§ Order of the Day for receiving the Report of the Amendments read.
§ THE EARL OF SHAFTESBURY
said, the object of this Bill was to repeal so much of the Act of 52 Geo. III. as prohibited the assembling of more than twenty persons above the number of the members of a household for purposes of religious worship in one house. Had no opposition been threatened to this measure, his course regarding it would have been comparatively easy, as he believed it would have commended itself to the approbation of their Lordships as in accordance with their views of religious liberty, and their sense of the present religious condition of the people. But, since opposition had been threatened, and a noble Lord and right rev. Prelate had stated that they would take exception to the measure, it would be his duty to go into the length and breadth of the question, to point out the objects he had in view and the necessity that existed for 1835 adapting the law to the exigencies of the case, and to show that this law could not be allowed to remain any longer a dead letter on the statute-book. The object of the Bill was clearly set forward in the preamble, as follows:—"Whereas it is expedient that the Right of freely assembling by Law accorded to Secular and Political Objects should be extended to Religious Worship," &c. Now, surely if people were permitted to open their houses for balls, parties, and every kind of amusement, there ought to be no bar in the way of opening their houses for purposes of religious worship. If it was a legitimate thing that there should be a "meet" with a pack of hounds for purposes of amusement, surely it was equally legitimate to meet on the hillside for religious worship. In these days every facility ought to be given for the instruction of the people. We heard a great deal of the necessity that existed for a large scheme of education; and he therefore maintained that every impediment ought to be removed, and every means adopted whereby the mass of the people might be brought within the reach of instruction and the sound of the gospel. It could not be denied that there were thousands on thousands—possibly even millions —in this country who were absolutely without the pale of Christianity. To overtake so great a mass was beyond the power of the Church of England singly—it was beyond the power of the Nonconformists singly, and he almost believed it was beyond the power of the two in combination. Who could deny that such a state of things was dangerous—not to the interests of any particular sect—but to the interests of religion itself? What we had to apprehend in this country, when we contemplated the vast numbers that were not within the reach of religious ordinances, was the spread of a fierce and brutal infidelity that would overwhelm the whole mass of our population. We were about, by a law lately passed, to set loose the penny press and inundate this country with a series of publications which, if they were of a character similar to those he had already seen, would be among the most formidable and terrible that were ever issued in any country, civilised or uncivilised. He thought, therefore, that no impediment should be thrown in the way of those who wished to go forth to neutralise this poison by the antidote of religion. He would begin by calling attention to the appalling fact stated in the Report of the Registrar General, that there were not less 1836 than 5,000,000 of people in England and Wales who never attended any public service of religion whatsoever. Make what abatements we might, the great fact remained that in this country there was an enormous mass of people who were not under the influence of any religious ordinances whatever. He would call the attention of the House to the evidence given by clergymen of the Church of England—men holding cures among the dense population of the manufacturing districts—to the same effect. One of these clergymen said—Not 100 of these, in a parish of 10,000, attend regularly any place of worship, and only 150 out of the whole number occasionally attend. Out of 655 children questioned, upwards of 400 admitted that they never said any prayers. I may add to this, 351 youths, between the ages of twelve and twenty, were unable to read the Bible.The next clergyman said—The population amounts to nearly 7,000 souls. Multitudes of these never appear in God's house for years togethers; their week days are spent in discussing infidel and socialist topics; and their Sundays in gambling and cock-fighting, smoking, cursing, and swearing.Another said—After the most careful inquiry, I have ascertained that there were not 150 people out of a population of more than 4,000 habitual attendants upon the religious ordinances. I quite considered it an important epoch in the history of my parish when I beheld, for the first time, a woman attending Divine service in the morning!Another clergyman said—On the Lord's day the lanes, the common, the quarries, are frequented by numerous groups of boys and young men, passing their time chiefly in gambling. I have made efforts to meet these claims personally, but find it quite beyond my strength to sustain them.Again, a clergyman said—I am labouring alone, as far as the Church is concerned, among nearly 9,000 souls; and I know of no place more in need of additional clerical assistance. There is a good field open, but a sad lack of those to sow the seeds of eternal life. The poor, at the more distant parts of my district, are anxiously inquiring when (to use their own expression) they are to have a shepherd among them, for they have been quite lost and deserted for years.Another said—Out of the 473 dwellings I have as yet visited only sixty-one profess to go to a place of worship, and the rest openly told me they went 'nowhere.' Some of these I have since seen in church; and I earnestly pray that the Lord may arouse them from their carelessness and indifference as to the salvation of their souls.Another clergyman stated—The district is four miles by three and a half, and contains a population of about 7,000. As to 1837 the moral and religious character of the people, it is most deplorable and wretched; they are deeply sunk in ignorance, intemperance, and brutality; I cannot say that I meet with much infidelity among them; the feeling among them is indifference, the result of ignorance, neglect, and intemperance; their notions seldom seeming to arise above that of gratifying their sensual appetites. It is not often I can see a dozen of the delvers' in our congregation. In fact, there are only three places they visit—home for rest, the quarries, and the publichouse.These were only selections from hundreds—he might say thousands—of similar statements which had been furnished to him by clergymen of the Church of England. He would now refer their Lordships to the remarkable records of the agents of the London City Mission respecting the condition of such districts as Bethnal Green, Westminster, Shoreditch, the New Cut, Petticoat Lane, and Rag Fair, where fighting, drinking, gambling, and immorality prevailed, more especially on Sundays. In those districts there were thousands and hundreds of thousands of persons who never attended any religious ordinances whatever. The greatest difficulty was found in inducing large masses of the people—even those of the more decent and orderly class—to attend any place of religious worship, whether in connection with the Established Church or with dissenting communities. There were, indeed, no persons whom it was so difficult to prevail upon to attend places of worship as the great body of highly-paid artisans; and, as they could not be induced to enter those places which were specially set apart for public worship, he thought it was our duty to accommodate ourselves to the circumstances of the case, and