THE EARL OF ABERDEENS BILL
By Hugh Miller in "The Witness"
THE Earl of Aberdeen brought forward, on Tuesday last, his
long expected bill on the Church question. Cowper tells us of men who"do
nothing with a deal of skill." His Lordship has been doing nearly as much
without the skill. He proposes to re-enact an already existing law, which has
certainly not been suffered to fall into desuetude, and to do for the Church
what he confesses the Church, in even her present circumstances, can do for
herself. In one important respect, however, the proposed measure is better than
if it had not been so bad. It will, no doubt, satisfy Dr Cook (Dean of Faculty)
and his friends, for it does not contain a single clause which might not have
emanated from the Doctor himself. Dr Muir would perhaps have framed a somewhat
more liberal measure, though he, too, will soon be able to accommodate himself
to its peculiarities, just as he learned to accommodate himself to the policy
of Dr Cook. But no individual who voted with Dr Chalmers can consistently
acquiesce in the bill introduced by the Earl of Aberdeen. It will satisfy all
the friends of unrestricted patronage and the old system, but it will not have
the effect of dividing the friends of a still older and immensely better
system. It will satisfy the class who never yet satisfied the people; but the
people and their friends it will not satisfy, nor will it have the effect, we
trust, of breaking down the majorities of the latter.
"The people have at present the right," says the Dean of Faculty, in his pamphlet," and that they should have it is most fitting, - of submitting every ground of objection, of whatever kind, which they may entertain against the individual, to the clergymen of the Presbytery." The Earl of Aberdeen, in his outline of the proposed bill, says nearly the same thing, only he says it in more words. The patron presents to the vacant parish; and the licentiate, his choice, appears before the Presbytery, who appoint him to preach in the parish church to the people. The people then meet; and if the regular communicants have objections to urge of any kind, the Presbytery receive these, either in writing or otherwise. They next sit and decide upon them. If they are held to be insufficient, the settlement proceeds, and the presentee is intruded upon the people; but if the Presbytery deem them of sufficient force, he is set aside, and the patron presents another. And such are the main provisions of the bill introduced by the Earl of Aberdeen. What measure of protection does it furnish which did not exist under the old system? It adds, perhaps, in some slight degree, to the power of our Church courts; and yet that power was certainly very considerable before. We find it stated by the Dean of Faculty, that he is aware of no limit either to the nature of the inquiries, or to the strictness of the examinations, to which Presbyteries may subject licentiates. The Church may reject, he asserts, on any ground whatever: it has unlimited authority to set aside, - unlimited authority to choose.
Now, if this view of the matter be correct, the Earl of Aberdeen, as we have said, is merely re-enacting an existing law; he is virtually doing nothing, and doing it at a considerable expense. But granting that it is not strictly correct, - granting that some little additional power is conferred on our Church courts, - what are the Presbyterian people of Scotland to gain in consequence? What benefits did they derive from the power vested in our Church courts for the greater part of the last century, or in what degree would they have profited had that power been rendered a very little greater? It was a power in almost every instance employed either against themselves or against the true types and representatives of the original Church, - the pious and devoted ministers whom they most loved and honoured. Popular privileges are essentially different things from powers conferred on Church courts; and we would just request our readers to mark how ready the very men who are most forward in calumniating our better ministers, and in raising against them the cry of clerical ambition and clerical usurpation, are to extend to them, notwithstanding, those very powers which they unjustly accuse them of coveting, and how sedulously they would withhold every shadow of popular privilege. They profess to dread the encroachments of the clergy, but it is only to conceal how bitterly they dislike all interference on the part of the people.
It is scarce necessary to pass over the various statements of the Earl of Aberdeen. He quotes the First Book of Discipline after exactly the same fashion as Messrs Paul and Pirie, and proves; to the satisfaction of his Peers, that the scheme of planting vacant parishes laid down by Knox, - a scheme of free election, be it rememhered, - was less popular than the one embodied in the veto act. The Upper House was, of course, no place in which his Lordship had any chance of being set right on the point. To the theology of the question there is no reference: the seven suspended ministers are respectable ; nor do legislators like his Lordship often look higher. Men who are too virtuous to be punished as immoral are quite suited to teach religious truth; and to urge that there is a very opposite doctrine in the Bible would of course be fanatical. And yet it does seem but common sense to draw a distinction between negative and positive character; nor does it appear very absurd to assert, that men amenable to no law may be totally devoid of religion. Let us suppose his Lordships bill in its present form enacted into statute, and acquiesced in by a majority of the Church. What would be the probable, nay, the inevitable, consequences? The Presbyterian people of the country have been thoroughly aroused on the agitated question, and aroused as a body. At no time were they indifferent to the principle which it involves, and very keenly could they feel, and very promptly could they act upon it. In what cases have the military been employed against the peasantry of Scotland since the rebellion of 1745, except in cases of forced settlements? Or in what other cases have handfuls of poor labouring men extended their hours of labour, and lived still more hardly than before, that they might raise their fifties and hundreds of pounds, - at first, to contend hopelessly in our courts of law against the intrusion of ministers whom in their conscience they believed not suited to edify them; and latterly. to build chapels for themselves, and support clergymen of their own choosing, to whose ministrations they could trust?
