Previous SectionIndexHome Page

11.21 pm

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield): I declare an interest, or at least a potential interest, as I am a deputy churchwarden by virtue of the fact that my parish has more than one parish church. Should I still be in that post when the Measure comes into effect, I may become a full-blown churchwarden and subject to its provisions.

The hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) has set out fully the circumstances behind the Measure, and I do not wish to detain the House, save to say that it is welcome. Particularly welcome is the flexibility that has been shown in response to numerous letters that were received about removing the bishop's right relating to suspension.

I noted with interest what my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing, West (Mr. Bottomley) said. He was unsure whether the Committee had acted properly in this matter, or had come to the right decision. The Church is undoubtedly going through considerable changes. In particular, an increasing number of parishes are held by priests in charge, not by incumbents. Many parishes and parishioners feel that their independence is being progressively eroded.

I am quite convinced that, in the Measure's original form, the power of the bishop would have been invoked so sparingly and for such good and sufficient reasons that no one would ever have criticised its use. However, it was

20 Mar 2001 : Column 309

received with hostility and awoke a sense of unease that the independence of parishes, which had previously been exemplified in the independence of the incumbent, was disappearing and that this Measure was yet another nail in the coffin.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the problems was the Synod's apparent inability to communicate exactly why it wanted the Measure? In my diocese, my parochial church council never once discussed this issue. People picked up innuendo and rumour.

Mr. Grieve: The hon. Gentleman's comments sound familiar--I remember the discussion that we had in my parish. He highlights a matter that is for the Church to decide for itself. Many parishes tend to be rather detached from the process of governance in the Church. Beyond deanery Synod level, there is often a sense that what goes on has little relevance. People worry that higher powers constantly want to change accepted practices that work well for them.

The proposal seems sensible and has provided reassurance. Clearly, this Measure was badly needed. It clarifies many areas, and should be beneficial. After all, if it turns out that a mistake was made--as my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing, West suggests--and examples suddenly reach the tabloid press of churchwardens hideously misusing their office and bishops in a frenzy of anxiety that they can do nothing about it, I dare say that this matter will come back before the Synod, and probably before the House. Chances are, however, that the Measure will be invoked so rarely anyway that we may well succeed in lasting a century or two more without having to revisit it.

I am happy to welcome the Measure.

11.25 pm

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West): I thank churchwardens throughout the Church of England for the way in which they fulfil their responsibilities. They are generally unthanked; they are unpaid; they have immense burdens to bear; and, almost without exception, they carry out their duties with fervour--if that is a proper term to use in a religious context--and with a great deal of practical common sense.

We are grateful to the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) for the way in which he represents the authority of the established Church in the House, and for the good humour with which--

Mr. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Bottomley: I do not want the hon. Gentleman to contradict what I am saying about his hon. Friend. I want to complete my tribute: I live in fear that I may at some stage be asked to carry out the responsibilities currently undertaken by his hon. Friend--in which event I would certainly say no, because I do not think I am half the person he is.

Now I give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Taylor: Would the hon. Gentleman care to include in his tribute to churchwardens throughout the land--I

20 Mar 2001 : Column 310

declare an interest, as one of them--recognition of the increasing burden that they carry as a result of the greater number of longer interregnums that we have seen in Anglican parishes throughout the land?

Mr. Bottomley: I agree that there are difficulties. One way of approaching them is by recognising the non-stipendiary ministry.

I also think that perhaps the Church of England should copy what I believe to be the practice of the Roman Catholic Church, especially in Ireland. Many more people find and fulfil vocations by going into that Church as ordained priests or vicars when they are older. The idea that people should start training for ordination immediately after obtaining a theology degree implies a bias that is not necessarily justified. I believe that many people who had previously been police officers, teachers or social workers, or had worked in business, would be welcomed into the ministry.

I hope that we can reach a point at which bishops do not feel the need to "rotate" people around their parishes, planning a six-to-nine-month interregnum. That can destabilise both the families of incumbents and the parishes that those incumbents serve.

As has been said, the Measure is basically uncontroversial. I shall not dwell on the fuss about the parts that have now gone. If I ever wrote my memoirs it would make an interesting chapter, but for reasons of parliamentary as well as religious charity I think it best to leave aside my view on the collection of interests--most opposed to each other--that combined to make it expedient for the Synod, very kindly, to drop those sections.

I think the analysis given by my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) of the number of times when the power involved would have been needed is slender. I trust that any churchwardens who fell into the category--hopefully as a result of error rather than on purpose--in which the power might have been useful would do the honourable thing and suspend themselves. In most cases, if there is a problem, churchwardens know their duty perfectly well and will fulfil it: they will park themselves while the matter is being resolved. I hope that, on the rare occasions on which they attempted to do otherwise, they would follow advice and do what might otherwise have been compulsory.

