HL Deb 15 June 1855 vol 138 cc2020-32

Order of the day for the House to be put into a Committee on recommitment read.


wished to state that the Bill did not in the least affect the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of bishops of the Established Church; but, as some apprehension appeared to exist that such would be the effect of it, he proposed to introduce a clause reserving to the bishops and inferior clergy of the Church of England the full ecclesiastical authority which they now possessed. The following was the clause which he proposed to introduce— Provided that nothing in this Act shall prejudice or affect the liberty of worship in churches or chapels of the Church of England, or places duly licensed by the bishops of such Church, notwithstanding that service for baptism, marriage, or burial may be performed therein; nor shall anything herein contained in any way abridge or affect the discipline of the said Church, or the enforcing thereof, by the bishops or other ecclesiastical authority. If that clause should not, however, be considered sufficient, he was willing to accept any words or clauses which might be considered necessary to attain the required object. With regard to the proposition about to be made by the noble Earl near him (the Earl of Derby) for the appointment of a Select Committee, ho should feel bound to oppose it, even if he stood alone in so doing.

Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into a Committee.


My Lords, I rise to move, on the Motion for the recommitment of the Religious Worship Bill, that a Select Committee be appointed to inquire into the existing state of the law with regard to the liberty of religious worship, and the expediency of relaxing or dispensing with the provisions of an Act passed in the first year of King William and Queen Mary, chap. 18. My Lords, I feel considerable difficulty in approaching this subject, not only because it is one with which I am not very conversant, but because I must in so doing be opposed to the noble Earl, whose earnest efforts in the cause of religion and of religious education are so conspicuous and so praiseworthy; and who upon the present occasion has for his object to afford increased facility for religious worship. It is impossible not to be convinced of the entire earnestness and sincerity of my noble Friend; but while my noble Friend displays such earnestness and zeal, I trust I may be forgiven for saying that I think he allows that zeal occasionally to outrun his discretion, and to induce in him a readiness to remove whatever may stand in the way of the object which he has in view, without sufficiently considering the consequences which may result. My noble Friend, in fact, possesses all the spirit of chivalry, and is equally prepared to ride at a giant or a windmill, if either should stand in his way. I must say that I think, on the present occasion, my noble Friend has shown an over eagerness to effect his purpose, and that he has done so without reference to the requirements of the time or of the circumstances. The measure before your Lordships passed through the other House of Parliament without a single discussion on a single stage of the Bill. I am told it was certainly introduced I before twelve o'clock; but I am also informed that every stage subsequent was taken after that hour, and without discussion. In this House the Bill, as your Lordships are aware, was introduced and read a first and second time pro forma without discussion; and it was only when we arrived at the Report that any discussion of its principle or objects took place, and after that discussion my noble Friend had a majority of one. There can be no better proof of the want of consideration with which the measure was passed through the other House than the fact, that of the two leading principles and provisions of the Bill, there is at this moment in its last stage in the House of Commons a Bill directly contradictory of one of those provisions. The object of this measure is, we are told, twofold—namely, to relieve the Dissenters and to relieve the Protestants in connection with the Church of England from the present prohibition of performing public worship in any unlicensed place in presence of more than twenty persons. With regard to the Dissenters, my noble Friend thinks it a grievance that Dissenters should have their places of public worship licensed—by licensed I mean registered—at the expense of half-a-crown, and that they ought to have relief from the evil. But what do the Dissenters themselves think on the subject? and I suppose they are the best judges in the matter. Why, they are at this moment pressing through the other House a Bill, not to repeal the law and to do away altogether with licences and registration, but to regulate the mode of granting such licences, which the present Bill proposes absolutely to dispense with. I listened with very great attention to the former discussion on this measure, and I must confess, that to me it was by no means satisfactory on either side. It was not satisfactory, because neither my noble Friend nor the right rev. Prelate who followed him (the Bishop of Oxford) satisfied me as to what the state of the law on the subject actually is at this moment. Nor, though my noble Friend launched into a wide discussion as to the practical grievances and the intolerable hardship of that law, did he inform us—at least, to my satisfaction—in what those practical grievances and that intolerable hardship consist. My noble Friend said that the law was violated with impunity every hour in the day by Dissenters, by Churchmen, and even by the Sovereign; but the right rev. Prelate proved to him that this was an error, inasmuch as the cases pointed out by him did not come under the definition of public religious worship—because it is clear that the law only applies to meetings held for the purpose of religious worship exclusively, and not to meetings at which religious worship may be incidentally introduced. My noble Friend even referred to one of the Ministers of the Crown, the Minister at War, who, he said, violated the law by having public prayer in his own house. I have family prayer in my own house, but I do not think I violate the law, for I do not go to the corner of St. James's-square and ring an opposition bell to invite the parish; though, at the same time, I must say, with all due respect to the noble Lord the Secretary of State, or any other noble Lord, that I think the practice would be more seemly if prayer was confined to his own household. I should like to know, therefore, how the statute stands in this respect. This is a law, whatever the law may be, to which all parties are amenable through a common informer; but I will venture to say that no common informer has ever yet appeared to interfere with meetings of the description alluded to by my noble Friend. What they may hereafter attempt, encouraged by my noble Friend, I will not pretend to say. The noble Duke on the other side (the Duke of Argyll) said, "How can you defend the maintenance of a law on your statute book which you cannot enforce?" I must say, I think this is rather bagging the question; because the law is on the statute book, and there are cases in which it may act as a preventive check to practices which ought not to be encouraged, and in which it would be very desirable to bring it into operation; and