HL Deb 02 July 1840 vol 55 cc364-9
The Marquess of Breadalbane

said, he had given notice of his intentions to move, that counsel be heard at their Lordships' bar on behalf of the parties whose petition he had had the honour to present at the last sitting of their Lordships. Owing, however, to the short period which had elapsed since he gave that notice, it had been found totally impossible to instruct counsel properly on a question of such importance. He hoped, therefore, that the noble Earl would postpone proceeding till counsel could be fully instructed.

The Earl of Aberdeen

said, the question in the first place, was, whether their Lordships would consent to hear counsel at all or not. For his own part, nothing would give him greater pleasure than that counsel should be heard. But it was for their Lordships to determine whether, consistently with the convenience of the proceedings of that House, they would consent to take that course on a bill of this nature. He had no objection that counsel should be heard now, but he could not consent to postpone going into Committee.

Viscount Melbourne

said, he must repeat on this occasion what he had formerly expressed, that in his opinion, both with reference to the general principle, and to the regulations of this bill, it would be imprudent, inexpedient, nay, pernicious, to proceed with it. It was not now desirable to legislate on this subject. In the present state of the question, men's minds were greatly agitated, and he felt that it was impossible, such being the state of their feelings, to compose or settle the dispute by this bill. In fact, the only effect of this proceeding would be to excite fresh acrimony and additional animosities, and to encourage Members of that, as well as of the other House of Parliament, to arrange themselves on both sides to prevent that impartial consideration of the question, which, if fairly followed up, would at a future time lead to satisfactory results. Therefore, he contended, that the course pursued by his noble Friend opposite was not the most favourable or the most prudent, either with respect to the question itself, or to his own particular object. The real difficulty of this question was to be found in that which was the root and foundation of all these proceedings— namely, patronage. If his noble Friend hoped, by this bill, to put an end to the schism which prevailed in the Church of Scotland, then was the measure a hundred years too late, for that schism had for a long time divided the Church of Scotland, and had even been the cause of withdrawing from communion with that Church no inconsiderable proportion of the population of that country. As had been stated the other night by his noble Friend opposite, the whole of these proceedings arose out of the subject of patronage—to that might be traced the differences which prevailed at the present moment in Scotland. It might be said, that the system which was now acted upon was contrary to the practice, the tenets, and the spirit of the Church of Scotland; but those who maintained that position could not deny that it was in accordance with the usage, the custom, and the law, because they knew that such an assertion would not be consistent with the fact. The real question was this—there was a party in the country who wanted to abolish patronage, and another who wanted to maintain it, and you could not satisfy either without going the full length of their opinions:— Hi motus animorum, atque hæc certamina tanta Pulveris exigui jactu compressa quiescent. This question seemed to have a remarkable tendency to inflame the animosities of the people, and it had also a tendency to induce the expressions of opinion on a subject that unfortunately was not particularly well understood in this country. He did not quite go to the length of Dr. Chalmers, who was reported to have said that in both Houses of Parliament, containing upwards of 1,000 individuals, there were not ten persons who had any knowledge or idea of this question. He did not go that length, but he thought that, looking at the interest which had been excited by the discussions now carried on, it was surprising how little the question had been studied or understood. He thought that the conduct of the noble Earl opposite, in urging forward this bill, was precipitate and unwise, and that it would have its effect on the minds of the people of Scotland.

