HL Deb 03 March 1899 vol 67 cc1166-78

My Lords, I rise to move for a Return of all the cases in which the Bishop's Veto has been exercised under the Church Discipline Act, 1840, and under the Public Worship Regulation Act, 1874; also, to ask Her Majesty's Government whether a Return could be obtained showing the number of churches in England belonging to the Church of England in which confessional boxes have been put up. It will be within your Lordships' recollection that recently the Archbishop of York had a Motion on the Paper for some days very similar to the one which I am now moving, but relating only to the Act of 1874. The Bishop of Winchester, when he addressed your Lordships on this occasion a week or two ago, said that the veto had only been exercised by three living Bishops. If a decision has been given by a Judge, whether the Judge is living or dead, his decision is still binding, and a precedent created or a decision given by Bishop Tait or the late Archbishop of York would be as binding as if given by the present Archbishop of York. The Return, if granted, will, it is contended, show that the courts are shut, and that it is impossible for anyone to get these questions raised. A sum of between £40,000 and £50,000 has been spent in trying to get these questions brought before some competent court to decide. I believe the Return, if granted, will partly prove the point we are contending for—that practically it is useless to go on with other cases when it has been decided by the Bishops that they would not allow cases to go on. As to my Question with reference to the churches which have confessional boxes, I think there will not be much difference of opinion as to the advisability of having this Return, if possible. The Bishops of the Northern Province passed a resolution on 9th February, in the Upper House of Convocation, which showed that they felt that the increasing practice among clergy of encouraging the system of private confession in churches belonging to the Church of England demanded the serious consideration of the Bishops. I take it that in passing this resolution unanimously the Bishops felt that the practice was increasing, and what we would like to know is, how far it has increased, and whether what we are continually told—namely, that there are only a few isolated cases—is correct. The Return I ask for will give this information, and show whether the cases are few and isolated. An official Return is desirable, otherwise the figures which private societies on one side or the other may collect will possibly be contested. A Government Return would be accepted as a more or less authoritative document. Lately, the Bishops have been taking up the question very earnestly, and have publicly stated, on many occasions, that if they only knew of cases in which the law was being broken they would at once act, and many of them have done so. It would, therefore, help them if there was an authentic Return. It is possible that the Government will answer that they have not the means of getting the information. If so, would they allow anyone to help them to prepare an authentic Return? I have no doubt the English Church Union and other societies would have a fairly complete list, and would be willing to assist them. In that way, I venture to think, the public would be able to arrive at a conclusion as to whether illegal practices are exaggerated or few and far between. Lately, there was a case at St. Clement's, City Road. I am informed that the illegal practices have gone on for five years, and it was not until the fact was published in one of the newspapers of 17th February that any action was taken by the Bishop of London. I believe four Bishops had the matter brought to their attention, but it was not until last month that any action was taken, and I understand that the clergyman in charge has promised that he will abstain from what is regarded as an extremely illegal proceeding. I think the country would like an assurance as to whether they are to be expected to help in bringing these matters before the Bishops, or whether the Bishops will collect the information themselves. No one more than myself wishes that there could be some way of arriving at a solution without having to appeal for outside aid. I beg to Move the Motion which stands in my name.


My Lords, I withdrew the Notice which some time ago stood in my name, and to which the noble Lord has referred, because I believed all the information obtainable had been collected. I have ascertained, as the result of most careful inquiry, that there have not been 10 cases in the last 25 years in which any Bishop of any diocese in England has exercised the veto. That is a fact which can only be re-ascertained if the noble Lord obtains the Return for which he asks. As regards the second part of his Motion, I can only say that in my own diocese I scarcely know of such a thing as a confessional box. But confession may be practised where there is no confessional box at all, and therefore I do not think the inquiry would bring about the result desired by the noble Lord. Personally, the more the matter is inquired into the more I shall rejoice. I believe there are evils to meet, but I do not think we shall meet them by making useless inquiries or magnifying the evil.