therefore it may be beneficially retained, more especially as my noble Friend only quoted one or two out of 25,000 cases within his own knowledge. When the law stands at variance with the fact, it is a practical and real grievance certainly; but we ought assuredly to inquire into the good the existing law effects, the evils it prevents, and the facts to which it is applicable, before we proceed to adopt the summary course proposed by my noble Friend and do away with it altogether, and leave no protection for that which it is undoubtedly the intention of the law to defend. I speak, my Lords, as a member of the Church of England, and I say that it is not the doctrine or principle of that Church that any of her members, in any place, with or without authority, should use the services of the Church, should publicly pray, should publicly preach, should conduct the devotions of the public, and usurp to themselves that which the whole of England has, with the sanction of the State, confided to authorised interpreters who hold a higher commission as the messengers of the word of God. The Church of England, moreover, is an institution of the State, and her public services are confided to a body of men who are set aside for that purpose by virtue of the highest authority. I can never give my sanction, therefore, to the doctrine that in the Church of England every man—be he lay or be he clerical—who chooses to do so, has a right to take on himself that authority which a Divine institution iii the first instance, and the will of the State in the second, has confided to men specially set apart for that purpose. I am well aware that in this metropolis, and in large towns, and in manufacturing towns more especially, and in places where the population has largely increased, the functions of the clergy cannot be exercised to the full and proper extent; that the clergy cannot have a personal acquaintance, or even that complete superintendence over their parishioners which is so desirable; that they cannot bring them to their parish church, or visit them in the exercise of their duty as ministers of the gospel; and undoubtedly it is most desirable that in such places the clergy should have the assistance and co-operation of pious laymen—a co-operation which I am sure they will always thankfully accept. But, on the other hand, I maintain that it is most important that laymen should be really assistants of the clergy, and that they should not be in a position to set them-selves up as rivals to the clergy; and that—and especially in the case of clergymen—they should not be a self set-up class, every man of whom doeth that which is right in his own eyes—but a body acting with the authority and by the consent of the clergyman of the parish and the bishop of the diocese. I think that even in those great centres of society where the parochial system cannot be fully carried out a great evil would be produced by the promiscuous administration of the rites of religion and preaching the Word of God, which would be the consequence of the removal of all restrictions; and that, in the case of country districts and small parishes, where the connection of the clergyman and his flock is of a more intimate character, you will, in the present state of the Church, introduce a new element of discord where, unhappily, too much of it exists already. I regret the extreme opinions into which the Church has been divided, and I participate in neither. I regret, on the one hand, the assimilation of her ceremonial observances to those of the Church of Rome, though I am convinced that offence has been taken by simple-minded people at things which are nothing in themselves and likely to lead to nothing. But, on the other hand, while I condemn these things, I am not at all prepared to fall in with the cant language of those who desire to see all ceremonial set aside contrary to the apostolic doctrine that all things should be done decently and in order, and who set up their own theoretical opinions against those who are the faithful ministers of the Word of God, and the appropriate teachers and spiritual pastors of the people. My noble Friend has told us that he has, in his Amendments, preserved the principle of the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the bishops over the clergy of the Church of England; but my noble Friend has not done anything to discourage the unauthorised intrusion of laymen into clerical functions. On the contrary, he gives encouragement, where there is any difference between the clergyman and his parishioners, to any over-zealous layman, be he High Church or be he Low Church, who may choose to complain of the conduct of the clergyman, to gather around him a body of Dissenters, and, without the least hindrance or impediment, to set up a rival house of prayer, with rival doctrines, rival ceremonials, rival teaching, rival preaching, creating thereby additional discord in the Church. These things must follow if this Bill should pass. I do not say that the law may not require amendment. It may be that the terms of the existing statute are too stringent; it may be that they do not provide for those cases in which laymen might be brought into co-operation with the clergy. I am not sufficiently master of the subject to speak confidently on its operation. But I do say, that we ought to hesitate before, on the mere statement of a theoretical grievance by my noble Friend, without, I will add, any proof of the existence of insuperable difficulty in the way of its removal, we proceed, by the repeal of this law, to say that the clergy are no more entitled to respect or deference in the exercise of their sacred functions, to no higher position, in fact, than any person who can collect around him, for purposes of public worship, in any form whatever, a greater number of individuals than twenty. It is for these reasons that I have obtruded myself on your Lordships on the present occasion, without, as I stated, being fully conversant with all the facts of the case. But I feel so strongly that to accede to my noble Friend's Bill would be to proceed with undue haste to overthrow enactments which may be good or which may be bad, for aught we know on the subject, that—not for the purpose of opposing his Bill, not for the purpose of defeating it, still less for the purpose of withholding any portion of religious liberty, and, least of all, God knows, for the purpose of preventing religious instruction from reaching the great mass of ignorance and vice which prevails, I am sorry to say, in many places in this kingdom—but for the purpose of entreating your Lordships, before you proceed further, to ascertain the extent of the grievance, if any exists, and to probe the evil, should evil there be—to send the Bill before a Select Committee, who will hear both Churchman and Dissenter that may have a right to complain, and who will carefully seek a remedy for the wrong that may be proved, without sweeping away the distinction that exists between laymen and clergymen, and overturning along with it the whole parochial system of the country. Under these circumstances, I move that a Select Committee be appointed to inquire into the existing state of the law with regard to the liberty of religious worship, and the expediency of relaxing or dipensing with the provisions of an Act passed in the first year of King William and Queen Mary, c. 18.

