HL Deb 25 July 1918 vol 30 cc1161-72

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, I rise to move the Second Reading of the Union of Benefices Bill. In some ways this Bill attaches itself to, and is a development of, the Act that was passed last year as a piece of war legislation, authorising the discontinuance of services in churches to enable the clergy to be free for other and more exacting duties at this time. If it was held that without some adjustment the man-power of the Church would not be used to full advantage in time of war, this, I believe, is equally true in time of peace. It cannot occupy a man's whole time to minister on Sundays and to visit on weekdays 100 or 200 people, and the amalgamation of two small benefices or more together offers to a man a fuller occupation and a larger sphere of usefulness, and in some cases provides him with a better, or, rather, a less inadequate stipend.

When I say that it offers a man a larger sphere of useful occupation, I do not for a moment mean to depreciate the good work that is done by the clergy in our country districts. I know how very good it is, and I know that their work is never over in the sense that they can leave it. They have always to be on the spot, and they find it more difficult in many cases than their brothers in the towns to get away for even one Sunday's holiday in the year, and in many cases they cannot afford the expense of such a little change. Some people speak of the country clergy as if they did only one day's work in seven, but no one could do that who is aware of the way in which our country clergy are always at the disposal of their people, who constantly turn to them for help of every kind, and never turn in vain. A parish clergyman is a source of the best kind of guidance and assistance to his flock in spiritual and in other matters, and we gratefully remember all that our country owes to the parsonages dotted all over it and to the sympathetic work done by the wives and families of our country clergy.

During the war some people have been casting about for ways in which the clergy could best serve the nation, and we are thankful for the manner in which they have sprung forward at this time of the nation's need; we honour those who are serving abroad, and we treasure the memory of those who have laid down their lives for their country. But in our thankfulness we cannot forget those who have been left at home to do most important, if less romantic, work. They have interpreted the war to the people of our country districts; they have broken bad news when it has arrived to the families in their charge; they have helped them in all the filling up of forms; and they have guided the young people in choosing a form of war service in which to serve their country. And I believe that the war would have been regarded with an aversion that is not the case in our country districts had it not been for all this gallant work day by day being carried on by our country clergy.

But in many cases a man could do this sort of good work for a larger flock. And I may add that in a very few years it may come about that with the smaller value of money and the shortage of clergy it will become almost impossible to draft a sufficient number of clergymen to incumbencies in our country districts. In the sad position of a clergyman ministering to a very small flock a very small remuneration tells against his work, when he is not in a position, perhaps, to get a pony or to ride a bicycle or in any way to come in contact with the cultured association of men similarly educated with himself.

I know that it is urged that the union of benefices is always unpopular. It punishes the particular parishes concerned and especially the people who live in the parish in which the clergyman does not propose to reside. Then it is said that the curtailment of services is likely to throw the people into the hands of Nonconformist ministers and places of worship, where they can find facilities of worship at the time when they wish to go to church. Then it is said that the endowment belongs to the parish to which it was originally given, and that it is not open to any redistribution on some general scheme. But it cannot really be right to take an entirely selfish view in these matters, and our people must be asked to learn—even if they learn slowly—to take a larger view, and to be willing to identify themselves with their neighbours. This may take time, but a generation is a short period in the life of the Church.

Nor can it be desirable to check such a movement because the people are halfhearted in their adherence to the Church. It may be that the regulated use on a more extensive scale of the ministries of educated laymen may come to supply the additional services which may be required on Sundays. It would be wrong, of course, to re-arrange parishes if it meant taking away the endowments of one parish and leaving the parish from which they were taken unprovided for in regard to its spiritual needs. But adequate provision does not necessarily mean continuing unaltered the habits of the past. There is a considerable difference between principle and custom in these matters. In neither case do the parishioners stand to lose if the union of two benefices attracts to them a clergyman of greater vigour and stronger personality, and one who is better able to keep in touch with the thought of the outside world.

I hesitate to mention any of the failures among the clergy, because it would be unfair to speak against the high standard of life that is almost universally shown. But if ever failure is found I believe it most readily springs from loneliness and isolation, and from the lack of a full week's work dragging down a man who yet all the time is tied to the limited area of his post. Any step which can help to make the occurrence of these unfavourable cases as few as possible is prudent and to be recommended. This Bill does not introduce the idea of the union of benefices; it merely alters the existing machinery for bringing it about. Whether the Bill is passed or not it will still be possible for benefices to be united, though only Bishops know the patience and effort at present required to carry through such unions. The Bill strives to improve the method by which unions, when thought desirable, may be carried into effect.

