HL Deb 23 May 1876 vol 229 cc1084-95

Order of the Day for the Second Reading, read.


in moving that the Bill be now read the second time, said, he did not propose to enter into any argument on the general question whether Dissenters had a grievance with respect to churchyards—that question was sufficiently discussed on the Motion recently made by his noble Friend the Leader of the Opposition in that House (Earl Granville), and he did not intend to revive the discussion which had followed that Motion. It was quite unnecessary for him to do so, because it had been distinctly admitted on that occasion, both by the noble Duke the Lord President of the Council on behalf of the Government, and the most rev. Primates on behalf of the Episcopal Bench, that there did exist a real grievance on the part of the Dissenters, which required to be remedied. All he (Earl Grey) now proposed to attempt was to show in what manner this admitted grievance would be redressed by the Bill he had laid on the Table of the House, and that it did not deserve the somewhat severe strictures which had been passed upon it in the late debate, both by the noble Duke opposite and by the most rev. Primate. Not very long ago a Motion was made in the other House of Parliament on this same subject, and every one who read the debate on that Motion must have remarked that the two Ministers who spoke on behalf of Her Majesty's Government took great pains to show that the grievance of the Dissenters was not the only thing that required redress in connection with the churchyards of this country. They both contended that the sanitary condition of many churchyads also called urgently for attention. He believed that to be perfectly true—no doubt, many of our churchyards were in a most unsatisfactory state. Many of them were inadequate, as regarded extent, to the wants of the present population; and others, while not too small, were so badly arranged as to be injurious to the health of the living. Mr. Disraeli and Mr. Cross had ample grounds for their assertions on that matter; and he presumed the inference they intended to draw from the facts they stated was that, any measure for amending the law with respect to churchyards ought to provide for protecting the public health from the dangers to which it was now exposed, as well as for the relief of a large number of our fellow-subjects from a hardship of which they complained. He presumed that must have been the inference they meant to draw from what they stated as to the defective condition of churchyards, since otherwise the statement would have had no bearing whatever on the subject that was under discussion. Assuming that he was right in his understanding of the conclusion they sought to establish, he had to express his entire concurrence in it, and the Bill now before their Lordships was an attempt to give effect to that view of the subject. If provision was to be made for the sanitary improvement of churchyards it seemed clearly necessary that local authorities should be created for that purpose. Whatever was required, whether it were the enlargement or any other improvement of a churchyard must cost money, and he did not know how that was to be obtained except from a rate paid by the parishioners; and if the ratepayers were to provide the money for such purposes, it followed that the ratepayers must have the control of the churchyards for which they were called upon to pay. Accordingly in his Bill he provided for the creation of Burial Boards in parishes. He was aware of the great objection that would be raised to the creation of Burial Boards for this purpose—namely, that this course would be unjustifiable because the freehold of the churchyard was vested in the clergyman. Technically it was quite true that the freehold of the churchyard was vested in the clergyman; but it was shown by a noble and learned Lord (Lord Coleridge) in the recent debate that the freehold in the incumbent was qualified by the rights of the parishioners, and had in it very little of the nature of property; that, in fact, the position of the parish clergyman in relation to the churchyard was much better described by the term "trustee" for the benefit of the parishioners than, by that of "freeholder." If that were so, no injustice, or hardship, or injury of any kind, would be inflicted on the clergy by transferring to other hands the management of the churchyards. He also ventured to say that in the proposal he made there was nothing of a novel or strange character; for it would be merely a return in principle to what up, to a few years ago, had from time out of mind been the actual state of things in this country. Up to the time of the abolition of church rates the law required the cost of maintaining the churchyards to be provided for out of these rates by the authority of the Vestry. The Vestry was composed either of all the ratepayers of the parish, or of a number of them chosen to represent the general body of the ratepayers. Thus, the ratepayers, either personally or by their representatives, provided the funds for keeping up the churchyards, and, as in other cases, the power of the purse carried with it the control of the service for which the money was provided, so that in fact, in the management of the churchyard the clergyman had to consider what were the wishes of the parishioners. What the Bill proposed was a mere return in principle to this ancient arrangement only substituting a Burial Board composed of a small number of members for the more cumbrous Vestry, which formerly controlled the mode of keeping up of the churchyard. In this manner provision would be made for effecting improvements in churchyards where such improvements were required, without obliging the Board to incur any expense when nothing was required to be done. The appointment of Burial Boards would also afford great facilities for removing the grievance so loudly complained of by Dissenters. In resisting the demand of the Dissenters to be allowed to have their funerals performed in churchyards by their own ministers one of the main topics insisted upon had been the risk that abuses might arise from their having this right conceded to them. There was, in his opinion, but little ground for this apprehension; at the same time he admitted that it would not be right or proper to open the churchyards to Dissenters entirely without check or restriction. For instance, it would be impossible to allow