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The coming session of Parliament will probably bring with it a renewed pressure from the Anti-Church party, in the matter of Church Rates, upon a Government which is little likely, either from its constitution or its inclination, to resist such a pressure. Last year, the question' was on the very eve of being settled in exactly the manner which the Anti-Church party most desire: or at least so far settled as the House of Commons, the “bulwark of constitutional liberty,” is accustomed to achieve such ends, by a decisive vote of the Lower House, which, after several repetitions, would weary and alarm their more dignified, but less powerful, coadjutors in the Upper. A very judicious move was made in the appointment of a Committee by the House of Lords, which balked the intentions of the Anti-Church-Rate party for a time, by necessitating the suspension of hostilities while further information was being obtained, and shutting up all discussion on the subject in the open assemblies of the Legislature, until the result of the Committee's investigations became known. That Committee has taken its evidence; bas heard almost all that there is to be said on one side or the other; and the facts and opinions brought before it are now given to Parliament and the country in a Blue Book of some two hundred pages, which must be looked upon, we suppose, as containing the last collection of evidence likely to be taken by the Government on the subject.
When the Committee was obtained, it was considered by all in the light of a reprieve accorded to one who had in fact received condemnation, justly or unjustly; and leaving the question still open whether anything that turned up afterwards should be accepted as grounds for a further and more complete revocation of the condemnation which, it was supposed, public opinion had
Vol. XXII.- JANUARY, 1860.
already given forth. Without altogether assuming that public opinion was, even then, represented by those who claimed with such loud clamour, as usual, to be its exponent, it must be allowed that the view of the Committee which set it in the light of a reprieve was one far from unfounded. If a hasty, ill-considered, and therefore unjust condemnation of Church Rates had not actually been passed by public opinion, it was within an ace of being conceded to that wearisome dropping of remonstrance from a professedly aggrieved party, which first of all throws the public mind into a state of uneasy stupefaction, and then extorts from it, for peace and quietness' sake, a concession of all demands. Gutta cavat lapidem, -—wives weary the souls of their husbands into acquiescence,-political agitators drop, drop, drop on the good-natured temper of the English public, — Liberation of religion societies pertinaciously pepper the members of the Legislature with their paper pellets, -the oak of ten centuries falls to the repeated strokes of the vile Birmingham axe, and venerable laws are knocked off the throne of justice by the fists of Dissenting vestrymen. Such being the case, we cannot but hail the Committee of last session as a timely and acceptable reprieve; and we also look upon it as a call to the minds of sensible men of business, Churchmen and politicians, to ask the plain question of themselves and others, What is it these men want ?
Whether the result of such a question will be a conviction in the minds of the majority of the Lower House that the demands made are extravagantly unreasonable, and that there is really no cause for disturbing the status quo, we cannot tell. Some, probably, will arrive at such a conviction, and prove it by their votes ; but we fear there are not a few upon whom the necessities of party bear so strongly, that they will not be prepared to offer any resistance—or, if any, a very slight one-against the violent attack which is meanwhile being organised by the Anti-Rate agitators. At the same time, it is highly desirable that all who think Church Rates are worth saving should be well prepared beforehand for the discussion which, in and out of Parliament, will probably come to a climax in the present year; and that, whatever steps are taken anywhere, whether by petition to Parliament or otherwise, they may be taken with the best judgment, and on the most thoroughly well-considered grounds.
Let every one, in the first place, bave a clear notion of what Church Rates are not, and what they are ; for any cause is sure to lose in the end by exaggeration as much as by under-statement. Some zealous ' friends of the Church, for example, have been accustomed to represent Church Rates as part of the Church's patrimony, and the abolition of them as sacrilege. This is most unwise, because the statement cannot be at all supported by sound argument, and is only to be justified as the fervid statement of minds
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extremely sensitive respecting the alienation, under any circumstances whatever, of funds of which the Church has once received the benefit. Church Rates are not sacred in form, as tithes or the money given at the offertory; nor in substance, as the endowments of the Church : they do not rest upon any Church law, nor have they ever (except in their detailed application to the use for which they are collected) been dedicated to God. There would be no sacrilege whatever in the abolition of Church Rates by adequate authority ; no more sacrilege than there is in the refusals to grant them, of which there are, unhappily, so many examples. It may be sacrilege, constructively, on the part of a parish, as of an individual, so far to neglect the provision for God's service that the offices of the Church cannot be carried on, or that the fabric falls into decay and ruin; and in an analogous way it would be sacri. legious for the Legislature to interpose such obstacles in the way of the support of the Church and her rites that these results generally followed. But though such results might possibly, under very unhappy circumstances, follow the abolition of Church Rates, they would not constitute that sacrilege, ex post facto, in consequence of its results, which was not originally so in principle; and as we have already intimated our conviction, the rates in question, being neither established by Church law, nor dedicated in any other way to God, can in no sense be called sacred.