to give all encouragement to those who went forth in the spirit of religion and charity to in duce such people to attend religious worship in any places where the truth of God was proclaimed, and where prayer was offered. The clergy of the Church of England had adopted a great variety of means in order to obtain access to this portion of the population. They had established lectures in cottages, lectures in schoolrooms, Bible classes, classes conducted by Scripture readers, and service in their own houses. These means had been attended with the most beneficial results. It appeared from the Reports of the Pastoral Aid Society that, through the instrumentality of that society alone 450 schoolroom and cottage lectures had been established during the last year which had been the means of evangelising 1838 hundreds of thousands of persons; yet these lectures, in nine cases out of ten, had been positively illegal, for they were almost uniformly commenced by singing and praying, and were consequently "religious meetings," under the definition of the Act, and contrary to law. He did not believe any lawyer would venture to say that if a meeting was opened simply with the Lord's Prayer that would not be an act of religious worship which, under the existing law, would render such meeting I illegal. He would read to their Lordships the words of the Act now in force—No congregation or assembly for religious worship of Protestants, at which shall he present more than twenty persons, besides the immediate family and servants of the person in whose house or upon whose premises such meeting, congregation, or assembly shall be had, shall be permitted or allowed, unless and until the place of such meeting shall have been, or shall be, certified to the bishop of the diocess, or to the justices of the peace at the general or quarter sessions," &c.The Act then proceeded to enact that for every such offence a fine not exceeding 20l. or less than 20s. should be inflicted. In order to give their Lordships an idea of the nature of the services to which he had referred, he would read a statement with which he had been furnished by the clergyman of one of the most benighted districts of a large town. This gentleman said—I opened a room in the very worst part of——,commonly called 'Pigeon Row,' quite as rough and wretched as any court in London. In that room—originally a large, dirty lumber room, the walls unplastered and unwhitewashed, and the slates unpointed, so that we could see day-light through them—I have service every Sunday night, from seven to eight o'clock. The women attend without bonnets, and the men come in clothes they would be ashamed to appear in at church. A sweep is my head man, and his wife one of my leading singers. There has been a good attendance all along—that is, during the nine months that the room has been in my possession. Our service is as follows:—First, a hymn, then the 'confession'—in which all join—then the absolution, the Lord's Prayer, the collect for the day, the other two collects, the prayer for all conditions of men, the thanksgiving, the concluding prayer, and the 'grace,' &c. After this follows another hymn, next a short prayer, before the sermon, lecture, or exposition—about forty minutes—then another short hymn, prayer, and blessing. All about an hour long, not more. I have reason to take comfort from the result of this service, and to thank God for his blessings upon the endeavours used there.He (the Earl of Shaftesbury) had thus far referred to the efforts made by the clergy of the Established Church; but he would now draw their Lordships' attention to the exertions of other religious bodies, and, 1839 without dwelling upon the great efforts that had been made by the Wesleyan body throughout the length and breadth of the land, he would ask them to consider the operations of the London City Mission in this metropolis. He believed that a more valuable society had never been established; and he rejoiced in having that opportunity of bearing his testimony, founded upon personal experience, to the incalculable extent to which the labours of its agents had promoted the cause of order, decency, and religion in this great city. The society employed at the present moment about 400 agents, who were engaged in diving into the recesses of vice and misery in this metropolis, fearless of toil, of danger, and of disease. He believed that if these city missionaries had not existed, and if their labours had not been unceasing and unsuccessful, the condition of the metropolis would have been too fearful for contemplation. It was clear that the Established Church was unable to provide for the religious instruction of the inhabitants of London; but he was satisfied that the combined efforts of the clergy of the Church of England and of the London City Mission had contributed to the maintenance of order in the metropolis in the eventful year 1848. In that year, when all the Crowns of Europe were in peril, and when anarchy and confusion reigned throughout the Continent, order, decency, and patriotism distinguished the inhabitants of this metropolis; and he believed he was justified in ascribing this result to the united efforts of the clergy of the Church of England and the agents of the London City Mission. During the past year the agents of the City Mission had held no less than 25,318 meetings, of which 1,304 were in the open air. These agents, he might observe, were peculiarly adapted to their position. They came from among the people; they knew the people; they sympathised with the people, and the people sympathised with them; and, as the desire was, in the present day, to have "the right men in the right place," he thought they could not do better than by placing city missionaries in all those neglected districts of this great metropolis where ignorance, vice, and immorality held paramount sway. He believed that 22,000 of these meetings were positively illegal and a direct infringement of the law. If, therefore, the law were enforced, a stop must necessarily be put to the great work of evangelising the city of London, 1840 now going on. A stop would also be put to the open-air meetings which were now held, not only by the London City Mission, but by clergymen of the Church of England as well. The practice was at present growing up among the clergy of holding open-air meetings, and a meeting held in Greenwich Park, the other day, was attended by no less than 1,200 persons. By enforcing the law a stop would be put to these meetings, and by so doing the best system ever devised for reaching the masses of the most poor, most' destitute, and most ignorant of the population would be extinguished. Thousands upon thousands of persons who never attended any place of worship would attend a meeting in the open air, where they would earnestly join in prayer and listen with pleasure to the exhortations of the minister. Further than this, the enforcement of the law would put a stop to an institution commonly called "the Ragged School," for the Ragged Schools were as much places of worship as they were places of instruction. Every Ragged School opened with a religious service, and concluded in a similar manner. In the great school in Field Lane there were distinct services every Sunday, and three or four times in the course of the week in addition. He had himself seen in that room more than 600 persons from six years of age up to sixty, attending to religious service in the evening, and then going through a course of instruction. But all this must be extinguished if the law were put in force, because the present services in the Ragged Schools were in absolute defiance of the law, and were as complete a system of public worship as could be held in any church or dissenting congregation. Now, would the evil end