Major Mills(New Forest and Christchurch):
I beg to move,
That the Episcopal Pensions Measure, passed by the National Assembly of the Church of England, be presented to His Majesty for His Royal Assent in the form in which the said Measure was laid before Parliament.
This Measure is completely non-controversial, so that I can present it to the House briefly. It has been approved by the Ecclesiastical Committee of the two Houses, and by the Church Assembly. It establishes a scheme of pensions for suffragan bishops on the same lines as that for diocesan bishops set up by the Episcopal Pensions Measure, 1926. The scheme is contributory. Each suffragan bishop will pay in £50 a year, and that will entitle him to a pension on resignation at or above the age of 70, or under the age of 70 for disability, of £500 a year. At present he is only getting under the ordinary pensions scheme £200 a year. Opportunity was also taken when the Measure was before the Church Assembly slightly to alter the Episcopal Pensions Measure, 1926. The diocesan bishop's contribution will be slightly increased and stabilised at £80 a year, the two archbishops will each pay £150 a year, and the Bishops of London and Durham £100 a year. Another Amendment made to the earlier Measure is that a bishop, either diocesan or suffragan will be able to make some provision for his widow if he surrenders during his lifetime part of his own pension. This provision for retiring suffragan bishops has been in the air since 1931, it has been actively
before the Church Assembly since 1942, and I hope that in 1945 it will become a fact.
I beg to move,
That the Incumbents (Disability) Measure, passed by the National Assembly of the Church of England, be presented to His Majesty for His Royal Assent in the form in which the said Measure was laid before Parliament.
This Measure needs a little explanation, although the Report of the Ecclesiastical Committee is completely in favour of it, and indeed says that this subject has had much consideration from 1926 onwards and has received such general support that it can be said to be non-controversial. Again, the Report of the Ecclesiastical Committee says that the Measure, which is the result of many Amendments which have been proposed at various stages and very fully considered, does not endanger the rights of His Majesty's subjects. The object of the Measure is to deal with incumbents who, by bodily or mental infirmity, are disabled, wholly or partially, from carrying out their duties in their parishes. If they are only partially disabled, assistance can be given to them, and if they are wholly disabled, they may be retired on pension.
This is how the Measure works. In each diocese a committee of clergy will be set up and will be elected in a most democratic way by the clergy of that diocese from among their number. Should such a case of disability as I have outlined occur, and the bishop thinks it proper, he may require the committee to consider it and report to him whether the incumbent is really disabled and, if so, whether it is a case in which assistance should be given, or whether he should be asked to resign, an additional pension being given. The incumbent whose disability is under consideration will have every opportunity to put his case forward. He will be asked to confer with the committee and will be able to present such medical testimony as he wants, and he can have a friend or adviser to speak for him. If it is reported to the bishop that it is desirable that he should resign, five out of the six members of the committee must give their consent in writing, while for assistance there must be at least four votes out of six. The bishop will consider the report and can, if he likes, exercise the powers set out in Clauses 5 and 6. If the disability is only partial, and assistance is called for, it may be given in various ways. A curate can be appointed or if a rest is needed, he can be given leave of absence for a couple of years. If he is fully disabled and resignation is recommended, there is power under Clause 6 for the bishop to declare the benefice vacant, and the incumbent will then retire on a pension.
The pension will be fixed in this way. He will get the ordinary pension that he would get if he retired voluntarily at 70, and such additional pension as has been agreed between the Ministerial Committee and the Diocesan Board of Finance. In no case can the pension be less than £200. This is a very well-considered attempt by the clergy to remedy a complaint usually made by the laity, who are greatly affected by the way an incumbent carries out his parochial duties. Up to now there has been no way of helping an elderly incumbent who is failing in mind or body, and there has been no way of removing and providing for him. Now the clergy, with the cordial assent of the House of Laity, have proposed a remedy and I have every confidence in recommending this Measure to the House as being just and fair.
