« PreviousContinue »
5. That the interference of any human institution with matters which concern their faith and conscience, cannot receive the sanction of Protestant dissenters.
It has been the aim of this and the preceding chapters, to refute the first and principal of these objections: and it is with no intention of depreciating the just weight and value of the other objections, that the immediate consideration of them is deferred and postponed to a brief review of the measures by which the relief of the alleged grievance has been sought; pamely, petitions to the two Houses of Parliament; bills brought in by their advocates, in conformity with these petitions; and protests delivered by the Freethinking Christians to the clergymen officiating at their marriages.
To the exercise of the right of petition, in their case, no just objection can be made. It is the common privilege of Englishmen who think themselves aggrieved, to make their grievances known to the legislature, and to seek the redress which the case admits and requires. It is requisite for their own interest and the public good, that the petitioners shall state the fact, and nothing but the fact. Exaggerated statements of fictitious wrongs will hardly conciliate the favour of an enlightened senate.
In the Bill introduced by Mr. William Smith into the House of Commons, it was proposed, under specified circumstances, to curtail the Office of Matrimony ; retaining only the exhortation, beginning, “ I require and charge you both,” &c. with the form of mutual stipulation inmediately succeeding. The author of the Bill perceived the objections to the
measure, which he had the candour to withdraw, and which, no attempt will be probably made to
The clergy would have scrupulously objected to a religious form, in which there was not a word of prayer or supplication : and the supporters of other measures of relief have had no hesitation in approving the resolution of the bishops, to withhold their consent from any such curtailment of the service. To such of the Freethinking Christians as embrace the full extent of the objections alleged against the present office for the solemnization of matrimony, it is not probable that any service, performed in a church, by a person in orders, or accompanied with any act of social prayer, will be acceptable.
Another measure has therefore been proposed, for allowing the Unitarians, under certain modifications, to celebrate their marriages in their private conventicles. It is very doubtful whether the principle of this measure has not been conceded with an unwise and inconsiderate facility, when the concession involves no less than an abandonment of the sacred character of marriage, and of the immemorial and truly catholic doctrine of the sacerdotal benediction, with the recognition of marriage merely as a civil contract, and of the validity of that contract without a religious ratification. The principle is equally new in English law and in English theology, and demands the gravest consideration, An age of luxury and refinement is not the time for weakening the impression which may be made by the religious solemnization, or rejecting the beneficial influence which may flow from the prayers and supplications
which are proper to the occasion ; and the history of imperial Rome has left a memorable record of the danger of relaxing the principle, the law, and the religion, of marriage. The effects of the meditated compliance are probably more extensive than they appear to be, and may be of such mischievous operation, as to require more than the provisions of another Marriage Act to correct them. If this concession be made, the Unitarians will be entirely separated from the offices of the Church ; and no man who has formed a judgment of the doctrinal or practical evils of religious separation, will acquiesce with pleasure in this primary result, or contemplate without regret, the absolute and irrevocable, although voluntary, excommunication of an erring brotherhood. It will be an ambiguous benefit, which, under the name of a favour, reduces the Unitarians, in respect of marriage, to a level with the Jews; and it will be an anomaly in ecclesiastical policy, to confer a privilege on the most hostile, which is not conceded to the most friendly of the sects. If the concession is limited to the Unitarians, it will have the effect of offering a bounty on the Unitarian doctrine ; and any man who may take offence at the ritual of the Church, may be free to avoid conformity by the profession of Unitarian tenets. If however the principle is conceded to the Unitarians, it will be impossible to withhold it from other classes of dissenters, who will all naturally plead their respective grievances and claims of relief: and when the infinite modifications of dissent are considered, especially in the metropolis and in the populous and remote districts of the country, it will
not be easy to secure the registration of marriage, or to prevent the abuses of the licence, and the revived practice of clandestinity. Boys and girls, by becoming fanatics, will overcome all difficulties in the contract of marriage. It is true, that the possible or even the probable abuse is not a fair objection to a principle: but when the principle is originally bad, it is not excused by the probable fault of its practice. The effects and details of the measure are of far less consequence than the principle; but even these are not inconsiderable. It may be very doubtful, whether the measure will be acceptable to all who profess Unitarian principles ; and whether many who now take an interest in its success, will not continue to prefer the ritual of the established Church, for the sake of the increased security afforded by the registration of marriages; and whether, when the principle has been extorted by a claim of right, the practice will not be confined to a few of the most sanguine and enthusiastical of its supporters. It is not a matter which deserves a moment's consideration, that the measure has a tendency to reduce the fees and emoluments of the clergy. A matter so entirely secular may be fairly overlooked, in contemplating the greater evils, which threaten to accompany the success of the experiment. It may never be extensively adopted, and the pecuniary injury may be but trivial. If the religious principle is abandoned, the Church will be insulted by a precautionary clause for protecting its little fees, in a Bill which cancels its solemn offices. Marriage, it should be remembered, was originally a sacrament, and, as a sacrament, no fee could be due for its ad
ministration. Marriage fees must be of right subsequent to the Reformation, or rather the title to the demand is dependent upon special custom, and involves the actual performance of the duty®: and where the religious solemnization of the marriage is superseded, there is no ground on which the fees can be protected. The Church asks not the gifts of Unitarian bounty; the poor Unitarian will be offended by the demand, which he will not scruple to denounce as an act of ecclesiastical extortion. It has been proposed with some address that the fees shall be retained, and that the retention shall be vindicated in consideration of a service to be performed, which is no other than the record of the marriage in the Parochial Registers. The Registers now in use cannot be accommodated to this suggestion : they are adapted to the use of persons married in the church, and by the clergyman, recording the act ; and it is incompatible with the whole scheine of parochial registration for a clergyman to attest or record any act which he has not himself performed. If this difficulty could be arranged, the marriage of Unitarians would stand on grounds very different from those of the Quakers and the Jews.
Whether the alleged grievances of the Unitarians may or may not be redressed by the wisdom of the legislature, it is certain that under the present state of the law there is but one form for the legal ratification of marriage in England. The Unitarian is free to avail himself of a foreign marriage, but a legal marriage cannot be contracted in England, but
· Burn's Ecclesiastical Law.