HL Deb 26 May 1840 vol 54 cc552-63
The Archbishop of Dublin

had to present a petition, very respectably signed, of which he had given notice last week, on the subject of the Articles and the Liturgy of the Church of England. It was signed by sixty persons, half of whom were clergymen, and all of whom were members of the Church of England. The petition complained of certain parts of the articles of subscription to the Established Church and the Liturgy, which it stated required to be altered, and concluded by praying that their Lordships would consider what measures should be adopted to render the articles consistent with the practices of the clergy, and the acknowledged mean- ing of the Church, it was almost superfluous for him to observe, that no noble Lord was considered in presenting a petition as necessarily pledging himself to support or coincide in the prayer of that petition, but that all he did was to declare his belief that the subject matter of the petition required and was entitled to consideration. In this case he had told the persons who had put their petition into his hands that he had one objection to present it, which was, that he could not recommend to this House or any branch of the legislature the interference in any manner with the affairs of the Church, except as regarded temporalities alone, for he felt that it was not well qualified nor disposed to touch upon subjects of a spiritual nature. He had expressed the same opinion in reference to a petition which he had presented six years ago from the clergy of Kildare, the prayer of which was, that Parliament would take measures to provide for the government of the Church. He had stated to those petitioners when he presented their petition, that the reason why he could not recommend the House to interfere in those matters, arose principally from his considering, that although the Legislature had the sole power and right legally to make such alterations as might be called for, or to say that they were not needed, yet that this House and the other House were not well qualified to perform those functions. He had upon that occasion called, as he did now call, attention to the practical absence of any legislative government of the Church, which had continued for a long time, but had recently attracted the attention of the House. Upon that occasion he had embodied the substance of his speech in a pamphlet, and he might refer to that as an evidence that his opinions had undergone no change. It was but a very few years since the Parliament which was practically the legislative body, had consisted of Members who were not avowedly members of the Church of England, and since the change no other body had been authorised to act on these matters. And he had added, that the objection did not arise from any feeling of jealousy on the part of the petitioners or himself, at any desire on the part of the House to interfere with the spiritual affairs of the Church; for he and they knew that the greatest indisposition was always shown by the Legislature; but the evil was, knowing this indisposition, that there was no other body that had the right to interfere; as he conceived it was an anomalous state of things, and unsafe for any community, for the Church to be without a government—he did not mean an executive government, but a legislative government, which the Church had not had for a long time, practically for more than a century. When he had urged, as he had done on a former occasion, the importance of some sort of a legislative government for the Church, he had said, that he could not recommend the House to take any steps with respect to the spiritual affairs of the Church, except the handing over of the question to a body exclusively appointed to consider it, with the same power to make alterations as the Legislature now enjoyed; and he had then waved, as he did now, all consideration as to the propriety of an alteration of the liturgy, because he thought, that as a preliminary, they ought to take steps to bring such into existence; a legislative government a measure which persons might consistently and rationally advocate, even if they thought that no change was advisable. The only step, therefore, which he would recommend the House, in reference to the affairs of the Church, exclusive of its temporalities, was to take such measures, he did not mean to say by reviving the Convocation, for the government of the Church; and then if it were decided by this competent authority that any alterations were not necessary, the parties who now deemed them proper would be satisfied. In urging this alteration, he was aware, that he might be called by some parties an innovator. That might be, but he was bringing the Church back in constitution to the spirit, at least, of the Reformation; he was for remedying those changes of that great innovator, time, who, as it was said by Lord Bacon, was insinuating imperceptibly many alterations, and was changing things for the worse, if they were not changed by design for the better. And he would ask, whether, in the alterations made by the first reformers, they intended that their amendments should never be changed—whether they were to be like the laws of the Medes and Persians, unalterable—and whether it were their intention that the door should be locked and the key buried and lost for ever?

The Bishop of Lincoln

agreed in much that had fallen from the most rev. Prelate. It was impossible to obtain any authoritative sanction to the consideration even of a change in the subscription, save through a Convocation that did not now exist; and yet something was necessary, for in a conversation between Mr. Wodehouse and himself, the former assured him, that unless he could have such an authoritative sanction, he was prepared to resign his preferment. Six years ago he had expressed his own opinions in print that when any considerable portion of the Church—he meant a considerable portion in respectability and numbers—should agree in requiring certain alterations in the liturgy, it should be necessary to call the Convocation together, and submit the proposed alterations to their consideration; but at the same lime he must say, that he did not think that a desire for alteration now existed with any considerable portion of the community, and that there never was a time when the great body of the clergy would more strongly deprecate any alteration than at the present moment.