Finally, let me make a more general point. Although I agree with Robert Runcie, who said that using the Synod for the earlier stages of parliamentary Measures was not entirely satisfactory, it is probably more satisfactory than a system involving the two Houses dealing with Second Reading, Committee stage and Report. In practice, the Ecclesiastical Committee must bring a Measure that has gone through its earlier stages in the Synod to the House of Commons for what is, in effect, Third Reading. That is surely a better system than one involving fighting the whole thing through from the beginning. I hope that we can reach a stage at which those who might be described as traditionalists--I am not a traditionalist; I am more of an inclusive Christian and member of the Church of England--

Mr. Drew: An Anglo-Catholic.

Mr. Bottomley: I shall accept any compliment or criticism. However, I believe that the arrangements are better now than they were before the Synod dealt with the earlier stages.

20 Mar 2001 : Column 311

Last week, in St. Margaret's, the Archbishop of Canterbury installed the new worldwide president of the Mothers Union. I wish that all hon. Members had been able to see how another part of the Church of England--not only from the United Kingdom, but from around the world--was able to come together in recognising the contribution of many people in our churches. Those people understand that the Church realises that it has a vibrant and responsible role to play, and that it plays that role with a fervour that could be commended to many people who are outside our churches.

I would like people outside our churches to know that, if they come to our churches, not only the churchwardens--or the Mothers Union, of which I am proud to be a member--will welcome them, but all the people in the pews will say, "There is plenty of room for more people here. You do not have to be particularly good to be a member of the Church of England."

11.31 pm

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): I should like first to apologise to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) that I was not in the Chamber for the beginning of the debate, as I was attending an event in my constituency. However, I have followed the story of the Measure--

Mr. Drew: The saga.

Mr. Hughes: Yes. As I have followed it for many years, I think that I am as well aware as anyone of the arguments and the history.

I join colleagues on both sides of the House in paying tribute to churchwardens. I specifically endorse the additional reason for paying tribute to them mentioned by the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (Mr. Taylor). The Church of England now has longer interregnums between incumbencies, not least to save money, and churchwardens effectively take responsibility for running the entire parish for quite long periods. Therefore, they perform not only all their other duties, but that extremely responsible work. The work certainly has its burdens, but it is very well done, and I think that all hon. Members respect churchwardens for doing it.

This Measure is the most controversial one that the Ecclesiastical Committee has considered perhaps in the 18 years in which I have been an hon. Member, but certainly in all the time that I have been a member of the Committee. Although there was controversy in our debates on the ordination of women Measure--which was the other big Measure that the Committee has considered--and the Legislative Committee invited the Archbishops of Canterbury and of York to meet us to discuss it, ultimately there was agreement on it between the Ecclesiastical Committee and the General Synod. We went through all those procedures on the Churchwardens Measure, but we still could agree on it.

As the hon. Member for Middlesbrough has said, and as hon. Members will be aware, through its representatives on the Ecclesiastical Committee this place took a view on the Churchwardens Measure, and I believe that we were right to do so. As the right hon. Member for

20 Mar 2001 : Column 312

Birkenhead (Mr. Field) has often reminded the House, for as long as the United Kingdom constitution requires Parliament to have a say in Church of England matters--how long that arrangement should continue is a different debate--we have above all one job to do: to ensure that the normal principles of justice and fair treatment that apply in civic society apply also within the Church.

The Ecclesiastical Committee absolutely rightly said to the Church, "The powers that you were originally proposing to give to bishops to suspend people from office when they were under suspicion but nothing has been proven are not powers that should reside in bishops." We said that because of the simple premise on which churchwardens' authority rests. They are not only a bishop's appointees, but the people's choice. It is a very unusual position. Churchwardens have two masters--the people and the bishop. The Committee, which is composed almost entirely of lay people, made it clear that we wanted the principles of justice to apply in the Church as they apply in civil society. I am sure that we were right, and it is a good thing that the Church of England General Synod gave in to that.

There is for another day--perhaps another Parliament--the debate about whether it is right for us to go on in the new century with the present relationship. I have made my position clear. I speak for the Liberal Democrats on Church of England matters, and I am happy to do so. By baptism and confirmation, I am a member of the Anglican Church; coincidentally, I was confirmed into the Church in Wales. I believe in disestablishment, as does my party. We think that, as soon as it can happen, we should disestablish the Church of England, just as the Church in Wales has been disestablished, the Church in Ireland has been disestablished and--in a different way--the Anglican Church in Scotland has been partly disestablished.

Next Section

IndexHome Page