HL Deb 08 December 1908 vol 198 cc206-11

My Lords, I rise to ask His Majesty's Government whether they will undertake to introduce into Parliament a measure to abolish the oath or declaration imposed by statute on the Sovereign on meeting his or her first Parliament, that is to say, a declaration wherein he or she invokes Almighty God to bear witness that certain doctrines held by the great majority of Christians not only as awful, sacred, and stupendous but also as vital and fundamental, are false.

This Question is identical with one which I asked in your Lordships' House seven and a half years ago, when it gave rise to a long debate, which resulted in the matter being referred to a Committee. That Committee was a very historical Committee. It was noted for having given only twenty minutes to the consideration of a question which had been of importance for 200 years. The outcome of their labours was the introduction, by the late Lord Salisbury, of a Bill which was distasteful to the majority of your Lordships—distasteful to those members of the Church of England who felt strongly on the subject, and distasteful to all those who, like myself, belong to the Roman Catholic Church. That Bill, like so many other Bills, foundered in your Lordships' House. Then there was a Bill introduced by myself to abolish, not to modify, the oath or declaration, but that Bill also foundered. Seven years have elapsed, and so far as I can see there is now no prospect of the consideration of the subject being renewed unless an individual Member of the House like myself ventures to press it on the attention of the Government. Attempts have been made from time to time in another place to deal with this painful matter, but I am not aware that any Bill relating to it has been pressed to a Second Reading.

This seems to me to be eminently a matter which should be considered in your Lordships' House. It should not be left to an individual Member of either House, but should be boldly brought forward by the Government of the day. The Government which was in power in 1901 was of a very different constitution from the present Government, but whether the Government in office be Conservative or Liberal, I apprehend that this matter is distasteful to both. The subject is one which everybody is sorry should be raised and discussed, except those who feel deeply and intensely concerning it. Those persons are in a minority—but, I venture to say, a strong minority — not only in both Houses of Parliament but throughout the country. It is a matter which everybody in and out of Parliament wishes to see settled without further discussion, and I submit that the only means of settling it will be the absolute abolition of the statute, which was described by the late Lord Salisbury as a stain on the Statute-book. That was exceedingly grave language for the Prime Minister to use in Parliament. A stain on the Statute-book!

As your Lordships are aware, the declaration is part and parcel of those savage enactments which were passed by Parliament in a very savage age compared with our own — in the latter years of Charles II., when the blood of Catholic martyrs was poured out all over England, when the nation was divided into two hostile camps and religion and politics were almost inseparable in the history of nations. By this Act of Charles II., one person, the Duke of York (afterwards James II.) wae excepted from its operation by a special clause, but in the first year of William and Mary the general declaration or oath was enacted as obligatory on all future sovereigns. All the other savage enactments have been from time to time repealed or modified. The first great repeal was in the time of George III. Those terrible laws which had been crushing out Roman Catholic life in England and Ireland, and had resulted in imprisonment and death by hanging, in this country rarely, but in Ireland often, were finally repealed, I think, in the year 1779; but many years passed before Catholic emancipation took place. In 1829, the first year of Catholic liberty, six Peers were admitted within the precincts of this Chamber and took the oath of allegiance In spite of all these changes, in spite of the religious liberty of which we boast, this peculiar and stern enactment remains as a stain upon the Statute-book. I hope His Majesty's Government will consider the propriety of dealing with it as soon as possible. If they do so boldly, I venture to say that they will meet with very little opposition in the country.


My Lords, this subject of the declaration made by the Sovereign on the first occasion of his or her meeting Parliament is one which has engaged the attention of this House on several occasions in past years, and those of your Lordships who took part in the discussions, or even remember what occurred, under the Government of the late Lord Salisbury will agree with me as to the extreme difficulty which surrounds it. At that time, with every good will on all sides of the House—and I am quite certain that that good will did exist—it was not found possible to arrive at any solution of the question. I am able to say that the possibility of arriving at a solution of it is one which has engaged the attention of His Majesty's Government for some time past. We have had the question under our consideration, and I hope it may be possible for us to submit, before very long, some proposition with that object. Pending any submission of that kind from the responsible advisers of the Crown, I should venture to hope that the matter might not be made the subject of discussion here. It is one of extreme delicacy and difficulty, and, when we are able to put our proposition forward, as I hope we may be, I am quite certain we shall have the co-operation of noble Lords opposite if we are able to place it in a form which will produce a satisfactory solution of the question. That is all I am able to say at present, and I hope that, so far as it goes, it is satisfactory to the noble Lord opposite and to other noble Lords of his faith.


My Lords, I have no wish to say anything which may make an extremely delicate and difficult task more difficult for the Government, but I hope I may be allowed to express my very great satisfaction, a satisfaction which I am sure will be shared by my co-religionists throughout the country, at hearing that the Government have the courage boldly to face this very difficult subject. I may remind your Lordships that a Bill dealing with various points, one of which was the question of the Royal declaration, has been lately introduced in another place; it was challenged on First Reading, but was read a first time by an overwhelming majority. I hope that is a good omen that there is a friendly and gracious feeling on the part of our countrymen and a desire to view with a wide mind and generous spirit the opportunity of removing what the late Lord Salisbury called a stain from the Statute-book, and what everybody admits is a gross insult to many subjects of the Crown. I do not wish in any way to pin the Government to more than they have said, but I am sure we are all grateful to know that this matter is really being considered, and I hope that at an early date next session the Government will let the consideration which they are giving to the matter take practical form.


My Lords, after what has fallen from the noble Earl who leads the House, and I after the remarks of the noble Duke behind me, I think most of your Lordships will be of opinion that no good purpose; will be served by further discussion this evening of this extremely difficult and controversial subject. The noble Earl I reminded us that on former occasions there has been a very general desire in this House to bring about some change in the wording of the Royal Declaration which might have the effect of removing from it any expressions needlessly offensive to His Majesty's Roman Catholic subjects, without, on the other hand, doing violence to the feelings of the Protestant community. The utmost goodwill was, I think, shown to proposals of this kind, but, on the other hand, it is true that, even at the moment when there seemed to be every prospect of a solution, difficulties which proved insurmountable manifested themselves. The question is, clearly, one which can be dealt with only by and upon the responsibility of His Majesty's Government, and, as we now learn from the noble Earl that they have considered this matter, and that they are prepared next session to come to Parliament with proposals affecting it, I think there can be no doubt that it is best that your Lordships should await those proposals, for which we can promise the most benevolent consideration.


My Lords, the noble Lord who initiated this discussion expressed the opinion that when the Government came to deal with this question they would meet with very little opposition in the country. I venture to think the noble Lord has not fully realised the strength of the feeling in the country on this subject, and I think he may find considerable opposition to the proposed change. It involves not merely an alteration of words, but an alteration of the law of the land and also of the Church. It would, I take it, also involve altering many other parts of the Book of Common Prayer. It would be very sad that this sacred subject, on which so many feel very strongly, should have to be discussed in this place or elsewhere throughout the country, but respect must be paid to those who feel for the Protestant religion as well as to those who feel for the Roman Catholic religion. I have no doubt that His Majesty's Government will carefully consider the matter before they launch the country on a controversy which, though it may be taken up very reluctantly, will not be shirked by those who conscientiously feel that they cannot acquiesce in a change in the national religion and the Protestant succession. I will not say more on the present occasion; but I did not think it would be right for your Lordships to go away with the idea that the change would be acquiesced in quietly throughout the country and the Empire.