HL Deb 22 July 1844 vol 76 cc1173-6

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read:

Lord Teynham

rose to move the Second Reading. The object of the measure was to carry out to a still greater extent a principle that had been already recognised by the Legislature. Their Lordships would be aware that as the law now stood, every House or building used for the purposes of public worship was required to be registered, and a certificate of such registration obtained, before any minister could preach, or any number of persons over twenty (exclusive of the proprietor of such house or building, and his servants) assemble therein for religious worship. This exception had been made, in order that family worship in private houses should not be interfered with. Now his object was in the first place to increase the number who might be allowed to join together in the worship of God, without registration, from twenty to forty, and also to allow the building to be used antecedent—for what period it would be for their Lordships to determine, but he should propose three months—to registration. The Legislature had already recognised the principle of extending the numbers who should be allowed to assemble for religious worship by the 52 George III., which had been brought into the other House by Lord Castlereagh, and supported by Mr. Vansittart, at that time Chancellor of the Exchequer, and the object of which was to extend the number from five, the original limit, to twenty. The Bill also gave a power to the magistrates to reduce the minimum penalty to be imposed upon persons infringing the Act from 20s. to 1s. It was surely a most absurd law which, by imposing a penalty in every case where more than twenty persons were assembled in an unregistered house, placed any visitor over the number of twenty in any private dwelling-house in the dilemma of either infringing the law or neglecting his duty to his Divine Master. If their Lordships should consent to give the Bill a second reading, he should then propose to go into Committee pro formâ, for the purpose of inserting certain Amendments.

The Lord Chancellor

wished to direct their Lordships' attention to what was the existing law on the subject, and what were the reasons for that law. As the law now stood, no meeting for religious purposes was permitted, in any dwelling-house or other building, of more than twenty persons, in addition to the family and servants of the proprietor of such house or building, unless the same were duly registered as a place for religious worship. The noble Lord who had brought forward this Bill did not object to the certificate of registration, he allowed that to remain. Now, what was the reason for the law as it stood? The Members of the family and the servants in any dwelling-house might, under the former law, assemble for religious purposes, without any certificate; but then it was con- sidered that persons might be in a private house as visitors, or accidentally present, and that, therefore, a margin should be allowed, which margin in the first instance had been limited to five persons. A few years ago an alteration was made in this respect, and on this ground, that five was too small a number, for that in many instances more than five or six or eight visitors, or other persons accidentally present, might be in a dwelling-house and desirous of joining in religious worship, and therefore it was proposed that the limit should be extended to twenty. The Legislature consented to that alteration on the principle that a still greater margin must be allowed in order that visitors or persons accidentally present in any dwelling-house, and joining in religious worship, should not be considered as infringing the law. He (the Lord Chancellor) considered the margin then adopted, viz. twenty, was sufficient, and that there was no ground whatever for extending it. But, then, asked, the noble Lord, if one more than twenty persons should be present, was that one to withdraw, to avoid being subject to the penalry for infringing the law? No, for he would not be liable to any penalty. It was the party to whom the house belonged who was liable, and be could protect himself by preventing a greater number than the twenty allowed by the Act, in addition to his own family and servants, from being present. Then the noble Lord had said, why should not persons be allowed to assemble in any building for the purposes of religious worship, antecedent to the certificate, and he proposed that any building might be used as a place of worship three months before the certificate; but if the building was intended to be used as a place of worship, what hardship was there in requiring that it should be certified at once? He thought the noble Lord had shown no grounds for the alteration he proposed.

The Bishop of Gloucester

had not expected, at that late period of the Session, that such a measure as the present would have been pressed on the attention of the House, and without consultation with those who were the guardians of the Church. The noble Lord had said that it was hard persons should be placed in the dilemma of being compelled to violate either the law or their consciences; but he (the Bishop of Gloucester) knew of no law that placed persons in this country in such a position. The principles of religious toleration existed in this country in a peculiar degree; and acting upon those principles, if any real case of hardship could be shown as pressing upon any class of Dissenters from the Established Church, he for one should be ready to assist in their removal; but the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack had, he thought, satisfactorily proved that there was no such case of hardship in the present instance, and that the law as it stood was a most liberal extension of the principle of private worship. He should move as an Amendment that the Bill be read a second time that day three months.

Lord Teynham

contended that at present the law of the land and the law of God were at variance, and that in consequence the law of the land was often necessarily, and he would say rightly infringed.

After a few words from the Bishop of Gloucester.

[Amendment moved, to leave out "now" and insert "this Day three Months."]

On Question that the word "now" stand part of the Motion? Resolved in the Negative and Bill to be read a second time this day three months.

Their Lordships adjourned at eleven o'clock.