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Mr. Bercow: A moment ago, the hon. Gentleman said that the Greenock and Inverclyde constituency Labour party was in a state of justifiable ignorance. It is important to emphasise that, whether it was acting in ignorance or knowingly, it certainly was not acting illegally. The absurdity of the current situation is that it is legal for an individual such as Mr. Cairns to stand as a prospective parliamentary candidate--there is nothing illegal about that--but illegal for him to take his seat. It is important to make that clear.

Dr. Godman: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, and I know that he will accept my word that members of the Greenock and Inverclyde constituency Labour party acted in good faith.

Were the Bill not to be passed but Mr. Cairns to be elected by the Greenock and Inverclyde constituency, an important issue might arise to be addressed in a judicial review at the Court of Session in Scotland. I think that if those two events were to happen, there could be an infringement of human rights. However, as the House knows, I am not a lawyer and I never desired to become one, so I may not be entirely correct on that point. Nevertheless, I believe that no one should be denied membership of this place, the Scottish Parliament, the Northern Ireland Assembly or the Welsh Assembly on the ground of ordination or of being a minister of a certain religious denomination.

Like the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell), I look forward to the disestablishment of the Church of England. I also welcome the point made by the hon.

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Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) on the Church of Scotland. The principal representative of that denomination is of course the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, who is chosen annually.

Paragraph 8 of the explanatory notes mentions Lords Spiritual and the 26 archbishops and bishops who sit in another place. If we are to continue with that place--one of my abiding regrets as a Member of Parliament is that we have not abolished it and replaced it with a senate--I believe that leaders of other Churches and religions should be entitled to sit, as the bishops do, as Lords of Parliament. Some of the other religious leaders might regard sitting next door as a somewhat doubtful privilege, but if the Archbishops of Canterbury and of York can do so, why cannot the Moderator of the Church of Scotland and Cardinal Thomas Winning?

I know that the Church of England is sympathetic to widening the ecclesiastical membership of the other place. However, I also appreciate that there are complicated elements to the issue that will have to be addressed. I hope that that happens in the next Parliament.

Paragraph 9 of the explanatory notes states that the Churches were consulted on the proposals and

It therefore seems that the Bill has the approval, although perhaps qualified approval, of the Churches concerned.

What will happen, however, if a person should decide to give up and return to his or her Church? As the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) said, the traditional view of both Catholics and Anglicans is that holy orders cannot be relinquished, and that although one can renounce the exercise of one's orders, one is ordained for life. The right hon. Lady is of course a recent convert to Catholicism. Perhaps I should say that although I am a lapsed Catholic, I maintain a very keen and paternal interest in Catholic Church matters.

As the Minister and the hon. Member for Salisbury said, there is a question whether, even if the Bill is enacted, a Catholic priest who is in "good standing"-- I think that that is how it is described in Catholic canon law--can serve as a Member of Parliament. The hon. Gentleman mentioned paragraph 3 of canon 285 in the Roman Catholic code of canon law 1983. It states:

That is unequivocal, and at first glance it suggests that a Catholic priest cannot in principle hold political office other than in the obvious and special case of an office in the Curia. However, Catholic priests have held senior political positions. One example is the first President of Haiti, who took that office after the fall of the Duvalier family. I assume that he had a special dispensation from the Vatican.

Would a priest who wanted to stand as a candidate for election to this House while retaining his good standing with his church need a dispensation from his diocesan bishop--or, failing that, from Rome? Alternatively, a priest has the right to petition Rome to have his orders annulled by rescript under paragraph 3 of canon 290 of the Catholic code of canon law. However, that is granted

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In conclusion, any cleric--Anglican or Catholic--can simply walk away from his Church and stand as a candidate in an election. However, that person would no longer be in good standing under the law of his Church. My hope is that compassion and sensitivity would determine the outcome when a prospective candidate is caught in such circumstances. If such a problem were to arise with a candidate in Scotland, I hope that Cardinal Winning and his priestly colleagues would show precisely that compassion and sensitivity.

I welcome the Bill and I sincerely hope that it becomes law before the general election.