Your Lordships will observe that the Bill provides for an inquiry on the part of a competent tribunal in order to weigh up the pros and cons of each case. This is substituted for the cumbersome procedure of a protest to the Archbishop on the part of those interested in the matter. This tribunal will consist of three commissioners, and the whole case will be argued before it. To this proposal I attach great importance. Both patrons and parishioners will be able to state their cases before this tribunal, and it is clear that if patrons are to lose their right of veto it is only fair that, with the parishioners, they should have ample opportunity of saying their say to the full. The Ecclesiastical Commissioners will nominate one commissioner, and no doubt valuable experience will quickly gather round their nominees; but the commissioner who is appointed locally will see that special local features (like distances, roads, situation of houses and hamlets) are observed. And here I give notice that in Committee I propose to move an Amendment, if the Bill is read a second time to-day, to the effect that the alternative provided for use in this Bill as it stands if the patrons do not agree on a nominee, should be employed in all cases. The Bishop's nominee will presumably be conversant with the spiritual and clerical aspects of the ease and with the individual characteristics and needs of the praishes concerned. The Bishop's veto, being the veto of the final and supreme spiritual authority, is retained.

The Bill removes any population limit. It is very hard to fix such a limit, for a union may be desirable where the population exceeds by a few whatever limit happens to be fixed upon; and it is really the collective judgment of the three commissioners on this tribunal which will be a safeguard against any misuse of this freedom. Then the final scheme will settle the terms of the union. Among them, of course, are the terms of patronage of the amalgamated benefice, if more than one patron is concerned. This Bill is no sense requires that some parish churches should be subordinated in their relation to others. Such a step can be taken, but one may be sure that in country districts where such unions take place, though the benefice will be made one, each parish church will usually hold its own position unimpaired. This will still be the case even in a group of little parishes close to one another where the desirable step might sometimes be taken of making several parishes into one benefice to be worked under one incumbent with an adequate staff of curates radiating out from the one strong centre. An unnecessary parsonage, I suppose, would in most cases be sold for the benefit of the benefice, and it would be very rare that there would be occasion to pull down a parsonage; and I imagine that the pulling down of a church would be a very rare event indeed.

I ought to add that this Bill has the approval of both the Canterbury and York Houses of Convocation, and the little Amendment to which I alluded just now will be moved in deference to the wishes of the Upper House of the Canterbury Convocation. I may also add that the Ecclesiastical Commission, which is largely concerned in the working of the Bill, fully approves of it; and this, again, is true of Queen Anne's Bounty; though neither of those is a proper body actually to initiate legislation. Moreover, this Bill is in accordance with resolutions passed in the Canterbury House of Laymen some few years ago. I cannot believe that the Bill will lead to a wholesale attack being made on the country parishes; it would only mean that where there is a sound case for union it would make sure that the matter was not checked by unreasonable prejudice and ignored simply through the indifference of a patron or his unwillingness to take a wide view of all the interests involved.

But I come back to that with which I began—namely, that the Church cannot continue to take an obsolete view of her man-power, or refuse to reconsider the redistribution of her men at home and in the field abroad. It is very desirable that, when it is possible, the Church should reform old-fashioned and discredited ways I dating from the time when parishes were more isolated from one another than they are in these modern days; otherwise the Church runs the chance of losing the respect of many efficient and careful critics, not least among the working classes. Such arguments as I have indicated are much reinforced when we consider the shortage of clergy which must result from the war. In the last years all our able-bodied students in theological colleges have gone to the Front, and are fighting there, and the only men whom the Bishops have been ordaining have been elderly men or men unfit for service in the field, and there are senior men at the present time still holding on in their benefices just until the war concludes. At the end of the war there will be many resignations among them, which will immediately reveal and intensify our difficulties. A small measure, therefore, of this kind, which can do something in the right direction, I venture to think is valuable.

I repeat that this Bill creates no new system, but only makes an accepted principle more available for use. The reason why it has fallen upon me to introduce this subject is that the diocese of Norwich has such a very large number of these little parishes. In the city of Norwich the number of parishes is beyond the present requirements of the population living where many churches stand—namely, in the business quarters of the city. The last thing which I wish to do is to inflict statistics upon your Lordships, but I may be permitted to say just this much—that there are about 600 parishes in the diocese of Norwich; that the population of 200 of these is actually under the figure of 200 persons; that 100 of these parishes out of the 600 are already united with other parishes; and that some twenty-five more are held in plurality. There is plenty of scope in the diocese of Norwich for further efforts in this direction of union, and it will be a great thing if the machinery for achieving such unions could be modified from the manner at present provided by the law. As the law now stand a union that must commend itself as desirable to any independent judgment can be held up, not as the result of a business-like discussion of all the circumstances of the case, but just by indifference or mere parochialism. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(The Lord Bishop of Norwich).


