HL Deb 15 May 1868 vol 192 cc332-40

asked the Lord Privy Seal, What are the Intentions of Her Majesty's Ministers in respect of the Two Reports of the Commission on Ritual? Nearly twelve months had elapsed since the Government appointed a Commission on Ritual, and two Reports from the Commissioners were now before the House. The country, although it had been very attentive and most anxious indeed on the subject, had, he believed, been disposed to make some allowance for the delay that had occurred; but he could assure the noble Earl that the public were now becoming exceedingly impatient, and were not inclined to make any allowance whatever for further delay. He, therefore, wished to ask the noble Lord what the intentions of Her Majesty's Ministers were in respect of the two Reports now before the House?


said, he thought the noble Earl could hardly; expect Her Majesty's Government to take action on a question, which naturally involved a great deal of public feeling on both sides, until they had a perfect Report from the Commission to which the subject had been entrusted. As to the delay which had occurred, he regretted it as much as the noble Earl did, and he thought the greater the delay the greater would be the excitement; but Her Majesty's Government could not control the pace at which the Commission moved. That was a point which must be left entirely to the discretion of the Commissioners, who were men well fitted to deal with the important question that had been referred to them. At the same time he concurred in the opinion that it was very desirable there should be no undue delay in the matter.


was anxious to know whether the most reverend Primate could give them any hope that the inquiry would be concluded in time for legislation this year. Really this was no trifling matter. The feeling upon it was deep. Great interest was taken in it, not only by the educated classes, but by the mass of the working people of this country; and if he were to quote to their Lordships the letters he had received from Lancashire and Yorkshire on the subject, they would see that, in consequence of that delay, the very fate of the Church of England was trembling in the balance. In default of action by the Government he had himself, in May of last year, introduced a Bill for the regulation of vestments; but the Government took the matter out of his hands, saying that he and the country also might be satisfied that care should be taken that the first Report would be upon vestments. Well, what was that Report? Merely that the first legislative enactment to be passed should relate to the subject of vestments. And now, when they had two Reports before them, and they were ripe for legislation, they were told to wait for the Report upon the Lectionary and two or three unimportant rubrics. That, he would tell their Lordships, would not do: if persevered in the greatest mischief would result from it.


was understood to say that a charge had been brought against the Commissioners both there and elsewhere, that they had not sent to the Queen's Printer the whole of the Report as it had been given in the newspapers. The fact was that the Commissioners had sent to the Queen's Printer the body of the Report, and also the reasons of certain members of the Commission for dissenting from that Report. On the 2nd of May the Report was out of the hands of the Queen's Printers, sent to the Home Office, and then laid before Her Majesty. He (the Archbishop of Canterbury) and the Home Secretary also then authorized the Secretary to the Commission to send the Report to the newspapers.


said, there must be some misapprehension on the part of the noble Earl (the Earl of Malmesbury) as to the connection between the first and second Reports and the Report that was to follow. The noble Earl seemed to think that there could be no legislation on the subject of the first and second Reports of the Commissioners before the presentation of the third Report; whereas the subjects of the two first Reports were separate and complete in themselves, and in no way dependent on the third. The House was aware that the third Report, in all probability, would embrace a vast number of rubrics, extending throughout the whole of the Prayer Book; and to expect that it could be ready in a very short time was simply to expect that the Commissioners would not do their duty. Their business was, with the utmost care, to go through a great number of rubrics; and, in proportion to the importance and extent of the work to be done, the time taken in doing it seemed to him to have been very short indeed. The remarks of the noble Earl (the Earl of Shaftesbury) had reference to matters which were subjects entirely by themselves, and which had been treated as fully as possible in the two Reports in question. It was totally impossible to bring the third Report to a speedy conclusion; but it was not necessary to await the third Report before steps were taken in relation to the two former.


ventured to protest against the tone of menace in which his noble Friend (the Earl of Shaftesbury) had advanced his views on this subject. To listen to his noble Friend one would imagine that he had an enormous physical force in the country at his back—a Barebones Parliament sitting in the other House, and a Puritan Minister storming at their Lordships' Bar. It was not a subject to be dealt with in the excited manner in which his noble Friend introduced it. It was one affecting most deeply the most earnest thoughts and religious feelings of great numbers of Her Majesty's subjects. If ever there was a subject that required to be treated with care and caution, and deliberation, it was those matters which, in themselves, might be thought unimportant, but which, in. their bearing on the belief of religious men in this country, were supremely important, and likely, if dealt with rashly and inconsiderately, to precipitate divisions, which he was sure his noble Friend would be the first to deprecate. They needed to be considered with extreme care, precisely on account of their apparent insignificance. It was precisely because the matters in dispute were not disputed on account of their intrinsic value, but because they were supposed to be important as symbols of the doctrines to which they all attached the deepest value—it was for that reason that they had taken a deep hold of the feeling of the country, and had excited the earnest fears and apprehensions of his noble Friend; and it was on that account he was afraid they would excite fears and apprehensions on the other side, which would produce violent dissensions in the Church of England, if any incautious proceedings were taken. He ventured to press upon the Government, precisely opposite advice to that given by the noble Earl. This was a matter demanding the very utmost caution; and the Government were bound to see that no measure was introduced, except such as they would certainly be able to carry without producing divisions in the Church of England. He entreated their Lordships not to be excited by such an appeal as that they had heard from the noble Earl, to precipitate themselves into a course of hasty legislation. Were they to do so, they might suddenly find themselves on the brink of a great crisis—such a crisis as that which took place twenty-five years ago in the Church of Scotland. Therefore he earnestly counselled the Government not to be precipitate in inviting legislation.


