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Education Office. The proposal of these Estimates, by Mr. Corrie, drew forth considerable observation and comment on the system by various Members, but the vote was agreed to without opposition.
The often-revived but still unsettled question of Church-rates was again brought forward this Session, and may perhaps be considered to have made some slight advance towards a settlement; but as no legislative result followed the present attempt, that much-desired consummation is still relegated to the future. The Member who this year undertook the charge of a Bill for dealing with church-rates was Mr. Hardcastle, his measure being one of simple abolition. In moving the second reading on the 7th of March, he referred to the past history of the controversy, which he said had been agitated for more than thirty years, following in 1834 the abolition of the church cess in Ireland. There had been thirty-six attempts to settle the matter, and twenty divisions had been taken upon it. It had been a subject of great interest at the hustings, and especially at the last general election. All schemes of commutation, numerous as they were, and of exemption, hạd failed, and nothing had obtained the acceptance of the majority of the House except the proposal for total abolition. He argued that the abolition of this impost could not weaken, but would probably act as an improvement in ecclesiastical polity, and strengthen the Church of England. He showed that as the law stood it was in the power of a majority of Nonconformists in a parish to act with effect in a matter of Church government; and this was a reason why the abolition of the only subject matter in which they could interfere would be in fact a strengthening of the Church; and he was authorized to say that Dissenters would never seek to interfere with any voluntary funds raised for the repair of the fabric of the church. He showed that not less than three millions were expended annually by Dissenters on the keeping up of their religious establishments, and it could not be supposed that the members of the Church of England could not raise a sum of a quarter of a million, which was the amount which could be raised by a compulsory church-rate, while all scandals and grievances would be removed, several instances of which he detailed.
The motion was seconded by Mr. Gilpi
Mr. Walpole moved that the Bill be read a second time that day six months. Although most desirous that this question should be settled by a reasonable compromise, he could not consent to total abolition. In the absence of such a substitute as Churchmen were entitled to, it would not be wise to abolish that resource which our ancestors in their piety had provided for the maintenance of the fabric of the church. He feared that the object of the advocates of total abolition was not to abolish churchrates alone, but to do away with all ancient and modern endowments of the Church. He had no mistrust of the Church of England so long as she maintained her faith unsullied, but that was no reason why her means of doing good should be diminished.
Church-rates were necessary in aid of voluntary efforts; and looking to the vastly increasing population, who, if not supplied with spiritual instruction, must sink into ignorance, he could not consent to part with so useful an agent as church-rates.
Mr. Du Cane seconded the amendment. He said that during the last thirty years the Conservatives had held out the olive-branch of compromise till their arms fairly ached again. He warned the House against such a change in the face of a Reform Bill, which might introduce a large democratic element into the Constitution.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer said in his opinion, as a private member, it would be advisable to settle a question which occasioned so much soreness and dissatisfaction in various parts of the country. The speech of Mr. Du Cane had widened the question without clearing it, for his reference to the coming Reform Bill meant this, if it meant any thing, that the Church was safe in Parliament so long as the nation was kept out. The law of church-rates was prima facie open to grave objection, for when a rate was made upon a reluctant minority it prevented, in great part, the infliction of the impost. The grievance might be small, but the irritation which it produced was considerable. He was not, however, prepared to consent to the simple and unconditional abolition of church-rates, for he believed it would throw an additional burden upon the clergy which they ought not to be asked to bear. To abolish church-rates, and at the same time allow Dissenters to interfere with the disposal of funds to which they themselves did not contribute, would be the introduction of a new injustice in the removal of the old. He could not, therefore, vote for total abolition; but he invited Mr. Hardcastle to consider whether, by an equitable compromise, Dissenters might be exempted from paying church-rates, and, at the same time, disqualified from interfering with funds to which they had not contributed.
Mr. Hope was glad to hear the speech of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, which showed that light was about to dawn upon the difficulties which surrounded this question. He hoped that Mr. Hardcastle would withdraw his Bill, in order to allow a Bill to be introduced to give effect to the compromise suggested by the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
Mr. Bright said any compromise of the principle of the Bill was quite impracticable. He suggested that the Bill should be read a second time, and that in committee a clause should be inserted abolishing the compulsory powers of collection. This would have the effect
of eliminating all bitterness, without in the least interfering with the sustentation of the Church. He did not believe that the Establishment would be endangered by the abolition of churchrates. As a political institution, it would no doubt continue for many years to come; and, so far as its religious character was concerned, church-rates had been abolished in Canada, Australia, and the United States, and the Church had not suffered in consequence.
Mr. G. Hardy opposed the Bill, and asserted that, were it not for the emissaries of the Liberation Societies, church-rates would be collected without the slightest difficulty in 9000 rural parishes in England.
Mr. Morley said he was quite willing to accept a settlement in the spirit indicated by the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
Mr. Hardcastle, in reply, said he could not consent to give up the principle of total abolition. If that were admitted, he would be quite prepared to listen to a proposition for settling all other incidental questions.
Mr. Disraeli said the only issue before the House was abolition, and if any compromise were to be entertained it would be better to adjourn the debate so as to give the scheme of the Chancellor of the Exchequer a full and candid consideration.
The House then divided, and the second reading was carried by 285 votes against 252—majority, 33.
