HL Deb 04 June 1924 vol 57 cc852-61

THE LORD ARCHBISHOP OF CANTERBURY had given Notice to move that the Benefices Act, 1898 (Amendment), Measure, 1923, the Union of Benefices Measure, 1923, and the Ecclesiastical Dilapidations Measure, 1923, be presented to His Majesty for Royal Assent, in accordance with the Church of England Assembly Powders Act, 1919. His Grace said: My Lords, I am going to ask your Lordships to consent to three successive Resolutions which bear upon one another in a certain sense, but are entirely independent as regards your Lordships' decision about each of them. It would probably be right before I move them, which I shall do seriatim, that I should say a few words to remind any one of your Lordships who may for the moment have forgotten what is the procedure we are following in this matter, how far your Lordships are acting upon adequate advice already given, and how far the matters which will be brought before you have been the subject of adequate consideration and inquiry.

May I remind your Lordships that what we are doing to-night, if we pass these Resolutions, is the fifth stage in the consideration of the particular Measures which are specified in the Resolutions. When a Measure is going to be introduced upon Church matters it comes, or it can come, first before the Church Assembly, as we call it, for discussion. That Assembly can discuss it in detail, first in the Assembly as a whole and then, as is done almost always, in Committees of one kind or another which look into details. Afterwards it is discussed in what we should call here a Committee of the Whole House before it receives what is described in our Assembly Regulations as the final approval of the Assembly. When it has received the final approval of the Assembly it passes through a second stage. It goes to what is called the Legislative Committee of the Assembly. That is a body consisting of Bishops, clergy and laity, with a preponderance of laity. That, body considers the whole question and formulates an account of it, specifying its purpose and describing its provisions in some detail. This Legislative Committee, which consists at present of 31 members, is an important body.

When that Committee has drawn up its report it transmits it to the Ecclesiastical Committee of Parliament which, as your Lordships will remember, is a body of 30 members, 15 of whom are nominated by the Lord Chancellor from your Lordships' Ho use and 15 by the Speaker from the House of Commons. That body considers the whole subject afresh, with the report upon it which has been submitted to it by the Legislative Committee of the Church Assembly, and that is the third stage. Then the Ecclesiastical Committee of Parliament makes a Report upon the subject to Parliament which is laid on the Table of your Lordships' House. But before submitting the Report to Parliament it sends it back again to the Legislative Committee of the Assembly, in order that it may there be considered to see whether any modifications are necessary or whether anything has been inadequately understood.

That is security against inadvertent misrepresentation or mistake of any kind. But the Ecclesiatical Committee has to report in the end whether it is expedient or not that the Bill should receive the Royal Assent, especially with relation to the constitutional rights of all His Majesty's subjects. That is the purport of their examination. If they recommend that it shall receive the Royal Assent, and that is also agreed to by the Legislative Committee of the Asembly, the stage comes which we have reached to-night. Members of either House of Parliament are requested by the Legislative Committee of the Assembly to introduce in this House a Resolution in the form in which the Resolutions are before this House now.

With regard to the first of those Measures, the Motion is: That in accordance with the Church of England Assembly Powers Act, 1919, this House do direct that the Benefices Act, 1898 (Amendment) Measure, 1923, be presented to His Majesty for Royal Assent. What your Lordships have to do to-night is to say "Yes" or "No" to that Resolution—not to consider the Measure in detail, or at all events not with the power of amending it in detail. I venture to remind your Lordships that it is impossible to devise any manner of procedure which would more thoroughly secure that a matter as to which your Lordships are asked thus to vote whether or not it should be presented for Royal Assent, should have, been considered by those qualified to consider it. The Church, in a gathering which is preponderantly lay, considers the whole question in detail. It then goes through all the stages that I have mentioned, and it comes to your Lordships to say, to-night, whether or not you desire, as all these bodies have up to this point desired, that the Measure should receive the Royal Assent.

