HL Deb 04 June 1924 vol 57 cc861-7

My Lords, I beg now to move, That in accordance with the Church of England Assembly Powers Act, 1919, this House do direct that the Union of Benefices Measure, 1923, be presented to His Majesty for Royal Assent. I apologise to your Lordships for troubling you again upon the second Resolution, but it is obviously right that I should do so. The Measure to which I now ask your Lordships to assent is described in a very-clear way in the words of the Ecclesiastical Committee of Parliament, which I will read to your Lordships They say:— The object of the Measure is to set up permanent machinery for carrying into effect the policy long ago approved by Parliament of providing for unions of benefices where economy of endowments or of man power or other reasons makes such unions desirable in the interests of the Church of England as a whole. This matter is complicated in its details, but not in the least difficult as regards its general principles. I will deal with general principles only, for I think it would probably be your Lordships' wish that I should not touch upon the details which are both complicated and technical.

For many years everybody who has looked into the matter has been struck by the difficulties which besot the administration of the Church of England in the case of exceedingly small benefices. I have before me the case of a benefice containing forty-seven people. Up to recent times it would have been exceedingly difficult to handle this question in any other way than by letting things go on exactly as they were, and having an incumbent and churchwardens appointed with the sole duty of administering the work of this incumbency of forty-seven people, inhabiting perhaps a dozen houses and providing a congregation of, let us say, ten people, or something of that kind. The difficulties which surround administration in such a case as that are very great indeed. This is an extreme case, but there are many others in which the difficulty exists in a less terrible way.

May I remind your Lordships where these difficulties lie? They lie, first of all, in my opinion, with the incumbent himself. Very few men who are really in active use of their faculties and powers are content to be incumbents of tiny parishes, because they really get no opportunity of using their powers fully, and the work is too small to give them an opportunity for usefulness. Such men are always longing for wider scope in order that they may perform more effectively the work to which they have devoted their lives. But it is not merely the man who suffers. No doubt he suffers by deteriorating, if he stays in the position in which he is placed, from the very lack of opportunity for active service. But the parish also suffers enormously. It has, in the first place, a less fit man than they might otherwise have, because a man who consents to take such a post is often worn out, or else a man who for some other reason is not likely to do his work with any great originality or thoughtfulness. In the next place, the loss to the parish of esprit de corps and vigour of any kind in a corporate sense is perfectly obvious, when we are thinking of tiny parishes of that sort.

The number of very small parishes of the size I have mentioned is, happily, few but your Lordships will be surprised to learn that in one-fifth of all the parishes in England there are populations of under three hundred people. It is therefore no small matter that we are thinking of when trying to deal with the union of small benefices, so as to give more work to the worthy incumbent and more spirit and life to the organisation as a whole. You will get better men and more reasonable emoluments for the better men. Where you add to a benefice the work of adjacent benefices you add the income of those adjacent benefices also, and in that way you give a man a living wage for what is more nearly approaching a good day's work. That is one of the objects which most of us have in view in promoting this Measure. We believe that you will get better men, that they will be better paid, and that the work will be better done. Then we are all pressed constantly by the poverty of the clergy in rural areas, but is it to be expected that from outside sources public or private money is likely to come for increasing the emolument of a man who admittedly has not got enough to do? You are not giving a fair day's wage for a fair day's work if you give it for what is not a fair day's work, and it is not to be expected that public or private money will be forthcoming for that purpose. Therefore, for that reason, too, there is a great gain in the union of benefices.

For years past almost every public body in Church or civil life which has debated this subject has said: "Surely the way out of our difficulties is, so far as possible, to unite the small benefices," and I have been for some years in Assembly after Assembly where that has been carried almost without a dissentient voice. But if, as you leave that room, you say to one who has voted: "I am very glad you voted for that," the answer will invariably be the same, namely: "There are peculiar circumstances in my parish which would render it very undesirable. We could not do it in my parish, but I think generally we ought to do it." That shows that there will always, and naturally, be a certain amount of local disinclination to sacrifice individual entity and individual rights, even where the individual entity and individual rights are of the sort that I have described.

So, for five years past, we have had in operation an Act of Parliament, which has enabled inquiries to be made into the circumstances of adjacent parishes with very small populations, or where one at least has a small population, with a view-to bringing about union where it is desirable. We have had very hard work by competent men, who have made inquiries and gone into all the facts about each particular case, and have then recommended, if they thought it desirable, the union of benefices under the Act which will now naturally, by itself, expire. The Act was a temporary measure, in order that the matter might be dealt with upon a larger scale. That temporary measure is coming to an end, and if your Lordships do not pass this Measure, and it does not receive the Royal Assent, there will be nothing substituted to take the place of the temporary Act.

Of course, some of your Lordships may say that you know what these inquiries mean—that they are mere formal matters, that the thing is a foregone conclusion and all settled beforehand, elsewhere. No greater mistake could be made. The inquiries were most careful and thorough, and by no means have the proposals always been given effect to. I believe that 452 separate inquiries have been carried on in the matter, and that out of that number eighty proposals at least have been declined as unsuitable. That is evidence which I am anxious your Lordships should consider, in order to realise that this is not a formal matter, or one which slips through as a matter of course. Where practical difficulties have proved to be considerable, or where practical objections have proved to be real, and union is considered to be undesirable, the proposals have not been approved. If you pass this Resolution and let the Measure become an Act it will do two things. It will consolidate what is a rather complicated state of things, and it will provide new machinery, or improved machinery, for doing much better the work which during these five years we have been doing. That is the principle and purport of this Measure. I would remind your Lordships what an amount of detailed consideration such a question requires, and the amount of consideration which has already been given to it.

