Page images

Read at the Bristol Church Congress, 1864.

This subject is one which it is not altogether easy or pleasant to deal with, on account of the strong feelings which it is apt to excite. I am not so much referring to those who stand up stoutly and angrily for their exclusive right to particular places in church. Such feelings are very intelligible, but they are not praiseworthy, and are not likely to meet with sympathy in this audience.

I am speaking of those on the other side, who not only seem to expect every kind of good result from entire non-appropriation of seats in all churches, but also insist on describing every sort of appropriation or assignment as not only inexpedient and the worse system, but as sinful and wicked.

I cannot but deprecate such language, especially holding as I do, and as I hope to show, that the question is simply one of a choice of difficulties, and of the least possible inconvenience in a state of things necessarily imperfect.

I would, however, qualify this by an explanation, which will, at the same time, show the limitations under which I propose to consider this subject.

I am not about to speak of churches in new districts ; nor again in districts where the population is for the most part homogeneous ; nor again where it is for the most part migratory, unsettled, and its classes and members not familiarly known to each other. I have in view the old settled parochial churches of the country, mainly, indeed, those of the rural districts, where the population is heterogeneous, strongly marked out into distinct classes, on the whole a settled population, and where the several classes are acquainted with, and bound by mutual relations to each other.

Now, let me ask, as to this parish church in such a case, what would be the ideal state of things ?

Plainly one in which the words of St. James * would have no applicability_in which there were no bad places at all absolutely, nor even relatively in any material sense ; and in which there was complete room, not only for as many people as practically did come at any one time, but for the whole population of church-going age.

Suppose, then, in this state of things, the whole area of this building to be absolutely free, what would be the result? Would it be that the rich and the poor would be mingled together?—that few or none would habitually resort to the same seats day after day?—that no custom or prescription would grow up ?

I am not speaking of what we might wish, but of what is probable; and I apprehend it would be the reverse of all this. Families would go together; as a whole, the rich would go together, and the poor together

-and that from the feelings and predilections of both classes, but assuredly full as much those of the poor as of the rich ; not only the several classes, but the several households and individuals would from habit resort regularly to the same seats; and in course of time these habits would inevitably harden into usage and prescrip

* II. 2, 3.

tion, which necessarily, and apart from any local law, would be equivalent to legal claims. • Whether, therefore, in such circumstances there was formal appropriation or not, I conceive that ultimately, and in no long time, the result practically would be the same precisely.

Such a case, however, though there might be very near approximation to it here and there, can never literally occur, as is obvious when its conditions are considered; and we must remember that not only must those conditions be secured to begin with, but they must be permanent, and the population under them must remain stationary

But it may have been useful to imagine such a state of things, in order that we may bear it in mind in considering what really is attainable, and indeed is frequent, and becoming more and more frequent-I mean churches in which all the places are fairly good, though some are rather better than others, and there is practically, though not on paper, room for all who want to go. This ordinarily may be said to be the test we can arrive at.

What is to be done here?

It might be possible to carry the system of individual or domestic allocation as far as it would go on some principle or other of selection, resulting in a specified number of parishioners being seated, the rest absolutely excluded. But this no one would recommend.

Next, the whole area may be left quite free. Now I quite admit that it is not physically impossible-that it is conceivable—that this might work quite well; that there would never be anything like a scramble; that no one would ever try to get the best places, or the same

places day after day; that the rich and the poor would be glad to sit mingled together; that families would not mind being separated ; that those who might come a little late and find the seats they have been accustomed to occupy, and all the rest of the church full, would contentedly go away, and take the risk of the same happening again, without losing their attachment to the church, and so forth,—nay, that many of the rich would often on principle come early in order to occupy the lower places, and to compel the poor to go up higher.

With regard to most of these, I can only say, Would that it might be so ! But the doubt I feel about it as a general system is founded on this, that it assumes a degree of virtue in the population inconsistent with the ordinary conditions of human nature, with which we are forced to deal. It assumes that the rich will have no pride, the middle class no wish to push themselves above their station, the poor no false shame, all classes no ill temper; that the force of habit and the love of comfort and security will cease to operate.

Now, I am aware that I am speaking à priori, which I do for convenience, only observing that I am not aware of any facts that are inconsistent with what I am supposing_indeed I believe I could, if necessary, illustrate it by facts. Speaking in that way, I must say I think there is great danger of an issue singularly different from what I have just described. Remembering throughout the connexion existing between the different classes in the congregation, I can conceive that there might be just another example of the melancholy old proverb, “the weakest goes to the wall.” The lion's share of the places might be taken by the rich, the proud, the push

ing; the modest, the retiring, the poor in short, might be squeezed out to the worst places, while having ro right of their own to any places ; and in course of time it might be a chance whether any room at all would be left for them. And here, too, it must be borne in mind that all such habits of occupation must unavoidably tend to become practically rights.

It seems to me, therefore, that it may be quite as much in the direct interest of the poor themselves as on any other ground, that some other system than that of simple non-appropriation may be desirable. And I turn to the only other principle which appears to me practically to be possible, and which also I believe to be in substance that of our existing common church law. I know, indeed, that there is another view, which I have once, but only once, seen advocated, and maintained to be not only sound, but to be that of our law. It is this, that together with entire non-appropriation, it should be provided that at every service the churchwardens, or some one acting with their authority, should be in attendance, and at their discretion place all the congregation, parishioners or not, in the church, as is now done by the vergers with strangers. But on this I shall not dwell long. That it is the actual law, I think can hardly be seriously maintained ; and that any parish should agree to such a system, any parish officers undertake so difficult and invidious a task, by whatever standard they might be guided—whether that of classes, or, as I have heard it suggested, that of preference to the more regular church-goers or communicants, or any other—seems to me incredible.

Now, as to the actual law, I will state what I con

« PreviousContinue »