Church of England (General Synod) (Measure):

Orders of the Day — Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill [Lords] (Programme) – in the House of Commons at 11:10 pm on 20 March 2001.

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Photo of Stuart Bell Stuart Bell Second Church Estates Commissioner 11:10, 20 March 2001

I beg to move, That the Churchwardens Measure, passed by the General Synod of the Church of England, be presented to Her Majesty for Her Royal Assent in the form in which the said Measure was laid before Parliament. Although the Measure is important for the life of the Church, I hope to introduce it fairly briefly. I should like to do so partly because of the lateness of the hour, and partly because I can assure the House that although concerns were expressed about a provision that was previously included in the Measure—I shall say more about that in a moment—it has now been deleted and the Ecclesiastical Committee has reported that the Measure is expedient in its present form.

The Measure contains a comprehensive set of rules about the appointment of churchwardens and their tenure of office. The office of churchwarden is an ancient and honourable one. I understand that it dates back to the early 12th century. but it is still very much alive. Churchwardens play a vital part in the life of the Church of England in parishes throughout the country. That is why the General Synod decided to remove some of the problems that had arisen in relation to the existing law, which was set out in a 1964 Measure. For example. the procedure in cases involving contested election for the office was not as clear as it should have been, and was therefore capable of causing a great deal of hurt and division among loyal church members.

The new Measure seeks to rectify that problem by providing a carefully thought-out and much clearer procedure. However, the choice of the churchwardens of the parish has never been a matter solely for the parish priest, minister or regular churchgoers. Everyone who is resident in a parish and whose name is on the register of local government electors is a parishioner and is entitled to take part. That principle is part of the unique relationship between Church and state in this country, and it is preserved by the Measure.

That provision, and almost all the others contained in the Measure—hon. Members will see that there are 16 clauses—cause no controversy. The one matter that caused particular concern when the Measure came before the General Synod was the principle that a churchwarden should serve without a break for only six years. That was included in the Measure because parishes and dioceses had asked for it. In some cases, however excellent the churchwardens, parishioners feel that it is time to give someone else an opportunity to serve, but find it difficult to say so tactfully and without hurting any feelings.

Other parishes have pointed out, however, that the office of churchwarden is onerous. In rural and inner-city parishes, often only a very limited number of people are willing and able to carry out the duties involved. There may be other reasons why a churchwarden should serve for more than six years. For example, the parish could be in a position in which experienced churchwardens are essential to keeping the show on the road. That is why the Synod decided that, although the rule about six-years' service should be the norm, it should be possible for the parishioners of any parish to decide for any reason that that rule should not apply to them, with the freedom to change their minds later if they want to do so. Thus, the parish will remain in control, which is how the Synod agreed it should be. In any case, the six years would not start to run until the Measure came into force, so there would be ample time for every parish to make up its mind.

The issue that caused the Ecclesiastical Committee a great deal of concern was different—namely, the power that the original Measure would have given to the bishops to suspend a churchwarden from exercising his or her duties. I know that many right hon. and hon. Members have received correspondence about that, and the Ecclesiastical Committee and the Synod have spent a great deal of time considering the matter.

All I need say tonight is that, first, the power was not included in the Measure at the request of the bishops. The bishops and everyone else in the Synod always anticipated that it would be used only on rare occasions. Secondly, there was a great deal of anxiety, which was strongly expressed in the Ecclesiastical Committee, that the power could he used in a way that would override the rights of the parishioners and be unfair to the churchwarden.

In the light of the Ecclesiastical Committee's concerns, the Synod finally decided to delete the power from the Measure in the hope that it would proceed without further controversy. I can therefore assure right hon. and hon. Members who have received anxious letters about the power of suspension that there is no trace of it in the Measure before the House.

Photo of Mr Peter Pike Mr Peter Pike Labour, Burnley

Is it not true that, had the power not been withdrawn, the Ecclesiastical Committee would almost certainly not have found the Measure expedient and would not have approved its coming before the House and the other place?

Photo of Stuart Bell Stuart Bell Second Church Estates Commissioner

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's intervention. He knows that the role of the Ecclesiastical Committee in the established Church and the relationship between Church and state were amply discussed at the time. The Ecclesiastical Committee, representing the House in the other place, rendered a signal service on behalf of parishioners.

Photo of Peter Bottomley Peter Bottomley Conservative, Worthing West

May I say, with all humility, that the Ecclesiastical Committee may have been wrong? The Committee and the House ought to say to the Synod, "We are very grateful for your tolerance of the fact that we took a view that may or may not have been right."