Dissenters to select for the interment of a relative or friend any spot in a churchyard which they might think fit to choose. At present the clergyman had the power of deciding as to where the grave was to be placed: he could object either on sanitary grounds or from a regard to the just claims of others to any particular selection made by the friends of the person to be interred. If Dissenters were admitted to the churchyards, it would be manifestly inconvenient that the clergy should have the task of making such decisions in their case. He had no doubt that in the great majority of cases the good feeling and good sense of the clergy and of the friends of the deceased would prevent any unseemly altercation from arising; but, unfortunately there had been examples of wrong-headedness in a few both of the clergy and of the Dissenters to warn them of the evils which might occasionally arise unless there existed some authority to check ill-advised proceedings either on the one side or the other. For instance, it would be highly inconvenient, to say the least, that a Church and a Dissenting funeral should be appointed to take place at the same hour in the same churchyard, and perhaps close together, all risk of such difficulties would be averted by giving the control of the churchyard to an independent authority as proposed by the Bill. He trusted that he had now sufficiently explained to their Lordships the principles on which he desired to proceed. As he knew that there was no chance of the Bill passing in the present Session he thought it would be a waste of time if, after having explained its principle, he were to proceed to discuss its provisions at greater length. He wished, however, to defend himself against one or two charges with reference to these provisions which had been brought against him. The most rev. Primate said, on the occasion to which he had already referred, that in bringing forward this measure he had shown a want of due consideration for the feelings of the clergy. He could assure his most rev. Friend that he had not proposed the clauses for which he had censured him in any such spirit, but on the contrary with the strongest desire to provide for the opening of the churchyards to Dissenters in a manner the least calculated to wound the feelings of the clergy and the most likely to promote the success of their ministrations and their own comfort. He had believed, and believed still, that this would be best accomplished by relieving them from all responsibility with reference to the management of the burial grounds. In a great majority of town parishes, cemeteries having been established, the clergy had nothing to do with the management of the burying grounds. They had neither authority nor responsibility with regard to it; they had merely to bury the dead of their own congregation when called upon in graves of which the position had been determined by another and independent authority. He had never heard that the instruction of their flocks by the town clergy had been interfered with, or their usefulness diminished by their being thus relieved from any charge of burying grounds. He was totally at a loss to understand why the result should be different because the burying ground happened to be adjoining the church instead of a distance from it. He could not therefore see how any insult or injury to the clergy would be involved in the change he proposed, but he did see how much they would gain by being relieved from a state of things which at least occasionally had the effect of involving them in angry contentions with some of their parishioners. Similar considerations had led him to believe that it would tend to the comfort of the clergy themselves, and prevent them from being mixed up in harassing altercations, that they should be disqualified from becoming members of Burial Boards, and the same disqualification ought, he thought, to be applied to the ministers of Dissenting congregations in the parish. The question, however, was one which might fairly be left to be determined according to the judgment and the wishes of the clergy. There was one other point to which he thought it right to call attention. Their Lordships were aware that it had often been complained that the clergy were now required by law to perform the funeral service of the Church over the bodies of persons with respect to whom they thought it ought not to be used. It might be doubted, perhaps, whether this objection was altogether a reasonable one, and whether it might not be chiefly founded on an incorrect interpretation of the words of their Service. But, be this as it might, as in point of fact many clergymen had a conscientious objection to performing the usual funeral services in such cases, he could have no doubt that this objection ought to be respected. He had accordingly introduced a provision into the Bill by which clergymen would be relieved from the obligation complained of, with the condition he considered indispensable, that when the incumbent of a parish declined to perform the funeral service for a deceased parishioner he should have no right to object to its being performed by another clergyman. The cases would probably be exceedingly rare when another clergyman would consent to perform a funeral service refused by an incumbent, but unfortunately they knew that some few cases had arisen—as when a regular service had been refused in the case of a person held to have been insufficiently baptized by a Wesleyan minister—in which the precautionary regulation would be highly necessary and effectual. He had only to add that if an Amendment that the Bill be read a second time that day six months should be moved to his Motion for the second reading he would offer no objection to it as he was aware that a person of such little authority as himself could not hope to settle such a question as that of the amendment of the law of burial; still his object would have been answered by laying the Bill before their Lordships with a view to the future consideration of the subject, and he could not sit down without expressing his strong conviction that it was the duty of Parliament and of Her Majesty's Government to take care that another Session should not pass without some measure being brought forward for settling the question in the only manner in which it could be settled—namely, by giving complete relief to the Dissenters from the grievance under which they now suffered.