My Lords, in the absence of my noble Friend Lord Balfour of Burleigh, who represents the Home Office in this House, I have been asked to make the following reply. In regard to the Church Discipline Act, 1840, this Return cannot be granted as there is no record necessarily kept of such cases. Charges under that Act need not be made in any particular form, nor any record kept of cases in which action was not taken by the Bishop. A Return is, however, in course of preparation, in compliance with an Address of the House of Commons agreed to on 23rd February, on the motion of Mr. Gedge, which will give the information asked for as to the Public Worship Regulation Act, 1874. This Return, when ready, might, if wished, be laid also before this House. As to the second part of the noble Lord's Question, any return as to confessional boxes must necessarily, even if granted, be incomplete, as the Secretary of State has no statutory power to compel the incumbent or the churchwardens to give the information asked for. The great amount of labour involved in attempting to obtain the Return would be out of all proportion to the value of any information obtained. Under these circumstances the Government could not consent to grant the Return asked for by my noble Friend.


My Lords, I regret very much to hear the answer which has been given on behalf of the Government in respect to the latter part of the Question asked by my noble Friend. There can be no doubt, my Lords, that the question of auricular confession is one which interests the public more than any other question connected with what are called extreme practices. I do not belong to the Association to which the noble Lord who asked the Question belongs, and I have taken no prominent part of any kind in the present deplorable discussions in the Church of England. But at the same time, in my opinion, the public have a right to know in what churches belonging to the Church of England confessional boxes have been openly put up and used, and I cannot think the answer which the noble Earl has had put into his hands by the Home Office is a sufficient one. The noble Earl said that the Secretary of State had no power to compel churchwardens to give a Return, and that it would entail a great deal of trouble in the writing of circulars and obtaining answers. I think that in a case of this importance the trouble which would be put upon the Home Office is not a matter of the slightest consequence. As to the difficulty of getting the Return, I do not profess to be a lawyer, still less an ecclesiastical lawyer, but my experience in Church matters leads me to believe that there is a very complete organisation in every diocese for the control and inspection of the fabric, the ornaments, and so forth, of the churches; that there are rural deans, archdeacons, and others in authority through whom doubtless this Return could be easily and promptly obtained by the Bishops. If I am right in my supposition, the answer given by the noble Earl with regard to confessional boxes is certainly not a satisfactory one. The right reverend Prelate has said—and I was very glad to hear him say it—that the Bishops desire the fullest possible investigation of these cases. If that is the case—and I have no ground whatever for doubting it, or for attaching any suspicion to the right reverend Bench in this matter—and if it is their desire that full light should be thrown on this practice, they should be the first to court the production of this Return. The most reverend Prelate has rightly said that a Return, showing the number of confessional boxes put up in the churches all over England, would by no means show how far the practice of auricular confession is carried on, but the fact of putting a confessional box up in a church is far more important in my mind, as affecting the position of the Church of England, than the more or less auricular confession which has been, I understand, taught by some extreme clergy. I cannot think the answer on the part of the Government is satisfactory. I think this information should be given. I cannot see that there is any insuperable difficulty in the way of obtaining it, and as the Bishops say they desire light to be thrown on this matter, surely this is a Return which ought to be given for the sake, to some extent, of satisfying the desire of many very moderate members of the Church of England to know how far these practices are openly carried on.


My Lords, the noble Earl who has just spoken has expressed the view held by conscientious laymen in the Church of England. I do not know whether I misunderstood him, but the speech of the most reverend Prelate (the Archbishop of York) was, to say the least of it, very unsatisfactory. I do not know what the most reverend Prelate's feelings are, but his words did not show that he had that horror of confession which I think we laymen have. I am sure his speech will be a very great disappointment to many men like myself, who, I hope, are good Churchmen, and who do not wish to see these innovations introduced into the Church of England.