The Archbishop of Canterbury

would willingly join and assist in the adoption of any reasonable and practical plan that might be proposed by the most rev. Prelate, or by any other competent persons who might take the subject into their hands; but agreeing entirely upon that point with the most rev. Prelate, and not thinking it necessary to enter upon the reasons for his concurrence, he could not agree in the prayer of the petition, which the rev. Prelate had presented, which was a subject of a very different kind. The petition related to matters concerning the present state of the Church and the Liturgy, and it made a statement which was not fully authorised. If there were such practices in the Church as were alluded to, they were confined to a small minority of the clergy, and it was his opinion, from all he had heard, and from every opportunity he had had of observing, that every plan which proposed an alteration in the articles or liturgy of the Church, so far from satisfying the great body of the clergy, gave the greatest dissatisfaction to the largest portion of that body. The small number of signatures to the present petition justified that inference. The prayer of the petition was not the opinion of the great body of the clergy, the majority of whom was decidedly adverse to it. Indeed he never recollected a greater apprehension and excitement than when it went abroad that there was some scheme for the revisal or alteration of the formulas of the Church; and he had himself presented a petition signed by upwards of 500 of the clergy against it, whilst the clergy of three dioceses did not address him, but presented petitions to the Crown or to the House through their own diocesans. He did not intend further to trouble their Lordships with the statements of the present petition, and he would only conclude by calling their attention to its prayer, which, as he apprehended, their Lordships could not entertain or sanction. The petitioners prayed that House to take such measures as to them should seem fit, to make the letter of the prayer-book and the subscription to the articles more consistent with the practice of the clergy, and the acknowledged meaning of the Church. Now he must protest against this imputation on the clergy; and if this were a bill instead of a petition, he would certainly move, as an amendment, that their Lordships should consider the best means of making the practice of the clergy more consistent with the prayer-book and articles.