Moved, "That the Bill be now read 2a."—(The Earl Grey.)


said, that what their Lordships had heard from the noble Earl who had moved the second reading was only another proof that the settlement of this most serious question should be undertaken by the authority of the Government. His noble Friend the noble Earl (Earl Granville) who introduced the subject the other night did great service by so doing; and the noble Duke (the Duke of Richmond) gratified the House and the country at large very much by his statement that the Government would undertake the settlement of the question. One word more. He would be presumptuous enough to give a word of advice to the clergy. He counselled them to listen seriously to what the present Government might say to them on this matter; for he very much doubted whether they would ever again have such good friends as they now had on the Ministerial bench.


said, that the Bill would never receive his assent—the clause which would disqualify the clergy from even a share in the management of the churchyards was especially objectionable. As the noble Earl opposite (Earl Granville), in his eloquent speech the other night, narrated some telling and amusing anecdotes, he (the Duke of Rutland) would follow the noble Earl's example so far as to illustrate his objection to this Bill by an anecdote relating to one whom he would not name. The person in question was an excellent man and gave good dinners, but he was by no means brilliant in conversation. He wished, however, to give a dinner at which should be assembled a number of the most celebrated wits of the town; but there was this difficulty—that he knew none of them. In his embarrassment he applied to a noble Lord, who said—"I will manage it; I will ask the company, which ought not to consist of more than twelve." Well, after a few days the noble Lord presented his friend with a list of the names of those whom he had asked. His friend, on running through the names, remarked, "These will do well; but you have made one omission which is easily rectified; you have left myself out." The noble Lord replied—"Oh, that is impossible; you would spoil all." "That is a hard case," observed his friend. "Not at all; don't you see you will have all the credit of entertaining those wits to dinner, and of paying for the dinner besides?" Such was the comfort given to the host, and similar comfort was offered to the clergy by the Bill now before their Lordships—everyone was to have an opinion in his own churchyard except the unfortunate clergyman. He would ask the noble Earl (Earl Granville) whether the churchyards of England belonged to the Church of England or not? He believed they did:—if so, where was the difference between the Church and the churchyard—the only difference he could see was that one had a roof over it and the other was open to the air. The common law gave to Dissenters the right to enter the churchyard, and to hear the services and receive the ministrations of the Church of England; and the same common law gave them the right of interment in the churchyards, but it was on the same conditions, that the churchyards were open to the members of the Church of England. He was glad, however, that the Government proposed to consider the whole subject; and he trusted that in any measures they might introduce they would be careful to keep inviolate the churchyards of the country. He believed that the Dissenters suffered under no grievance—some hardships there might be; but the Dissenters were well able to provide graveyards for themselves. He believed that the great mass of them were not sensible of any hardship, and that this agitation was got up by a small band of persons, some of whom were of no religion, partly with a view of vexing the members of the Church, and some with the view of overthrowing it altogether. Therefore he hoped that neither Her Majesty's Government nor the Episcopal Bench would yield to these demands.