deprecated the application of such phrases as "trembling in the balance" to the state of the Church of England. It generally happened, if the noble Earl's (the Earl of Shaftesbury's) wishes were not acted on, that he at once declared the Church of England was lost. He had no part in such fears.


said, that a question like this, in which so much controversy was intermixed, required the most cautious and deliberate treatment; and it was most unfortunate that when the public mind was so much agitated nothing should be done authoritatively to guide it. In his opinion it was not in the least necessary to wait for the expected Report before the subjects already reported on were brought under the notice of Parliament. The advice given by the Commissioners was moderate and complete, and he saw no reason for delay.


said, he would not say a word in defence of his noble Friend (the Earl of Shaftesbury) who was very capable of defending himself. He (Lord Ebury) was not aware of the feeling of his brother Commissioners, but his own expectation had been that the Government who appointed the Commission would immediately follow up the recommendations of the Commission by legislation. Had the noble Earl (the Earl of Malmesbury) merely stated that the condition of Public Business would not permit of immediate legislation, he would have rested content; but the announcement that Government did not intend to bring in a Bill until the Commission had reported on the whole of the subject before them had positively alarmed him. Considering the state of religious feeling in the country, and the numerous and influential signatures attached to the petitions that had been presented to the House, he did not wonder the noble Earl near him (the Earl of Shaftesbury) had spoken strongly; he wondered rather at the noble Earl's great patience up to this time. He himself was exceedingly anxious on the subject, and predicted that great danger would result to the Church if things were left in their present unsatisfactory state. He held it the duty of the Government to act as speedily as possible with a view of putting an end to further contention.


said, he must confess himself very much disappointed by what had fallen from his noble Friend the Lord Privy Seal. It was not to be expected that the Government should declare authoritatively its intentions so soon after the second Report had been presented, and he thought it wholly premature to address any question upon it at the present time; but his disappointment lay in this—that he understood from his noble Friend that the Government was waiting till the third Report was produced before any legislation would be instituted on the subject. He heard that declaration with utter astonishment, and he could not yet think that such was the deliberate intention of the Government. Speaking for himself—and, perhaps, for others as well as himself—he could see no reason why they should wait, before proceeding to legislation, for the third Report, which had no connection of subject with its predecessors. The third Report would take a considerable time in preparation; and he asserted in the presence of some of his brother Commissioners that it would not add an iota of information or any one further point of recommendation on the specific topics that had already been reported on. The case was this—The recom- mendations of the Commissioners as regarded vestments, lights, and incense, were already fully before their Lordships; these recommendations might be good or bad, but, such as they were, they were full, entire, and complete. Then what pretence was there for saying that, when legislation was needed, the Government would wait till the third Report was presented, when it was quite certain that there would not be a word in it which would bear upon the previous subjects. He hoped his noble Friend (the Earl of Malmesbury) would not, on further consideration, adhere to the Answer he had given. It was quite proper that the Government should have more ample leisure for deliberation on this subject, but it was not proper as he (Earl Stanhope) presumed to think, that they should adduce as a reason for not introducing a Bill the expectation of a further Report from the Commission, which so far as this subject went they would certainly never receive.


was understood to say that this was a subject on which there was much conflict of opinion, and he thought that speedy legislation, if it was of a moderate and conciliatory character, was desirable.