My Lords, as I was responsible for in the first instance bringing before the House the consideration of this subject, and as it seemed on the previous occasion that there was apparently some little conflict of opinion as to facts between the noble Lord who has asked this Question to-day and myself, I should like to say how cordially I court every possible inquiry that can be made. I desire to have these practices probed to the bottom, and the fuller the light of day can be poured into every detail the better I, for one, shall be pleased. I am very glad that a Return is to be granted in the House of Commons with regard to the exercise of the veto under the Public Worship Regulation Act, 1874, because I am satisfied that when it is seen it will show how absolutely accurate the statement I ventured to make on the subject a few weeks ago was—namely, that three living Bishops, and three living Bishops only, have exercised the veto under that Act. Yet the Bishops of to-day are charged with going on exercising now the veto which bars the public from going into court. I have stated that only three Bishops now living have exercised the veto, and I am prepared to show that the veto exercised by those who have passed away was practically insignificant in its character, and in no real sense barred the public from access to the courts. But, unfortunately, no records exist, as the Government have already said, from which a Return could be made of the number of cases in which the veto was exercised, under the Act of 1840, but I have taken pains to go through, in detail, the cases in which the veto is alleged to have been exercised under that Act. I have gone through them in detail, because I believe that as no official Return is possible, the information can only be obtained by looking out the history of each case in the ordinary Law Reports. As far as I can ascertain the facts, and I believe they are accurate, there were nominally, according to the noble Lord's information, 10 cases in which the veto was alleged to have been exercised under the Clergy Discipline Act of 1840, but practically they resolved themselves into six, inasmuch as they refer to six clergymen only. The first was the case of Archdeacon Denison, in 1854, nearly half a century ago, but that case was tried in full, and finally collapsed on technical grounds. The next case was that of Mr. Randell in 1859, in which the Bishop of Winchester exercised his veto, and was supported by the Court of Queen's Bench when it was appealed to. Then there came the case of Mr. Bennett, as to which there appears to have been a total mistake. Bishop Tait, of London, was asked to issue a permission under the Act, and he did so, and the case came forward for trial in due course, and Mr. Bennett was in the long run acquitted. The next case was that of Canon Carter, in which the veto was exercised by Bishop Mackarness, and Canon Carter resigned his cure in consequence. The next case was that of Mr. Delabere, in 1884, but that case went forward, and Mr. Delabere was deprived of his benefice. The last case was that of Canon Venables of Lincoln, which was vetoed by Archbishop Benson on the ground that it was by a legal quibble that Canon Venables was made the defendant, while the Dean, as the responsible man, ought to have been prosecuted. These are the only cases in which, as far as I can ascertain, there was any exercise of the veto under the Church Discipline Act, which has been in existence for nearly 60 years, and the net result is that of these six alleged cases, three—those of Archdeacon Denison, Mr. Bennett, and Mr. Delabere—were not really vetoed at all, but went forward to trial, and of the remaining three cases the defendant in one resigned his cure. Where, then, is the grievance? Can anyone be said to have been deprived of his rights by the exercise of the veto? It is really misleading the public to suggest anything of the kind. I have mentioned this matter simply because I want to put the noble Lord in possession of the fullest information I have been able to acquire by going thoroughly into the question. What we, the Bishops, desire in this matter is daylight, and we have not the smallest wish that any kind of Return which would throw light on the subject should be withheld. May I say a few words with regard to the other half of the Motion, which refers to confessional boxes? If a Return of that sort is desired, by all means let it be obtained, however laboriously. I will co-operate to the best of my power. But such a Return, if obtained, would be not merely inadequate, but would be perilously misleading. Let us suppose there would be 12 cases in England in which confessional boxes had been put up, and that would be about the number. No Chancellor in the kingdom, so far as I know, has ever granted a faculty for putting up a confessional box. They must, therefore, have been put up without a faculty. I have never seen a confessional box in any one of the many hundreds of churches I have visited. There may possibly be, as I have said, a dozen or 20 churches in which a confessional box could be found, but I repeat that such a Return as that asked for would be very misleading. I have never denied that the danger connected with the growth of the teaching of the practice of private confession is a great and a real danger, and I have always considered it to be the duty of the Bishops to do anything in their power to repress it. In my opinion, no greater calamity could befall the English people than that the practice of private confession should become general amongst them. I hope I have made it clear that I do not want, in any sort of way, to keep things back, or desire to foster or protect practices which I believe to be fraught with enormous peril. It is because that is my firm conviction that I wish to speak it in this House, and I am sure that, instead of being alone, or nearly alone, among the Bishops, I shall have practically the support of the Bishops as a whole in every word I have said on the subject.


