HL Deb 23 June 1899 vol 73 cc391-4

My Lords, I rise to ask the Under Secretary for the Colonies what notice the Government has taken, or intends to take, with respect to the proceedings of the Bishop of Colombo in opposition to his Metropolitan, the Bishop of Calcutta, in regard to prayers for the health of Her Majesty the Queen on the occasion of her eightieth birthday. I am perfectly well aware of the fact that the Colonial Office cannot take the same notice of a Bishop's action as they could of the action of a civil servant; but I earnestly hope that the Under Secretary will be able to say something, on behalf of the Government that will in some way remove the bad impression and the discontent which have been caused by the Bishop of Colombo's letter. The facts are these: On May 27th the Bishop of Calcutta wrote the following letter to the Bishops of his province— My dear Lord Bishop,—On the 24th day of next month Her Majesty the Queen, Empress of India, if her life be spared until then, will complete her eightieth year. I desire to suggest to your Lordship, as to the other Bishops of India and Ceylon, that special services should be held on that day in the churches of the Metropolitan Province. It is a day when the hearts of all Christians who are subjects of the Queen-Empress will naturally turn with devout feelings to Almighty God. The occasion is rather personal, perhaps, than official; but it will be none the less impressive if the services, without much form or ceremony, assume the simple character of thanks giving for a unique reign, and of intercession for a beloved and venerated Sovereign, under whose sway India and the whole British Empire have enjoyed a singular felicity. If my suggestion approve itself to your Lordship, you will, no doubt, issue such instructions as are necessary to the clergy of your diocese. I have no right to speak for others than members of the Church of England, but the desire for a religious commemoration of Her Majesty's birthday is already felt, as your Lordship knows, in many quarters, and it seems but natural that I should take this opportunity of expressing the hope that the other religious bodies in India, whether Christian or non-Christian, may be willing to unite with the Church in the manifestation of loyalty to the Queen-Empress, and of gratitude for the manifold blessings of her long and illustrious reign. The fact that prayers should ascend simultaneously in her behalf—not front churches only, but from temples, mosques, and synagogues, and other places of religious worship throughout India and Ceylon, will in itself be a striking instance of that unity for which we all, amidst many grave external differences, do yet in our hearts most earnestly long and pray. I will now read to your Lordships the full text, taken from the Reis and Rayyet of May 20th, of the Bishop of Colombo's letter, expressing that dignitary's view of non-Christian prayers, and why Christians cannot join with non-Christians at the celebration by prayer of the Queen-Empress's eightieth birthday: Colombo, May 10, 1899. Rev. and Dear Brother,—I have received, as you may already have learned from the newspapers, an important letter from the Most Rev. the Metropolitan. His Lordship suggests to us a loyal observance of Her Majesty the Queen's eightieth birthday, and expresses a hope that the occasion may be observed also by other Christians and by non-Christians throughout India and Ceylon. In accordance with our Metropolitan's suggestion I request you to notice the eightieth birthday of Her Most Gracious Majesty on the 24th of this month by the use of special prayers and thanks giving. These may be adopted either from the form of prayer for the 30th of June, or from the form used at the Jubilee in 1897. Whether our Christian brethren who are not of the Church of England make any special observance of the day or not, we are perfectly sure that their loyal and religious prayers for our beloved Queen will be acceptable to Almighty God. I must briefly state why I do not ask you to join in hoping that, simultaneously with the prayers of the Church, prayers may be offered in non-Christian places of worship. The letter reached me on Sunday evening the 7th of May, and seeing that the Standing Committee of the Diocese was to meet on Tuesday, the 9th, I welcomed the opportunity of consulting its members about the Metropolitan's suggestion, as I have done in many similar cases. The following resolution was then unanimously carried in a meeting of our clergy (besides myself) and seven laymen, on the motion of the acting archdeacon:—'That this Committee, as representing the Synod of the Diocese of Colombo, while leaving to the Lord Bishop the question of holding special services on the eightieth anniversary of Her Majesty the Queen's birthday, as suggested by the Most Rev. the Metropolitan, respectfully but earnestly deprecate any action intended to imply unity with non-Christian systems in religious worship or prayer.' I omit the remainder of this letter, as it refers to matters that it is not usual to discuss in your Lordship's House. I would observe that the Bishop appears to screen himself behind what he calls a Synod and seven laymen. Was one of them the Colonial Secretary? The Reis and Rayyet concludes: If this be Christianity, what intolerance and how ill suited to the occasion! It is, according to the insular Bishop, Christian blasphemy even to hope that other nationalities will, simultaneously with Christians, offer prayers for Her Majesty. All other prayers are idolatrous and unacceptable to God, who made the Christian, the Jew, the Mussulman, the Hindu, the Parsi, the Jain, the Buddhist, and everything. Commenting, on May 28, upon the letter of the Bishop of Colombo, the Indian Spectator said: We have no right to inquire into what is so entirely an affair between a man and his Maker as his religious beliefs. But the Bishop of Colombo's comments on the Metropolitan's suggestion, which, we are glad to say, has been in a sense abundantly carried out—namely, that the professors of non-Christian faiths in this country should join in offering prayers to the Almighty on the Queen's birthday—seem to us to be so opposed to all that is holy in human nature that we may be pardoned for betraying some curiosity as to the Bishop's notions of the Divine Being. 'We believe,' he writes, 'these acts (the acts of Buddha) to be dishonouring to God, and to be in themselves—whatever may be the ignorance of the worshippers—acts of sin.' For the sake of the Bishop, we earnestly hope he wrote in ignorance of the life and work of him whom he denounces in these terms. The Bishop is much mistaken in thinking that God is dishonoured by the acts of Buddha; his sublime self-sacrifice, his fearless pursuit of truth, his boundless compassion for the whole universal nature—if these be sins, we had rather sin with Buddha than shine with 'R. S. Colombo.' I will conclude by reading to your Lordships the telegram which was sent by the Viceroy at Simla to the Queen-Empress, dated May 24th, 1899: The Viceroy begs leave to transmit to your Majesty his respectful sincere congratulations on the happy anniversary of your Majesty's birthday, as well as those of the English officials of your Majesty's service, of the British community in India, and of the vast native population. No such number of human beings has ever before joined in tribute of devotion to a single Sovereign as will be the rejoicing to-day in India over your Majesty's continued welfare and long and blessed reign. Her Majesty replied to the Viceroy in the following terms: I am deeply touched by the loyal expressions and good wishes of yourself, my officials, the British community, and my native subjects in India. The Reis and Rayyet, in an article on this subject, says: The Bishop of Colombo would not allow Christians to join with non-Christians in their prayer's for Her Majesty. The manner of acceptance of their good wishes by Her Majesty is indeed touching. That truly queenly message to the Viceroy of India is an answer to the narrowness of the Ceylon Bishop, and we hope that prayers sent up by the Hindus, the Mussulmans, the Jews, the Armenians, the Parsis, the Jains, the Sikhs, the Buddhists all have, equally with those of the Christians, reached the Throne of the Most High, the King of Kings. The feelings of everyone in India have been very much hurt by the conduct of the Bishop of Colombo, and I hope the noble Earl the Under Secretary will not simply smile it away, but will find some words of regret for it.


My Lords, the attention of the Secretary of State has been called to the letter of the Bishop of Colombo on the subject referred to by the noble Lord, and which has appeared in the Ceylon papers. Her Majesty's Government, however, do not propose to take any action in regard to it.