In regard to the three Measures in respect of which I am about to propose Resolutions there is practically no difference of opinion existing. A report has come from all these bodies in favour of the Royal Assent being given, and I shall have to ask your Lordships to give it in each of the three cases. I have thought it right to remind you of the procedure in a general way before coming in detail to the Resolutions which I have to propose. The first which I propose relates to the Benefices (Amendment) Act, 1898. This is a Measure with a perfectly simple intention and purport. It is really to abolish the sale of advowsons, as such, not at once but after a little time. I do not think any of your Lordships who have been familiar with Church controversy, and even controversy outside Church regions, during recent years, will doubt that among the so-called blemishes, or even scandals (for that word is sometimes used) that attend a certain part of our Church administration in connection with the State the possibility of the sale of an advowson, as such, has been found to be a stumbling block, a difficulty and a blemish upon our life which we have long been anxious to remove. By this Measure we propose to abolish in future days the recurrence of that which has caused so much anxiety, so much pain, and, occasionally, so much actual wrong in regard to the possession of advowsons.

But in making the proposal that that system shall before very long come to an end, we do it with what I venture to think is perhaps even over-scrupulous care lest we should, by rapid action, be doing harm to anybody, or inflicting a wrong where we did not intend to inflict it, or unfairly injuring what are called the rights of property. We make provision in this Measure that any private patron who has now the possession of an advowson—that is, the right to nominate to the Bishop for institution to a benefice a duly-qualified clerk—shall be able to exercise that right not once but twice after this Measure becomes law before his power to sell the advowson actually comes to an end.

Liberty is also given, and given for the first time, to the person whom we call the owner of the advowson, to divest himself of that power of sale. Your Lordships may, perhaps, be hardly aware that at this moment any of you who are in that position—and I know some of your Lordships are the owners, as we say, of advowsons—cannot while retaining the patronage divest yourselves of the power of sale without very elaborate procedure. If this Measure becomes law you will be able to declare at any time, in a way that here specified, that you do desire to divest yourselves of that power of sale, and then the benefice will fall into what is called public patronage. When a benefice becomes one that is in public patronage it gains, because at present some of the benefactions which the Ecclesiastical Commissioners and others give to particular benefices can only go to those which are in public patronage. Benefices the advowson whereof may be sold do not get those benefits. This is in order to prevent the augmentation of what might vulgarly be called a marketable commodity. We are all desirous of securing that a benefice which is to be augmented from public funds, must not be a saleable commodity. Under this Measure, any owner of such a benefice will have the right to divest himself at once of the power of sale, and then the benefice will become public patronage, and will be eligible to receive that kind of help or benefaction to which I have referred.

I think I have told your Lordships all that is necessary in regard to this Measure. It will be years before it will come compulsorily into operation. With regard to any lay patron it will not be until two vacancies have taken place that that can happen, unless by the voluntary act of the patron himself he resigns his right of sale in the way that I have described. What I am anxious to make clear to your Lordships is that this Measure, if it becomes law, will not in any way, in the sense of abolishing or restricting, interfere with the existence of private patronage of advowsons. Some people think and have spoken of it as though it were a Measure for putting all advowsons into public hands—into the hands of the Bishops, or the Crown, or someone else. That is net so at all. What it does is to prevent the advowson being something that may be sold; but it will equally remain in the power of a man, though he cannot sell it, to exercise it as a private patron. We are not interfering with private patronage, but only with the rights of sale. I ought, perhaps, to mention that the Measure is drawn so as to be applicable to, and to include, even the rights of the Crown. The Lord Chancellor will, I hope, be able to assure us that no difficulty need arise on that account, but in the rare case where any question could arise with regard to the rights of the Crown in the matter, this Measure places those rights in the same category as the rights of other patrons.