here? In many parts of London, meetings called technically "mothers' meetings" were held, in connection with the City Mission Society and with some of the clergy of the Church. These meetings were rather singular; the object being to enable many unfortunate women, who had hitherto led most abandoned lives and had totally neglected their children, to attend in the evening in some room where they might be taught to work —to knit and sew—and during that time to be read to by persons appointed for that purpose. Every one of these meetings began with prayer, and was an act of worship. The attendance varied from forty to sixty and 100 at a time; but he could show their Lordships that within a short 1841 time no less than from 500 to 600 of these mothers had been reclaimed by the exertions of the City Missionaries, and had become peaceable and orderly, attending to their domestic duties and to the worship of God. The moment, however, that the law was put into operation, "mothers' meetings" must cease, because they were a direct violation of the law. Another form of meeting to which he wished to call attention was of very great importance, and he was anxious to show how harshly and cruelly the law would operate. Recently four great meetings had been held in the Freemason's Hall in reference to the state of the country, and especially in reference to the war in the Crimea; they were attended by a great number of persons deeply anxious about the welfare of relatives and friends in the Crimea, and consisted of clergymen of the Church of England, of Nonconformists, and of many of the laity of various denominations. Nothing could have been more devout, more solemn, more appropriate to the time, and more in harmony with the feelings of the people than these meetings; but, however devoutly and decently they might have been conducted, they were altogether illegal. He would read to the House a statement made to him by a clergyman who had presided at one of the meetings, in order to show their Lordships that the services conducted at them were as complete an act of public and religious worship as was ever maintained in any church or chapel. The gentleman in question wrote as follows—The object of our assembling was to offer up united prayer to Almighty God in reference to the state of the country, with special reference to the war. It consisted of Churchmen and Dissenters. The service was conducted in this way:—After a hymn I began by reading a portion of Scripture and made a few observations. Then I called on a friend to offer up prayer. After this a letter was read from Dr. Blackwood in the East, a hymn was sung, another prayer followed, afterwards a hymn, and I concluded with offering prayer. I do not know whether the proceedings were illegal, but the whole tone was truly devotional, and there appeared to me to be a blessing from God on our meeting.Yet these meetings were a direct infringement of the Act, and the persons attending them, who met to supplicate Almighty God to extend His sheltering arm over their relatives who were fighting the battles of their country in the East, were liable to heavy panalties. The whole existing state of the law was full of the most absurd contradictions. For instance, a 1842 meeting convened for the purpose of hearing a lecture against the evidences of Christianity and for the subversion of the truth of the Bible was perfectly legal; while a meeting convened for the purpose of hearing a lecture in favour of the evidences of Christianity and maintaining the truth of the Bible, if it were opened by singing a hymn and by prayer, was absolutely illegal. Indeed, he believed that that great ceremonial which occurred a short time ago, when Her Majesty went to open the Crystal Palace, was a monstrous violation of the law, a prayer having been offered up at it by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Certainly it was an act of public worship, and the law said there should be no religious worship except in places that had been certified to be places of religious worship. Ought such a state of things to be allowed to exist? Every private house came within the operation of the Act. No person could invite into his house more than twenty persons above his household to join in religious worship without rendering himself liable to a heavy penalty. No doubt many of their Lordships violated the law almost every Sabbath. He believed his noble Friend the Secretary for War violated it last Sunday; and he had no doubt that it was constantly violated by the Secretary of State for the Home Department. Many Peers in that House had informed him that they did violate the law, and, moreover, that they would persist in violating it. Perhaps he might be told that the law was obsolete. It might be obsolete in one sense, but it had great power of revival, and might be enforced at any moment. Indeed, at present, it was constantly used for purposes of intimidation, and he could quote instances in which it had been actually put in force. In 1820 an information was laid against Lord Barham, the present Lord Gainsborough, by Lord Romney, at West Mailing, near Maidstone, under the Act, religious meetings having been held in Lord Barham's house while he was unwell instead of in the village schoolroom. Lord Barham was fined 40l.—20l. for each meeting. The late Mr. Wilberforce, when he resided at Kensington-gore, constantly violated the law, and was often threatened with information, and suffered much disquiet in consequence, yet he determined to persist in the course he had taken. There was another case to which he would refer, and though he was not at liberty to mention names, their Lordships would see 1843 that it bore strongly upon the point which he wished to press upon them. He would give the case in the words of his informant:—A gentleman, a county magistrate in a northern county, early in 1854, came to reside on his estate, and found the parish in a most neglected condition. At the gates of his park was a large coal mine and a dense population around it. Finding that nobody would do anything for them, he went one evening in every week, and, in the largest cottage, read a chapter of the Bible and some religious tracts. The meetings were numerously attended; but, after a few months, he was obliged to drop it, and it ceased. And why? It was hinted to him that persons were about to lay an information against him for a breach of the Conventicle Act. He, being an active county magistrate, felt that it was not right in him to set an example of breaking the law, so he gave up his reading.Thus all the good effects which might have resulted to this large district from the efforts of such a man were entirely prevented by the operation of this law. Here was a forcible instance of the folly and the mischiefs of this Act. The gentleman in question might have had a cockfight, jumping in sacks, or any sort of amusement, and nobody would have objected to it; but the moment this gentleman, commiserating the religious destitution of the people, went to their cottages, read to them a chapter in the Bible, and joined with them in religious worship, the law said, "Mind what you are doing, for if you are caught at this again you will be fined 20l." Their Lordships should bear in mind that the Act had been actively carried into effect up to a recent period. The case to which he would now refer occurred in March, 1850:—At the petty sessions held at the Court House Malmesbury, on the 7th of March, 1850, before Viscount Andover, Mr. Richard H. Pollen, Mr. T. Luce, Mr. P. A. Lovell, the Rev. G. A. Biedermann, and the Rev. C. A. Moore, Moses Green, of Charlton, in the county of Wilts, labourer, was charged, under the Act of the 52nd of Geo. III., c. 155, s. 2, by the Rev. George Henry Hely Hutchinson, vicar of Charlton, with having