I hesitate to seem to be the only person to oppose this Measure. I do not oppose it in toto, because there are many good features about it. Although I am, in general, in favour of assenting to these more or less agreed Measures which come to us from the National Assembly since we have given this degree of self-government to the Church, of England, at the same time, so long as this rather hybrid procedure is maintained, by which we are allowed to criticise and comment on such Measures, I see no reason why we should not do so. Otherwise if it is not proper for us to discuss them, if they are simply to be rushed through automatically, we might as well abolish this procedure altogether and give the Church of England complete self-government—which I," for one, might prefer.
There are, in fact, a number of points about this Measure which I think need a little further elucidation and explanation than the hon. and gallant Member has been able to give us. He said that the committee which is provided for in this Measure was to be elected "in the most democratic way." I agree, but it seems that all the members of the committee will be the creatures of the diocesan bishop concerned. The committee is to consist of incumbents and clerks in holy orders "licensed under seal to officiate" in the diocese of the incumbent whose case is under discussion, and, "if fewer than the required number of persons shall have been nominated, the bishop shall have power to nominate a sufficient number of persons "to make up the required number. It is not done even by co-option. It is done by nomination of the bishop. This does not seem to me to be a particularly democratic procedure.
I am a little in difficulties here, because I want to put a point which it would be easier to put if my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Carmarthen (Mr. M. Hughes) were here; his name is on the Order Paper in support of this Measure. I would like to warn my hon. and learned Friend that he is getting mixed up with some dangerous revolutionaries when he adds his name to a Motion which is sponsored by the hon. and gallant Member for the New Forest (Major Mills) and the right hon. and gallant baronet the Member for Rye (Sir G. Courthope), because the real point about this Measure, which I do not think my hon. and gallant Friend really brought out when introducing it, is that it destroys, or at any rate drastically modifies, the ancient institution known as the parson's freehold. By all conservatively-minded people, especially in the rural areas, this has always been regarded as one of the props and bulwarks of our established social order. It is interesting to see that this drastic and revolutionary modification of the freehold is introduced by unimpeachably Conservative Members of this House; I would like to ask why. I would not oppose a modification of the parson's freehold—if the situation demands it, as I think it probably does—from a blindly conservative point of view. At the same time I would like to ask why and within what limits it is being modified at this point.
When this Measure was originally discussed at the diocesan level, before it reached the National Assembly, I gather that it met with a considerable amount of opposition and aroused many misgivings. Those misgivings were to some extent allayed when the clergy and others who voiced them were told that safeguards would be introduced into the Measure to prevent any abuse of it such as had been feared. I have read the Measure carefully, and I have failed to find the safeguards which were promised. I will come in a minute to the points which aroused the misgivings.
As I have said, I am not totally opposed to the Measure. Obviously it meets a real need. There is a real need, in the interests of the efficiency of the Church, for the authorities to be able to remove from his office some clergyman who is quite patently incompetent to perform his duty. Also, the provision of a pension which is contained in the Measure is extremely welcome, even though the pension only guarantees the wife of the retired parson something under £4 a week on which to run her household, whereas a few minutes ago, without question, we passed a Measure which, guarantees the wife of the retired suffragan bishop something approaching £10 a week on which to maintain her lord and master—a distinction which would have seemed quite proper to Mrs. Proudie. Still, it is in the main, a good Measure, in so far as it affects pensions and in so far as it is necessary to have some machinery for removing clergy from their benefices if they are really quite incapable of performing their duties.
