§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
asked the Lord Archbishop of Canterbury whether it was true that the Government had directed the Ecclesiastical Commission to proceed, in dealing with the four Welsh dioceses, as if the Suspensory Bill, which had been announced, had already passed into law? He said: My Lords, it appears that it is necessary to be careful in believing what one hears, but I have heard such strange reports of what the Home Secretary has said in 1347 another place that I will be satisfied with putting the question of which I have given notice to the most rev. Prelate opposite, and reserve any observations I have to make until I have heard what his answer is.
*THE ARCHBISHOP OF CANTERBURY
My Lords, the best answer I can give to the question will be to read the Minute of what passed on the occasion to which the question refers. This Minute will be submitted for confirmation to the Ecclesiastical Commission Board at their next meeting. The Estates Committee of the Ecclesiastical Commission had for some time had under their consideration the desirability of forming, under their statutory powers, a new ecclesiastical district at Colwyn Bay. A church—St. Pant's, Llaudrillo—had been built and consecrated; and the preliminary arrangements had been made some years ago by the former Bishop of St. Asaph (Bishop Hughes). The matter was to come before the Board at its meeting on Thursday, 9th February last, when, to quote the official Minute, there was read—A communication from Mr. H. M. Suft, on behalf of the Lord President of the Council, forwarding copies of a letter from Mr. J. Herbert Roberts, M.P., and of a Petition to Her Majesty from the Rev. W. Venables Williams, the vicar of the parish of Llandrillo-yn-Rhos, in the diocese of Saint Asaph, protesting against the assignment of a separate district out of that parish to the consecrated church of St. Paul, Colwyn Bay. Mr. Roberts urges that, independently of the personal considerations set forth by Mr. Williams, it would not be justifiable, in view of the Suspensory Bill relating to Wales about to be brought into Parliament, for the Commissioners to create a new cure, and therefore a new ecclesiastical vested interest. Mr. Leveson-Gower stated that he was authorised on behalf of Her Majesty's Government to deprecate, in view of contemplated legislation, the assignment of any new districts within the Welsh dioceses.This matter was taken into consideration, and, after deliberation, the following order was made:—That the Lord President be informed that the objections of Mr. Venables Williams will be carefully weighed by the Commissioners before any decisive action is taken in the matter of forming the proposed district, but that the Commissioners would not feel justified in withholding their sanction to the scheme on the general ground specified by Mr. Roberts.The Minute continues—The latter part of the foregoing Resolution was not concurred in by Mr. Leveson-Gower.1348 I will just add that this being the Minute prepared for confirmation by the Board at the next meeting, it has been shown to Mr. Leveson-Gower by the Secretary of the Ecclesiatical Commission, and that Mr. Leveson-Gower acquiesces in its correctness.
§ THE MARQUESS or SALISBURY
I presume I heard a false rumour of what Mr. Asquith said; but after what has been said by the most rev. Prelate, I feel bound to enter the most earnest protest against the conduct of Her Majesty's Government in this matter. They have been guilty of a most gross and unconstitutional transgression of the powers which they hold with regard to the Ecclesiastical Commission. If it had been an uncontested matter, and it was quite certain the Bill they are going to propose will pass through Parliament, it would have been at all events a very venial irregularity if they had asked the Ecclesiastical Commissioners to concur in, and to co-operate with, the policy indicated by that measure. But they are perfectly aware that no such character attaches to the suspensory measure which they propose. They are aware it is as highly controversial and as bitterly disputable measure as it is possible to propose. They have no ground for thinking that Parliament will adopt it. If they appeal to the precedent of the Irish Church, they know very well that a similar Suspensory Bill in that case was rejected by Parliament, and there is no precedent whatever for the adoption of such a Bill. I should have said that, even if Parliament had adopted it, the differences between this time and that are very wide. The Irish Church, whatever the merits of its disestablishment may be, is no precedent whatever for the four dioceses of the Province of Canterbury with which it is proposed to deal in Wales. There are many points of difference. One of them is, that the Irish Church belonged to a communion differing from the belief of the large majority of the old inhabitants of the country. The dioceses of Wales hold a belief and belong to a Church which has existed, at all events, very much longer than the communion of any of those who challenge its existence. There was no doubt in the case of the Irish Church that those who differed from it were in a very large majority. They were not ashamed of their religion, 1349 those who differed from the Irish Church. They did not resist the institution of a Census, and we knew by the testimony of Government figures that the Roman Catholics were in a very large majority over the Church that was in communion with the Church of England here. But in the case of Wales we have no knowledge of the kind. We are told by interested persons that there is a majority of Welsh Nonconformists, but decade after decade they have ostentatiously shrunk from allowing that pretension to be submitted to the only test by which its veracity could be ascertained. When people perpetually make assertions of which they perpetually refuse to allow the examination and the proof, it is probable that the assertion is false. But, my