing of a measure of peace. I deny most em- phatically, on the part of myself and my rev. Brethren, that any part of our public conduct has rendered us justly liable to such a charge. In resisting this invasion on the rights of the Church, we are doing more to promote the interest, the peace, and the tranquillity of the country than we should be doing were we to give our assent to this act of spoliation. I am not now speaking on behalf of the clergy—they are the last objects at present of my consideration—but I am speaking on behalf of the poorer classes of the community. There are at present 2,000,000 of our poorer fellow countrymen totally destitute of the means of religious instruction. To what source but this can we apply for funds to supply their spiritual wants? "Oh! then," says the noble Lord, "you agree to the principle, though you deny the application, of this measure." I reply at once, that I should like the principle better if it left these funds open for some better provision for the more effectual pastoral superintendence over the spiritual wants of the millions. Under the measure proposed by his Majesty's Government all hope of making such provision for them will be destroyed, and we shall be thrown eventually on the voluntary principle, and of that voluntary principle I will only say, that if it have succeeded at all in this country it has mainly succeeded because there has been an Established Church maintained within it.

Earl Fitzwilliam

observed, that one of the objections which the right rev. Prelate who had just sat down had urged against this measure was, that as a financial measure it would eminently fail. If this were so he would ask leave to call to the recollection of the right rev. Prelate the close of his speech, in which he stated, that if this scheme were carried into effect, every hope would be cut off of providing for the spiritual wants of the millions out of the improved funds of the Church itself. He really could not help thinking, that the right rev. Prelate's objection to this scheme, if thoroughly sifted, would turn out to be an objection, not so much to the application of these funds to the objects to which it was now proposed to apply them, as to the State dealing at all with Ecclesiastical property. He would not enter into any discussion on this question at present, as he deemed it irregular—he would only say, that it was his most anxious desire not to run the risk of leaving the people of England without the means of spiritual instruction, and without those means which had more immediate reference to the maintenance of the various churches in the country. If he were to express any doubt respecting the propriety of this measure, the doubt which he should express would be this—that the measure, so far from separating the Church from the State, was objectionable for disconnecting the Church from the parish. He confessed that he did not in any great degree object to the application of any surplus which might arise from the improvement of Church property to any other Ecclesiastical purposes than those to which that property was at present applied; but he doubted whether it were expedient to disconnect the maintenance of the Church from those local and parochial communities with which the Church was at present connected. If he should hereafter, upon further consideration of the details of this measure, with which their Lordships were not yet regularly acquainted, see reason to object to this plan, it would not be because it separated the Church from the State, but because it had a tendency to separate the parish from the Church. That appeared to him to be the point of the Bill on which the greatest doubt ought to be entertained: for, in all these local establishments, it was important that the local communities should feel the necessity of maintaining them for their own spiritual instruction.

Petitions laid on the table.

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