But the serious objections to the Measure seem to me to be those which were raised at the diocesan level and in the National Assembly, and which have not yet been removed in the drafting of the Measure as it reaches us. For instance, there is no definition in Clause 1, which is a definition Clause, of the phrase "mental infirmity." This is a Measure which enables the bishop of a diocese of the Church of England, on the advice of a committee consisting largely of his own creatures, to throw out of his benefice any incumbent who "by reason of age or infirmity, whether bodily or mental," is unable to discharge his duties. There is no requirement in the Measure of any medical evidence, and there is no provision for an appeal. The interpretation of the phrase "mental infirmity" is the simple test of whether a clergyman should be thrown out of his incumbency. Where are the "safeguards" which the ordinary clergy were promised at the diocesan level and when the matter was debated, as I understand, in the National Assembly? It seems to me extremely dangerous to introduce into a Measure which is to have the approval of this House some vague phrase such as "mental infirmity," and so to allow a citizen, whether he is a clergyman or not, to have his whole way of life altered arbitrarily by the action of his superior officer, on that phrase alone.
Let me go a little further into this point of mental infirmity. A few months ago there was a case which was widely reported in the newspapers in which an unfortunate clergyman got into trouble with the Church authorities—I cannot remember the exact details, or where it happened—because he frequented public-houses and was given to drinking in them. It caused some scandal to the good people of his parish and, in the end, in some way, he was removed from the parish. It is already possible for any clergyman around whom a scandal arises as the law stands, to be removed from his incumbency. There is a possibility of proceedings in a consistory court, undesirable though they may be. Also, of course, if a clergyman is quite manifestly insane or a lunatic, certification would obviously be possible; so that this Measure cannot possibly be intended to replace all those procedures. It must mean rather less. Can it mean in any circumstances that a clergyman who was perhaps rather too convivial, or frequented inns or other places of popular resort in his parish, and thus offended the more rigidly respectable members of his congregation, is to be proceeded against under the terms of this Measure? I am sure that my hon. and gallant Friend does not intend that it should happen like that. He shakes his head. But is there any safeguard in the Measure against a rigid interpretation of that kind by the committee provided for?
What seems to me far more dangerous and important is that the point I have mentioned is a possibility—I do not put it higher than that—that this Measure can be used for the purpose of discrimination against political or ecclesiastical extremists or eccentrics. That particular point was, I know, raised at various diocesan conferences, and various eminent Church dignitaries assured those who raised it that the Measure could not be so used, and that safeguards would be introduced. I cannot see any safeguards in the Measure. When I think of the history of the Church I am a little doubtful about the possible interpretation that can be placed on this completely undefined phrase, "mental infirmity." I believe that if this Measure had been in existence in the 14th Century, for instance, that great hero and pioneer of the Church and the working-class Movement, John Ball, would certainly have been turned out of his parish. He was described by Froissart as "the mad priest of Kent." Every clergyman who has taken a really independent or eccentric line in ecclesiastical matters has always 'been described as "mad," by somebody or other.
As a matter of fact, one of the glories of the Church of England has been her slightly eccentric country clergymen. If there had been a Measure like this in force when George Herbert was parson at Bemerton in the 17th century, I wonder whether some stuffy and sticky fellow-incumbents of his, perhaps jealous of his reputation in the literary world, might not have gone to the bishop and said, "He writes poetry—eccentric stuff—all about collars, and pulleys, and elixirs, and mystic brides." The bishop might have said "Poetry—mystic brides—how dreadful! We must get him out of it, we must get rid of him. We certainly don't want a nasty scandal at Bemerton." Then, a century ago, there was another great eccentric, Parson Hawker of Morwenstow, who took his domestic animals to church with him, and also wrote poetry, and invented the new-fangled Harvest Festival, and dressed himself up in very odd vestments indeed, and preached a social gospel similar to that of Kingsley and other Christian Socialists of the 19th century, I cannot help feeling that some of the clerymen in his diocese, in the mental atmosphere which then prevailed in any diocese, might have said, "This man is mad; he is crazy. We must be rid of him"; and I doubt if the bishop would have refused to assent.