5.38 pm

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): I am very pleased to follow the hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman), who in opposition used to sit on the Benches behind those occupied by members of my party. We have had a long friendship, although recently we have sparred more than we have supported each other. For example, his final comment concerned the standing of Roman Catholic priests in the western democracies, yet I recall that a priest in the United States was removed from office when he challenged papal authority. That is another possibility that we must bear in mind. The Minister said earlier that we should not introduce theological arguments into our debate, but the harsh reality is that those arguments are part of the debate.

As the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) propounded, the issue at the heart of the debate is that priests are clerks in holy orders who receive remuneration under the Crown. If this reforming Bill is to succeed, the bar on candidates standing for Parliament who are now in receipt of such remuneration--for example, through membership of a quango--may have to be removed. I drew attention to that issue in connection with the Church of Scotland, which is in a different situation. Over the years, however, there has been a barrier to ministers ordained in the Church of Scotland.

I am an ordained minister of a sister Church, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. I have not resigned my office; I was relieved from the pastorate. The Presbyterian Church in Ireland allows us to be ministers without charge under the care of presbytery, able to perform duties to help our colleagues and to carry out pastoral work if we are called on to help someone out. Often I do not deal with political or housing issues in my surgery but with some of the issues that regularly came my way when I was pastoring a congregation.

I am one of those with links with 1950. I was a student in Londonderry, in the constituency of Belfast, West, where Rev. J. G. MacManaway sought guidance from the then Attorney-General of Northern Ireland, who I believe was right in his interpretation. I think that even Professor Blackburn would give that impression. The late Edmund Warnock said that he would be qualified to stand for election to the House of Commons and he was so elected, but the electoral court went into more rarefied arguments.

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I believe that the people of Belfast, West, where I was a constituent at the time, were robbed of a very useful representative, but, at the same time, I can understand some of the arguments.

I do not believe that anyone wants this place to be full of ministerial or clerical clones. However, the issue seems to be that those who have been priests are barred. I sympathise with that, but when does a person cease to be a priest? I read during the week of an elderly priest who was unfrocked because of some obscene behaviour in the past. It is rare for a priest in the Church of Rome to be unfrocked; they are quite often simply removed from the office of public priesthood.

The Minister referred to priests being barred because of their activity in political circles. Desmond Wilson in Belfast, West was barred from public priesthood by Bishop Philbin. I remember Gerry Fitt, now ennobled in another place, coming to me in real anger because Desmond Wilson had published a book with a worldwide imprimatur that gave a different opinion of what was happening in Northern Ireland. He said, "I can never understand why Bishop Daly restored him to the office of public priesthood." That day, I was walking through Heathrow airport to get the plane back to Belfast and I met Dr. Daly. I said to him, "Bishop, my constituents and some of your flock have been asking why you restored Desmond Wilson to the office of public priesthood, when Dr. Philbin, your predecessor, removed him from it." The gracious Dr. Daly was rather taken aback that a mere Presbyterian politician should ask him such a question. He stepped back with a little start and, giving that lovely smile, said, "I tried to win him back but I failed."

I wonder whether the Bill is premature and whether there is any real reason for it. I have no difficulties with people coming here who are elected by their people. I had to face that challenge myself, although, interestingly, it did not come from political circles. When my parliamentary predecessor was murdered, I, as someone interested in public life, encouraged others to put themselves forward, but two of my brothers--not filial but ministerial--from different spheres of the presbyterian ministry asked me, "Is it not your turn?" I could not encourage someone else to stand when danger was involved, unless I faced that danger myself. I prayed about the matter and the doors opened. I believe in and understand the concept of ordination for life. I am an ordained minister for life.

I am glad that the trite expression "Ye cannot serve God and mammon" has not been used today. After my election, I received several letters expressing that view, but they were unsigned so I could not respond to them. I remind all of us who claim the Christian profession that the Master said those words not to disciples--apostles--but to followers. When we are dealing with issues of conscience, it behoves all of us, even in this place, to put that loyalty to the Master clearly to the fore. If the Almighty could shut doors for Paul, who wanted to go here, there and everywhere, and yet open another door that could not be closed, He had a great opportunity, through the selection and electoral processes, to shut the door on Martin Smyth.

Today, we are debating whether the law of the land should shut doors on people or open other doors that may cause problems in the future. We glibly say that anyone

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who is a leader of any religious community should have a right to be a Member of this place if he is elected, but would we be as keen if they belonged to the strange cults that have developed in the modern world, and could brainwash other people into selecting and electing them?

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