Page images


On the Petition, which was presented to the House of Commons, from certain Clergymen of the Church of England, and from certain of the two Professions of Civil Law and Physick, and others; praying to be relieved from Subscription to the 39 Articles, as required by the Acts of Uniformity *.



S.HOULD not trouble the House upon this Question, if I could at all acquiesce in many of the arguments, or justify the vote I shall give upon several of the reasons, which have been urged in favour of it. I should indeed be very much concerned if I were thought to be influenced to that vote by those arguments.

In particular, I do most exceedingly condemn all such arguments as involve any kind of reflection on the personal character of the Gentlemen, who have brought in a petition so decent in the style of it,

* The Persons associated for this purpose were distinguished at the time by the name of 'The Feathers Tavern Association,' from the place where their meetings were usually held. Their Petition was presented on the 6th of February 1772; and on a motion, that it should be brought up, the same was negatived on a division, in which Mr. Burke voted in the majority, by 217 against 71.

and so constitutional in the mode.

Besides the

unimpeachable integrity and piety of many of the promoters of this petition, which render those aspersions as idle as they are unjust, such a way of treating the subject can have no other effect than to turn the attention of the House from the merits of the petition, the only thing properly before us, and which we are sufficiently competent to decide upon, to the motives of the petitioners, which belong exclusively to the great Searcher of Hearts.

We all know, that those, who loll at their ease in high dignities, whether of the Church or of the State, are commonly averse to all reformation. It is hard to persuade them, that there can be any thing amiss in Establishments, which by feeling experience they find to be so very comfortable. It is as true, that from the same selfish motives those, who are struggling upwards, are apt to find every thing wrong, and out of order, These are truths upon one side and on the other; and neither on the one side or the other, in argument, are they worth a single farthing. I wish therefore so much had not been said upon these ill-chosen, and worse than ill-chosen, these very invidious topicks.

I wish still more, that the dissensions and animosities, which had slept for a century, had not been just now most unseasonably revived. But if we must be driven, whether we will or not, to recollect these unhappy transactions, let our memory be complete

complete and equitable, let us recollect the whole of them together. If the Dissenters, as an honourable Gentleman has described them, have formerly risen from a "whining, canting, snivelling generation," to be a body dreadful and ruinous to all our Establishments, let him call to mind the follies, the violences, the outrages and persecutions, that conjured up, very blamably, but very naturally, that same spirit of retaliation. Let him recollect, along with the injuries, the services, which Dissenters have done to our Church and to our State. If they have once destroyed, more than once they have saved them. This is but common justice, which they and all mankind have a right to.

There are, Mr. Speaker, besides these prejudices and animosities, which I would have wholly removed from the debate, things more regularly and argumentatively urged against the Petition; which, however, do not at all appear to me conclusive.

First, two honourable Gentlemen, one near me, the other, I think, on the other side of the House, assert, that, if you alter her symbols, you destroy the being of the Church of England. This, for the sake of the liberty of that Church, I must absolutely deny. The Church, like every body corporate, may alter her Laws without changing her identity. As an independant Church, professing fallibility, she has claimed a right of acting without the consent of any other; as a Church, she claims, and has always



ways exercised, a right of reforming whatever ap peared amiss in her doctrine, her discipline, or her rites. She did so, when she shook off the Papal Supremacy in the reign of Henry the VIIIth, which was an act of the body of the English Church, as well as of the State (I don't inquire how obtained). She did so, when she twice changed the Liturgy in the reign of King Edward, when she then established Articles, which were themselves a variation from former professions. She did so, when she cut off three Articles from her original 42, and reduced them to the present 39; and she certainly would not lose her corporate identity, nor subvert her fundamental principles, though she were to leave ten of the 39, which remain, out of any future confession of her faith. She would limit her corporate powers, on the contrary, and she would oppose her fundamental principles, if she were to deny herself the prudential exercise of such capacity of reformation. This therefore can be no objection to your receiving the Petition.

In the next place, Sir, I am clear, that the Act

Union, reciting and ratifying one Scotch and one English Act of Parliament, has not rendered any change whatsoever in our Church impossible, but by a dissolution of the Union between the two Kingdoms.

The honourable gentleman, who has last touched apon that point, has not gone quite so far as the gentlemen

gentlemen, who first insisted upon it. However, as none of them wholly abandon that post, it will not be safe to leave it behind me unattacked. believe no one will wish their interpretation of


that Act to be considered as authentick. What shall we think of the wisdom (to say nothing of the competence) of that Legislature, which should ordain to itself such a fundamental Law at its outset, ás to disable itself from executing its own functions; which should prevent it from making any further Laws, however wanted, and that too on the most interesting subject, that belongs to human society, and where she most frequently wants its interposition; which should fix those fundamental laws, that are for ever to prevent it from adapting itself to its opinions, however clear, or to its own necessities, however urgent? Such an Act, Mr. Speaker, would for ever put the Church out of its own power; it certainly would put it far above the State, and erect it into that species of independency, which it has been the great principle of our policy to prevent.

The Act never meant, I am sure, any such unnatural restraint on the joint Legislature it was then forming. History shows us what it meant, and all that it could mean with any degree of

common sense.

In the reign of Charles the First a violent and illconsidered attempt was made, unjustly, to establish

[blocks in formation]
« PreviousContinue »