My final instance is a man whom I regard as one of the greatest saints of the Church of England in my lifetime, the late Conrad Noel, Vicar of Thaxted, in my own county of Essex, whom I often heard the wealthy and respectable people of the county denounce as "cracked." They said, "He may be a good man, but he is cracked. He hangs a red flag in his church, he goes in for all sorts of eccentric medieval ceremonial," and so on. I claim that whether it is political or ecclesiastical, mere eccentricity should not be penalised by such a Measure. I cannot see any safeguard in the Measure, such as was promised at the diocesan level and at the National Assembly level, against such penalisation of eccentricity.
I can quite understand that this Measure is dear to the hearts of some of our Anglican bishops. Some of the bishops of the Church of England, good men as they are, have an exalted view of their own position, and increasingly fancy themselves as petty popes. A bishop, certainly an Anglican bishop, is not a pope, and the further he can be kept from being a pope the better for the ordinary clergy and laity under him. I am afraid that some of them do not want to encourage the kind of quality which is exhibited in the lives of men like Noel, John Ball, and George Herbert—the quality of sanctity, of heroic sanctity. Indeed, they are rather embarrassed by it. They prefer to propagate a comfortable, moderate, lukewarm, bureaucratic, plush-padded "central" churchmanship, thoroughly efficient on paper—and stone dead.
I would like to join in what my hon. Friend has said. It may seem strange that I should do so, because I am not of his religion; but we should be sure of what this Measure means, because, whatever the effect, we are responsible for it. There is an expression which I have noticed in several paragraphs. Clause 3, says:
In any case where the bishop is satisfied that such action is proper, he may by notice in writing instruct the Committee to consider and report to him whether in their opinion an incumbent through disability arising from age or infirmity (whether bodily or mental).…
That term "mental" can be applied in many ways. Even in this House, when we hear a speech that we do not agree with, we are apt to say that the Member has something wrong with him, and if we had our way we would put him in some other place. Who is to judge? You may have in any assembly some really good man who considers that certain things are not proper, and who goes against the powers that be. It may be eccentricity. The heads of the Church may say, "That will not do; he is going against our teaching." The hon. and gallant Member made out a very good case, and I daresay he is ready to reply to us. But this word "mental" troubles me, and I want to be satisfied that it does not mean that a man in the full flush of youth or middle age may be dismissed just because he goes against the things laid down by the Church.
My hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Mr. Tinker) is not a member of the Church of England, but I assure him that he is fully ^entitled to exercise his rights as a Member of Parliament to voice questions such as he has raised. I should be the last person to say that Measures sent up by the Church Assembly should go through formally, if there were any Members who wished to raise questions on them. I was sorry that the hon. Member for Maldon (Mr. Driberg) looked at the worst side of every picture which he presented to us, and attributed to a large number of people the maximum of incompetence and the lowest of motives.
What we have to recognise is that it is a Measure designed, as he himself admitted, I think, to remedy what is known to be an existing scandal. There are cases of scandal where persons enjoying what he described as "the parson's freehold," are not doing their duty, by common consent, to those whom they are sent to serve, and yet, under the present law, are irremovable. We have to try to meet that position, without opening great loopholes for abuse.
There was one point that I forgot to make in my speech, and the hon. Member has just reminded me of it. Are the parishioners or congregation consulted on any point in the procedure laid down in the Measure?
The procedure is that a committee of ministers is democratically elected in the diocese, and if these people are to be truly described as "creatures of the diocesan bishop," the hon. Member is really condemning, wholesale, the Church of England, to which I think he belongs. If we cannot trust the clergy of the diocese with the exercise, of this sort of democratic right, it really seems to me that this Parliament should withdraw from the Church of England the democratic freedom which we granted to it under the Enabling Act, and that, I fancy, is really the question to which the hon. Member ought to have asked the House to address itself. These people are democratically elected. They have the fullest powers to consult everybody, and the incumbent whose fitness is in question has the right to appear or to send a friend to represent him. That body, which is, as are all elected bodies, responsible to those who elected it, is surely not now to be said by the House of Commons to be likely to act entirely irresponsibly and refuse to hear people who have a right to put their own views?
