HL Deb 12 May 1902 vol 107 cc1317-21

My Lords, I rise to ask His Majesty's Government whether the changes in His Majesty's Coronation Oath rendered necessary by the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland can be effected without recourse to legislation. This is a matter to which I have no doubt the Government have given full consideration, and I have as little doubt that the decision at which they have arrived, or at which, at least, they appear to have arrived, has been founded on good grounds. But the whole question is a very curious and complicated one, and I think there are other noble Lords beside myself who would like to know exactly what the decision of the Government has been and the grounds upon which that decision has been arrived at. Such of your Lordships as were unacquainted with them before were made well acquainted with the provisions of a certain Act passed in the reign of William and Mary by the discussions which took place last year on the subject of the King's Declaration. But there is another Act of that reign with which the House may not be equally familiar, and which prescribes the terms in which the Coronation Oath is to be taken. That Act of Parliament, I believe, has never been repealed. The Oath as provided in the Act of William and Mary is a general one; it contains provisions culled out of the old Coronation Oaths, and adds one provision by which the King binds himself in somewhat general terms not to do anything against the Protestant religion. To the terms of that Oath, as contained in the Act referred to, I do not think objection can be raised; but there was a subsequent Act passed after the Union with Scotland, the effect of which upon the Act of William and Mary has sometimes been overlooked. After the Union with Scotland, it was thought necessary that a clause to preserve the rights and establishment of the Presbyterian Church in Scotland should be introduced into the Act sanctioning the Union. That was a right and fail-thing to do, but some zealous Church people in England seem to have taken fright at it and to have insisted that another clause should be inserted in the Act of Union providing for a new and additional provision in the Coronation Oath, to the effect that the Sovereign would maintain and preserve inviolably the settlement of the Church of England in England and Ireland, the Dominion of Wales, and the town of Berwick-upon-Tweed.

The Oath in that form was taken by George I., George II., and George III., but on the Coronation of George IV. a slight difference of wording was introduced, without, so far as I know, any legal sanction whatever. I suppose that the alteration, which substituted the words "the United Church of England and Ireland" for the words "the Churches of England and Ireland," was introduced as being in harmony with the spirit of, if not rendered necessary by, the Act of Union with Ireland, but there was no express legislative provision for the change. Two views have been expressed with regard to the powers under which that alteration was made. It is contended, on the one hand—and I fancy we shall be told so today—that the Act uniting the two Churches did implicitly, though not explicitly, alter the Act of Anne, and made it possible for the Sovereign to take the Oath as affecting the United Church of England and Ireland. The other view taken is one which I do not think will find favour with the noble and learned Earl on the Woolsack, though it may with the Most Rev. Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury, who, if I am rightly informed, has taken credit to himself for the new Coronation service being put out with the sanction of the King without recourse to the Privy Council. That view is that it is within the Sovereign's prerogative to change the wording of the oath, though not its general meaning.

The language of the Act disestablishing the Irish Church is very peculiar, and I doubt whether it can be said to repeal, even implicitly, the Act of Anne, for it says that— In all enactments, deeds, and other documents in which mention is made of the United Church of England and Ireland, the enactments and provisions relating thereto shall be read distributively in respect of the Church of England and the Church of Ireland, but, as to the last-mentioned Church, subject to the provisions of this Act. That, taken by itself, would restore things to the condition in which they were previous to the Act of Union—that is to say, it would restore the Act of Anne to its full operation. It is now proposed to change the Oath again, and what I wish to impress upon the House is this: that, whichever answer is given to my question, it only shows how useless, and worse than useless, such an Oath with regard to the maintenance of a particular institution is, because the only way in which we can read such an Oath nowadays is that it is subject to what may be done by Parliament subsequently to the Oath being taken. That is the way in which the Oath was read—correctly read, I think—by the late Queen Victoria. The Disestablishment of the Church of Ireland was not retarded for one single hour by the fact that Her Majesty had sworn to maintain the Established Church in Ireland. As a matter of fact, the Oath is taken with the certainty that it will be broken if His Majesty's Ministers and Parliament advise the King to break it. When noble Lords opposite come into power, they may—they will, if they adhere to former professions—advise the King that the Church should be disestablished in Wales, and, if Parliament gives them a majority to that effect, does any one suppose that the Church in Wales will last a moment longer because the King has taken an Oath that he will preserve it inviolably? Certainly not. The King will give his assent to its disestablishment, and I think in the circumstances that it is only right that he should do so, both to the Most Rev. Primate who administers the Oath, and the Sovereign who takes it, know perfectly well that the Oath is a mockery, and can be broken whenever that course is found expedient. What advantage, therefore, is gained by the retention of the Oath I cannot see. But we must not overlook the fact that a real danger attends its retention. The late Queen, being a woman of great grasp of mind and power, saw that was the right thing to do, and she felt that as a Sovereign she must disregard the Oath. But, though we have had a Victoria and an Elizabeth as our Queen, we have had also an Anne and a Mary—women of sensitive conscience, narrow intellect, and obstinate character, and we may have such again. Nor is it possible to deny that the scruple felt by those Sovereigns who have considered that the Oath was not only taken in their official capacity but is also binding on the individual Christian man or woman as an obligation taken by him or her personally in the sight of God is one which, if erroneous, yet deserves respect. The peril of this Oath is that a trap is set for the Sovereign's conscience and an occasion, for scoffing given to those who deride. There is nothing so perilous as political prophecy, but I think it is not hard to see that all these promissory oaths, which have to be taken with a reservation, which deprive them of all value, will be ere long wholly swept away.


I must decline to go into the general history of this question. My answer to the noble Lord is a very simple one—namely, that it is not necessary to apply for legislation. Legislation has already been applied to the question. The 69th section of the Act disestablishing the Irish Church states that— In all enactments, deeds, and other documents in which mention is made of the United Churches of England and Ireland, the enactments and provisions relating there to shall be read distributively in respect of the Church of England and of Ireland, but, as to the last-mentioned Church, subject to the provisions of the Act. That provision was designedly introduced in the section for the express purpose of dealing with this and other similar questions, so that the inconsistency which is supposed to exist is got rid of.


I do not know if this would be the proper opportunity of asking what is the intention of the Government with reference to the Royal Declaration Bill introduced last session, and on which so much time was spent.


I am afraid it is not an unusual experience to find that valuable time is spent in one House which is not redeemed in the other. The Government have not gone on with the Bill, because it became clear from what was said in the House of Commons that it could not be passed, and it was still more clear from what was said in this House at the close of the debate by Lord Llandaff.