Lords, there are other reasons which separate very much the condition of the Irish Church from that of the four Welsh dioceses of the Province of Canterbury. We have lived many years since then. We know a great deal more of political science and its practice than we did in 1869. We know what the results of disestablishing a Church are. We know the gloomy series of destructive measures and proposals which in Ireland have followed the disestablishment of the Church. We know that the robbery of the Church is followed by the robbery of the landlords, and by proposals for the mutilation of the State. What we have learnt by experience with, respect to Ireland will guide, I am strongly convinced, the action of this country in regard to any proposals with respect to Wales. Even if these things were not true, even if there were no such strong elements of difference between the two cases, even if Parliament has not rejected, as it did reject, a Suspensory Bill in the past, still it would have been a matter of common decency with a measure of this intense importance—a measure constituting au absolutely new departure from anything that has taken place in our history before—it would ha ye been decent on the part of the Executive not to attempt, by private action or importunity or menace, to anticipate the decision of the Legislature. My Lords, it is impossible to exaggerate the importance of the new step which is taken. Mr. Gladstone has the credit of being the first Minister since the Restoration who has lifted his 1350 hand to strike down and despoil the Church of England. This is not the time to enter into the grounds of his conduct, to appreciate its character, or the fitness of the hand from which this blow is going forth. But no one can differ from me in this; that this is a turning point in our history. It is a new departure. It is a proposal for the mutilation of an Institution older than any dynasty, older than any estate in this country. It is a proposal big with the most tremendous results to all other ancient Institutions in this land, and I repeat that it, was a matter of common decency that Her Majesty's Government should abstain from trying to obtain an anticipatory and preliminary approval and confirmation of this revolutionary policy by a secret action, taken without notice and without authority, upon an Ecclesiastical Body over whom they have no authority whatever.
THE LORD PRESIDENT OF THE COUNCIL AND SECRETARY OF STATE FOR INDIA (The Earl of KMBERLEY)
My Lords, the noble Marquess has travelled, as perhaps is natural, far beyond the question which was answered by the most rev. Prelate, and has taken occasion to repeat in this House a denunciation of a variety of Irish measures in terms which do not err on the side of weakness. We have the old story of the robbery of the Church and the robbery of the landlords in Ireland, while the measure now before Parliament is described as "mutilation," I think it was, of the United Kingdom.
THE EARL OF KIMBERLEY
I will not go into the old story. I do not admit that the Church was robbed in Ireland, and I utterly deny that the landlords were robbed of anything. I entirely deny that. I challenge anybody to point out wherein the condition of the Irish landlords in respect of their rents, which I suppose is the main matter they have to care for, is in any respect worse, and whether it is not in many respects better, than that of landlords in England. That is ancient history; and with regard to the mutilation of the United Kingdom or of the State, the noble Marquess refers to a measure now, I am glad to say, before the other 1351 House, and concerning which I shall not be induced to say a word. With regard to the question more immediately before us relating to that portion of the Church of England which exists in Wales, it would be far more appropriate to discuss that important question when the measure promised in the Queen's Speech is before your Lordships, and not upon an occasion like the present to enter upon a defence of the policy which Her Majesty's Government is prepared to pursue. In due time and place we shall be prepared to defend the policy of that measure and our action in regard to it, both here and elsewhere. I should like, however, very shortly to describe my own action in connection with the question on the Paper. That action consisted in simply sending certain communications in the ordinary course to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners upon this application referring to a benefice in Wales, and also transmitting to them two letters raising certain objections to the proposal; and in reply I received the letter contained in the Minute which has been quoted by the most rev. Prelate—that is to say, informing us that the objections of the vicar would be fully considered; but that the Commissioners did not feel justified in withholding their sanction to the scheme on the general ground specified by Mr. Roberts. On receiving that letter I directed that a reply should be sent to Mr. Roberts in precisely identical terms. That is my action in the matter as President of the Council. Exception has been taken to a declaration which it appears was made by Mr. Leveson-Gower. He is the Church Estates Commissioner appointed by Government. He objected to the course which was proposed to be taken in this matter, and, it appears, deprecated such course upon the ground that it was not desirable to proceed pending, the passing of the measure now before Parliament. I apprehend it was perfectly open to Mr. Leveson Gower, as Church Estates Commissioner, to take the course which he thought fit in regard to the particular matter; but I certainly am not informed that there has been a general decision by Her Majesty's Government on the subject stating in general terms, as I suppose is inferred from this Minute, that we call upon the Ecclesiastical Commissioners not to exercise their discretion with regard to schemes which 1352 may come before them as to benefices in Wales.
