HL Deb 21 July 1876 vol 230 cc1681-8

, who had given Notice to move— That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty for, Copy of Report of the Committee of the Upper House of Convocation of the Province of Canterbury with regard to Confession agreed to in the Session of 1874, said, he ought to apologize to their Lordships for bringing before them a subject not altogether agreeable to some Members of their Lordships' House, but he thought that as most of the Members of the Upper House of Convocation were Members also of their Lordships' House, that was a fitting place in which to bring the subject forward. The subject was not only a complicated one, but it was one of the greatest importance, the interest in which was augmenting every day, for it touched the question of habitual confession—a practice which had been condemned as contrary to the practice and teaching of the Church of England by the highest authority of the Church. It would be in the recollection of their Lordships that he brought this question before the House in 1873, and his Motion was followed by considerable debate in the Upper House of Convocation. Considerable difficulty was expressed as to how the matter should be dealt with, but the purport of the debate was to condemn compulsory confession, and to show that habitual, compulsory, or sacramental confession was contrary to the practices of the Established Church. Notwithstanding this condemnation the practice had increased rather than diminished. As to the Public Worship Regulation Act, it did not give any greater facility in dealing with the practice than existed before the passing of that Act. He had himself attempted to introduce a clause into the Bill in reference to it, but failed. The consequence was that habitual confession was spreading, and there were now scattered over the country several thousand clergymen who practised it; and he might refer in proof of that statement to the Charges from the Bishops of several dioceses speaking of it and lamenting it. There were at that time notices in several churches of the diocese of London—one of which he had himself seen—to the effect that the church would be open for two hours three days a-week for the purpose of confession and absolution. It was perfectly vain for the Bishops to condemn these practices in their Charges, if they permitted the practices in their churches. They had all recently read in the public Press a very unfortunate case, and they all sympathized with the noble Earl (the Earl of Minto). He had recently been talking to a lady who said no doubt they all sympathized with the noble Earl, but there was not one family among the upper classes in life which had not to regret somes imilar case. It was a very significant fact that in a recent sermon the Bishop of Manchester said that although no one had a greater dread of the introduction of confession than himself, yet he had been unable to forbid it, as one of his most earnest and most gifted clergymen represented that he could use it to keep young men pure. It did not appear, however, that the existence of the Confessional kept the youth of France and Italy pure, and he contended that the right rev. Prelate, in publicly accepting habitual confession, had acted ultra vires, and done a grievous wrong to the National Church. As to the literature of confession, which consisted of works of very questionable morality—some indeed worthy of Holywell Street—they purported to be religious works, instructing the young how to examine themselves; but there was one point especially on which they constantly insisted—namely, that if a person felt inclined to confess, he ought not to allow himself to be influenced in a contrary direction by even his nearest and dearest friends. With regard to this evil, he might mention two typical cases. One was furnished by a letter which was written by a clergyman to a young lady, and which was to the following effect:— My dear Child,—I tried to see you after evensong to tell you you should use your own judgment as to whether you should communicate without previous confession…. I should not say anything unkind; but it seems to me that if you leave off coming to a sacrament which our Lord has ordained for the forgiveness of sins done after baptism, you are running a great risk. I know no other way by which mortal sin committed after baptism is forgiven except by sacramental confession and absolution. If you are living and dying without again being absolved, it is only right you should see clearly the risk you are running. The same clergyman, he understood, had since forwarded to a young lady a small book, entitled Absolution, and How it is to be Obtained, containing questions for self-examination on the Seventh Commandment. The second case was described by a letter which had been addressed to him by a father— About two months ago," his correspondent wrote, "I discovered that my daughter had for about 18 months been almost monthly confessing to a clergyman. She tells me that, when she first went there, she told him she was not of age, and that she had come to him unknown to either of her parents, and that if they knew of it they would be very angry. The letter went on to state that this clergyman's church was open every Friday from 3 to 5; that he sat in his surplice in a small room screened from the church, and that one went in at a time, knelt down beside him, and received absolution by his putting his hand on the head. Such was the result of this miserable system that a graduate of the University, a clergyman of the English Church, an English gentleman, being carried away by sacerdotal zeal, acted contrary to all rules of honour or good feeling, and deliberately encouraged filial disobedience and systematic deceit. That case was well known in the neighbourhood where it occurred. The clergy felt their cloth assailed, the laity asked whether their children were to be thus decoyed from them; but they knew that they were safe in the hands of the most rev. Prelate; they knew that he had stated that sacramental confession had no place in the Church of England; they knew he had promised to use all the power and influence of his high position and his high character to suppress it; and, therefore, they were assured that his Grace would publicly visit with the gravest censure one whose conduct was unbecoming a clergyman or a gentleman. He would say one word more. None of them were free from attacks so treacherous, but they were more dangerous in regard to the poor than the rich. The latter could avoid any church in which such practices were carried on; they could, if necessary, change their residence or remove their children from schools; but the poor in agricultural districts must go to one church, or stay away altogether, nor could they avoid, the abominable system when introduced into the schools. Had they not a right to expect that Parliament would protect them by seeing that the parish clergyman of the National Church conformed to the practice and teaching of that Church? That habitual confession was gaining daily a stronger hold on the English Church he had shown; he believed that confession was the corner stone of Sacerdotalism, and that no greater evil ever afflicted society. Nationally, it robbed men of self-reliance; in England it would divide class from class. Socially, it would destroy our English homes, by interposing a stranger between husband and wife, between father and child. Religiously, it would rob us of pure Christianity by creating many mediators instead of one. If a contagious disease threatened man or beast, Parliament interfered to protect them. He prayed now those who had the power to endeavour to stay the advance of that deadly moral malady. The noble Lord concluded by proposing his Motion.