on the 3rd of March inst., knowingly permitted and suffered a meeting and unlawful assembly of upwards of twenty persons, besides his family and servants, to be held in his cottage, in the parish of Charlton, for the exercise of religious worship of Protestants, such cottage not being certified and registered as a place of religious worship.Here was the evidence of the curate of the parish, who bore high testimony to the order and piety of the meeting:—Robert Strong, being sworn, said,—'I am a clerk in priest's orders, and am curate to the 1844 Rev. G. H. H. Hutchinson. I know the cottage of the defendant at Charlton. I was in it on Sunday last, and there were forty persons present, counted them. They were singing when I first arrived there. I cannot remember what they were singing; then followed a sermon from the text stated by the last two witnesses. The meeting was not in worship of any heathen deity whatever. It was not a doctrinal sermon. It was a Christian and Protestant sermon. He (the preacher) said nothing inconsistent with the doctrines of the Church of England; such a sermon might consistently be preached in any church. After the sermon another man prayed, and they sang again. The preacher did not read the chapter through, but read several portions of it while preaching. I have attended two of these meetings. The first was not quite orderly, and the preacher called those to order who were making a noise. I have had to do the same in my own church. The mode of conducting the meetings I attended was the same on both occasions. I attended to see what was going on. I did not see Moses Green at the first meeting I went to.'Was there anything indecent here—anything subversive of public morality? Yet mark the result:—The defendant was then fined 20s. and expenses, when Mr. Lloyd, a gentleman quite unknown to the society, immediately laid 30s. on the table, and exclaimed against the persecuting nature of the Act under which the conviction had taken place.Could there be a stronger proof than this of the impediments thrown in the way of religious instruction, and of the checks which would be placed upon the evangelisation of the people if this law were enforced? They were sometimes told that any person might obtain a licence; but to do so required time; it was very difficult to obtain one; and when you had obtained it, it would be of very little use, as it was only for a single specified house. Now, considering the vast number of meetings which were held in the metropolis by the clergy and by the city missions, and by the home missionaries in every district of the country, their Lordships would see that in order to make it of the least service, a licence must be allowed for almost every house in certain localities; and even then, so impossible was it to fix upon a place of meeting beforehand, they might discover that the proper place had been omitted. Besides this, many persons were very willing to lend their houses for one or two occasions, who would be very unwilling indeed that their houses should be licensed for religious worship. It was absolutely necessary, if the system now in existence were to continue, that there should be full freedom to worship in any house. But it was said, "Let all your meetings for 1845 religious worship be held in a church."Now, what could be more inconvenient than such an arrangement as that? None of the Welsh bishops would think of using such an argument, for the parishes there were of very large extent, and the church was often at one end and the people at the other. He did not know how they were to meet the exigencies of the rural population where they were widely scattered, except by allowing clergymen to go from their church and deliver cottage lectures in distant parts of their parishes. Again, in the church there were the inevitable restrictions as to the liturgy, while it was evident that these services must be conducted in a far more homely way, and with far less of form and circumstance than was required by the use of the liturgy, and which, though necessary in a church, could be dispensed with in a cottage. It was only, too, in private houses that there could be a union between churchmen and dissenters; and if registered houses were to be devoted solely to church services, all the advantages which might be expected to result from efforts in which dissenters were joined with churchmen would be lost. The reasons which once existed for these Acts had altogether passed away. Nobody would wish now to revive the Conventicle Act and the Act of George III., which were wholly unsuited to the temper of the present times. The fact was that there was a far greater tendency in the present day than ever there was at any antecedent period towards religious meetings, and therefore to enforce this law would be to run counter to the whole spirit of the times in which we lived, and seriously to impede the religious instruction of the people. Mr. Horace Mann, in his Census Report, stated—It appears that as many as 5,288,294 persons able to attend are every Sunday absent from religious services, for all of whom there is accommodation for at least one service. That neglect like this, in spite of opportunities for worship, indicates the insufficiency of any mere addition to the number of religious buildings; that the greatest difficulty is to fill the churches when provided; and that this can only be accomplished by a great addition to the number of efficient, earnest, religious teachers, clerical or lay, by whose persuasions the reluctant population might be won.Nothing could be more forcible than this testimony of Mr. Mann, that the real want was in the number of earnest and religions teachers, and the law which he now proposed to repeal was the very law, which 1846 led to there being a scarcity in that class of teachers. He was astonished that any one should, under these circumstances, endeavour to prevent the repeal of this law, instead of rejoicing that an opportunity had arrived by its repeal of employing the piety and zeal of those thousands of persons who would be more than willing to employ themselves in the pious work of evangelising those enormous masses of society who, without such efforts, would never be brought within the pale of Christianity. He maintained that, unless some public end could be shown to be advanced by the present law, or unless it could be shown that its repeal would be subversive of public morality, it was not just or right to place a veto upon a man receiving any number of persons into his house for purposes of religious worship. To do so was to limit religious liberty in this country, and was opposed to the spirit of the age in which we lived. He could not, of course, anticipate what would be the vote at which their Lordships might that night arrive, but he confidently anticipated that two years would not elapse before the present state of things was put an end to, and every man left at liberty to do what he pleased, provided he did nothing subversive of public morality or opposed to public decency. He appealed to the right rev. Prelates opposite, and would ask them if they thought it consistent with their position or their Christian dignity to deprive some of the most useful of their own clergy or of the Nonconformists of the power of doing their best to evangelise their flocks without breaking the law, or to consent to the present system of wholesale connivance? He appealed also to the Government, and he would ask them if, when it was well known that this law was pertinaciously, constantly, and wilfully violated, it was advisable to retain it in its present condition, or whether the more wise and the more just plan would not be to repeal it altogether; or else, if they would not consent to such a course, to enforce its provisions strictly?