All the matters which I have heard the hon. Member for Maldon mention have been brought up, I should like to assure the House, at every stage of this long-considered Measure. They have been carefully examined in the Church Assembly and in the diocesan conferences. The hon. Member said that grave question had been raised in the diocesan con- ferences whether this Measure should go through. In fact, out of 42 diocesan conferences, this Measure received general approval from 41; there was only one conference at which it did not receive general approval. That was the report made to the Church Assembly when it finally had to decide. A number of amendments were suggested by the diocesan conferences, I think some seven or eight, in all, and the Measure incorporates changes made to meet all but one of those suggested amendments.
The hon. Member for Maldon insinuated that this Measure was being rushed through, or was liable to be rushed through, automatically, by Parliament. I think he did not give sufficient attention to the fact that we have in Parliament an Ecclesiastical Committee of both Houses, responsible to us and to another place. With the leave of the House, I would like to read the report of the Committee—
I really think that the hon. Member has in mind, not this Measure, but another, called the Benefices (Change of Incumbents) Measure, which met very heavy weather and was, later on, withdrawn.
No, that is an entirely separate Measure. By comparison this had a relatively smooth passage, and I give the hon. Member my personal assurance on that. Our own Ecclesiastical Committee has reported that,
as a result of much consideration from 1936 onwards, the present Measure has received such general support that its object can now be said to be non-controversial.
The hon. and gallant Member who has submitted the Measure to the House has kept closely in touch with it through all its stages. I very much hope that the House will accept the Measure in view of the assurances that he and I have given.
I had my attention called to this Measure this afternoon, and I am bound to tell the House that, normally, Measures of this sort do not excite my curiosity very much. If I had my way, the House of Commons would be exempted from the necessity of considering Measures of this sort at all. I am not a member of the Catholic Church, or of any other religious denomination, and I think it is appalling that we should, in 1945, have to go through these antediluvian gesticulations every now and again because we have an Established Church. I ask the Government why we are asked to discuss this Measure at all now at the end of a Parliament. We have been blackmailed—I use the word advisedly—by the statement of the Government that we have to give Parliamentary time to a large number of non-controversial Measures, because, otherwise, they will not be passed into law.
I agree that, in formal terms, the Government have no control but everybody in the House knows they have effective control. [An Hon. Member: "Learn the procedure."] I do know what backstairs methods mean. The hon. Member knows that if they had wanted to influence the Government in bringing this before the House they could have arranged this matter.
The hon. Member is right, in terms of technical procedure in the House, but wrong in regard to realities. I ask why the House of Commons, at the end of a Parliament, should be obstructed, in the consideration of very important Measures, by being asked to discuss a question of this sort. I want my hon. Friends on this side of the House to ask themselves why we are being rushed, in considering a large number of important Measures, and yet are asked to devote some hours this evening 10 a Measure of this sort.
With regard to the merits of the Measure, I am rather shocked because it appears from my reading of the Motion before the House, that we are going to confer upon bishops the power of removing priests from their employment without any effective way of appeal. I do not like it at all. I am not interested very much in the ecclesiastical or sacerdotal aspects of the matter, but I am concerned at the House of Commons conferring upon bishops the power of removing a clergyman without the clergyman himself having an effective form of appeal against the bishops. We are conferring very extraordinary powers upon the bishops. Normally, if a person were removed for improper reasons, he would have recourse to the courts, but, now that we are conferring this power on the bishops, priests will have no such opportunity. We are conferring on bishops extraordinary juridical functions and powers which, normally, they would not possess. The Motion says that the bishop may remove the clergyman if the possibility arises from physical or mental infirmity. I have known a number of bishops against whom a charge could be made and there are a number of clergymen against whom a charge could be made; but I would like to ask what is the definition of "mental infirmity."
