"The Conscience Clause": its history, terms, effect, and principle : a reply to Archdeacon Denison

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"The Conscience Clause": its history, terms, effect, and principle: a reply to Archdeacon Denison  (1866) 
by John Oakley









"Not clinging to some ancient saw,
 Not mastered by some modern term,
 Not slow, nor swift to change, but firm;
And in its season, bring the law."

"Un grand danger pent menacer la civilisation moderne. Si, en même temps que le
"besoin do bien-être se generalise dans le peuple, les lumières et la moralité se repandent
"dans toutes les classes, de façon à inspirer aux unes la justice et aux autres la patience
"qu' exigent les réformes pacifiques, le progrès régulier est assuré; mais, si l'on maintient
"en haut I'instruction, la richesse et Tegoisme, en bas l'ignorance, la misero, et I'envie, il
"faut s'attendre à de violens bouleversemens." … "Il y a, je crols, dans le monde,
"quatre nations qui peuvent dire avec un légitime orgueil que tous leurs citoyens savent
"lire: l'Allemagne du Nord, la Norvège, la Suisse, et les États Unis; …"

"Revue des Deux Mondes," 15 November, 1865.


Price Two Shillings.



This pamphlet arose out of an invitation to defend the Conscience Clause, at a meeting of London clergy and a few laity, against the opposition to be offered to it by Archdeacon Denison in person. I thought it better to meet the Archdeacon with a carefully-prepared statement, in order not to be tripped up on some small matter of fact connected with the long-drawn history of the case by one so long familiar with all its details. It will be easily understood how materials for the defence accumulated, on a careful study of Blue-books, Minutes of the Committee of Council, Reports, and published correspondences, all of which suggested at every turn points of undoubted importance necessary to a complete statement of the case. The result was that this paper outgrew the purpose for which it was prepared; and when, moreover, only half the expected time was left for its delivery, it had to be curtailed beyond my worst expectations, and I could only pick out a fact here and an argument there as seemed most appropriate at the moment. This, though satisfactory enough upon these points, was manifestly unjust to the case as a whole. Some who thus partly heard or have since read it, thought it desirable that so full a statement of the case should be made public. I have thought it worth while to publish it for several reasons; and not less since it appeared that some who were present on the occasion referred to went away with the impression that many men are so apt to receive, that because a reply to their opinions was not made, no reply could possibly be made.

I venture to appeal to the opponents of the clause to give a careful consideration to the facts and arguments of this address; and to its ardent supporters to be patient of the tone of apology and expostulation into which I have been led. This was unavoidable in a concio ad clerum, and if any one is disposed to underestimate the amount and force of the feeling against it on the part of the Church, I can only point to the recent majority against the clause in the Lower House of Convocation, which, whatever its defects or sins, does certainly include many of the best and ablest clergymen in the country. I am well aware that the facts are differently interpreted by many able and excellent men—that some of my arguments will not only not commend the clause to some of its adversaries, but will confirm their suspicions of it. Nevertheless, I trust I have suggested grounds on which all, or nearly all, may consent to adopt some arrangement of the kind proposed. And my object has been that alone—to advocate the acceptance, on whatever grounds and in whatever form may finally be agreed upon, of a stipulation which I believe that the State has every right to demand, and the Church every obligation and inducement to give.

One point I am induced to mention here, not having referred to it in the body of this paper, in the plan of which it did not appear to me to have any part; and wishing to print my address as nearly as possible in the form in which it was first prepared. I refer to the fact that the Conscience Clause has not yet been submitted to Parliament in the shape of a Minute—a fact which is made use of to prove the arbitrary action and insidious policy of the Council Office. It is quite sufficient to quote Lord Granville's answer before the recent Committee when the same objection was under notice:—

Question 1931, by the Chairman.—"May I take the liberty of asking why, as the head of the Department, you did not in the case of the Conscience Clause, as in the case of other important changes in the practice of the office, place the question before Parliament?"—"I do not know whether I am wrong in what I have done, but I am quite ready to state to the Committee my reasons for acting as I have acted. I think that it is very important indeed, if possible, to arrange this Conscience Clause with the concurrence of the Church of England. It is very desirable, if possible, that the Privy Council, or whatever department has charge of the education of the country, should be on good terms with the Church of England; and I hope that an advance has been made with the Conscience Clause in the minds of a very large portion, not only of Church of England men, but of the clergy of the Church of England … But I think that if I were to propose to lay before the House of Commons a Conscience Clause now, exactly in the shape in which it is, with rather a difficult and wavering rule as to the number of Dissenters, the first question of the House of Commons would be—'Why are any number of Dissenters to be forced either to violate their religious feelings or to be excluded from the benefit of the education which is partly supported by the State?' I believe that our Conscience Clause does not go far enough now to satisfy the House of Commons, and at present I am afraid that we should not have concurrence on the part of the Church of England so as to enable us to bring in a measure which would be perfectly satisfactory with respect to the Conscience Clause. On this question of religious differences I think it is absolutely incumbent upon members of the Government not to bring them needlessly forward so as to cause irritation, unless they can see their way very clearly to a settlement of them." 1934.—"May we understand the substance of your Lordship's answers to be that you have abstained from submitting that important question to Parliament, partly from a feeling of conciliation towards the Church of England, and partly from the opinion (which is, I think, a sound opinion) that Parliament might say, 'If you adopt this clause you must carry it out to the full extent of the principle which it involves.'"—"I am not at all satisfied that the present way of dealing with the Conscience Clause is in such a shape as would meet with the concurrence of Parliament -, and with regard to introducing that arrangement which I should like to see introduced, it has not been done, partly out of a feeling of conciliation to the Church of England, but it is also in a great hope of being able to conduct some negotiations to a satisfactory point that I have delayed asking my colleagues to assent to such a measure."

In face of this I am at a loss to understand how the non-reference of the question to Parliament can be considered a grievance, or how an unfriendly animus against the Church of England or the National Society can be imputed to the Committee of Council on Education.

I have prefixed two mottoes to my pamphlet, which hit off exactly what I wish to be regarded as its two main points. The former of them expresses perfectly that combination of cautious but intelligent conservatism with determined, because necessary, progress, which, as I think, has characterised the conduct of the Committee of Council in making the present proposal, and which, as I am convinced, should characterise the conduct of the Church in meeting it. The latter gives forcible expression to the thought which is, I own, the background of my own mind upon the subject. If the Conscience Clause were all that its enemies assert it to be, yet I believe it ought to be submitted to by the thoughtful and patriotic, if it tends in any degree, as I believe it does, to avert our share of that "great danger" which, as M. de Laveleye truly says, "threatens modern civilisation," and certainly none more than our own; if it tends, as I believe it does, to break the neck of the "religious difficulty" which ties our hands and clogs our feet in extending elementary education; if it thereby tends, as I believe it does, to break up the great deeps of ignorance and degradation in England.

Nor can I forbear to add that if the ecclesiastical line of argument against it be really embodied in Archdeacon Denison's seventeen reasons against it, and in his published evidence and letters and speeches in Convocation and elsewhere, then I thank him for his unconscious demonstration of its necessity; for if his own account of his own policy and practice be a fair expression of the kind of toleration for which Dissenting parents may look from the clergy of the National Church, and of the risks which attend the faith of their children, then on his own showing, and on the strength of that alone, many politicians and many Churchmen will say. Welcome, if need be, a hundred Conscience-Clauses, each of a hundred Conscience-Clause power!

This work was published before January 1, 1926, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.