My Lords, if there were no other reason for being glad that the noble Lord behind me has moved for this Return about confessional boxes, there would be the reason that we have had the advantage of hearing a plain, explicit, and satisfactory declaration on the subject from the right reverend Prelate who has just spoken. I shall not attempt to add a word to what he has said with authority, and in a manner which must have given satisfaction to all who heard him. While not disputing the fact that the Return asked for would be misleading, I think there is some distinction between the actual placing of a confessional box in a church and the practice of auricular confession otherwise than by means of a confessional box. The placing of a confessional box in a church is the most flagrant and striking manifestation of a determination to entirely disregard the real practices of the Church of England that I can imagine. No doubt the Church of England, in certain cases, encourages the layman, if he thinks it is for his good, to open his mind to a clergyman, but that is extremely different from the practice of habitual confession. And there is nothing which indicates more openly the intention to practise habitual auricular confession than tile setting up of confessional boxes in the church. So far, therefore, I should not have been sorry to know the number of confessional boxes in England. I feel most strongly that, whatever may be our opinions on particular questions affecting the Church, there ought to be no difference of opinion as to the extreme importance of ascertaining the facts. There are very great differences of opinion as to the extent to which these practices prevail, and it is of extreme importance to the settling of these controversies that the nation should know how far these practices do prevail. Therefore, I regret to hear the tone of the answer which the Home Office has given, which seems to treat the matter rather too lightly. In my opinion, no amount of trouble or expense would be thrown away in ascertaining the extent of the practice of confession in this country. I trust that if there are further Motions on this subject, as very likely there will be, the Government will see that in a matter so important and so dangerous to the Church in the present state of things, it is their duty, if it be possible, to supply to Parliament ample information on the matter.


My Lords, I venture to appeal to the Government to reconsider their decision not to grant this Return. The Home Office say that it would be extremely difficult to obtain information respecting the number of confessional boxes in the Church of England; but, my Lords, as the noble Earl, the Earl of Northbrook, has pointed out, Returns in former days upon Church questions must have been granted by communication with the Bishops, and what I would ask is, why cannot the Government approach the Bishops and ask them, through the rural deans, to supply the necessary information? In 1892 a Return was granted, giving the number of churches that were built or restored since 1873. I maintain that that Return could not have been granted unless it had been obtained by the assistance of the Episcopal Bench. In 1890 another Return was granted, showing the charges and the fees which were paid by the Bishops since 1885 on their institution. That Return was granted by communication with the Episcopal Bench. I think it is not a question whether there are five, or 10, or 15, or 20, or even 100 confessional boxes. The public have a right to know how many confessional boxes have been put up in the National Church. We all listened with the greatest possible pleasure to the manly speech of the right reverend Prelate who has just addressed us, and if he says he cannot believe that any of these confessional boxes were erected with the approval and consent of the Chancellor of the Diocese, then they were put up illegally, and what we want to know is, in what dioceses these confessional boxes are allowed to exist, who is the Bishop who is responsible for allowing them to exist, and we want to have them taken down. The question of confession and the interference with family life is a matter upon which many people feel perhaps more deeply than upon anything else. I think it is a great misfortune that there should appear, I do not say intentionally, any desire to keep back from the public information as to how far these things are openly permitted by the authorities in the Church of England. No reasonable man would expect or desire to know the cases in which a good clergyman has assisted some of his flock by giving advice, but what I think we have a right to know is, where in the Reformed Church of England that open acceptance of the principle of confession is permitted to exist. I am quite certain that if it is desired—and I am sure no reasonable man wishes it should be—that the attitude of the Episcopal Bench should be viewed with suspicion and distrust, nothing is more likely to conduce to that feeling than any excuse, on the ground of difficulty or expense, for keeping these particular facts from the knowledge of the public. I hope the Government may see their way to meet the wishes and the views which have been urged by so many of their supporters; otherwise I hope my noble Friend will feel himself justified in dividing the House on the question.