§ Moved, That the Report be now received.
THE BISHOP OF LONDON
said, he did not intend to adopt either of the alternatives proposed by the noble Earl. He did not think it necessary to proceed against such of his clergymen as had perhaps acted in violation of the law, nor could he support the Bill of the noble Earl without some modifications. He had 1847 great doubts, moreover, whether some of the cases adduced by the noble Earl were quite so illegal as he appeared to consider them—whether, for instance, clergymen who had held religious meetings in their own parishes, under the sanction of their bishop, could be said to have violated the law. Most certainly it was their duty to adopt every means to evangelise the people; but the danger he apprehended from the Bill of the noble Earl was, that it would encourage laymen, who might have a personal dislike to their clergymen, to open their own houses as places of public worship in order to withdraw the people from the parish churches. He was prepared to relieve the clergy of the Church from the necessity of violating the law, if they did violate it; while with respect to Dissenters, if they were exposed to inconvenience, he thought they had at the present moment a Bill in the other House which would afford them complete protection. Should their Lordships see fit to adopt the Bill of the noble Earl, he at least hoped that an Amendment would be introduced to the effect, that nothing contained in the Act should authorise any clergyman to conduct any religious service without the permission of his bishop. Without such a clause as that it was impossible for his right rev. Brethren to consent to the measure before the House.
§ THE EARL OF SHAFTESBURY
said, that if the right rev. Prelate would prepare a clause to the effect stated, ho would be glad to give it his best consideration.
THE BISHOP OF OXFORD
said, he would not attempt to answer the speech of the noble Earl. The noble Earl had spoken as if the Bill was to have simply this effect—to prevent the enforcement of obnoxious restrictions against persons who were employed in evangelising the people. It was unpleasant for any one to rise upon such an occasion as this, and thereby to subject himself to the imputations which the noble Earl had thrown out against the opponents of his measure; but in these cases—his and that of his right rev. Brethren—they had so much at stake in respect to religion, that he was bound to rise and to incur the possible imputation, rather than suffer their Lordships to pass a measure which the noble Earl, actuated no doubt by the best possible motives, had introduced with a view to encourage the spread of religion throughout the land; but which in his (the Bishop of Oxford's) opinion would, in fact, tend materially to 1848 interfere with the action of the Established Church, to which, after all, their Lordships must look as the main evangeliser of the country. That was not his private opinion alone. The Bill had been considered the day before at a meeting of the Bishops of the province, held at the house of the Archbishop; and at that meeting it was unanimously agreed that they could not support the Bill. The noble Earl, when he brought the Bill forward, unintentionally on his part, materially misstated some of the facts of the case. One unintentional misrepresentation was, when the noble Earl inveighed against the law which tended to prevent meetings on the hill side of the people for the purpose of affording them an opportunity of receiving their first lesson in the Gospel, so that they might be prepared to be gathered to the fold of Christianity. In every word of that he agreed with the noble Earl—he agreed that it was advisable that the clergy should go out into the waste parts of their parishes, and endeavour to draw the attention of the people to the word of God, which they would never succeed in attracting, if they waited until those persons attended their churches; his own clergy went out in that way, and he rejoiced with the noble Earl in the good effects of thus spreading the truths of religion; but this Bill did not touch those matters in the slightest degree. The purport of the law was, to prevent secret and surreptitious meetings; it required that houses should be registered, and no difficulty was thrown in the way of registration; but it did not affect the question of open-air meetings. The noble Earl's interpretation of the law was overstrained, when he argued that every meeting for religious purposes held without a licence was illegal. In that case the prayers in their Lordships' House would be illegal; and it would even be illegal when any of their Lordships gave a great dinner to say grace. The noble Earl had alluded to the cases at Exeter Hall, but those did not constitute assemblages of people for religious worship; the Act simply aimed at places established for religious worship with congregations especially gathered for that purpose. He (the Bishop of Oxford) therefore asked the House to set aside the whole class of these cases, as a class the law did not touch, and on which no penalty was levied. Another large class of cases alluded to by the noble Earl ought also to be set aside—namely, that in which he supposes injury to the consciences of the 1849 clergy in officiating in places not duly licensed. The clause in the Act reserved to the parochial clergy all the powers which were confided to bishops, to teach and preach among their parishioners in all places. He (the Bishop of Oxford) believed that in the 16,000 parishes in England no clergyman of the Established Church had ever been proceeded against in his own parish on that ground, or had ever been threatened. The noble Earl had stated that the present system of licensing places of worship did not meet the case; but he (the Bishop of Oxford) contended that it did; but if the noble Earl produced a plan which, while it improved and amended the present system, would not be subject to greater evil, he would willingly support it. The licensing system required on the part of Dissenters only a simple notification of their intention to open a place for religious worship, and upon the payment of a half-crown for registration the licence was issued without further question. The Dissenters felt the system to be no grievance; and that they did not was proved by their bringing in a Bill to alter the mode of registration. As regarded places of worship in connection with the Church of England, the clergyman who wished to obtain a licence had only to apply for the permission of the Bishop, and that permission was his licence—a permission which there was no difficulty in