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
I understood that Mr. Leveson-Gower distinctly stated that he was speaking on behalf of Her Majesty's Government.
THE EARL OF KIMBERLEY
And I am saying that I have not understood there has been any general decision of Her Majesty's Government that the Ecclesiastical Commissioners should be in any way prevented from exercising their own discretion in matters which come before them. They are an independent Body, and it is for them to take the course which they consider right looking at all the circumstances, and it seems to me that a Commissioner who is appointed by Her Majesty's Government is perfectly at liberty to express his opinion that a particular course would be better than another; but I repeat that I am not aware of any general decision by the Government calling upon the Commissioners not to exercise the authority which they undoubtedly possess as au independent Body.
§ LORD ASHBOURNE
said, the position of this most important question was assuming a deeper significance every moment. The course that had been taken by the Lord President of the Council was very curious and extraordinary and not easy to follow. As he understood, Mr. Leveson-Gower was the official Representative of Her Majesty's Government on the Board of Her Majesty's Ecclesiastical Commissioners, and appeared to be speaking as the Representative of Her Majesty's Government. The position of the question, therefore, appeared to be this: The Ecclesiastical Commissioners, wielding their immense powers under Statute, had practically a message sent to them by Her Majesty's Government that they should suspend some of their most important functions. Why was it they had dared to take upon themselves a line of act ion grossly unconstitutional and without one atom of legal excuse or justification? That was the position, and there could be no possibility of getting out of it. The Home Secretary, when asked a question in the other House that evening, stated that Mr. Leveson-Gower was proceeding upon his own initiative. But that answer was inconsistent with the statement of Mr. Leveson-Gower, who 1353 was incapable of saying anything he did not believe to be absolutely true. Whether there was a general consensus on the part of the Government, or Mr. Leveson-Gower believed that there was, he was within his right with his ambassadorial functions when he told the Commissioners that Her Majesty's Government, in view of a Suspensory Act, not introduced or printed, desired that they should suspend some of their most important functions which they were bound by Statute to exercise. He found it difficult to imagine—perhaps it was the result of his legal training—any line of conduct more grossly unconstitutional or indefensible from every legal and fair point of view. They had not yet heard one syllable in defence of it, and he should be surprised if they could hear any whatever. Had the Suspensory Bill been waiting to be carried into law with the concurrence of both Parties there might have been some palliation for this proceeding, but, there had not been a vote or even a statement in Parliament upon which could be founded anything like a moral expectation that the Bill would have the support of anything like a majority. There was no reason whatever to suppose that a Suspensory Bill, if brought in, would go through. The question of the disestablishment of the branch of the Church in Wales had never even come before Parliament, so that Parliament cannot have expressed approval of it. Nay more, in 1889, when Mr. Dillwyn moved a Resolution on the subject, an Amendment was carried by a, majority of 53, to the effect that, having regard to the great and growing influence of the Church in Wales and especially to the nature of the work which it was doing in the Principality, the House was not prepared to adopt the Resolution. In the Debate on the subject Mr. Byron-Reed quoted on May 14, 1889, from a speech of Mr. Gladstone in a Debate raised by Mr. Watkin Williams in 1870, the statement that there was complete ecclesiastical, constitutional, and, he might add, historical identity between the Church in Wales and the Church in England; that he would not say what it would be right to do provided Wales was separated from England as Ireland was, and provided the ease of Wales stood in full and complete analogy to that of Ireland in regard to religious differences; but the direct 1354 contrary was the case, and, therefore, he thought it was practically impossible to separate the case of Wales from the ease of England. All that went to weaken the suggestion that there could be any belief on the part of Her Majesty's Government, when Mr. Leveson-Gower made the statement in question, that Parliament could be expected to adopt the Suspensory Bill without the keenest and most resolute opposition. In 1868, before the Suspensory Bill was introduced, a Resolution was carried after a long Debate; an Address had then to be presented to the Crown; an answer was received on the 28th of May, and on the day after Mr. Gladstone, in presenting the Suspensory Bill, said that it had derived a validity and moral force, from the Resolution passed a few days before. If that was so there was another link wanting in the present case. The Government seemed now to desire to repudiate Mr. Leveson-Gower, but that was a matter which must be settled between Mr. Leveson-Gower and Her Majesty's Government. No one who knew Mr. Leveson-Gower would believe that on a matter vitally affecting the Church he was likely to have imagined his authority if he were speaking on the authority of others and not of the Government. That was a very serious question. It was an effort made, it may be, not thinking it would receive the publicity it had attracted, to suggest to a great Board that it was the desire of Her Majesty's Government that they should, without law and in anticipation of what might become law, apply some sort of undermining to a Church which was part of the Chinch of England. That was, in effect, to apply a dispensing power which was revolting to the whole spirit and policy of our laws. But it was not the only instance. Something similar had occurred in Ireland. When in Ireland it came into the mind of the Government to, in their own words, make the Instructions to the Sheriff more intelligible, and to substitute for his discretion something else, that was an effort at applying a dispensing power which was rudely rebuked by the Courts in Ireland; and when public attention was called to this subject, no doubt the official steps taken would be similarly condemned. No effort had been made openly to throw over Mr. Leveson-Gower. The noble 1355 Earl, using cautious words, only said he was not aware of any general understanding of the Government as to the common policy to be adopted on this question.