The Bishop of Norwich

would not have risen if the name of a clergyman of his own diocese (Mr. Wodehouse, a prebendary of Norwich) had not been mentioned. He agreed with the most rev. Prelate, who had presented this petition, that there was an insuperable difficulty with respect to an alteration of the liturgy, and perhaps of the articles. He saw the difficulties, and he fully believed that the clergy, as a body, would not consent to any alteration. He trusted, however, that he might be allowed, without entering upon the statements in the petition, and without stating whether he himself agreed to this or that alteration, to make a few observations on the point of subscription. If it were proved that there was anything insincere in the subscription—if the clergy confessed with their lips what they did not confess with their hearts—they were giving to their opponents an advantage ground of which they would readily avail themselves, and their opponents would have to thank them for having placed them upon it. How stood the question of subscription? He did not pretend to enter into all the particulars and considerations; let it suffice to say that there were apparent difficulties—mind he only said apparent—about the subscription; if it were understood in the literal, most strict, and most stringent way, there were difficulties which weighed heavily upon scrupulous and tender consciences, and by continuing the difficulties they might leave the way open only for consciences that had no scruples to enter the Church for objects which referred only to the secular views as to profits which they might entertain. But there was an answer to this objection. The Church had a sort of elasticity, which allowed and graduated the differences that existed. Those who accomplished the Reformation were placed in very difficult circumstances—they had to satisfy a body that included persons of very different feelings. The articles of the Church, therefore, were framed on a reference to the opinions of a very wide basis for a large body that differed on many points. There was a sanction for this opinion in the speech of a noble Lord, a distinguished statesman, with which their Lordships were familiar, who had said that the Church of England had a Calvinist creed, and an Arminian clergy. And there were those who would infer from the same evidence, that to Arminians the creed was sufficiently satisfactory, and that it allowed the admission of a Calvinistic clergy. In fact, the Church was so constituted, that it was calculated for all who agreed in the broad distinguishing features, and in the salutary doctrines of the Christian Church. This being taken for granted, what ought they to do? He would recommend that they should honestly and boldly meet the difficulties, not only because the Church was founded upon liberty of conscience and the right of private judgment, but because it gave the greatest—he would not say latitude—but privilege of private judgment. Therefore, in extending the subscription, he was persuaded that they would be granting a boon and a benefit to many scrupulous and tender consciences that were amongst the brightest ornaments of the Establishment. He had, indeed, heard a right rev. Prelate, then sitting before him, instance a case in his own diocese, in which a clergyman in the possession of a valuable living, of high character, and of unquestionable orthodoxy, who had wished to resign his preferment because he had scruples which he could not satisfy. He might refer also to the case of an individual whose name had been mentioned by the right reverend Prelate (the Bishop of Lincoln). Let one who knew him well bear testimony to his valuable services; of his character as a clergyman, and as a man, it was impossible to speak too highly, and yet who had shown scruples of conscience which increased the respect due to him for his attainments and his character, and who had set an example which he hoped to see followed by every member of the Establishment, and which, if conscientiously followed, with the same high sense of unimpeachable honour, the Church of England would have fewer enemies, and a vast accession of valuable friends. It was never pretended that the clergy agreed in every part and every iota of that to which they subscribed at their ordination. And the fact was, that as different minds were constituted differently, every one must be allowed a certain latitude, and all that the petitioners asked was, that what was assented to privately, should be the acknowledged sentiments of the Church at large. The petition contained nothing new; there was nothing that did not find a place in the bill of 1689 which was sanctioned by the crown; the plan and the petition were almost verbatim et literatim. The monarch of that day proposed this plan, because he conceived that it was necessary for the safety of the Church; and Archbishops and Bishops, with professors of high degree, and dignitaries of the church in numbers, agreed in a petition which was similar to that which the most rev. Prelate had that evening brought before them. How came that measure to fall? He should blush to give the details of the intrigues by which it was quashed. The House might remember them, but, out of a regard to the interests of the Church, he would not mention them. There was, however, a catch word used—a popular cry was raised, unworthy of those who had recourse to it, but it served to show the value of appeals ad captandum vulgus that cry was "nolumus leges Angliœ mutari;" as if we were the Medes and the Persians, and allowed not our laws to be changed; as if the laws of the heptarchy, or of the Norman conquerors, were still to remain for our guidance without any alteration. Why did they sit there, if the laws of England were not to be changed as times and circumstances rendered change necessary? He was perfectly aware that there were difficulties, and stupendous difficulties, in the way of any arrangement; but were they to shrink from grappling with the question because of those difficulties? The right rev. Prelate on his left had said the other day, that when there were difficulties, men were inclined to say, that there is a lion in the way, and therefore shrink from averting pending evils. He did not advocate this or that change; above all, he did not desire any alteration which should not be acquiesced in by the public at large; but he said, that it was their duty to encounter and to sift the difficulties, and so to argue and so to legislate, as to provide those remedies which changes of time and of circumstances imperatively demanded. Let him not be misunderstood—he had not addressed the House without hesitation; and he was only anxious to raise the Church in the estimation of the public; and with that wish he would remove every stone which might be cast at it, and so take away every obstacle in the way of subscription, which pressed on tender and scrupulous consciences, and which did differently affect the minds of men of honourable and high feelings. It was true, that they were not an assembly that could legislate for the Church; but he was anxious and willing that the two most rev. Prelates would take the question into their serious consideration, for he was confident, that in their most private movements, they would see the propriety of giving relief to those who were among the brightest ornaments of our Church. There was only one more point which he would mention before he concluded. He was persuaded that the time would come when this alteration—he would not use the word latitude, for the relief of tender consciences—would be conceded. It was in the hands of the Church to meet the difficulty, and remove the cause, and if they did not, the day might arrive when, under other powers, and urged on by a strong pressure, they might be compelled—without as they could now, quietly considering the question—to adopt a measure opposed to their feelings, and which they might all deplore.