thought that the noble Earl (the Earl of Shaftesbury), who had now left the House, had spoken to the clergy in a somewhat minatory tone—he had told them solemnly to receive the counsel of the Government, lest they should never have a similar favourable chance. He (the Bishop of Oxford) hoped the clergy would receive good counsel coming from any Government, and should be sorry to think them incapable of accepting good counsel on this long-vexed subject; and he thought they had shown a decided disposition to entertain the subject of the law of burial, to which great prominence had been given in the present Session of Parliament. But he appealed to their Lordships to say whether the clergy had had fair play in this matter. Had any really practical plan ever been proposed for their adoption? Sometimes the clergy were spoken of as if they had stolen a march upon the English people, and had somehow obtained, to their prejudice, possession of the churchyards. But this was certainly contrary to the fact. It should be remembered that neither Parliament nor the State had ever provided churchyards in any parish in England. This Bill, for the first time in the history of England, would enact that a parish should be obliged to provide its own burial ground. At this moment, if, for example, a burial ground on the coast were swept away by the encroachments of the sea, there was no law to compel the people of the parish to provide another burial ground. Rights of interment were freely spoken of; but Englishmen as such had no right to a place of interment. Churchyards had been provided ages ago by pious laymen—usually the lords of manors—under the advice of the clergy, and therefore it was unfair to charge the clergy with having gained possession of the churchyards to the exclusion of others who had an equal right to them. He trusted that when the clergy had any proposal put before them they would listen to it—not because it was made by the Government, but because their own feelings would teach them to show kindness to their neighbours and manifest the large and generous charity of the Church towards all mankind.


said, he would not have spoken had not the noble Duke (the Duke of Rutland) made a direct appeal to him on the points of law, whether the churchyards belonged to the Church of England. In answer, he would first of all ask the noble Duke whether the Church of England as a whole was, by law, the owner of any property at all? He believed not. Next, he believed the fee of the churchyard was vested in the clergyman of the parish, to hold in trust for the whole parish, under conditions prescribed by the common and ecclesiastical law.


was strongly in favour of a settlement of the question. It was one on which the Dissenters felt strongly; and Churchmen could not be surprised at this, remembering that burial services and interments in particular places had given rise to much warm feeling in this and other countries on the part of Churchmen and Roman Catholics, as well as Dissenters. The fear that the churchyards were likely to be "desecrated" ought to be removed by the consideration that in all our large cemeteries, where the greater part of the dead were now interred the burial service was performed by Dissenting ministers of all denominations; yet he was not aware of a single complaint of indecency or indecorum; and this afforded a strong presumption that they might be trusted to perform the service in country churchyards. In the course of his literary life it had happened to him to deliver two funeral addresses over the graves of literary men; and he trusted that nothing unbecoming or unsuitable to the solemnity of the occasion had been said either by himself or others at such times—on the contrary, he thought, they had promoted good and amiable feelings. With these analogies the present question might be decided in a simple manner, and in no spirit of antagonism to any body of Dissenters whatever.