Amendment moved, to leave out from "that," to the end of the Motion, and insert, "this Bill be referred to a Select Committee."


My Lords, the noble Earl has complained that this Bill passed through the other House without any discussion. I do not think that is otherwise than a favourable feature, considering the persons there whose attention was likely to be drawn to it. It is impossible, however, that any measure bearing upon religious worship or the position of the Church of England can be unworthy of the deepest attention of your Lordships, and especially of the right rev. Bench; but it appears to me that, as regards this Bill, almost too high a tone has been given to the debate. I do not think the noble Earl (the Earl of Derby) is quite borne out in arguing that it is inexpedient that an Act which has no operation whatever should be repealed, or that the impression conveyed in some able speeches, that the repeal of this Act would place the Church of England itself, its Liturgy, and Prayer Book in danger, is correct. On the other hand, I think my noble Friend (the Earl of Shaftesbury) is hardly correct in stating that it is necessary to our religious liberties that the existing statute should be re-pealed. I think my noble Friend is mistaken in some of the effects which he ascribes to the present law, under which I believe that it is quite clear that a person being a member of the Church of England might for half a crown, without subjecting himself to the suspicion of being a Dissenter, open a room for religious worship, not necessarily to go through the whole of the Liturgy, but for prayers. With respect to the proposition of referring the Bill to a Select Committee, I should be very glad if my noble Friend would concur in that course, under the assurance that the Select Committee is not meant as an obstruction or delay in the way of the measure, but for the purpose of a bonâ fide investigation of the tendency and effect of the present law. If, on the other hand, my noble Friend thinks it more judicious to persevere in now pressing the Bill forward, I shall Vote with him, on the simple ground that, though no Very great question of religious liberty is involved in the question, yet the existing law is one which some of the most respectable and most religious persons in the community are daily in the habit of breaking. Such a state of things brings disrepute upon our statute book, and encourages a notion among more ignorant persons, that it is not so very important a matter to observe the laws of the country.