I may interpolate a word or two to say that I rejoice in what has been said as to the recognition of the right and privilege and duty of the Houses of Parliament to exercise absolute freedom of judgment on the final rejection or acceptance of Measures which come before it in this way. In no sense do I wish to regard what we are doing as a matter of formality. If your Lordships see good reason for rejecting this Measure, reject it, but do it with the knowledge of the elaborate care which has been given to it by others, and because you see reasons for departing from the conclusions that they have reached.

There is one part of the Measure upon which I wish to say a word or two. Your Lordships are aware that there already exists the power, in certain cases, of taking away a portion of the income which belongs to one parish and giving it to another parish which may have a larger population and smaller endowment, which is immediately adjacent, or in the same diocese, and which ought in the opinion of the authorities to receive a portion of the emoluments going to the richer of the two parishes. This Measure would make the doing of that at once more easy to investigate, and perhaps in some cases more easy to effect, but let nobody suppose that in doing that we are introducing anything new. Not only have we, for more than five years, been doing it with regard to certain parishes where conditions of a restricted kind rendered it possible, but it is the very principle upon which, for more than eighty years, we have proceeded in Church finance generally. When the Ecclesiastical Commission was formed in the earlier decades of the last century, arrangements were made, where it was found that the emoluments were coining in a large degree to quarters where there were not adequate means of using them, while others were in need of more emoluments, that we should be able to use what has been commonly called the "shaving" of the larger property with a view to providing for the less well endowed.

That is the principle on which the Ecclesiastical Commission took steps with regard to bishoprics, cathedrals, and canonries, and a very large number of parishes. But in this Measure we render the plan capable of being worked in a rather more regular and thorough way, and with full investigation before the action is taken. And it is only to be taken, even after this Measure becomes law, with one very marked restriction. We do not touch any emoluments which have come to a parish or area in modern times. Nothing, great or small, that has been given to a parish since the year 1800, that is 125 years ago, can be taken away from it except by some special legislative enactment. This Measure would not empower us to do it. We deal only with those properties which have come down with regard to a particular parish or area from long, long ago, when circumstances may have been entirely different from what they are to-day. That is one condition which belongs to all this readjustment of income. The further condition which belongs to it is that the thing must be thoroughly investigated, and a large number of assents have to be secured both from central quarters and from local representatives, both of patrons and of people. The thing is to be thoroughly gone into by them before a consent is given.

I have purposely put it in general terms. The matter is much more technical and detailed. The Measure is a full one, which works out all these details in a consolidating way. The previous Acts would cease to operate, the new Act would come into operation, and, I believe, would come into operation effectively and well. The whole proposal is the outcome of an immensely long consideration of a very difficult subject, by most competent men who have gone into it carefully and believe that the Measure, as finally drawn, will effect what we want to do, and effect it without inflicting any hardship, while doing great good to the Church at large. I hope your Lordships will pass the Resolution.

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


My Lords, in this case the Crown has authorised the Government to place its rights at the disposal of Parliament. These rights are affected in this instance less in the case of the patronage of the Lord Chancellor than in the case of the Duchy of Lancaster. The Crown, as your Lordships know, has large possessions under two titles—jure coronæ and jure, ducatus. In jure ducatus the Crown has large patronage in the Duchy of Lancaster which will be, I think, more affected by this Measure than any other patronage over which the Crown exercises dominion. However, the view of the Government is that this is a thoroughly useful Measure.

In one respect, I congratulate the most rev. Primate on the Government under whoso auspices he brings it forward. If I were to take your Lordships through the forty-eight clauses of this Measure, you would find that it is a Measure of a highly Socialistic character. It regards the interest of the Church as a whole to the utter disregard of the interest of individuals. That is in accordance with the tendency of the time, not only in the Church, but I think in an increasing degree in this House. The noble Lord, Lord Banbury of Southam, is one of the few supporters of the old tradition of the early Victorian period, and it is enough to bring the early Victorian Peers from their graves to see such a Measure as this brought before your Lordships. Property is dealt with discreetly and wisely, but it is emphatically proclaimed that it has its duties as well as its rights. But it is not a Measure of Parliament. Now, all that your Lordships are asked to do is to give your assent to this Measure going forward for Royal Assent.

I am entirely in favour of this Measure, and I speak with some practical knowledge of it. I suppose that I have a larger amount of patronage to deal with than anybody else in the country, and what causes me pain is the number of small livings for which I have to find incumbents, where the income is £100 or £150 per year, and perhaps a large vicarage. In those circumstances cruel hardship is inflicted, and it is more cruel because very often there is a small benefice next door with which my benefice could most easily be united, but I have no power. Now it is in the hands of the Church, which, I have no doubt, will exercise its jurisdiction very fairly. I think the Measure is thoroughly useful, and I commend it to your Lordships' consideration for the broad reasons which the most rev. Primate put before your Lordships.

On Question, Motion agreed to, and ordered accordingly.