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Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot): I do not think that that squares with what I understood to be my right hon. Friend's position regarding the ecclesiastical legislation that comes before the House. Is he suggesting that we should forswear any involvement in the legislation that has typically been considered in the House? As I understand it, the House still has an Ecclesiastical Committee, although it might not sit or its proceedings might not be very public. As I understand it, that is the forum where we consider ecclesiastical Measures in the House.
Mr. Gummer: My hon. Friend is correct, but the Ecclesiastical Committee relates only to the business of the established Church. As there is an established Church, it is perfectly proper for the House to have the Ecclesiastical Committee, on which I have the honour of serving. Although it deals with the established Church, it does so on a non-denominational basis. Protestants, Anglicans and Catholics serve on the Committee, but it deals only with matters that relate to the effect of the establishment on the civil rights of the people of this country. That is what it is supposed to discuss.
Mr. Hogg: My right hon. Friend has just said that the Bill imposes restrictions on individuals and cited the case of the Roman Catholics. Of course, he is right in that respect, but the restrictions imposed by the old law go much further. It restricts the ability of local associations to choose their candidates and, even worse, restricts the electorate's ability to choose in a general election the person whom they want to represent them.
Mr. Gummer: I am happy to return to that discussion, but what my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) said is germane because passing the amendment would not only exclude those who have been accorded the grace of episcopal ordination, were they still practising as clergymen or priests, but prevent the associations that wanted to adopt them and those who had already voted for them from getting such people elected to Parliament. That is wholly unacceptable, for a rational reason.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald and I do not always agree on ecclesiastical matters, but we are usually on the same side in respect of reason. We are having a rational argument, but it is not rational to say that such people should be excluded, because nothing in their experience enables the House to say that they should not be Members of Parliament. Making a slight change by allowing those who are not doing the job to stand would be even odder, because that would suggest that those doing the job should not stand.
Some Methodists in America do not have bishops. Why should a Methodist minister who was not ordained by a bishop be allowed to sit in the House when an American Methodist who is a member of the United Methodist Church, and who was ordained by a bishop, would not be allowed to do so, even though that bishop is not in the apostolic succession and even though those people do not believe that such ordination is the same as ordination as even the Anglican Church teaches it? The amendment would take us to a pretty peculiar position.
Mr. Swayne: I merely point out that my right hon. Friend has raised profound issues that touch on the very establishment of the Church of England. The beauty of the amendment is that it would avoid all that by giving Labour Members precisely what they want--a candidate
Mr. Gummer: Well, he can have it, but it is not true. We can all have things. I do not want to return to the Jehovah's Witnesses, but they, too, can have it, although it is not true. The fact is that all that will not wash, for the simple reason that I cannot explain to my constituents why an Armenian is not allowed to stand for Parliament if he has been ordained in the Armenian Church, while a Baptist is allowed to stand. On the other hand, Methodists of certain sorts are allowed to stand while Methodists of other sorts are not.
Mr. Gummer: Let me put it this way. If my right hon. Friend has thought this aspect through, I would love to hear her answer. Some Pentecostal Churches have people who are called bishops. Therefore, when such a person ordains someone, one could say that he has been episcopally ordained. Can my right hon. Friend explain why a minister of the Elim Four Square Gospel Tabernacle is allowed to be a Member of the House whereas a minister of the Apostolic Tabernacle is not? They are charming people, all of them, and many of us would be hard put to distinguish between their doctrines--but, I am sorry to say, the fact is that accepting the amendment would mean that the House was suggesting that one could be a Member and the other could not. I would find it difficult to explain that distinction to the people of Walberswick. Intellectually able as they are, people in the local pub--
Mr. Gummer: I am happy to say that no pub in my constituency is called the Turk's Head. [Interruption.] Why not? Because we are politically correct. If we started to use ecclesiastical terms of the clarity demanded by the amendment, we would get ourselves into severe trouble.
Miss Widdecombe: I thought that I should rise to the occasion once the mirth had subsided. My right hon. Friend's rebuke of me for making a distinction based on episcopal ordination would be valid were that concept not already what underlies the old system, which the Bill seeks to change. I have tried to stick with the old definitions, but not to make changes as significant as those that the Government want. That is all.
I must now address my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West on the question whether it is acceptable for a priest to be involved in party politics. I understand what my hon. Friend meant. I deeply oppose two attitudes to the priesthood, the first of which is that priests should be involved in party politics. I remember a minister who took that view: the late Lord Soper thought that it was impossible to be a Christian without also being a socialist. I think that that is wrong and I object to any suggestion that one cannot be a Christian and at the same time either a socialist, a Liberal or a Conservative. One cannot be a Christian and a communist or a Christian and a fascist, but one can be a Christian and a member of any of those democratic parties.
Therefore, I deeply oppose parish priests who espouse political views that derogate from their ability to be priests. However, I want priests in the pulpit to be able to talk about politics and to have a powerful voice in that respect. A fortnight ago, I was at mass and I listened to the parish priest make some telling points about the bombing of Iraq. I would not say that I agreed with every one, but a priest of the Church of God made proper statements about politics and I needed to listen to them.
The Government and the Opposition have to ask themselves big questions about bombing from on high people who are unable to defend themselves. Those moral questions have to be examined. I have still failed to get any answer to questions that I tabled about the bombing of an aspirin factory in Sudan. To me, that is a moral question. However, I am told that it is such a delicate matter of national defence that my question cannot be answered. It is right for the priest in the pulpit to be able to raise such issues, so I say to my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West that priests who do not take politics into account are not doing their job properly. Politics is too big a part of life for the gospel to have nothing to say about it. The question is, could those priests be party politicians in the House while they were ordained? I would be unhappy about that, but it is not for me to decide; it is for the priests to decide.