said, he was one of those who thought that the earnestness displayed by the noble Earl (the Earl of Shaftesbury) was neither unnatural nor misplaced. The noble Earl asked what the Government proposed to do with reference to the two Reports already presented? But there were two or three questions the Government had to consider before they were in a position to state what they proposed to do with the two Reports. Their Lordships must remember that the second of these Reports had only been in print for about a week; and the first one, as must be admitted by everyone, was incomplete until the second had been presented. The first question the Government had to consider was how far those two Reports were complete without any further information; and upon that point he must own that, from what had fallen that evening from noble Lords who had themselves been members of the Commission, they had, as far as the subject matter of these two Reports went, completely and entirely discharged the duties assigned to them. Then, taking these Reports as complete, the next question was as to the proper steps to be taken, supposing legislation to be possible during the present Session. But supposing legislation to be possible during the present Session, was it absolutely necessary? The Government would not approach this question but with the greatest caution; and he ventured to think that the Government would be guilty of a gross dereliction of duty if they attempted to propose a measure during the present Session without great deliberation, and unless there was a prospect of their being able to carry it through Parliament. The third question was whether, in the present state of the Session there was any prospect of carrying any new business through the present Parliament—whether it would not be impossible, even if sufficient time had elapsed for a measure to be prepared, to place that measure on the table of the House, and, though supported, as it probably would be, by a majority of the members of the Commission, to excite a discussion which could not possibly be closed during the present Session? Speaking for himself, and he believed for many of his Colleagues, he thought it was utterly impossible that deliberation of any satisfactory kind could have taken place since the presentation of the Report, and that the Government might fairly be excused from not stating what course they intended to pursue.


said, he did not suspect the Government of being animated by any particular feeling of party in this matter; but he thought that a change had come over their view since they asked the noble Earl (the Earl of Shaftesbury) to withdraw his Bill. The truth was that Her Majesty's Government were not now in the position in which they were last year. They were then carrying their measures with a high hand; but were now merely enjoying a respite before a dissolution took place. Their Lordships, he thought, ought not to be too hard upon an Administration placed in such a position.


said, it was hardly possible that the Government could have been prepared with a definite Answer, as to the course they proposed to take, when it was remembered that the Report had been in their hands only for a few days; though they need not, perhaps, have said that they would wait for the third Report. The Government had nothing whatever to do with the action of the Commission. The inquiry might have been tedious, but no one acquainted with the difficulties with which the question was surrounded would be surprised at the time the inquiry had occupied. It was unfair to complain that the Government had not yet announced the course they intended to pursue, because the subject was one which required a great deal of deliberation, before action was taken upon it.


I can only express my regret that I should have been misunderstood—for it is impossible that any of your Lordships should misrepresent another, unless there was misunderstanding—and I desire to offer a few words in explanation. What I said, or meant to say, was, that in consequence of the delay that has occurred in laying the Reports before this House—the last Report only having been printed two days ago—it would be impossible for the Government to take any action in the matter, at least, until after the presentation of the third Report. I thought it would be surplusage, and perfectly puerile, to tell your Lordships, who know everything which passes in the country, that it would be impossible for the Government to consider so important and exciting a subject at this period of the year, and in the face of the difficulties which, I am free to confess, we are labouring under, in the other House of Parliament. Let us look at things practically. Does the noble Earl (the Earl of Shaftesbury), who thinks everything possible which he undertakes, believe that I could bring forward a Bill this Session, and pass it through both Houses? If he does believe that I could have done so, pray let him try to do it himself. No one doubts his sincerity, and it is not necessary for him to bring in a Bill to prove his sincerity. But it is equally unnecessary for the Government to defend themselves against the insinuation of the noble Lord (Lord Overstone) that it is our fault in any way that this question is not ripe for legislation. What action could we have recommended that would have hastened the inquiry? We have patiently waited for the Report, which has only been put in a shape to be read by us two days ago. It is, of course, my own fault, if I have been misunderstood; but what I meant to gay was that, in the present state of things, it is impossible that any action could be taken until the time when the third Report will probably have been laid before your Lordships. I hope, after this explanation, that the astonishment and the disappointment expressed by the noble Earl behind me will diminish. The noble Earl opposite (Earl de Grey and Ripon) said, that the Government is changed—that it has no longer the same head that it had.


I said, the position of the Government had changed.


The position of the Government has changed, and I do not think it was expected, even by the noble Earl himself, considering the state of public affairs—that the change that has occurred would have been effected this year, until a fair field had been prepared and opened, for the final decision of the country, as to which of the two parties should govern. In consequence of circumstances, into which I shall not enter—but which are due to no fault of ours—our position has changed; but I beg leave to differ altogether from the noble Earl, when he says that we have no longer the confidence of Parliament. Parliament does not consist of one House only. It has not yet pleased the House of Commons to declare that it has no confidence in the Government, nor have I any recollection that any vote, either during the present or during last Session, which at all tended in that direction, has been agreed to by your Lordships. Therefore, I cannot help thinking that the noble Earl opposite went out of his way to give us what is called "a slap in the face." I may add that the noble Earl's statement, on this occasion, was not made with his usual accuracy.


explained that he had only intended to complain of the postponement of legislation upon this subject to a future Session.

House adjourned at a quarter past Seven o'clock, to Monday next, Eleven o'clock.