§ LORD ASHBOURNE
would then say there was an understanding of a general decision upon a common policy to be adopted by the Government upon the subject.
THE EARL OF KIMBERLEY
What I stated was that no general decision had been arrived at as to requesting the Ecclesiastical Commissioners not to exercise the power which they possessed.
§ LORD ASHBOURNE
said that Mr. Leveson-Gower then must have been instructed before the Cabinet had arrived at its general decision, because he conveyed to the Commissioners that he was only the mouthpiece of the Government in what he did say. The position was not satisfactory, and he hoped that a more satisfactory explanation would he forthcoming before this controversy closed.
§ THE LORD CHANCELLOR
said, he was not sure that he would be able to give the noble and learned Lord much satisfaction, because he confessed that until he heard this discussion he knew very little of the occurrences which had taken place in this matter. He rather demurred to the suggestion that the Church Estates Commissioner was to be viewed as a Representative of the Government in the Ecclesiastical Commission, of which personally he had the honour to be a member; and, as he understood the case, the Church Estates Commissioner appointed by the Government had no more status, power, or authority than any other individual of the Commission. In considering the point raised with regard to this being a constitutional question and an attempt to exercise a dispensing power, it was essential to see what was the nature of the constitution of the Ecclesiastical Commission. This Commission was an absolutely independent Body, and the Government of the day had not the slightest power over it. Any representation made to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners by the Government of the day would no doubt receive as much consideration and attention as the Commissioners chose to give 1356 it; and if the Commissioners thought it a reasonable representation and one to be acted upon, they would no doubt approve it; but if they thought that the contrary was the case, undoubtedly the Commissioners would not act upon it. What right would have been violated here? Where was the unconstitutional proceeding?
§ THE LORD CHANCELLOR
said, he did not believe the noble and learned Lord had even as much knowledge as himself of the functions of the Ecclesiastical Commissioners. Their functions did not compel them to take any particular course, and they were only to do what they deemed best.
§ LORD ASHBOURNE
said that was true, and the point here was that the emissary of Her Majesty's Government advised the Ecclesiastical Commissioners to violate the law.
§ THE LORD CHANCELLOR
said, he did not understand that any such advice had been given them. The strong language used was quite out of place. The Ecclesiastical Commissioners were bound to act according to the best of their judgment, and no representation made to them fettered, or could fetter or affect their action, except in so far as it might operate upon their judgment. It is, therefore, no violation of the law to put any view before them for their consideration. They were just as independent of the Government in their own matters as was the Government of them in reference to the affairs of the country. The importance which had been attached to the matter had arisen from a misapprehension of the relative positions of the Government and the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, of which body this particular Estates Commissioner was but one of the members. He was not in a position to enter into the question of the precise authority which Mr. Leveson-Gower had. No doubt that gentleman supposed he had authority, as represented by the Board Minute which bad been read; but, on the other hand, something might have passed leading to a conception of authority to make an announcement going somewhat beyond what was intended by those who communicated with him. For example, if he were told that as Church 1357 Estates Commissioner he could vote against a particular proposal as a protest against creating further districts, he would have been perfectly entitled to act upon that when the question came to be put to the vote. But, as he had said, he did not know the exact circumstances which took place, and could not, therefore, say anything more upon the subject. He had only intervened because he could not agree at all with the noble and learned Lord that anything unconstitutional had occurred, or any act done which could have compelled or induced any Body to violate any right whatever.
§ *LORD NORTON
said, the Ecclesiastical Commissioners were an independent, Body, but only for one special purpose from which they had no legal power to depart, but that in this instance they had been asked ostensibly by the Government to depart from that purpose in order to facilitate the disestablishment of the Welsh Church. That was simply saying that the Government had appeared to attempt to make the Ecclesiastical Commissioners a kind of cat's-paw in the furthering of a measure which it was known the Government had in contemplation, by taking the first and, perhaps, irretrievable step towards that measure which he had not believe either House of Parliament would ever assent to.
§ House adjourned at twenty-five minutes before Six o'clock, to Thursday next, a quarter past Ten o'clock.