supported the Bill. He was surprised that the whole bench of Bishops had not long before that taken up the question, instead of leaving it in the hands of laymen.


said, that though it was painful to him to differ from those whose opinions he so much respected as the noble Earl who had brought forward the Bill; still, when the right rev. Bench had Unanimously come to the conclusion that they must oppose the Bill because it interfered with the discipline of the Church and with the parochial arrangements of the country, he considered it was a bounden duty to pause before he assented to such a measure. In voting for the Amendment of his noble Friend, therefore, he was actuated by no party or personal feeling; and he did so, because he believed it to be a solemn duty not to pass any measure against which those who were the legitimate guardians of religion in that House had so strongly pronounced.


, in reply to what had fallen from the noble Lord (Lord Congleton), explained that, in voting to refer the subject to a Select Committee, he did so without the least idea of defeating the Bill, but with the bonâ fide intention of ascertaining how far relief might be afforded for certain things in respect to which he thought relief was wanted. He pledged himself to give the fairest and most candid consideration to the question, and he had not the least wish to stop any of the present religious meetings now held. What he wished was, that whenever not occasional but regular religious Worship was conducted, it should be notified whether it was conducted in opposition to, or in communion with, the Established Church.


, in reply, said, he would first answer the question how he knew that these 25,000 meetings he had spoken of were illegal. He found these meetings to be all of one and the same character, and with regard to the London City Missions, he knew the character of them to be devotional from beginning to end. Until he brought this question forward he was not aware how frequently the existing law had been used for the purpose of intimidating, not only persons who had no great standing in society, and were easily frightened, but even some of the parochial clergy themselves. It was but the previous morning that he received a letter from one of the most active and useful parochial clergymen in London, to the effect that he performed his duties in constant fear and trembling. He must appeal to the common justice of the Peers who had heard his (the Earl of Shaftesbury's) speech the other night, or who had looked into the Bill, and he would put it to his noble Friend (the Earl of Derby), as a Peer of this House and an honourable man, whether, in moving the Amendment, his noble Friend was justified in the declaration he had made that night, that the object he (the Earl of Shaftesbury) had in view was to supersede the parochial clergy, and give the laity the power of performing the service of the Church of England, administering the sacraments, taking upon them all sacerdotal rights, and placing themselves in the position of the clergy of the Church of England? How, he asked, did his Bill in any way, nearly or remotely, affect the position of the laity in that matter? In what way did it give to any layman the power of taking upon himself the right to administer the Sacrament of Baptism or the Lord's Supper? In what way did it give him the slightest power of coming into rivalry with the parochial clergyman? Why, the utmost that the Bill did was to repeal the section in the existing Act which stated that no congregation or assembly for religious worship in a private house should consist of more than twenty persons over and above the household. He (the Earl of Shaftesbury) had said nothing whatever about preachers or officiating ministers; he merely said that the section to which the Bill referred ought to be repealed, and that people should have full power, if they pleased, to convene within their houses as many persons as they liked for the purpose of singing hymns, reading the Bible, and offering prayer to Almighty God. Nothing in the Bill would enable the laity to do that which they were not fully able to do now. No layman, after the passing of the Bill, would have a tithe more, or, indeed, a shadow more, of power to trespass on the ecclesiastical functions of the clergy, or to place himself in the position of minister or clergyman, than he had at this moment. He begged their Lordships to bear in mind that the Bill was simply and solely designed to give power to Nonconformists and to the laity of the Church of England to meet in greater numbers than twenty over and above the household of the person who received them under his roof. When his noble Friend (the Earl of Derby) declared that nothing should be