obtaining when the attempt to hold public worship was consistent with the wishes of the clergyman of the parish and of the Bishop. The question, then, to be considered by the House was in reality whether it ought to be in the power of any person calling himself a clergyman of the Church of England to establish, not in concurrence with the Bishop of the diocese or the clergyman of the parish, a place, not for private, but for public worship, which might or might not be in full communion with the Church of England. It was the distinction between public and private worship to which he (the Bishop of Oxford) called the attention of their Lordships; and in doing so he desired to point to the fact of the inevitable necessity of a Church established by law having some such regulations as at present existed for its protection. The Church, inconsequence of its connection with the State, gave up a great portion of those natural liberties which, as a religious body, it possessed, and which, if independent of that connection, it might advantageously exercise— 1850 amongst others, the right of the clergy and laity to consult together and lay down rules for its government; and the regulation of the licence was the only regulation to prevent the evil that he had alluded to. As the Bill stood, any of the parishioners of one parish might call in the clergyman of another parish, and the spectacle of opposition sermons might be witnessed every Sunday in barns, cottages, and other places. If the most perfect liberty could be combined with a well-regulated system of licence that would certainly be the best state of things; but it was only by compromise that good was attained. This the Church of England had done by yielding up certain liberties, in order to keep out uncontrolled licence. He regretted that the noble Earl had raised the question at issue; he regretted it all the more, as he believed the law, however imperfect it might be deemed by the noble Earl, was working well, even in the direction which the noble Earl desired as well as in the direction for which it was intended. He believed that there had been no practical limitation of evangelising by its means, as the noble Earl had insisted. Indeed, the noble Earl destroyed his own case in that respect, when he stated that the London City Missions had held 20,000 meetings. If the law, as it stood, was repealed, an impression would be created that there existed a desire on the part of the Legislature to invade the whole parochial system. The noble Earl had spoken of the temper of the present times, and certainly that was a consideration to which no one could shut his eyes; but that very temper ought to make the Legislature all the more cautious how it altered the existing law on this subject. For instance, it had been proposed to found in certain parishes what was to be called "the Free Church of England"—that was, a Church in opposition to the parish church, where the people were to be gathered together and told that they as much belonged to the Church of England as if they belonged to the national church. Well, under the existing Acts there was a necessity for those Free Churches to be licensed, and that constituted just the sort of intimation to the people that those churches did not belong to the true Church of England, which would induce the people to hesitate and deliberate before they joined them. If the Bill were passed the means of making such distinction would be broken down, and a most serious injury would be 1851 inflicted on the religious peace and unity of the Church in this country. The noble Earl spoke of the time and trouble it cost Dissenters to obtain a licence. There was, however, nothing in the Bill referring to Dissenters; the word Protestants was the word used. In point of fact, however, there was no difficulty whatever in the way of Dissenters obtaining licences. The licence was very often in his own case sent back by return of post, and within three hours or less after the application the place licensed might be opened for religious worship, and the whole expense amounted to half-a-crown for the registration. The great time and trouble alluded to by the noble Earl were, therefore, no valid argument for legislation on such a delicate and difficult subject, affecting, as it did, the existing arrangements of the 16,000 parishes of England. He (the Bishop of Oxford) felt bound to advert to the haste with which the Bill of the noble Earl had been hurried through the other House. Within ten days after its introduction it had been brought into their Lordships' House, and by the singular good management of its promoters it had passed through all its stages in the other House without a single discussion being raised upon it. How it came to pass he did not, of course, know; but he had been told by some of the Members who voted for it that they knew nothing at all about it; and a high legal authority, whom he had spoken to on the point, said that he had been informed by one of the promoters of the Bill that it was a measure merely to enable prayers to be read in families when they were more than twenty in number. The Bill was an ill-considered one. He (the Bishop of Oxford) wished to see any evil which existed remedied; but he was not prepared to pass a Bill which altered the whole system of parochial arrangements of England on a statement which had been so scantily supported. On his own part, and on that of his right rev. Brethren, he (the Bishop of Oxford) could say that they felt the spiritual destitution of the people of this country as much, at least, as the noble Earl, if not more, and that they desired, by every lawful means, according to the law of Christ's Church committed in this land to their Government, to supply that spiritual destitution, and to gather into the fold of Christ, in truth and sincerity, all those unhappy wanderers who, by reason of their unbelief, were now excluded from it. But all that the noble Earl had stated with respect to 1852 the greatness of that spiritual want went for nothing in favour of this particular Bill, because, as he (the Bishop of Oxford) had shown, it would interfere with the parochial institutions of the Church of England, upon which, after all, the country must most depend for evangelising the people, He therefore asked their Lordships to declare that it was an ill-considered, ineffective measure, by agreeing to his Motion that the Amendments should be recommitted that day six months.
§ Amendment moved to leave out "now" and insert "this day six months."
§ THE EARL OF HARROWBY
was understood to speak in favour of the Bill; but his Lordship was inaudible.
