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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 11 November 2009

[Mr. Edward O'Hara in the Chair]

Sex Discrimination (Religious Organisations)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.-(Mr. John Heppell.)

3.30 pm

Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): It is a pleasure to sit under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr. O'Hara. For the avoidance of doubt, I had better start by declaring my interests as a man, a Christian, a member of the Ecclesiastical Committee, an elected member of the General Synod of the Church of England who represents Salisbury diocese, a lay canon of Salisbury cathedral and a member of the council of Salisbury cathedral. My late father was a bishop who sat in the other place.

What are the facts about women in the Church of England today? About a quarter of priests-about 2,000-are women. Nearly half the people coming forward for ordination and training for the Church of England ministry are women. An NOP poll showed that more than 80 per cent. of the clergy and more than 90 per cent. of the laity support women priests. Only 2 per cent. of Church of England parishes have asked for a flying bishop. Almost 70 per cent. of the clergy and more than 75 per cent. of the laity support women bishops, according to a Sheffield university study. Two English cathedrals have women deans, and there are 15 women archdeacons. The worldwide Anglican communion has 38 provinces, 25 of which have women priests and 16 of which have legislated for women bishops. Nearly 30 women have been Anglican bishops in the past 20 years. So the Church of England is behind the curve, and we do not want it to be.

The fact is that most members of the Church of England who go to church want women to be ordained as bishops. What we need from Parliament and the Government is clarity on the terms that would be acceptable-first, of course, to the Ecclesiastical Committee and then to both Houses of Parliament. I remind those Members of Parliament who say that Church of England decisions are nothing to do with them that all Members of both Houses-regardless of their faith, or, indeed, of whether they have a faith-have a duty to exercise their judgment on any Measure that the established Church brings to us. Under the terms of the Church of England Assembly (Powers) Act 1919, the Ecclesiastical Committee, on behalf of both Houses, is required to report on

any Measures and to set out

Every Member is invited to vote on the Committee's recommendations.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate and I declare an interest as a member of the
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Ecclesiastical Committee. Is he aware that one of the human resources objectives on the Church of England website refers to the

How can the workplace be fair and just when, as that estimable organisation Women and the Church constantly reminds us, so many talented women are not being given the chance to work in the Church of England at an appropriate level? That cannot carry on for ever, can it?

Robert Key: I suppose that it is another case of one rule for the Indians and another for the chiefs. I suspect that the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right and I look forward to the day when a distinction no longer exists, because it is discrimination.

The Sex Discrimination Act 1975 had its Second Reading in the House on 26 March 1975. Introducing it, the Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins, said that it would apply

The exemptions set out in clause 19 included employment for the purposes of an organised religion, which applied where a person's

for a particular job.

On Second Reading in the other place, on 1 July 1975, the then Bishop of Leicester, speaking

welcomed the exemption. He said:

The bishop was speaking on behalf of the Church by law established in England in 1603, largely as a result of the genius of Queen Elizabeth I. Our own Queen, the defender of the faith, has seen the Church of England abandon its objections in principle to women priests and women bishops.

Most Christians believe that God is above gender. The disciples with whom Jesus surrounded himself were both women and men. It is not true that He thought that women were not up to it; on the contrary, it is striking that Jesus treated people the same, whether they were male or female.

It took a long time, but in 1975, the General Synod declared that there were no fundamental objections to ordaining women as priests. Thirty-one years ago, in 1978, the Synod voted on ordaining women to all three orders-bishops, priests and deacons. The necessary two-thirds majority was achieved in the House of Bishops and the House of Laity, but the House of Clergy recorded only a simple majority, so the motion fell. Seventeen years ago today, on 11 November 1992, the Synod voted in favour of women priests. In 2005, it decided that there was no fundamental objection to women bishops.

The Synod's legislative procedure works much like that of both Houses of Parliament. The Synod has the equivalent of a Second Reading, followed by a Committee
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or revision stage, Report and a final Reading. In 2008, the Synod told the revision committee to work on a draft Measure-a Church law-to legalise women as bishops as well as priests. However, it also told the committee, in the spirit of tolerance, to produce a statutory code of practice under which priests and members of the Church would be treated fairly if they were not willing to accept women as bishops. The committee was told not to propose a Measure that created a two-tier system of bishops; it was to be all or nothing-not some proper, male bishops and some improper, women bishops with less authority than men.