The Earl of Aberdeen

said, the noble Viscount had given a decisive proof that he at least did not understand the present state of the question. The noble Viscount was quite mistaken in supposing that the dominant party in the Assembly had any wish for the abolition of patronage, or that they had even talked of it. It was true that many persons in the Church did view with an eye of great disfavour the exercise of patronage, but that was not the question involved in this bill. The question was, whether the Church should exercise a certain power which implied the repeal of Acts of Parliament by which the Church was governed; but it had nothing to do with patronage. If their Lordships agreed to allow them to possess that power, which by their decision of last year they had denied them, it was very possible that patronage might be abolished in a short time by their own act, in spite of the laws by which it was secured; but he thought their Lordships would scarcely permit the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland to repeal Acts of Parliament, and, that before they consented to any measure of this kind they would themselves legislate on the subject. The noble Viscount seemed to suppose that he had made a mistake as to the schism. He (the Earl of Aberdeen) knew very well that a schism in the Church had taken place a century ago, but he very much feared that another schism might take place next month. The General Assembly, in the exercise of their usurped power, had issued their orders to their commission to proceed contrary to law against certain ministers of the Church who had opposed the majority of the Assembly, and determined to obey the law of the land as declared by their Lordships. The consequence would be, that in August, when the commission was to proceed against those ministers, all the ministers of the Church who adhered to the opinion that the law should be obeyed would take part with those suspended ministers. This would render each and all of them guilty of contumacy against the dominant party in the General Assembly, and they would thereby incur the penalty of deposition. That was what he (the Earl of Aberdeen) called a schism in the Church; one-half of the clergy would be in this condition. The difference between the schism and that which took place a century ago would be, that those who resisted the General Assembly would be supported by the law. They were, therefore, the real Church established by law, because they acted in obedience to the law. It was the majority of the Assembly which defied the law, and which in the exercise of its assumed authority pretended to depose those clergymen whose only crime was that they had obeyed the law. That was the schism which he apprehended would take place in the month of August, and which he not only deplored, but wished to prevent. The noble Viscount said, that this bill would not be obeyed; he (the Earl of Aberdeen) hoped that the consequence would be different. The noble Viscount had certainly done his best, of course not intentionally, to prevent it from being obeyed. There were some persons who opposed the bill on grounds directly the reverse of those taken by the General Assembly, because they thought that it would abolish patronage. The noble and learned Lord on the woolsack thought that he had struck a blow at patronage, which was perfectly inexcusable, and that he might just as well at once repeal the Act of Queen Anne. That was not the opinion held in Scotland; it was thought there that the bill would destroy the independence of the Church, by not recognizing the monstrous pretensions that had been put forward. The noble Marquess opposite (Breadalbane) was, he believed, the single person in the House who thought that the bill would be injurious to the independence and the proper jurisdiction of the Church, but everybody else who had expressed an opinion, considered that the only objection was, that it would do too much to establish its power and jurisdiction. Notwithstanding this, the noble Viscount at the head of her Majesty's Government having come practically to the same conclusion as those who opposed the bill for a reason perfectly different, did certainly give encouragement to the resistance which might ensue if the bill passed, that would not have been given if the noble Viscount had thought it consistent with his duty to take another view of the subject. He had reason to know that numbers of those who opposed the bill had been led unwillingly into that course, and deeply regretted the dangers by which they were surrounded, and that they would willingly retreat from the position they had taken. This bill offered them the means of doing so, and had not the noble Viscount thought it his duty to oppose the bill, he did not doubt that if passed, it would have led to that result. He had thought it his duty to press this bill to its present stage, and, whatever might be the course he should afterwards take, he should certainly move the Committee to-day.

Viscount Melbourne

said, that the schism to which he alluded, as existing in the Church of Scotland, was connected with the subject of patronage. He did not believe that the manifestation of that schism would be prevented by the bill of his noble Friend. With respect to the bill itself, and the important questions opened by it, he begged to be understood as having given no opinion whatever upon them. He had only said, that he thought it unwise and imprudent to press the measure at the present time, and under present circumstances.

The Earl of Haddington

said, it was most true that his noble Friend had cautiously abstained from giving any opinion whatever on the great question which had now been agitating Scotland for the last year and a-half. His noble Friend need hardly have taken the trouble to bring that fact to the recollection of their Lordships, for every one must have been aware of it. He hardly thought that the reproach which the noble Viscount had thrown upon his noble Friend behind him, of having come 100 years too late for the settlement of this question, came with a very good grace from him. Their Lordships were all aware what was the course, or rather the no course, taken by her Majesty's Government on this question. They had had full warning at the time of the decision pronounced by the House in the Aucterarder case what was the real state of affairs in Scotland. He had stated on a former occasion, and he repeated now, that he thought the duty of her Majesty's Government at that time, considering the nature and extent of the existing controversy, was to have directed their most earnest and anxious attention to it, and to have thrown the whole weight of Government into the scale of the law of the land, in the way best calculated to settle the dispute. That they had not done; but they had continued hesitating and doubting whether they were to do something or nothing, and at last they resolved, pretty late in the course of the Session, that they would do nothing at all. His noble Friend had brought forward the measure as soon as the determination of Government was known, and he must tell the noble Viscount, that if he had made up his mind to support the general principle of the measure, from which he was satisfied that neither the noble Viscount nor any rational man could dissent, there would have been a strong ground for hoping that the question would be brought to a satisfactory adjustment. He firmly believed, that a great portion of the public opinion of Scotland—of that public opinion which generally guided the country in the long run, was in its favour. It had also the support of a great portion of the clergy, and he thought that if it became law, they would hesitate before continuing to oppose not only the decision of the highest tribunal in the country, but an Act of Parliament passed to declare the law. If no measure were adopted, the danger of a great schism, such as his noble Friend had alluded to, would become imminent, and it would be much more extensive than that which had taken place 100 years ago. He sincerely hoped that his noble Friend would think it his duty to persevere with the measure, notwithstanding the discouragement offered to him by her Majesty's Government.

The Earl of Roseberry

thought, the bill would confer large powers on the Church of Scotland, because it would transfer the veto from the people to the presbyteries. It would, however, restrict the independent jurisdiction claimed by the Church in spiritual matters.

The Marquess of Londonderry

begged leave to state that he had received from the north of Ireland a variety of opinions universally favourable to the bill, in which the Presbyterians of that part of the empire took much interest.

House in Committee, the several clauses of the bill were agreed to.

The House resumed.