If we had this Measure before the House in respect of any other citizen there would be questions at once: "What is the definition of 'mental infirmity; is it a certificate of insanity?" Of course not. What is it? Is it merely eccentricity? If it is eccentricity, as the hon. Member for Maldon (Mr. Driberg) pointed out, some of the most eminent clerymen in the history of this could have been removed from their benefices. [An Hon. Member: "Dean Inge."] He is an outstanding example. What is the test? Is it to be subjective or objective? If it is objective—if mental infirmity is going to be determined by some objective test, then it may, as my hon. Friend opposite claimed, not operate and act against the clergyman unless there is a medical certificate, because I know of no other test I would like to apply in these circumstances. I would not like to confer on any employer the right to dismiss a man on the ground that he suffered from mental infirmity merely because the employer said so; merely because he disagreed with the man's point of view or because the man was eccentric, extraordinary, unusual or abnormal. These are powers, as my hon. Friend was good enough to remind us, conferred on us to determine whether we are going to give a bishop the right to say: "You are to be removed from your employment because, in my opinion, you suffer from mental infirmity." I know of no one in this House who would give any person powers of that sort under any Bill. I would like to know at once what is the definition of "mental infirmity" that hon. Members are asking to be read into this Motion.
Because, in fact, the important person in this matter is the bishop. The committee is obviously the creature of the bishop. If you look at the Schedule and at the Motion, the fact is that the bishop is the operative person in practice and administration. If he disagrees with the clergyman, he can remove him effectively if he wishes to do so by stating that the man is suffering from some form of mental infirmity.
I will come to the committee in a moment. At present I am dealing with the bishop, because the bishop is the operative person. We are conferring on these high lights of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, powers which they do not at present possess, and these powers are to remove persons. I want to refer in a moment or two to the first Schedule.
It is perfectly true that there is a form of democracy which refers to a committee. There may be a committee of clergymen. But the fact is that in so far as the bishop himself may make allegations against any clergyman, he is the effective controller of the committee because the clergymen are now subject to any accusation he may make against them. Indeed, the Schedule provides for the fact that the clergymen themselves may not themselves form the committee. It is the bishop who, in the first instance, involves formation of the committee and the bishop organises the establishment of the committee and conducts the ballot of the committee and, in the event of the clergymen not forming the committee adequately, the bishop may make appointments to the committee In other words, if a committee is to consist of 20 and if only 10 are appointed the bishop may himself appoint the other 10. That is the meaning of the first Schedule.
Is that so? If the operation of the bishop is to be so curbed, I can imagine that in many instances the number will be less. Clause 4 says:
Notice of any election together with a nomination paper shall be sent to every clerk in Holy Orders beneficed or licensed under seal to officiate in the diocese and a period of not less than fourteen days shall be allowed for the making of nominations. If after the expiration of this period fewer than the required number of persons shall have been nominated, the bishop shall have power to nominate a sufficient number of persons to make up the required number.
Let us, therefore, assume that in a certain diocese the clergymen are sufficiently indifferent to their obligations under this as not to take the trouble to send in nomination papers for the appointment of the committee—because, remember, we are concerned about the individual clergyman who may be the victim of the neglect
of his own fellow-clergymen. Suppose they do not send in the required nomination papers. Under this procedure the bishop can himself constitute the committee. It might easily happen that he will be the arbiter of the majority of the committee and he might say, "I consider a certain clergyman to be 'daft,' to be suffering from a certain infirmity." Having said that, he can bring that person before the committee and he can appoint a curate or person to replace the clergyman. He can remove him for two years or discharge him altogether and there is no appeal. It is the bishop who is the final arbiter; he is not only in the seat of the jury but he is the judge too. In no circumstances would the House of Commons allow a procedure of that form to be rushed through in respect of any other body of persons.
I am not, as the House knows, very familiar with the procedure of the Church of England, but I do insist that it is our