Church Rates are, in fact, a tax to be levied as occasion requires, under the authority of the common law of the realm, i. e., custom, which common law has been confirmed and defined from time to time by statute law. It is as great a misrepresentation to say that they are bestowed upon the Church by Act of Parliament as it is to put them on the same level with tithes and endowments. The obligation for the fulfilment of which Church Rates are intended is one which for many ages has existed under precisely the same form in England ; at least, so far as it is an obligation laid upon parishioners to repair the parish church. English custom and law is peculiar in this, and has been peculiar for a very long period. In primitive times the tithes were all received and distributed by each bishop for and throughout his diocese, and a fourth part of those tithes from each parish was appropriated to the uses to which Church Rates are now applied. When, under the growth of the Canon law, the tithes were given to the parson of the parish, the same obligation to repair the church and provide the expenses of Divine Service devolved upon him, the fund appropriated for that purpose being now in his hands and not in the hands of the Bishop. It is probable that this custom (represented in later times by the responsibility of repairing the chancel) extended to most of those churches in England which were held by monastic bodies, who both built and restored the churches of England with a liberality and piety much to be desired in their successors in many impro
priations, the Colleges of our two Universities. But these were comparatively exceptional cases, and the general law in England before the Reformation, as well as since, was that the duty of repairing the parish church (and, we presume, of providing the necessaries of Divine Service) was a duty devolving on the parishiopers.
In what manner this duty was anciently carried out is not very clear. The expense must of course bave been shared among the parishioners in some definite proportion; and the very necessity of some such assessment is an à priori argument in favour of the great antiquity of the Church Rate in its present form. But in whatever way the money was obtained, it is certain that any neglect of the duty was visited with the most severe punishments of interdict or excommunication : in the one case all Divine Service and all administrations of the Church's privileges being forbidden, except in the case of the dying; and in the other every individual in the parish being shut out of the communion of the Church. The very severity of the law shows how important a duty that laid upon the parishioners was considered to be: and the paucity of information as to the instances of the punishment being inflicted seems to show that the duty was very seldom indeed shirked by those on whose shoulders it devolved. Whether the power of interdict still resides in the English Episcopate we are uncertain, but presume from the Bishop of London's recent exercise of it in the case of S. George's in the East, that it does. With respect to excommunication, Chief Justice North decided in the last century that every parishioner was still liable to its visitation for a persistent refusal to provide for the repairs of their church.
Now, the repairs of the church fabric, and the expenses of providing for some of the necessaries of Divine worship, are just the uses to which Church Rates are applied; and the ancient obligation, in whatever way it was fulfilled, is, therefore, exactly represented by the “impost" as it now stands, whether or not the present Church Rate is exactly identical with the ancient mode of levying the money required. To annihilate the rate is, therefore, to destroy a very ancient portion of the common law of England; and, (setting individuals aside for the moment) to relieve every parish in England from a legal obligation by which it has been bound time out of mind. This is a serious business, and it is necessary to inquire on what grounds so important a step is to be taken.
The question that meets us at the threshold, and a question which ought to be considered one of grave importance, is how far the grievances alleged by the opponents of Church Rates are in proportion to the responsibility which is undertaken by those who annul an obligation of so ancient standing in the common law of England as that which Church Rates are intended to meet. Acts of Parliament are repealed every session, and statutes are also added to the statute book, by which the common law of the kingdom is defined and formalized : but it is a rare thing for the Legislature actually to annul any principle of the common law, as it would do, if in the abolition of Church Rates it were to relieve parishioners from the obligation to keep up the fabric of their parish church. Indeed, we can hardly conceive any Parliament with its eyes open, doing such a thing as to throw to the winds an old established principle of law so seriously affecting 10,000 or 12,000 buildings which are to all intents and purposes public property, (though vested in the trusteeship and guardianship of the public's representatives the bishops, clergy, and church wardens ;) except under the pressure of a very grave necessity indeed.
Such a necessity is certainly not to be found in the amount of the tax levied under the name of Church Rates. The whole annual amount, taking it at the maximum, appears to be about £350,000, and although this sum looks a large one, it will be found by comparison with other taxes that it is in reality a sum of the smallest individual consequence. For, with the present number of our population, the whole annual payment for Church Rates only reaches to fourpence halfpenny a head, while the duty on tea comes to six shillings and twopence a head, that on sugar to five shillings and sixpence, and that on spirits to ten shillings a head. And although it may be said in reply, that the Church Rate is paid by only a portion of the population, and that the average of each actual payment by individuals is much higher, the same rule may be applied to the taxes on the articles of general consumption which we have named; especially to the duty on spirits, which are probably not consumed by a larger number of persons than the number of those who pay Church Rates.
The average burden of the Church Rate is therefore so small, that this cannot be alleged as a reason why it should be abolished. To the actual payer it probably amounts to about eighteenpence or two shillings, while the burden of the spirit duty to the actual consumers amounts on an average to more than two pounds.
But it is said that the peculiar obnoxiousness of Church Rates consists in the circumstance that they are not paid, as the other taxes with which we have ventured to compare them, by the actual “ consumer;" for that persons who never enter a church, and do not care to avail themselves of any of its offices are as much obliged, in the present state of the law, to pay Church Rates, as the most .bigoted Churchman. It has become the fashion to style this objection one of “conscience," but we imagine most of the “conscience” pleaders in this matter are like the old heathen augurs, who could not look each other in the face without a grim smile at their own assurance and the credulity of those who believed in them. There are many Dissenters, no doubt, who feel it is hard