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Religious Situation, Russia (Intercessory Prayers)

Volume 236: debated on Tuesday 4 March 1930

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I have received notice from the Leader of the Opposition of a question by Private Notice. There is a very old Rule in the House that a Private Notice question cannot anticipate a question notice of which has been given and which appears on the Paper. The only way I can allow the right hon. Gentleman to put it will be by leave of the House.

I thank the House for its courtesy. I had hoped the questions were all withdrawn, but I find that inadvertently one was left on the Paper for to-morrow. The question I desire to ask the Prime Minister is whether His Majesty's Government have decided that the intercessory prayers proposed by the heads of all the Churches to be read on the 16th March shall be prohibited at services attended by members of His Majesty's Naval, Military and Air Forces, and, if so, whether he will withdraw such prohibition, which is an interference with the expression of a deep religious feeling approved by the heads of the religious bodies concerned.

First I ought to say that the first part of the question is very inaccurately expressed, and the second part, therefore, does not arise. To give a fuller reply, the intention of the Government was accurately described, and apparently to the satisfaction of the House, by my right hon. Friend the First Lord of the Admiralty in answer to a question by the hon. and gallant Member for Maidstone (Commander Bellairs) on 19th February. I would also refer the right hon. Gentleman to the answer which would normally have been given this afternoon by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for War in answer to a question by the hon. and gallant Member for Sudbury (Colonel Burton), and which reads as follows:

"Orders have been issued which make it clear that no compulsion to attend such services is to be exercised. These instructions apply only to persons under military orders. Both civilian and military personnel are free to attend in a voluntary way any service they wish to attend."
From this, it will be seen that the Army instructions were not intended to alter the position as it was explained to the House by my right hon. Friend the First Lord of the Admiralty. The instruction refers only to what amounts to an official and compulsory service.

Is it not accurate that this decision has been taken in view of the political character that the controversy has assumed? That is the description of the decision that was given in a letter addressed by the Army Council to general officers commanding. Is it a fact that, because of the political character that it has assumed, this direction was given?

The direction was given, quite obviously, because it is absolutely impossible under circumstances such as would have obtained by the reading of the prayers at a compulsory military parade to forget the circumstances connected with this agitation. Where there is a sincere, voluntary, religious, spiritual desire to help by prayer and supplication the wrongs that may be inflicted upon Christians in Russia, neither the Government themselves nor any other Department will stand in the way of the expression of that desire, but it is perfectly obvious that when addressing an Army service one has to be very careful that he is promoting the interests of the persecuted Christians and not giving further arguments to the continuation of that persecution.

Does not the right hon. Gentleman realise that he is introducing a political element into the decision that these prayers shall not be read at services which soldiers and other members of His Majesty's forces attend?

I would be the last to desire any incident to take place on this particular question, and I hope that the hon. Member will withdraw what he said.

In view of the protest which you have made, I withdraw, and I apologise for making the statement.

I should like to ask the Prime Minister whether the answer which was given by the First Lord of the Admiralty on the 19th February in respect of services under his control applied also to the services in the Army and in the Air Force. As I understand it, it was only to apply to parade services in barracks which are compulsory, and, in order to elucidate that point a little further, I should like to ask him this: There are, where there are small units, a great many services which, as we know, are also parade services and compulsory. They are marched to particular churches or chapels, generally Roman Catholic or Nonconformist, where the bulk of the congregation is civilian but where the chaplains are Army chaplains. Would the Order apply to those cases, and would the chaplain under those conditions, although the majority of those present were civilians—there might be only a small proportion of soldiers, although it is a compulsory parade—be forbidden to use the services which had been ordained by their own churches?

May I confess to the House that when the answer was given on the 19th February by my right hon. Friend the First Lord of the Admiralty the Government naturally assumed that, if there were to be any points of detail, or any points of inquiry made by sincerely religious people regarding the application of that Order, we should have had them. We did not have them. There was no agitation at all until certain newspapers, which have been carrying on this agitation, got hold of the report. I want to say, that in my own mind—and I certainly give my word as representing the Government—nothing in the nature of what is in the right hon. Gentleman's mind should be interfered with. Certainly not. But formal parades in barracks, on board ship, and so on of a compulsory nature—a pure parade—ought not to be used in the present circumstances for that form of service. What I would propose is, that, on the whole matter, opinions should be exchanged regarding the operation of it, and for goodness sake do let us keep politics out of it.

I am very glad to hear that explanation, but I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that this is really not a newspaper agitation. If I may be permitted to say so, I have received from many important leaders of the Free Churches who are not unfriendly to the Government communications which show their very deep concern, and in which they say that, if that Order were carried out, it would be quite impossible to get young men of high character to take the positions of chaplain in the Army.

I do hope that whatever is going to be said about this matter, there will be no misunderstanding about it. I also have had letters not only from the leaders of Free Churches but from leaders of other churches, and, as a result of explanations, I believe that the whole of the difficulty has been removed. There is still a question arising as to how, under certain circumstances, the Order can be applied. I make a free offer to everybody who is interested in that, to get into contact with us between now and the date of the service, and everything will be candidly and sincerely examined and inquired into.

Is the right hon. Gentleman not aware that these church parades are compulsory parades and that, if a unit wants to go to a Methodist chapel, for example, it is marched off from the parade ground to that chapel and is only a very small proportion of the congregation there. The Order as it now stands is that the service in that chapel cannot include the intercessory prayers, and it is that to which I take exception. If the right hon. Gentleman says that he will have that altered, it is another matter.

May I submit to you, Mr. Speaker, that, as the Prime Minister has left the position, it now means that a small squad going to a Wesleyan or to a Baptist church or to a Roman Catholic church will be compelled, whether it likes it or not, to go to that service and to hear these intercessory prayers, and may I further suggest to the Prime Minister that, if the principle of voluntaryism is going to be maintained in this, he should allow all those small squads to please themselves whether they attend these services or not.

May I ask the Prime Minister how it will be possible for sailors at sea in ships to attend any alternative services?

I really cannot, as Prime Minister, charge myself with, or profess to be possessed of, the knowledge of all the details of services in the Army, the Navy, or the Air Force, but I know the spirit in which the decision was come to, and that spirit had better be carried to the responsible heads. I pledge myself to nothing except this, that every attempt will be made to allow full spiritual liberty on this occasion, and not only for matters of individual conscience but for larger matters. No action must be taken which will appear to make these exercises an official military exercise.

Do I understand from the Prime Minister that he would be willing to discuss this matter with the Leader of the Liberal party and myself?

Because the Leader of the Liberal party and I, as he knows, do not always see eye to eye. On this matter, I can assure the Prime Minister—and he knows me well enough to take my word—that I feel very deeply.

The only complaint that I have of the expression used by the Leader of the Opposition is with reference to himself and the Leader of the Liberal party. Why not make a trinity and include myself, because I am in precisely the same position as they are? I should be only too glad to do what the right hon. Gentleman suggests.