The Bishop of London

said, that after the temperate speech of the most rev. Prelate who had presented the petition, and the concurrence of the most rev. Prelate (the Archbishop of Canterbury), he had hoped that their Lordships would have escaped a discussion upon this subject. He certainly should not have entered into it, if it were not for the observations which had escaped from the right rev. Prelate, unaccustomed to address their Lordships in the heat of debate, which were little less than a libel on the Church. He would begin by noticing a remarkable sentiment to have fallen from a Christian clergyman. He had heard the right rev. Prelate say, that the Church was founded upon liberty of conscience. It was practically the fact, that the Protestant church permitted as great a degree of liberty of conscience, as was consistent with the interests of religion; but he had always understood that the Catholic Church was founded on truth; that the Church was the authorised interpreter of the words of truth, and that she would desert her duty if she did not lay down, for the good of the people, the great truths which were extracted from the Bible. The question of subscription to the articles was very different. It was not required from all members of the Church, but only from the ministers of the Church, as a security against a greater evil, the constant change and fluctuation of doctrines by men not tied down by any precise articles. This was the use of articles, and he hoped that they would never be lost, for it was only by continually keeping truth in view, that the Church of England had been enabled to stand amidst the changes and the downfall of different churches, to keep true to the one point of the theological compass, and to go straightforward, guided only by the polar star of truth, as expounded in her articles and her liturgy. What had been said by the right rev. Prelate that the petition was not new, was correct; all that was stated in the petition was said by Bishop Hoadly; it was said less perfectly by his commentators; and it was said more clumsily in the House of Commons in 1772, although the arguments then used went further than the present petition, emanating as he admitted it did, from respectable persons. He would neither impugn their respectability nor their sincerity, though he took a different view from them, and thought that they were little aware of the evils which would arise if they tampered with the articles. They had overlooked the difficulty which would arise if a small body of the clergy—and it was a small body compared with that body which in 1772 wished for an alteration in the articles or the liturgy, for in that case as the articles concerned the clergy more than the laity, for the clergy it was who had to subscribe, if the preponderating majority of the clergy should deprecate any change, they would do a violence to the majority. He confessed that he was one of those who would strongly deprecate any alteration, and he was convinced that there existed amongst the great body of laymen, as well as amongst the great mass of the clergy, a strong indisposition to meddle with the formularies of the Church. Looking, too, to the unsettled state of men's minds upon several topics, in some degree connected with the church, he thought it would be peculiarly unadvisable at the present moment to moot the question of a change of the articles, or an alteration of the subscription. When he alluded to the petition of 1772, he was going to trouble their Lordships with a few short extracts from a speech made on that occasion by one of the most Christian Statesmen that ever adorned the legislative history of this kingdom—he meant Mr. Burke—who said, Nothing can be clearer to me, than that forms of subscription are necessary for the sake of order, and decorum, and public peace. By a form of subscription I mean a general standard, which obtains throughout the whole community, and not the partial creed of this or that bishop by whom a priest happens to be ordained. Were this rule to take place, how perplexing would be the situation of a clergyman, ordained in the diocese of Ely, beneficed in that of Chester, and removed to that of Gloucester. And here he must observe, that they who occupied the higher seats in the Church, and were called upon to decide questions of opinion between the clergy, felt an indescribable consolation and support from the fact, that they had a clear and well-defined formulary to appeal to. Mr. Burke proceeded:— I mean an universal system deduced from scripture, and digested into heads of doctrine like the articles, and that is to be equally binding on priests, deacons, and bishops. In short, I would have a system of religious laws that would remain fixed and permanent like our civil constitution, and that would preserve the body ecclesiastical from tyranny and despotism, as much at least as our code of common and statute law does the people in general; for I am convinced that the liberty of conscience contended for by the petitioners, would be the forerunner of religious slavery, Nothing could be more just than those observations, for it was as true in ecclesiastical as in political history, that religious democracy would end in absolute despotism. What was the expansion that was required? It was this; that when a clergyman declared ex animo, he should be understood as declaring only in what sense he pleased. This was expansion with a vengeance—an expansion which did not partake of that prudent elasticity which, though always ready to accommodate itself to the peculiarities of our infirm and imperfect nature, would never stretch beyond the line of truth, nor sacrifice that which was just and true to meet the maudlin scruples of any conscience whatever. As to the existence of scruples in the church, he maintained, without reservation, that the great body of the clergy signed the articles with a full belief of their truth. He had never had the misfortune—for a misfortune he should consider it—of meeting with one single clergyman who did not express his readiness to subscribe the whole of the articles. He, for one, should think he was eating the bread of the Church unworthily if he were to subscribe any articles which he did not implicitly believe. If the articles were not scriptural—if they were calculated to do more mischief than good, let them be abandoned; but do not interfere with the terms of subscription; do not, for the sake of the tender consciences and nice scruples of some, adopt a mode of subscription which would leave the door open to the most unscrupulous. He confessed he did not see anything of the hardship that was complained of in this matter. Prior to ordination, was not every man so conversant with what he was required to do, that when he came to do it he ought to do so with a clear conscience, or else not do it at all? That he thought was a complete answer to the application for an expansion of the terms of subscription. As he had already stated, he believed that the great body of the Church were indisposed to any alteration of the formulary of the Church. If an alteration were to be made for one tender conscience, an alteration ought to be made for another tender conscience. Where then was the system of change to be stayed? If their Lordships were to set out upon the principle of satisfying all, they would soon have no peculiarity of doctrine, no articles, no liturgy, but would reduce the Church to a mere naked caput mortuum, neither satisfying the consciences of men here, nor offering a sound foundation on which to base their hopes of hereafter. Therefore he strongly deprecated their Lordships tampering in any degree with matters of this kind. At the same time he was fully prepared to admit, with the most rev. Prelate who presented the petition, that it was extremely desirable that there should be some deliberative, if not legislative assembly, in the Church, by whom such questions as the present might be determined.

Petition to lie on the table.

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