My Lords, the right rev. Prelate has given such a clear and concise account of the Bill and of the reasons for it that I do not think it would be desirable, to take up your time by many more words. I only rise lest there should be any misapprehension within this House or beyond it that the Bishop of Norwich has taken up this matter on his own single initiative. Those who listened to him just now know how far that is from being the case; but I think it is just as well that it should be said that this Bill represents the desire of nearly all those who as Bishops or as administrators, or persons otherwise acquainted with the inner working of the Church, wish to see its efficiency improved.

I think, too, that it is right that we should say a word to justify this Bill as a timely measure. The noble Earl who moved the Second Reading of the Education Bill the other night defended himself from the criticism that in war-time we ought not to be concerned with matters other than those connected with the war. I think his defence was felt to be a perfectly convincing one, and I venture to apply it to a very much smaller but very material subject—namely, to a bit of reform in the arrangements of the Church as they touch the affairs of the people at large. There is a very strong feeling indeed that our system is in many ways embarrassing and archaic, and I think people would feel, the better they know the matter, that instead of this being pushed on with unnecessary haste it is really a very belated proposal, and I believe it will be welcome to people who approach the subject from very different points of view. I think that persons who desire simply to see what they think an admirable system relieved of some of its drawbacks ought to welcome a Bill which attacks what is so generally felt to be a very embarrassing feature of our present system. On the other band, I believe those who think that changes in the Church's secular position ought to go very much further would still be glad to see that Parliament was ready to do something towards remedying its most obvious and pressing defects.

There is only one other observation, or perhaps two which I desire to make. One is this. This House has always represented very largely the interests of patrons of benefices. I, for one, and I think many of my brethren on the Episcopal Bench will agree, am no enemy to the rights of patrons.

On the contrary, I believe that our system of preferment, which includes different elements, is on that account better and does its work better But I am quite sure that the arbitrary power of patrons to veto schemes which are desired by all the rest of those interested in the matter is a very undesirable one, and one which would tend to bring about the destruction of patrons' rights altogether. The other remark is a very humble one indeed, and may amuse your Lordships, but I believe it to be real. We are always told that we should live up to our material and mechanical advantages. I believe that in the present case circumstances have been immensely changed by the simple fact of the invention of the bicycle.


My Lords, the right rev. Prelate who moved the Second Reading of this Bill referred to the attitude in its favour taken by the House of Laymen of the Province of Canterbury, and I am in a position to say that there are a very large number of Churchmen interested in important Church organisations who are in favour of the proposal contained in the Bill. I do not desire to say more except this, that I think the proposals themselves have been well devised and will bring about what the right rev. Prelate desires—namely, a far easier method of procedure—and at the same time will give all reasonable protection to the various interests involved.


My Lords, I should like to say a few words about this Bill, because it happens that during a long life I have had a great deal to do with the temporal side, at any rate, of small livings. Under the direction of successive Lord Chancellors I have had to do with matters connected with what is called the Lord Chancellor's patronage, which is really his duty to fill up livings of the kind that are most difficult to fill. The origin of what is called his patronage is that the King at the time of the Reformation, or spoliation, or whatever you may call it, handed over to the Lord Chancellor all those livings which were not worth keeping. Then at Queen Anne's Bounty, for a great many years, I had occasion to see the business connected with the small livings with which they are mainly concerned—livings that are under £200 a year.

I therefore venture to give the opinion, from that long experience, that some better scheme for facilitating the union of benefices is very greatly to be desired. The right rev. Prelate has pointed out very fully what are the reasons why such unions are desirable. It unfortunately happens frequently—in an enormous number of cases, I am sorry to say—that the income of the incumbent is wholly inadequate. The incumbent also is in the unfortunate position of having too little to do, though, as a humourist I think once said, he "thereby becomes in time well qualified to do it." It is, therefore, very desirable to have a Bill of this sort, which interferes very little with any rights, which enables these unions in proper cases to be carried out with reasonable facility, which gives a right of appeal in any case where the individual might possibly be injured, and which—in the form nowadays so familiar in legislation, of giving rule-making powers—enables the Lord Chancellor, who is given the power under this Bill, to lay down what the rules of procedure shall be.