The revision committee did exactly what it was told not to do. Why did it do that? On 8 October, it issued a press release saying that it had voted to abandon the code-of-practice approach and that it would instead recommend the imposition by statute of flying male bishops, who could land in a diocese with a woman bishop and deprive her-automatically-of her authority and religious functions.

Before voting, the members of the revision committee were told, as we all were in paragraph 16 of the further report from the legislating drafting group, that such an approach would not breach the terms of the Sex Discrimination Act because, where there are conflicting rights in English law, the exercise of one right may sometimes need to be restricted to protect the exercise of another. In such a case, the restriction of the first right should be proportionate. As paragraph 17 puts it,

I have no doubt that the members of the revision committee had lots of additional advice, but we do not know what it was, because it is secret. Based on what I know, however, I have three questions for the Minister. First, the Sexual Discrimination Act 1975 exemption is principally directed at circumstances in which a religious office is reserved for men only. Does that exemption apply now that the Church of England has decided that women can be priests and bishops?

Secondly, will the Minister confirm whether, in UK sex discrimination law, the principle of proportionality may only ever justify indirect sex discrimination and that restricting the rights of women bishops to protect the beliefs of men or women is direct sex discrimination and cannot be justified in terms of proportionality or, indeed, under European law?

Thirdly, the further report, which was used to inform the votes of the revision committee, failed to mention that the principle of proportionality requires that the means adopted to achieve the desired aim should be both appropriate and necessary. Does the Minister agree that the report failed to address those conditions or to assert that they would be met by the course of action suggested, thus breaching sexual discrimination legislation?

Why does any of this matter? It matters because if the recommendation of the revision committee is approved by the General Synod, meeting in Westminster next February, the draft Measure will be sent to the Ecclesiastical Committee of Parliament before it is presented to both Houses for approval. After that, the Measure will have the full force of statute law. When it comes before the
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House of Commons, the Government will have to decide how Ministers will vote, and recommend how other Members of Parliament should vote. I know how I will vote. How will the Minister vote?

3.40 pm

Ben Chapman (Wirral, South) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Salisbury (Robert Key) on securing the debate, particularly on the anniversary of the vote for women's ordination. Unlike him, I am not an expert on the issues, nor a member of the General Synod. Like my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) I am a member of the Ecclesiastical Committee, which deems Church law to be expedient or otherwise before it is considered by both Houses of Parliament, and before Royal Assent. However, I am not speaking for the Ecclesiastical Committee; I am merely expressing a view.

In matters of religion, Parliament has two separate roles. One affects all Churches and other religious organisations. The other affects solely the Church of England as the established Church. Ever since the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, which has already been mentioned, the general law has recognised that religious organisations need some exemptions, given the dictates of theological belief and conscience. The Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church, the orthodox strand of the Jewish faith, Islam and many others impose gender rules about who can be priests, rabbis, imams and so on. Might not it be wise, in the present circumstances, for Parliament to go on enabling the various Churches and faiths to come to their own views on those matters? The Equality Bill, if I understand it rightly, sensibly does just that.

I should take some persuading that the Church of England should be fundamentally in a different position from other Churches and faiths in relation to sex discrimination legislation. I do not, of course, see why it should have a unique exemption just because it is the established Church; equally, however, I do not see why it should not have the same freedom that Parliament is prepared to extend to Churches and religious organisations more generally. All denominations and faiths must resolve those matters in the light of their own doctrinal frameworks and convictions. The difficulty, as I see it, is that the Church of England has been trying to do something quite ambitious and unusual since it first ordained women as priests in 1994. The legislation that Synod and Parliament agreed at the time enabled the Church to maintain what I might call a mixed economy. The Church of England concluded that women should be priests-and quite right too. At the same time it found a way of enabling those with theological difficulties to remain within the Church and be ministered to in a way consistent with their own convictions.

It is easy to make fun of that sort of compromise, but there are quite a lot of people in this country-churchgoers and others-who value the fact that our established Church is the original broad Church. If we want it to stay that way, it needs, within limits, to continue to be genuinely inclusive. The Church of England may, for its own reasons, decide to draw its own lines more sharply, but I wonder whether Parliament should be trying to lean on it to achieve a narrower settlement than was reached in the 1990s. The question now is whether some new version of that mixed economy can be constructed in the legislation that is needed for women to become
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bishops, as well as priests, in the Church of England. I strongly supported women becoming priests and I obviously support their becoming bishops. In my judgment, the sooner that happens, the better.