If your Lordships pass this Measure it will be a very real gain to the Church in two ways. It will prevent wrong things being done, things which I deplore as much as any one can, and which have done untold mischief and harm in every sense. It will also prevent the exaggerated account of those things which is current, and which makes some of them appear a great deal worse than they really are. The grievance, though real, is not on the scale that it is sometimes said to be. It is spoken of as if there was a traffic on an immense scale in advowsons. That is not so. Some years ago it was more extensive than it is now; at the moment it is very restricted. It should be done away with. I have advocated this for many years, and I esteem it a privilege to be able to ask your Lordships to give the coup de grâce to a system which has been mischievous, and to do so in a manner which gives the fullest consideration to, and treats in the tenderest way, the existing rights of individual persons. I have purposely avoided going into minute details. I could do so if it were necessary, and I am perfectly prepared to answer any questions that may be asked. I hope I have made the purport of the Measure clear. It is quite simple, and I hope your Lordships will assent to the Resolution which I now move.

Moved, That in accordance with the Church of England Assembly Powers Act, 1919, this House do direct that the Benefices Act, 1393 (Amendment), Measure, 1923, be presented to His Majesty for Royal Assent.—(The Lord Archbishop of Canterbury.)


My Lords, I crave your indulgence in intervening thus early in the debate, but I have to be elsewhere in a few moments. The most rev. Primate has given a clear and succinct account of the procedure which is necessary with regard to the Resolutions he is moving, and it is probably convenient that general observations should be made on the first Resolution. I should like to dot the "i's" and cross the "t's" of everything His Grace has said. I should like to go one step further and say that under the Church Assembly Powers Act it is intended that Resolutions moved in your Lordships' House and in another place should be real Resolutions, carrying, if they are passed, the independent judgment of both Houses of Parliament. It would be a great misfortune if such Resolutions were regarded as being something in the nature of pro formâ Resolutions, or if this House were to say that as five or six inquiries have been made by the Church Assembly and the matter thoroughly thrashed out there, when a Measure conies before Parliament Parliament has no clear and independent say in the matter.

It may be urged that the Ecclesiastical Committee have already approved of these Measures and have therefore saved Parliament the trouble of making a personal and individual examination of the Resolutions on each occasion. I do not think there could be a greater mistake or disaster than to say that because the Ecclesiastical Committee has recommended the passing of this or that Resolution, Parliament should therefore be silent. There are many cases in which there is a happy borderland between Church and State; where Church and State can unite their forces for the benefit of the citizens of this country, and I deprecate any attitude in this House by which the Ecclesiastical Committee are considered to be the final arbiters in such matters.

It will be remembered that during the debates on the Church Assembly Act it was difficult to find any satisfactory method that would combine the spiritual independence of the Church with the rightful powers of Parliament in dealing with matters that concern us as citizens as well as Churchmen. Much time was spent in hammering out a satisfactory way by which the rights of the Church, on the one hand, and the rights of the State, on the other, should be safeguarded and united together in the common cause of righteousness. It is, therefore, exceedingly important that each item in that procedure should have full and constant value given to it Hitherto, the Measures proposed have not been of a very grave or formidable character, and where a Measure is merely of a technical nature this House might well act upon the mere recommendation of the Ecclesiastical Committee. Powers that are never exercised tend to fall into desuetude, and when an important group of Measures comes before this House then is the occasion for your Lordships to recognise what those powers are, and not stand by and say that, just because these matters have been passed in the Church Assembly and approved by the Ecclesiastical Committee, they should there and then be passed.

I am not speaking against this particular Resolution, or against the next two Resolutions on the Order Paper. I am merely pointing out the principle. Before now it has been made quite plain how useful this House can be in the progress of Church legislation. One of the Resolutions to come before your Lordships this afternoon will be found to be based upon discussions in this House. It is merely the development of decisions at which your Lordships have already arrived. That appears to me to be a singularly happy instance in which righteous forces have combined. When we have these important Measures before us, then is the time to emphasise that this House and the other House of Parliament form the last link in a long chain. It should be recognised as being a definite link on the road to legislation, and it would be a grave mistake if it was thought that because the authorities concerned had given their approval this House should, therefore, necessarily and without discussion, signify its assent.