said or done in the way of worship except by the ordained clergy of the Church of England, it struck him (the Earl of Shaftesbury) that his noble Friend pushed his argument so far that the next step he ought to take was to call for a revival of the Conventicle Act. No man more desired than he did to see everything pertaining to Divine worship done in decency and in order. He had laboured as much as any man to advance the interests of the Church of England, and he believed that no one would say that he was not advancing those interests by untying the hands of the laity, and permitting them to go, without let or hindrance, as evangelists amongst the enormous mass of ignorance and heathenism which existed around us. The more we evangelised the people the stronger would be their feeling in favour of the Church; for we might rest assured that the people of this country, from the highest to the lowest, had the strongest attachment to what they called their mother Church, and it would be the fault of that Church if she proved herself a stepmother instead of a parent, who would feed her people with her life-blood and train them in the faith and nurture of the Lord. He objected, then, to this Committee, and would resist it even if he stood alone. He thought the subject was one which their Lordships were fully competent to discuss in an open House, and he saw no necessity for referring such a question to a Select Committee. In the age in which we lived, and the circumstances by which we were surrounded, in the absolute necessity now existing for declaring full religious liberty and free action to all who wished to carry the Gospel into the forgotten recesses and miserable purlieus of our great cities, he must say that this was not the time to inquire whether the Nonconformists of this realm, or the laity of the Church of England, should be allowed to congregate under their roofs more than twenty persons over and above their families, and belonging to their own Church. He had no apprehension whatever ever of such a result as that which his noble Friend (the Earl of Derby) had mentioned, namely, that there would be preaching places set up in opposition to the clergy in the various parishes of the country. For himself, he was convinced that no such result would ensue. He was satisfied that a great proportion of the middle and wealthier classes were attached to the Church of England; and if ever such a result as that which had been mentioned by his noble Friend took place in any one instance, he was convinced that it would arise, not from any desire of the parishioner to assume to himself the position of an officiating minister of the Church of England, but because the clergyman of the district in which he resided had not given to him that support, and fed his people with that truth, which he thought to be essential to their souls' salvation.


The noble Earl said, he did not propose to give to any layman a right of which he was not already in possession. But, if he were not mistaken, one of the cases of grievance which had been brought forward by the noble Earl on a former evening was, that the clergyman living remote from a gentleman's house, and a large population residing in the neighbourhood, this gentleman had, from the best of motives, undertaken to read a chapter in the Bible, and to deliver lectures to the people who chose to attend; but, upon being told that the existing law subjected him to a penalty for so doing, he was obliged to abandon the practice altogether. If that were put forward as a case of grievance under the present law, and the present Bill would remove that illegality, it appeared to him (the Earl of Derby) that the noble Earl clearly desired that the service of the Church should be conducted, in the absence of a clergyman, by a layman.


Surely his noble Friend did not mean to assert that by reading a chapter in the Bible, delivering a lecture, and offering a prayer to the Almighty, a man was taking upon himself the functions of a clergyman of the Church of England, or was setting himself up as a rival to the minister of the parish, or interfered in any respect with his official duties?

On Question, that the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Motion, their Lordships divided:—Content 30; Not Content 47: Majority 17.

List of the CONTENT.
Lord Chancellor Spencer
DUKE. Waldegrave
Breadalbane Falkland
Westminster Sydney
Bessborough Camoys
Burlington Clarina
Chichester Calthorpe
Fortescue Congleton
Fitzwilliam Leigh
Granville Mostyn
Harrowby Middleton
Minto Saye and Sele
Shaftesbury Stanley of Alderley
Somers Wodehouse

Resolved in the negative; then the said Motion, as amended, was agreed to; and Bill referred to a Select Committee.

House adjourned to Monday next.