THE EARL OF CARNARVON
said, he thought that if this Bill became law it would be productive of consequences which it required no spirit of prophecy to foresee. At present dissent was known and acknowledged in a way that was recognised by every one. Those who dissented from the Established Church were clearly and distinctly marked out, and had full liberty to assemble in their certified places of worship; but by this Bill all the lines of demarcation that now existed between the Established Church and dissent would be swept away; all the visible and external distinctions that now separated them would be removed, and temptations would be opened to the people to attach themselves to no particular religion or creed. This Bill, moreover, would facilitate the secession from the Church of many of its members, who would hesitate avowedly to leave the Church, but who would not hesitate to take up the ambiguous position which this Bill would enable them to occupy, neither wholly connected with, nor yet entirely separated from the establishment, yet altogether liberated from its discipline; would enable any person who took an objection to a particular clergyman or doctrine, and who might wish to act upon the basis of the Prayer Book, to set up a congregation of his own; and in this way the whole of our parochial system in time might be destroyed. When the line of demarcation between the Established Church and Dissent was obliterated there would remain only a tangled wilderness of shadowy and vague Christianity, professed by those who belonged, in fact, to no church or sect. He hoped their Lordships would not exert their influence to augment the discord which now prevailed in the Church. He believed that the Established Church was founded on the most comprehensive 1853 principles at the time of the Reformation, though differences soon grew up in her bosom; and he deprecated any measure by which those differences would be embittered. By this Bill the various sections within the Church would find themselves put in possession of weapons far stronger than any they had ever before possessed. Whatever room there had hitherto been for a division of opinion, there had always been a neutral ground on which men of all parties within the pale of the Church had met, and that was the Prayer Book; but the essence and intention of this Bill was the mutilation of the Prayer Book. Modifications and alterations, perhaps slight in themselves, would at first be made, but by degrees new prayers would be introduced and old ones expunged—changes of the most vital importance would be made, and the result would be that we should see many not merely with their own places of worship, but with their separate forms. The Prayer Book, which was the pledge of the continuity of the Church and its bond of unity, would retain its name; but for that reason it would be all the more dangerous, and their Lordships would, perhaps, find themselves at last driven to the alteration of the Prayer Book itself. He would therefore oppose the Bill, because he was satisfied that, while it would infringe on the rights and privileges of the Church, it would give no additional liberty to Dissent.
THE DUKE OF ARGYLL
said, he had entered the House in the belief that the main objections to the Bill would be objections having reference to the discipline of the Church of England rather than to the great principle of religious liberty. He should most decidedly object to any measure that would relax the discipline of the Church of England, because, instead of the power of the Bishops being too great in matters of discipline, he was of opinion that it was by far too weak. But he had listened to the arguments of his right rev. Friend, who, with his usual ability, and with more than his usual dexterity, had addressed the House against this measure, and he must say he had not heard from him one argument of the slightest value. There was not one of their Lordships who would not admit that it was an evil to have on the statute book a law which they could not and dared not enforce; and that was the case with the law in this instance, and on that ground 1854 alone, there was good cause for alteration. But his objections were materially strengthened when that law was one which invaded that religious liberty which of natural right belonged to every man and to every family in the kingdom; and it was upon this ground principally that he mainlined it was desirable to repeal the present law. It had been said that the noble Earl who introduced this measure had exaggerated the evils that existed. It was quite possible that he might have somewhat overstrained the interpretation of the particular clause in the Act to which he referred; but that did not affect the great point in debate. The question was, whether it was right to impose these restrictions upon meetings for religious purposes? The first clause of the statute now in force recited another Act which related to Nonconformists and conventicles, so that apparently the intention of the statute had no reference to the Church of England, but only to Dissenters. The statute, however, in subsequent clauses applied to "all meetings for the religious worship of Protestants,"—very large words, which certainly might be interpreted to include members of the Church of England. The right rev. Prelate (the Bishop of London) had expressed his opinion that the clergy of his diocese, when they called together more than twenty persons for religious worship in an unlicensed house, with his permission, did not violate the law. It was quite clear, however, if the statute referred to the Church of England, that all members of that Church worshipping under an unlicensed roof did violate the law. If, on the other hand, this Bill did not refer to the Church of England, but only to Dissenters, the argument of the right rev. Prelate fell to the ground, for they had rested their opposition to the the measure, not upon the increased liberty which it would give to Dissenters, but upon the increased licence which would be afforded to members of the Church of England, It appeared from the speeches of the right rev. Prelates that the evil they dreaded from this measure was that a layman in any parish might, from feelings of hostility to his clergyman, or from disapproving his doctrine, call together persons for religious worship in his own house, and so establish what a right rev. Prelate had called "an order of his own." There was, however, nothing in the present state of the law to prevent a man from adopting such a course, for he might go, not to the 1855 bishop of the diocese, but the justices of the peace, and obtain a licence for his own house, or for any other house, where he might collect persons and read to them any religious service he pleased. It appeared to him that the only practical effect of the existing law was to prevent clergymen and laymen of the Church of England, as well as Dissenters, from calling together persons for religious worship in unlicensed houses. He had heard no argument which convinced him that the existing law either ought to be or could be enforced, and he hoped, therefore, that their Lordships would give their assent to the Bill of his noble Friend.
THE BISHOP OF LONDON
observed that, he had not stated that clergymen who collected persons for religious service in unlicensed houses acted legally; but that there was great doubt whether they acted illegally.
§ THE EARL OF CHICHESTER
said, this Bill involved a question of very considerable importance, and in its present shape he could not vote in its favour. He was not prepared to say that the Act of William III., with respect to the registration of places of worship, ought to be repealed, without the adoption of some other regulation on the subject. He agreed, however, in the statement of his noble Friend (The Earl of Shaftesbury) that, though considerable improvement might be necessary with respect to the discipline of the Church of England, it was also requisite that a much greater degree of liberty should be given for the exercise of those Christian duties which it was the object of his noble Friend's Bill to enable clergymen and laymen to perform. On that account he regretted the course the right rev. Prelates had taken in opposing this measure, without making any attempt to modify it in a manner which might have rendered it beneficial to the Church. If such modifications had been effected, he believed the Bill might have been safely adopted, and he was satisfied it would have been accepted with deep gratitude by many members of the Established Church.
THE BISHOP OF OXFORD
, in explanation, said, that if a judicious and well weighed measure had been prepared, and the intention to propose it had been communicated privately to his right rev. Brethren and himself, he was satisfied they would readily have given their most earnest attention to the subject; but he must complain that this Bill had been introduced 1856 without any such notice, and that he and his right rev. Brethren were attacked because they did not at once suggest such modifications as in their opinion would render the measure unobjectionable. The Bill professed only to affect the Church of England. [The Duke of ARGYLL, No, no!] Well, the noble Earl who introduced the Bill told me so himself. [The Earl of SHAFTESBURY: No.] He asked the noble Earl whether the Bill was intended for Dissenters, or for members of the Church of England, and the noble Earl said at once, with the frankness which distinguished him—"For the Church of England, and we will have our liberty."