My Lords, before I indicate the general attitude of the Government towards the particular Measures which the most rev. Primate has brought before your Lordships' House, it is right that I should say something on the wider aspects of the question to which he, and also the right rev. Prelate who has just spoken, alluded. The Church Assembly Act of 1919 is a very sweeping Measure in two respects. In the first place, it was so drawn that it was impossible for us in this House to discuss in detail the constitution of the Church Assembly. In the second place, it endowed the Church Assembly, supervised no doubt by the Ecclesiastical Committee, with the power of passing, by mere Resolution if it could get the assent of both Houses of Parliament, Measures which this House could not amend, and which it must take or reject as they stood. When you add to that the fact that the powers given to the Church Assembly by that Act were such as to enable the Church Assembly, in connection with any matter concerning the Church, to repeal the Statute Law and repeal the Common Law unlimitedly, and deal with questions affecting the Constitution of this country without restraint, you realise that it was obviously a very formidable Measure. I, for one, opposed it to the utmost of my ability at that time, but a large majority of your Lordships decided to pass the Act, and it also passed the other House.

As the right rev. Prelate who has just spoken has observed, the only opportunity that is given to Parliament to intervene is in the event of a Resolution being brought forward that the Royal Assent be given to one of these Measures which has been passed by the Church Assembly and sanctioned by the Ecclesiastical Committee, and which comes before Parliament in a form in which Parliament has no power to amend it. That consideration might give rise to a very serious situation. If a serious situation did arise, in which it was sought, in the opinion of the Government of the day, to alter the Constitution of the country unduly—for instance, to place the appointment of the two Archbishops in the hands of some Ecclesiastical Committee instead of the Crown, or to proceed in a multitude of other ways which I might mention—then I think the Government would have to give very close attention to the matter, and to consider what power it possesses to reject any such Resolution.

Happily, no such question comes before your Lordships on this occasion. I said, in the case of the debates in 1919, that if the measure had simply been one for enabling the Church to deal with domestic difficulties, I, for my part, should not have offered any opposition to it, but should have been in favour of it. We have seen too much of the enormous and unjustifiable difficulties which have been placed in the way of the Church in bringing about measures of domestic reform on account of the narrow minded opposition which has broken out in Parliament. This possibility was removed by the Act of 1919, which, I think, went a great deal too far the other way. But that question need not be discussed now. Regarding purely domestic matters we said at the time that if the Act had been confined to matters of that kind we should not have offered the least opposition.

Coming to this particular Measure, it is designed to prevent the sale of benefices under certain conditions. That is a very right thing to do. It falls to me to see a great many instances of the disposal of benefices; such matters come before me in all sorts of forms. I observe that there is a very reckless sense, among a certain number of owners of patronage, of their rights of dealing with patronage as if it were mere private property. The matter concerns the Crown also. It does not apply to the patronage of the Prime Minister or of the Duchy of Lancaster, but it does arise in respect of the patronage of livings which are in the hands of the Lord Chancellor. The Lord Chancellor is prohibited by Statute from selling these livings except for the purpose of augmenting other benefices, and it is often very beneficial that he should possess that power and sell the rights of patronage in order to augment other benefices. But whatever may be said of that power being left in the hands of the Lord Chancellor, the conclusion of the Government, on consideration—and it is a conclusion which I, for one, heartily endorse—has been that it would look very ill if the Government sought to make any exception of themselves as distinct from the private owners of benefices.

I desire to say, therefore, that the Government are ready to advise the Crown to place its rights at the disposal of Parliament for the purposes of this Measure. The result will be that it will no longer be open to private persons to sell their livings as they used to do, in a manner which was sometimes corrupt. The matter will be regulated in the manner proposed by this Measure, and consequently the system under which the sale of benefices used to take place will vanish, and there will be substituted for it a Measure which the Church, I think, ought certainly to be in a position to pass, and which will enable this matter to be regulated by the only body which can deal with it properly—namely, the Church itself. I say to your Lordships, therefore, that, so far as the Government are concerned, they assent to the Resolution which the most rev. Primate has proposed.

On Question, Motion agreed to, and ordered accordingly.