"Moved, "That there be laid before this House Copy of Report of the Committee of the Upper House of Convocation of the Province of Canterbury with regard to confession, agreed to in the Session of 1874."—(The Lord Oranmore and Browne.)


said, he did not understand that the noble Lord made any formal complaint against the right rev. Bench for the mode in which they had dealt with this question. On the contrary, by moving that the House should approach Her Majesty with a request that their formal decision on that subject should be printed and circulated for the benefit of their Lordships, he presumed that the noble Lord rather wished to declare that the formal utterances of the Bishops in the Convocation of the Southern Province were what they ought to be in this matter. He had to state that he offered no opposition whatever to the Address which the noble Lord had moved. He would be very glad that the Report of the United Bishops of the Upper House of Convocation of the Province of Canterbury on that subject should be in their Lordships' hands if Her Majesty was pleased to accede to the Address, and order the Bishop's Judgment to be printed; and he believed the reading of that Report by the clergy would be likely to cure many of the evils of which the noble Lord had not unnaturally complained. The only point on which he understood the noble Lord to complain against any Member of the right rev. Bench was that he did not think they had been able in practice to carry into effect their deliberate and recorded opinion and judgment on that subject, as given in the year 1873. He was glad that the noble Lord had alluded to the correspondence which had passed between himself (the Archbishop of Canterbury) and a gentleman living at Croydon, because it gave him an opportunity of stating that case, as it was brought under his notice. That gentleman complained in his letter that his daughter had been induced to go to habitual confession by a clergyman, against her father's will and without his knowledge, and also, he might add, against the opinion expressed and laid down in that decision of the Upper House of Convocation. As soon as he (the Archbishop of Canterbury) received that letter he immediately communicated with the clergyman in question to hear what he had to state in his defence. He was not satisfied with what the clergyman said, and he expressed his dissatisfaction in what he considered very strong terms. The particular circumstances which the noble Lord had brought under his notice that evening were not reported to him in the letter which that gentleman addressed to him in the first instance, but in another letter to which, owing to his being absent from that part of his diocese and from pressing business, he had not yet been able to give the attention it deserved; and, the case being one in his diocese, he thought it better that he should inquire into it when public business allowed him to be present in that particular locality. Turning to the general remarks of the noble Lord, he hoped that the noble Lord had exaggerated the extent to which the evil of which he complained was carried. He could not believe that there was no family in the upper ranks of society which was not suffering under this evil: he was loth to believe that the evil was of that magnitude which the noble Lord had described—namely, that whereas the Bishops of the Church had pronounced a very distinct utterance on that subject, many of the clergy had thought themselves at liberty to ignore and set aside that decided and clear utterance of the rulers of the Church. No doubt there were instances in which what the noble Lord complained of did exist. It was true, no doubt, that there were instances when clergymen with more zeal than discretion were unwilling to be guided by those who were their authorized teachers. No doubt, also, the noble Lord had some ground of complaint if notices were placed on church doors