§ THE EARL OF SHAFTESBURY
said, the right rev. Prelate spoke to him some time ago on the subject, and asked whether the Bill was intended to affect the Church of England? He (The Earl of Shaftesbury) said that undoubtedly it was intended for the Church of England. The right rev. Prelate was then walking away, when he (the Earl of Shaftesbury) called him back and said—"Recollect it is for Dissenters too, and especially for the London City Mission." The right rev. Prelate had very much misrepresented what he (the Earl of Shaftesbury) had stated. He had never made any allusion to Exeter-hall, but what he said was, that four great meetings had been held at Freemasons'-hall for religious worship, especially in reference to the state of the war in the Crimea, and that they were constituted in a great measure of those who had relations at the field of battle, who attended to supplicate the goodness of Almighty God in protecting their relatives from the sword or bullet of the enemy.
THE LORD CHANCELLOR
said, that after reading the Bill with care, and listening to the objections urged by his two right rev. Friends against it, he must confess that they had wholly failed to satisfy him that there was anything in the Bill that was dangerous to the Established Church or the religious institutions of the country; and he could not but think that if their Lordships looked calmly and dispassionately at its provisions they would see that they were as remote from anything which would tend to create the evils described by the right rev. Prelates as could well be imagined. There were two enactments in it—the first relating to a provision contained in the celebrated Toleration Act. The effect of the Toleration Act was to relieve their Majesties' Protestant subjects 1857 dissenting from the Church of England from the penalties of certain statutes which had been passed in the reign of Charles II., and in preceding reigns; but in its last section it was stated that the Act should not authorise any person to attend assemblies for religious worship, unless the places in which they met should have been previously registered. Now, the first section of the Bill before their Lordships enacted that this provision in the Toleration Act should be repealed, and that the other provisions of the Act should be extended to persons who met for worship either in registered places or in private houses. The next Act which the Bill was intended to repeal was the Act of 1812; and what was the nature of that Act? Although the Toleration Act had repealed many of the offensive statutes of Charles II., it did not repeal them all; and in 1812 an Act was passed repealing in toto the Five Mile Act, as it was termed, which prevented any Dissenter from residing within five miles of a corporate town; and another Act, termed the Conventicle Act, but by way of rider to that Act, its second section provided nevertheless that no persons should assemble in private houses for religious worship in a larger number than twenty persons besides the family. That provision, he believed, was intended to apply only to Dissenters; but he assumed that, in point of fact, and contrary to what was intended, it did apply to the parochial clergy also. If this provision were repealed the law would be left in precisely the same state as it existed from 1689 to 1812. Nothing could be further from his wish than to impair the beneficial influence exercised by the clergy of the Church of England under the parochial system; and it was only because he was convinced that the Bill contained nothing calculated to impair it that he was ready to give it his support. He was satisfied that the Bill would not have a tendency to injure the Established Church, and should therefore give it his support.
THE BISHOP OF ST. ASAPH
said, that as the law now stood, no members of the Church of England could open new places of worship without the consent of the parochial clergyman. He feared that the effect of the change would be to enable members of the Church to act as Dissenters in this respect.
§ LORD LYTTELTON
thought the state of things could not be satisfactory which left it in doubt whether the clergyman 1858 could hold cottage meetings, which had been found of great use in the parochial ministrations. This was a point which ought to be cleared up.
THE EARL OF RODEN
could not help expressing his sincere regret that the opposition to this Bill should have originated with the bench of Bishops. He regretted it the more, inasmuch as a right rev. Prelate had stated, that the opinion he expressed was that of the whole episcopal bench; but if their Lordships came to a division, he trusted it would be seen that the whole of the right rev. Bench did not entertain that opinion. In considering the measure they must inquire what was best calculated to produce the great end which, as Christians, they all had in view. To his mind the question was, whether the continuance of fines upon certain individuals for allowing persons to assemble in their houses to a number above twenty for the purposes of religious worship was likely to forward the knowledge of the truth among the people. He conceived that the law, as at present existing, was a blot upon the Statute-book that ought to be immediately removed, and he trusted that the decision of the House that night, in spite of what had fallen from the right rev. Prelate (the Bishop of Oxford), who had, in his mind, given no answer whatever to the arguments of his noble Friend (the Earl of Shaftesbury), would be in favour of adopting the Bill. He could not help expressing his sincere regret, also, at the effect which would be produced in the country by what had fallen from the right rev. Bench, and by the line of conduct which they had determined upon taking on this occasion. He believed that a strong feeling would arise amongst a majority of the people, members of the Church of England, at finding that in the attempt to repeal such a law as this, which was directly opposed to the propagation of religious truth, the foremost supporters of that law were the members of the right rev. Bench. As an individual sincerely attached to the Church of England, he (the Earl of Roden) regretted extremely that this should be the case; for one of the great benefits of holding such meetings in private houses was, that by their means Dissenters and members of the Church of England were associated together, and that the good feeling which ought to exist amongst all classes of people in this country was thereby greatly promoted. He hoped his noble Friend would persevere in taking their Lordships' 1859 Opinions as to the measure; and, for one, he felt extremely obliged to him for the course he had pursued on the question.
§ On Question, that "now" stand part of the Motion, their Lordships divided:—Content 31; Not Content 30: Majority 1.
|List of the NOT CONTENT.|
§ Resolved in the Affirmative: Amendments reported accordingly: Further Amendments made: Bill to be recommitted to a Committee of the whole House on Friday next.