Never did they cease to feel on the subject; but hitherto they have been aroused to act or resist merely in detail, - aroused by parishes at a time: they are now aroused in a body; and tremendous will be the revulsion of feeling if they find they have been deceived, and see the ministers in whom they trusted deserting them. We would say to our clergymen, therefore, only give up the true non-intrusion principles embodied in the veto act, and you will soon find how fatal an error it was ever to have agitated them. Had you contented yourselves with the provisions of the old system, and suffered Dr Cook or Dr Muir to direct your councils, you might probably have continued to exist as an Establishment for thirty years: retreat from the advanced position which you have taken up, and you will be down in one third of the time. You will find in the supposed case the descent of a falling Church regulated by the laws which accelerate the descent of other falling bodies, and fearfully increasing its rapidity in the succeeding periods; nor will the Earl of Aberdeen be atde to protect or support you. He will be wholly unable to protect or support himself. Yield to his counsels, and timorously retreat, - give up the cause of the people, - and you will go down first, and he will follow you. Continue to occupy the Thermopylae in which you have taken up your position, and both may be saved. Your place is not a new one to the venerated ministers and elders of the much-loved Church of our fathers; but never, perhaps, at any period did so much depend on their decision as now depends on yours.
Supposing, howeve; that there should be no revulsion of feeling on the part of the people, - supposing that they should at once sit down under the disappointment as quietly and passively as if all their present excitement was merely simulated, - how would Lord Aberdeens measure operate in their behalf ? We all know the kind of acquirements which enabled the intrusionists of the last and the present century to pass through, the sort of vestibule formed by Presbyteries, into the body of the Church: a little tolerable Latin, and a little somewhat less tolerable Greek; the general smattering of learning which enables clever young men to write indifferent sense in middling bad English, and justifies their high opinion of themselves; and, withal, that acquaintance with theology which implies a sort of half-knowledge of doctrines which they do not like, and which they cannot understand: add to all this a degree of character which no police court in the kingdom would be able to impugn, and we have before us the qualifications of an accomplished liceutiate prepared for ordination, an ornament to his order; and fitted, according to the estimate of Moderate Presbyteries, to carry away the palm from Horsley. The people could neither love nor respect such a man, and by the more serious among them the less would he be loved and respected. Who that truly believes in the New Testament can think without concern of such a clergyman in connection with a parishioner anxiously awakened to inquire, with the jailor,"What shall I do to be saved?" - or without horror of him, associated with terrors awakened on a death-bed, - terrors regarding a future state of being, of which he knows nothing, and for which he cares as little? He is presented, however, by the patron; and these feelings on the part of the people, through which he is rendered unacceptable to them, are not permitted, by his Lordships provision, to weigh as anything. There is not a more definite assertion in his whole speech than that the mere unacceptableness of a presentee should be held no disqualification. The people must render their reasons. To affirm that in their consciences they believe the presentee unsuited to edify them, is not stating a reason, - it is merely expressing a belief - merely emitting such a declaration as the one required by the veto act. But, even permitting it to stand as a reason, what weight would the suspended ministers of Strathbogie attach to it if urged by the parishioners of Marnoch against Mr Edwards? or into what else would it resolve itself, if carried before the higher courts, than into mere unacceptableness? The "sheep know the voice of the good shepherd, and him they follow;" but they will not follow a stranger. Why? Because, believing him to be a stranger, he is unacceptable to them. Even supposing our Church Courts disposed at the present time to receive as legitimate almost any objections, and to act upon them, what guarantee have the people that this spirit is to continue? "Good is ever strongest at its beginning," says Bacon; "evil ever strongest in continuance." The one exists only through unceasing effort; the other gathers strength and grows up of itself.
We remark, farther, that we could not think very highly of even the honesty of men who, when deciding cases on unconfessed and disallowed grounds, could yet hypocritically urge that they decided them on grounds of an entirely different kind. If unacceptableness is not to be recognised as a legitimate cause of rejection, we would ill like to see it made an actual cause, and some unsolid and paltry shadow of objection employed to screen it, meanwhile, as a sort of stalking-horse. Let the Chureh of Scotland walk in unsullied integrity, as becomes her character, - her motives and her actions alike open to the eye of day. No one could have anticipated, when she took up her present position, the length to which matters were to be carried against her. Doubts were perhaps entertained whether her hold of the secularities might not possibly be loosened by an enforcement of the principle of the veto; but could even the shrewdest have imagined that she was to be inhibited from preaching the gospel? It was perhaps deemed possible that the civil power might attempt pouncing on her temporalities, but it was not deemed possible that the civil power would attempt jostling her aside from her own proper place among things spiritual; she has been exposed to unlooked-for trouble. The tempest has been unexpectedly severe; and mariners are sometimes content in such circumstances to return for shelter to the port which they have quitted. But what might be safety to them would be destruction to her. The heavily freighted and labouring vessel of the Church must not return. There is security in the haven to which she is bound. On the open sea, too, there is comparative safety, let the storm rage as it may; but inevitable shipwreck awaits her if she turn her prow towards the shore which she has left.
May 9, 1840.
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