Before any further proceeding was taken on this Bill, a new aspect was given to the question by the introduction of a measure by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, following out the scheme of which he had suggested an outline in the preceding speech. On the 8th of May Mr. Gladstone moved for leave to introduce his Bill, which was to provide for the abolition of compulsory churchrates; and proposed to enact that no suit should hereafter be instituted, or proceedings taken in any ecclesiastical court, or before any magisterial court, to compel the payment of church-rate in any parish or place in England and Wales. It also made provision for the discharge of debts contracted on the security of church-rate under the system now existing. It further provided that, notwithstanding any thing contained in the Act with regard to the abolition of suits and processes for the recovery of church-rate, it should be lawful, with the exception of parishes where church-rate was sufficiently provided for by endowments or fixed funds, for the parishioners in vestry assembled to assess a voluntary rate to be applicable to any purposes for which church-rate had been heretofore lawfully applied. Another clause defined the class of persons who were to enter upon the discussion or decision of proceedings affecting the voluntary rate. It provided that, if at any discussion a difference of opinion arose and a poll was demanded, the votes should be entered in a book or on a schedule, declaring the willingness of the persons who gave their votes to pay their quota towards the rate in case it were passed by a majority. But the most important clause in the Bill was that which provided for compensation for the compulsory abolition of processes. He proposed that persons who declined to pay a rate should, after a certain lapse of time, be deemed ineligible to fill the office of churchwarden for ecclesiastical purposes. The only other material provision was that persons who had declined to pay a voluntary rate should, if they changed their minds, on payment or tender of payment of their proper proportion of the voluntary assessment, be entitled to all the power of voting, as if they had in the first instance voluntarily paid their share of the assessment. He made the proposal in a spirit of peace, and the offering had already been accepted by a large portion of those who had been engaged in this controversy; and being made in the spirit of peace, he sincerely trusted that the attainment of peace would be the result.
Objection was taken by several of the Conservative members to this Bill, among others by Mr. Newdegate, Lord John Manners, and Mr. Thos. Chambers, who said it was not a compromise but a victory for the Dissenters, inasmuch as it abolished church-rate. As a Churchman, he objected to it that it kept up the form of compulsion without the force. The truth was that the church-rate was abandoned, and that the Dissenters had won the whole battle.
Sir R. Peel regarded the Bill as made in the spirit of conciliation, and, cordially approving of the course taken by the Government, trusted the House would give them its support. He wished to know whether, if a Dissenter refused to pay church-rate, he might claim a right to inter members of his family in the parish churchyard ?
The Chancellor of the Exchequer said there was no disability imposed except as to the making and application of the rate, the election of churchwardens, and the right of serving the office of church warden for ecclesiastical purposes.
Mr. Bright drew attention to the subject of Easter dues, which he pronounced a more offensive impost even than church-rates, and recommended that their abolition should be made part of the present measure.
Leave was given to bring in the Bill.
A long debate, which was more than once adjourned, took place on the second reading, Mr. Gladstone being at this time no longer in office. The time given for consideration of the measure appeared to have confirmed the objections taken to it at the outset by the leading members of the Conservative party. A prominent part was taken in opposing it at this stage by Mr. Henley, who contended that the machinery proposed by the Bill would have the effect of introducing all the elements of compulsory taxation into the voluntary system. This machinery would work with peculiar angularity in the country districts. Part of the machinery was a device by which the owners of property were assessed to a voluntary payment. He argued that if the law was to be changed, the collection of funds for the purposes to which church-rates have been hitherto applicable should be left to the full and free voluntary system. He also objected to the kind of qualified excommunication which was introduced by the Bill.
Mr. W. Hunt said that the difficulty which had to be settled was the contest for the abolition on the one hand, and the retention on the other, of a legal right to raise funds for the maintenance of the fabric of the church. He should be sorry to see any broad line of demarcation between Dissenters and Church men by means of “ ticketing," and it seemed to him that that system was contained in the Bill. As there were no provisions for retaining a legal right to the maintenance of the church in this Bill, he must oppose it.
Lord John Manners said that by the Bill the very essence and life of church-rates was sacrificed, while the principle was established of the payment for seats in parish churches--a principle which had been always strenuously resisted; it effectually brought about the separation of Church and State, while its operation would be productive of any thing but that peace and concord which were its professed objects.
Sir George Grey, in vindicating the Bill, observed that the upshot of the debate showed that whoever undertook to deal with church-rates, except on the principle of absolute and unconditional abolition, undertook a very thankless task. The principle of the present Bill, however, was a sound one, for it practically abolished the rate, while it left machinery adequate for the raising of the rates in such parishes as were still willing to raise the tax.
The Solicitor-General, Sir W. Bovill, who had himself a scheme embodied in a Bill before the House, said that he had endeavoured to frame a measure which would eventuate in a fair compromise of this question, and he hoped that it would receive due consideration from all parties. The principle on which it was founded was that every person-a Dissenter-who did not desire to pay churchrates should be exempt on simply giving notice of his objection, while it so guarded the rights of the Church as to render it acceptable to the episcopal body. He contended that the Bill in hand effected none of the purposes of the compromise which it was sought to bring about, while its details were so complicated as to render it impracticable.
Sir R. Palmer said that he acceded to this Bill because he believed that it would combine the principle of the abolition of compulsory rates and the retention of a means of providing for the maintenance of the fabric of the church; and he proceeded to support the measure as an adequate substitute for the existing state of things, which could not be justified.
Mr. Neate was glad to find that the Government had declined to accept the principle of a Bill which adopted the voluntary principle in its fullest sense. He moved as an ameridment “ that no scheme for the total, partial, or absolute or qualified abolition of church-rates will be satisfactory to the House, which does not contain legal and certain provision for supplying any deficiency which may ensue from such scheme in the funds applicable to the maintenance of the fabric of the church."
Mr. B. Hope opposed the Bill, as it was uot the measure which he had consented to, for it did not provide for the retaining of church-rates, but only for abolishing the compulsory levying of the rates.
Mr. Gladstone stated that he had received a communication from a member of the Government, that the second reading of the Bill would not be opposed on condition that it was not pressed