inviting persons to do that which the Bishops had very distinctly said they ought not to do. But, of course, before such a violation of the laws of the Church as the putting up of those notices could be taken any cognizance of, there must be some formal complaint made; and he had no doubt that if such a formal complaint were made the Bishop of the diocese would immediately inquire into the matter and do his best to prevent a repetition of the evil. As to the utterances attributed to his right rev. Brother who was absent, knowing that his right rev. Brother was able to defend himself, and as, after all, the utterances in question were recorded in newspaper reports of the accuracy of which they could not be absolutely certain, he need not enter on that matter. However, the question to which the noble Lord had alluded was a very difficult and delicate one. As long as there were persons who were weak enough to think they would receive benefit from placing themselves more than the Church required or enjoined under the guidance and direction of a clergyman, whatever his sentiments might be, it was not unnatural that some mischief should arise to those who so acted. No doubt in this country a great number of Roman Catholics works which did not bear on the face of them any distinctive characteristics of that faith were circulated from house to house, and fell into the hands of young persons who were incapable of distinguishing the parts that were sound and those parts which were distinctly Roman Catholic in their teaching, and upon them they frequently had a mischievous effect. He was certain that if the noble Lord could so influence public opinion in this matter as to prevent booksellers from selling such works, and young persons from buying them, he would do much good by preventing literature of this kind, which had a deleterious effect, not only upon the faith but upon the manly character of those who put themselves under its guidance, from being circulated.

THE BISHOP OF LONDON (who was very little audible)

said, that in the case referred to by the noble Lord, which occurred in 1874, he had written to the clergyman informing him of the charge that had been brought against him and calling on him to explain his conduct. He received in reply a letter from that clergyman admitting that he had misinterpreted the teaching of the Church of England on the subject, and promising obedience to his spiritual ruler. Since that time he had heard nothing more of that clergyman teaching the doctrine of confession; nor was he aware that the practice prevailed to any extent, until he was informed by some clergymen that young persons had stated to them that they had been confessed by a certain curate; but that they had been warned against doing so in future. So far as he himself was concerned he had never concealed his opinion, and he had in his Charges entered into the whole subject, and he had endeavoured to impress upon his clergy the observance of the doctrine of the Church of England. He did not think that cases of this kind, when they occurred, could be usefully dealt with in public—the best way of counteracting the evil was by fatherly advice and a prudent forbearance. Such offences could only be proceeded against in the Ecclesiastical Courts on charges of teaching false doctrines, and he thought few things were more inexpedient than prosecution for false doctrine. No doubt, the Bishops could interfere in a summary way with curates who offended in this respect by revoking their licences; but if the incumbents themselves pursued an objectionable course and could not be interfered with except by judicial procedure, he could not with justice take away the licence of the curate who did the incumbent's bidding—that was to say, if the Bishop was unable to suspend an incumbent it was not right to suspend his curate by summary process. These things must be cured by patience.

Motion agreed to.