As an incumbent of nearly 50 years' standing, may I be allowed to make a few remarks? I was early led to act in a friendly manner towards Dissenters. Two persons from whom I received the greatest respect when I first went to the parish which I still hold, were two venerable Dissenting ministers. I remember walking at the head of a corpse with one of them, when he said, "I have been 40 years in the wilderness," meaning he had been a minister therefor 40 years. About the same time I became acquainted with several members of the Society of Friends, whom I much esteemed. About seven years ago I went down to live part of the year in South Wales, and there I found the benefit of having been always on good terms with the Dissenters, for almost all the people about me were Dissenters; quite eight out of 10 in the rural parts. I cannot indeed say that I approve of the noble Earl's Bill. I should not like to be left out in the cold, and I believe that the clergyman might still remain in his present position with regard to the churchyards, and yet that Dissenting ministers might be allowed to bury their own people in our churchyards without anything irreverent or unbecoming occurring. There are four bodies of Dissenters in my own parish in Gloucestershire; two have burial-grounds, two have not. I should have no objection to allow the ministers of those denominations to perform funeral rites over their own people. I know them, and have confidence in them all that there would be nothing unbecoming the solemnity of the occa- sion. I think it is a matter for grave consideration that the refusal to allow Dissenting ministers to officiate implies that they are not fit to be trusted. I believe it is this which stirs them so deeply at the present time. Thousands of them are officiating every Sunday in their own chapels; they preach, they perform funeral services in their own graveyards and in cemeteries, and yet they cannot be trusted to do so in our churchyards. The question has now assumed graver proportions, and the Wesleyans, who have always been most friendly to the Church of England, are being alienated from her. I will not now say what has been the cause of this, but it is the fact. About three years ago, I asked a Wesleyan minister what he thought of the Burial question. "Oh," he said, "we do not move in it; we are quite satisfied with things as they are." And it is the case that in Wales there are hardly any burial-grounds attached to their chapels, because they were content with the Church of England service, but it is not so now. A case occurred the other day in Forest of Dean, when the circuit minister asked permission to officiate at the funeral of a Wesleyan. It was refused, and the vicar had not legal power to grant permission. But what the Wesleyans complain of is, that the curate allowed an official of the Order of Foresters to read a kind of service at the grave. I would mention one or two cases to show how persons feel on this subject. A man asked the clergyman of my parish in Wales to be allowed to be buried in a particular spot. It was represented to him that the part was very full. "Oh," he said, "I hope you will allow it, for my family have been buried there for 300 years." Again, an old firm Churchman was asked to sign a petition against the Burial Bill. He said, "I cannot now, for I wish to do as I would be done by, and I should like to be buried near my own people. Besides," he said, "I am getting old, and I should like to draw nearer to the Dissenters before I die." What I desire is, that concessions should be made to Dissenters without injury to the Church of England. We cannot ignore the Nonconformists. Look at their missionary operations. The Wesleyans collect near £180,000—more than the Propagation Society does. The London Missionary Society collects above £100,000; the Baptist, above £58,000; and the Primitive Methodist, £12,000. Ought men who are doing all this to be disregarded when, having baptized their people, administered the Holy Communion to them, attended them on their sick-bed, they asked to be allowed to offer a prayer or give an address at their graves? The Church of England will never suffer from pursuing a conciliatory course, and conceding what may be called a just claim. I am glad to hear Her Majesty's Government intend to take the subject into consideration. It cannot be advanced by private Members. It is an open sore injurious to the Church and religion in this country, and the sooner it is stayed the better. I think also our burial laws require revision, and that the clergy ought not to be compelled to use our present service over persons of whom no charitable hope can be entertained. I have myself had the pain of reading the Burial Service over a person who did not believe in a future state. We know what scandal occurred at Cowley, where the people broke into the Church, and what a painful scene occurred at the funeral of Baron Pigott.


said, he would not detain their Lordships, as in the former debate on this subject he had offered some remarks on what he considered was the purport of the Bill. The noble Earl (Earl Grey) now stated that he did not anticipate there would be any desire to proceed with the Bill; and, in accordance with the hint thrown out by the noble Earl, he would content himself by simply asking their Lordships to read the Bill a second time that day six months.

Amendment moved to leave out ("now") and insert ("this day six months").

On Question that ("now") stand part of the Motion? Resolved in the negative; and Bill to be read 2a this day six months.