I wish the General Synod well in grappling with its own legislative challenges. I can see that the task may be more difficult now than it was last time, and I do not want to say or do anything to make it even more difficult. If I have understood the position correctly, much of the argument within the Church of England is not about whether there should still be that mixed economy, but about how best to achieve that. Clearly, there are some important judgments to be made about what to put in legislation, what to leave to codes of practice, what to make mandatory and what to leave to discretion, but they are matters, in the first instance, for the hon. Member for Salisbury and the other members of the General Synod to wrestle with. Those of us on the outside of the debate may need to be a little cautious in expressing a view. Parliament, as we have said, will have its own opportunity to consider the matter when it comes before Parliament.

We must acknowledge that the Archbishops of Canterbury and York have on their hands a difficult job, which is perhaps not made easier by noises off from the Vatican. We should welcome the fact that they are both strong supporters of removing the last barrier to women's ministry in the Church.

David Taylor: I agree with every word that my hon. Friend has said so far. I am not sure that I necessarily see the tectonic plates of the Catholic Church as running against what he and I would like to happen. Is not it possible to interpret the Holy See's overtures to Anglican married ministers to come into the Catholic Church as a sign that even that Church is changing in that regard?

Ben Chapman: I certainly hope that it is.

I strongly hope that the legislation going through Synod will make good progress and not get bogged down, especially as I have come to learn that the Church's processes are sometimes slow, sometimes cumbersome and always complicated. We should be cautious about appearing to criticise the efforts of the archbishops and all those who are trying to preserve the Church of England as the broad Church that can continue to hold together as many people as possible who hold a variety of Christian views. There is nothing between me and the hon. Member for Salisbury as to the outcome of the debate. It is just that-I am sure he would agree with me-I do not necessarily see the route between points as always a straight line. It is sometimes a bit more complicated than that.

3.46 pm

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): It is a pleasure to rise, somewhat earlier than I had anticipated, to participate in the debate, which was expertly introduced by the hon. Member for Salisbury (Robert Key). It is a pleasure to hear him speak with so much authority on these matters-as he does on matters of science, as I know from my experience-even as a lay person, to use the term in its non-scientific sense.

It is a bit curious that I have been selected by my party to speak in the debate, because the fact that I am not religious is, I think, well known-perhaps better known than the fact that I am not a woman. However,
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on reflection, it is not so curious, because the Liberal Democrats take a slightly different view from the other parties, owing to our views on establishment. Not surprisingly, our party does not have a corporate view on whether there should be women bishops in the Church of England. Anything that I say on that matter is, therefore, a personal view. However, we have a view on whether it should be a matter for us in Parliament, as I accept it is at present.

We believe in disestablishment, because we think that establishment is wrong in principle. There should be appropriate separation between the state and any religion. Also, because all religions choose to discriminate in certain ways-or certainly the Church of England does, as it is legally entitled to-establishment seems somehow to associate the state with that discrimination. For those of us who want as little discrimination as possible that cannot be justified on objective grounds in public authorities-the state-it is difficult to see the Church of England as part of the state and to see it discriminate.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): We are where we are. We have an established Church and there may be good arguments against that, but as long as we are where we are, that is surely a good reason for us to set an example to other parts of the Christian faith and other religions-particularly to people in my constituency who are Muslims and who do not let women into their mosques-by allowing women to become bishops. That would set an example far beyond our Church and religion.

Dr. Harris: I understand the hon. Lady's position, and I am glad that she has had the opportunity to state it. I was just explaining why, in the first instance, we believe that disestablishment is the way forward.

People of all religions and of no religion in our party hold that view. My hon. Friends the Members for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) and for Northavon (Steve Webb) and for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) are all actively involved in the Church of England. As practising members, they all share the view that disestablishment would be a good idea, and I agree with them. None the less, I accept-I must say to the hon. Lady that I had written this down-that while the Church is established and it comes to us for a decision, it is right that we should make a decision, and that is the context in which those of us in our party make our decision.

I tend to argue-albeit from the outside-that there should not be discrimination. However, I accept that it is a matter for that organisation. My interest comes about only because I am interested in the establishment, which I oppose, and because the matter needs to come to Parliament to decide. I am torn between not getting involved, because the Church of England should decide the matter on its own, and, as the hon. Lady says, coming down one way or another-in my case against discrimination-even though we are coming at it from the outside. However, I would feel awkward if the Church of England started to decide what political parties should do. That is why the position of those of us who believe that it is a matter for the Church is a difficult one.

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