My Lords, I certainly have no intention to ask the House to divide on this question. It seems to me that the great importance—a very mistaken importance indeed—which noble Lords attach to this matter of confessional boxes, as distinguished from any other aspect of the question of confession1, should over-ride the mere technical objection which the Home Office very properly put forward. I do not agree in many points with, the noble Lord, but I entirely agree with him in deprecating the spirit of this practice of habitual confession in the Church of England. You must remember that you are dealing with a spiritual force, and I very much doubt whether Parliament will find that its powers are adequate to carry out the end which I have no doubt the enormous mass in both Houses desire. If there were any means of repressing or discouraging the practice of habitual confession, I should say that it behoved us to give to it all our consideration; but I fear, however, that you are undertaking an effort to coerce consciences which greater powers even than the British Parliament have, failed to effect, and that you are more likely to increase the disease than to stop it. However, that is a question of opinion, and a question, of course, upon which I should rather defer to the opinion of the right reverend Bench than hold any opinion of my own. I quite agree that under the circumstances, after the speech of the right reverend Prelate, and in view of the general expression of opinion, the Return ought to be granted. But allow me to point out that this Return will not tell you one-hundredth part of the evil. If there is to be confession, which I most earnestly deprecate, I would rather have the open box in the church than the secret interview in the vestry. It is between those two you will have to choose, and my fear is that in the first place you will not get even an accurate Return of what boxes there are, because everyone who returns the existence of a box returns a confession that he himself has broken the law. You will not get people to do that if there is no compulsory power to make them. They will simply put your Circular into the fire. Beyond that, I fear if you bring in any operations of external force in this matter you will give a vicious stimulus to a certain mistaken spirit of religious courage, which will, most unfortunately—most unhappily, I think—induce a more extended practice of the very evil you so justly deprecate and try to struggle against. I gravely fear that if men wish to confess to men, or perhaps I should put it more accurately by saying if women wish to confess to men, all the power which this Parliament possesses will not avail seriously to arrest the process. The power of arresting it lies with the organisation over which the right reverend Bench preside. It is for them to teach their flocks—and they cannot do it too earnestly or too often—the evils which attend habitual and systematic secret confession. But let us be careful lest we hinder their work, and prevent them from doing that which it is their proper charge to carry out, by bringing in the arm of the flesh, which never yet beat down a religious error, and has often made religious evil worse than it was before.


I crave your Lordships' indulgence for a moment in order to remove a great misconception which has found expression in the course of the Debate. I do not think my speech gave any cause for that misconception. I have spoken so often and so strongly on this subject that I did not think it necessary to repeat what I had said; but if it will be any comfort to the noble Viscount (Viscount Clifden), I can assure him that no one has a greater objection—may I say a greater dread?—than I have of 'anything like private confession going beyond the very carefully defined limits laid down in the Book of Common Prayer.


I understand that the Motion of the noble Lord is dispensed with, as there are no records from which the Return can be compiled. With regard to confessional boxes, the noble Lord (Lord Kinnaird) has only asked a Question. There is no Motion with regard to confessional boxes.


My Lords. I beg to move for the Return specified in my Motion.

Question put.

Motion negatived.


With the permission of the House, I now beg to move for a Return showing the number of churches in England belonging to the Church of England in which confessional boxes have been put up.

Question put.

Motion agreed to.