I cannot but think that your Lordships should at least give this Bill a Second Beading. I hope that the right rev. Prelate will allow me before the Committee stage to make one or two suggestions merely on points of form. I do not think that I should venture to differ from him upon the point which he has indicated this evening as to the position of the patron, but I do venture to express the opinion—having had occasion, as he knows, to consider this matter very carefully—that the Bill is right and that the Amendment that he proposes will not be an improvement upon the Bill. I beg to support the Second Reading.


My Lords, I should not like this Bill to pass its Second Reading without having stated on behalf, as I believe, of the whole Episcopate that there is no difference of opinion among the Bishops as to the expediency of passing it. You have had it put before you by two Bishops with large rural dioceses, where the difficulty is most felt, and supported by the Chairman of the House of Laymen and by the noble and learned Lord who has taken so active a part in Church affairs of this sort for a great many years. I believe the proposals made are exactly what were described so clearly and well by my right rev. brother, and I hope that your Lordships will give the Bill a Second Reading.


My Lords, I venture to ask the right rev. Prelate whether he could include cases where two benefices have been united according to a former Act of Parliament, and include those cases so as to allow power to sell one of those benefices which has become practically useless in a depopulated parish. I speak from experience, because I have been connected with a case of that kind, which I believe is quite unique. At all events, if there is any similar case, attention has not been called to it. The parish to which I allude has practically no inhabitants. Sometimes there are ten, but I believe they do not belong to the Church of England, so that practically it has no Anglican population at all.

What renders the parish very peculiar is that it owns a church which is one of the very finest, not only in Northamptonshire, but I believe in the whole of England, and this church contains relics of bygone ages which are certainly unique. The stained glass of that parish is worth I do not know how much, but I should think it would make the mouths of the authorities at South Kensington water if they saw it and it ever came into the market. There are other belongings to this church which attract attention. Among them is the organ of Whitehall, which was there in the time of Charles I. I believe it is the very oldest organ in England—quite innocent of works or bellows at this time, but there it is as a work of art. I mention these particulars only to show that this is one of the most peculiar cases in England. This living, which is worth £10 a year, was united about thirty years ago under the old Act of Parliament by the authorities of Queen Anne's Bounty or the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, in whom the power was vested, with another living in another county contiguous to it, worth about £230 or £240 a year at that time. This church has become practically useless. As a matter of fact, for a whole year or more no service whatever was conducted in it. The vicar was a great invalid, who could hardly perform the services in the church to which he was attached in the contiguous parish. From whatever cause it arose, the fact remains, and there again, I believe, is a unique fact among the benefices of the Anglican communion. There is no Archdeacon, nobody to look after the church, and I take this opportunity of drawing attention to the matter. I hope it is not quite irrevelant to the subject before us.

I think it is worth mentioning in the Legislature that there is no person whatsoever responsible for the upkeep or sustentation of that magnificent building. We all know that church rates were abolished under the Gladstone Administration a generation ago, and that in those days, when a church threatened to fall down, the parish was enabled to raise subscriptions for its repair. That was the universal law of the land. Church rates were abolished, and no substitute was provided for the sustentation of churches. Therefore if this magnificent stained glass, which dates from the time of Edward III and is perfectly unique as a work of art, or if any of the other appurtenances of the fabric which I have mentioned—and I have not mentioned all by any means—if any of these were injured no human being is responsible for the restoration, or the protection, of what might remain. I think this really is a subject which ought to commend itself to the notice and the attention of the Legislature. Possibly some right rev. Prelate may take up the matter and introduce a Bill to that effect.

The right rev. Prelate has introduced this very necessary and desirable Bill, as I believe it is, creating if possible a body which may be responsible for the saving of these churches, or any others in the same category, which are rendered totally useless, which have no congregation whatsoever, and the living of which, as in this case, is only £10 a year. Your Lordships will recollect that when the monastic churches were the property of powerful and rich abbots, and the income of these parishes went to the monastery, the superior of the monastery paid one of his monks to serve as parish priest. The Pope ordained that this should be so, and at the time of what is called in this country the Reformation the land was seized, or stolen, by the Crown, and the liability to pay income was vested in the purchaser of these properties. Therefore, we have in this country, which after all is the most conservative country in the world in these matters, the fact that the owners of these estates are charged with the responsibility of paying the incumbent, who is called vicar, and not rector He is called the vicar; that is a person who represents the ancient authority of the living. I hope the right rev. Prelate will vouchsafe to consider these remarks which I have ventured to offer, and I think he would be earning the grati- tude of those who are concerned with these matters.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.