THE WELSH DISESTABLISHMENT BILL.
MR. ASQUITH'S exposition of the Government's Welsh Disestablishment Bill, was, as is usual with him, a very terse and lucid one, though there are necessarily many points on which we cannot form a very clear opinion till we see the Bill in print. The points on which it differs most widely from the Irish Church Disestablishment Bill are for the most part what we should have expected from the character of that Welsh Radicalism to which the Bill is a concession. Of course its main difference, namely, that it is a breach made in the Establishment of the Church of England and Wales, and therefore the first step in a great campaign against our National Church Establishment, is not a difference which could have been avoided, if the. Welsh agitation were to be entertained at all. That is an essential difference between the two cases, and it involves of course a fresh concession to that doctrine that national institutions ought never to be maintained and protected in localities which have declared themselves unfavourable to those institutions, which is at the bottom of the various movements for extend-. ing Home-rule. That, however, is a difference between this case and the case of the Irish Protestant Estab- lishment which the Government were compelled to ignore. They had no choice but to assume that for their purpose Wales is as distinct as Ireland from England ; and, of course, what they assume as to Wales, some future Liberal party will find it needful to assume as to Wessex, or East Anglia, or perhaps even Yorkshire. The present Bill, if it becomes an Act, will be the first step towards the cutting-up and parcelling-out of the endowments and administrative authority of the National Church. But that is certainly not a blot on the details of the Bill.. It is a fundamental objection to its principle. The next, difference between the Disestablishment of the Welsh Church and that of the Irish Church is that, as this Bill deals with it, there is no pretence made of a wish to give the Welsh Church better terms than it would be. strictly entitled to, in order to soften the hardship of its transition period. The terms on which the Irish Churchi was disestablished were meant to give the Disestablished; Church a good start. There is no such intention in rela-; tion to the Welsh Church. Indeed, the curates are, as al body, to be thrown on the resources of the disendowed; Church, without having any compensation such as the' Irish Church curates received, for the term of their own; lifetime. Again, the lay patrons are to be dealt with in a very cavalier fashion, their compensation being limited to a year's income. As it is clear that their patronage is a trust, we should not object to this, except for the reduction it implies in the resources of the laity for helping the Disestablished Church at a very critical period in its history. We hardly see why the lay patrons should be dealt with so cavalierly on any principle which admits their right of property at all. If they have no real right of property,. why grant them any compensation ? If they have a right of property, why diminish their power of helping their Church at so serious a moment, by compen- sating them at the rate of only a single year's income ? Then the arrangement which takes away the Cathedrals from the Church in Wales, and hands them over as national monuments to Commissioners who may be com- pelled at any time to give them up for secular purposes,— though that, apparently, is not the immediate intention of the Government,—seems to us almost an outrage on the historic conscience of the people. Cathedrals will hardly remain historical monuments at all unless they are dedicated. to the same worship for which they were built. To give them up to Eisteddfodds, as we see is proposed by the socialistic party, would as surely desecrate them as to use them for the purposes of amusement or of political agitation. You cannot transform a cathedral even into the home of the Salvation Army, without destroying entirely its peculiar character and historical associations. The Salvation Army or the Calvinists or the Baptists would. never have approved of such buildings as cathedrals, for their sensational or puritanic religious services.
But all these blots on the Bill are but too likely, we fear, to mislead the Opposition into taking the wrong line in debate. We shall be very much disappointed if they lay any kind of stress on flaws of this kind. The real objection to Welsh Disestablishment is, in our opinion, that it is the first step towards the disintegration of the National Church, and that such a step ought not to be taken on any such ground. as the vote of a local majority in its favour. If it could be shown, indeed, that the religious condition of the Welsh people,—we are not talk- ing of their political condition,—suffers materially from the existence of the National Establishment in Wales, that would be a good argument for a change, whether that change were effected by a suppression of the Estab- lishment, or otherwise. But we deny altogether that the political disaffection of the Welsh people to the Establishment should. count for anything beyond one of the considerations which renders the general policy of an Establishment so far disputable. If we weigh a national institution in local scales we may get a consideration either favourable or unfavourable to that institution, according as the scale turns ; but that is no reason at all for parcelling it up, unless the national institution itself is mischievous to the interests of the nation at large. We might as well propose to let the county which returns a Tory majority be governed on Tory principles, and the county which returns a Liberal majority be governed on Liberal principles, as consult Wales, or Cornwall and Devonshire, or East Anglia, or London, as to the desirability of locally disestablishing there the National Church. There are other places besides Wales where there is a majority in favour of Disestablish- ment ; and if we are to follow the precedent of this Bill, we should disestablish there also, and so undermine, little by little, the very idea and essence of a National Establish- ment. Let the expediency of the National Establishment be judged as a whole,—let the Welsh vote count for what it is worth against it. But let us not break down a pillar here and an arch there in an historical edifice which was built up by the nation, intended for the nation, and which should not be removed except by the will of the nation.