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Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): If the hon. Gentleman attended the Second Reading debate, he will know that I am sympathetic to the Bill. May I counsel caution to him in traducing, deliberately or inadvertently, the track record of hon. Members on a particular side of the House? Does he accept what the empirical evidence will demonstrate to him--that the most active and assiduous attenders of the Chamber sit on the Conservative Benches?

Mr. Mackinlay: If the hon. Gentleman looks at the Official Report tomorrow, he will see that I carefully crafted and weighed up every word that I uttered about my fellow Members of the House of Commons. I expressed some amazement, nay admiration, for their dexterity and capacity diligently to fulfil both the office of Member of the House of Commons and other obligations. I only wish that I was as qualified--or even ordained--so to do.

2 pm

There is an important point that relates to the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) and to a matter that we have also debated in this place: should the parliamentary oath be an

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impediment to serving here? I am amazed that hon. Members cannot understand that the right to be a representative in this place should come from the people alone. If the people want to put up the candlestick maker, the clock maker, the good, the bad, the ugly, the malevolent, the eccentric--[Interruption.]--the National Front, a minister of one religion or a pastor of another, that is their right. If people overextend themselves so that they are dilatory in discharging their office as Members of the House of Commons, that is something that the electorate can and should take into account if those people offer themselves for re-election. Indeed, their electoral opponents could legitimately draw attention to their conduct, their stewardship and their attendance to the business of the House.

It is irrelevant where those who offer themselves as candidates come from. It is the right of people in every constituency to choose their representative in this place. It is not for us to impose conditions. As well as supporting the measure, I want a greater extension of the possibilities by doing away with the problem of the oath. Historically, the oath was an impediment to membership of this place, and it remains so.

Mr. Winnick: Is my hon. Friend aware that he is using almost the same words as those who argued for the right of Charles Bradlaugh to enter this place? As I pointed out, Bradlaugh was refused on four occasions; and even when he was willing to take the oath, the House said that it would be a mockery. However, he lived long enough to hear the House apologise for its conduct. He established a right without which many of us would not be able to be Members of the House of Commons.

Mr. Mackinlay: Indeed. Furthermore, if those impediments exist, either people are invited to ignore such unenforceable provisions or they have to do so anyway, because their conscience dictates that they are entitled to be Members of this place.

I shall come to the question of whether a priest is laicised or has renounced his priesthood in a moment. However, we are illustrating the absurdity of the amendment proposed by the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald. We touched on the oath as an example. Fianna Fail Members were kept out of the Free State Parliament because they had to sign an oath of allegiance to George V. Eventually, De Valera said that the procedure was a charade and signed the oath. That is not healthy--

The Chairman: Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but I think I need to try to maintain a distinction between matters that are better discussed on Second Reading and those that are directly applicable to the amendment that we are discussing. I have given him some leeway for illustration, but he must now come back to the point of the amendment.

Mr. Mackinlay: I am grateful to you, Sir Alan.

Amendment No. 15 refers to "episcopal ordination". The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald seems to believe that there can be some material distinction between people who are episcopally ordained--primarily, although not exclusively, in the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England.

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As she has invited us to do so, we must look into what episcopal ordination means. It relates to episcopal succession, a concept that even some of the most distinguished theologians of those churches and other denominations consider somewhat dubious. The question turns on whether there has been a continuity, since the apostles, in the laying on of hands in an order, so that there can be political succession.

Mr. Swayne: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Mackinlay: I will give way in a moment, but I am dealing with the right hon. Lady's argument.

The concept is challengeable by theologians. It is nonsense that it should be an issue in British constitutional law. Bishop Montefiore--a distinguished former Member of another place and the Anglican bishop of Birmingham--challenges that view in one of his tracts. In dealing with the validity of Anglican orders, about which the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England have disagreed for some 150 years, he said that the question of the laying on of hands is dubious.

If the right hon. Lady's proposal were passed, could a part-practising priest be elected to the House? If he were challenged, his defence might be to challenge the meaning of the phrase "episcopal ordination". That would involve the absurdity of going back not hundreds but thousands of years, and bringing in theologians as witnesses to say whether the ceremony, rubric and intention of the laying on of hands, which goes right back to the apostles, was involved. I invite the House to consider how absurd that would be.

Miss Widdecombe: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Mackinlay: I shall give way to the right hon. Lady in a moment, but I hope that I am diligently dealing with her proposals from a constitutional and a canon law point of view.

The right hon. Lady failed to respond to the point about the very important--albeit minor--religious denominations that ordain episcopally. For example, Dr. Eric Taylor--Assistant Clerk at the House of Commons who sat alongside your predecessors, Sir Alan--was ordained in the Liberal Roman Catholic Church and became a bishop in that Church. His orders were fully recognised as valid by the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church. The right hon. Lady has not explained whether that small but fully recognised denomination would be excluded.

Orthodox Churches are now extensively found in the United Kingdom--the Greek Cypriot Church is one of the bigger ones. Would a priest or minister of the Orthodox Church be excluded, and if so, on what basis?

Miss Widdecombe: The hon. Gentleman is trying to suggest that such matters are irresolvable, and that if someone said that his ordination was not episcopal, we should have to go back 2,000 years to prove the opposite. That exact issue arose in the argument about the ordination of women priests, when certain priests of the Anglican Church wished to move to the Roman Catholic Church. The issue was whether their orders could be recognised, because generally, Anglican orders are not

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recognised by the Roman Catholic Church, as the hon. Gentleman will know. However, the orders could be recognised when the ordination had taken place in a line that was demonstrable from old bishops. Those lines are already established; they are on record. So it is much easier to resolve the question than the hon. Gentleman suggests. My answer to the other question is that where orders are recognised as valid, those involved have been episcopally ordained.

Mr. Mackinlay: The right hon. Lady implies that she would extend the constitutional impediment to priests of other religions. I understand that the current legislation relates exclusively to priests in the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England.

Siobhain McDonagh: The legislation also includes priests in the Orthodox Churches because they, too, are episcopally ordained. It might be useful if we were to concentrate on the Greek Orthodox Church, rather than the Catholic Church, because we seem to be going off in a number of directions that are perhaps not that relevant.

Mr. Mackinlay: In any event, for the reasons that we have adduced, priests should not be excluded. The right hon. Lady has not dealt with priests who have the approval of the Holy See to stop fulfilling the office of priest--laicisation is the term used. I regret that the current Holy Father has tightened up on allowing his bishops to grant laicisation. The result has been that many people have left the "priesthood"--I use that term in inverted commas, because once a priest, always a priest--without the permission of their bishops. Therefore, they have not been laicised. We then get this absurd blurring of their position. They are still priests and are fully empowered to administer the sacraments.

In the Church of England--it is a very good practice in many cases--some priests are part-time. They may work in commerce or banking and fulfil their priestly duties on a part-time basis. Why should they be impeded from standing for the House of Commons? The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald has not dealt with that black and white issue, and she cannot do so because her amendments and her deeply--I do not know--conservative view--[Interruption.] The right hon. Lady says that I took a long time to get that phrase out, but it is very difficult to find adjectives that adequately describe her troglodyte view. Her view is not mediaeval but, as I have said, goes back 2,000 years.

If we look in the Official Report tomorrow, we shall see that someone said that this issue was not easily resolvable--but, of course, it is. We should pass this Bill and move on to the next argument, which is about the oath. We have got to deal with the problem. I hope that hon. Members will do that, not because of Greenock and Inverclyde, but because it is a matter of matter of human rights. It is a matter of principle to extend our democracy, so I hope that the Committee will dismiss these absurd amendments and the House will support the Bill's Third Reading.

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