Photo of Stuart Bell Stuart Bell Second Church Estates Commissioner

The hon. Gentleman put that view forcefully in the Ecclesiastical Committee, and I was grateful that he did so. It might have been useful in particular circumstances for the bishop to have power over a churchwarden, but the overwhelming feeling in the Committee and among parishioners was that giving an unelected bishop power over an elected churchwarden would not be successful. The consequence was that the matter returned to the Synod, which gracefully yielded on that particular point, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out. Therefore, the Measure is before the House.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire

I was one of those who lobbied long and hard, partly on behalf of my wife, who is a churchwarden and is worried about the Measure. I am concerned to read clause 10(1)(e), which states that the bishop shall have power: in any case in which any difficulty arises, to give any directions which he may consider expedient for the purpose of removing the difficulty. Can the hon. Gentleman advise us what that difficulty might be and what the bishop might have to do to remove it should it arise?

Photo of Stuart Bell Stuart Bell Second Church Estates Commissioner

The hon. Gentleman draws my attention to a particular clause, and I thank him for being so alert so late in the evening I cannot give him the answer he requires, so I shall write to him. If my response is of sufficient importance, I shall put a copy in the Library so that those Members who are not here tonight can rush to the Library to read it in due course. I assure right hon. and hon. Members .who received letters on the power of suspension that there is no trace of that in the Measure before the House.

I hope that the House will pass this Measure, and that the other place will be content, so that it can pass into law in the near future. I However, Church authorities are well aware that parishes are about to hold their annual election of churchwardens. Indeed, a few have already done so. It would not be right to introduce the new rules at short notice in the middle of that process without giving parishes time to absorb them. Because of that, those who are responsible for advising the archbishops on when to exercise their power under clause 16(2) to bring the measure into force do not propose to do so until after the present annual round of meetings to choose churchwardens is over. It is equally important that those who will draw up guidance on the new rules for the parishes should be able to begin work as soon as possible. I urge the House to approve the Measure and to support the motion.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Minister (Scotland) 11:21, 20 March 2001

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 hive criticised its use. However, it was: 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 w as yet another nail in the coffin.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour/Co-operative, 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.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Minister (Scotland)

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 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.

Photo of Peter Bottomley Peter Bottomley Conservative, Worthing West 11:25, 20 March 2001

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—

Photo of Peter Bottomley Peter Bottomley Conservative, Worthing West

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.

Photo of David Taylor David Taylor Labour/Co-operative, North West Leicestershire

Would the hon. Gentleman care to include in his tribute to churchwardens throughout the land—I 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?

Photo of Peter Bottomley Peter Bottomley Conservative, Worthing West

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—

Photo of Peter Bottomley Peter Bottomley Conservative, Worthing West

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.

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."

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 11:31, 20 March 2001

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—

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

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 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. l 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.

Photo of Mr Peter Pike Mr Peter Pike Labour, Burnley

The hon. Gentleman is trying to widen this debate. However, while we have the present system, the Ecclesiastical Committee in this House cannot just be a rubber stamp. If the Committee has a role to play, it must do it properly, as it has tried to do with this Measure.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

The hon. Gentleman—who is also a friend of mine—and others who have played an entirely consistent, effective and observant role in the Committee over many years have always taken that view. For the time being, we have an established Church and certain matters have to come to Parliament. We will do our job properly for as long as that is the position.

Other colleagues may make a self-denying ordinance not to take part in such debates. They are entitled to do so; it is the same issue as whether one takes part in Scottish business if one is an English Member, or vice versa. Constitutionally, every Member of Parliament has a role. Nobody has to serve on the Ecclesiastical Committee, but those of us from both Houses who do serve on it take our job extremely seriously. Those who serve us as officers have always been extremely diligent. Those who come from the Church of England to brief us and to answer questions have been always been extremely courteous and entirely helpful in trying to deal with our concerns.

It is still worth reminding people that churchwardens are chosen annually by the parish meeting, but all parishioners are entitled to vote for them. One of the things that still troubles me is that most churches do not invite all parishioners to choose their churchwardens. This is not just a token matter. There are many people who will admit to coming to church only on Christmas eve, for the carol service or for baptisms, marriages or funerals. One of the jobs of the Church of England—if it is to be the national Church—is to be available for people without lots of preconditions; for example, someone should not have to turn up so many limes over so many weeks to take part.

One of the ways in which the Church of England can continue its links into each parish in the country is to make sure that everybody knows that, once a year, there is a meeting to which all parishioners can come. They do not have to have darkened the doors of the church between meetings and they will not be judged on their attendance, or on other things—it is their church. I would hope that the hon. Member for Middlesbrough can pass on to those in charge of the Church that they should make it their business to make sure it is not just the people on the electoral roll of the church or the normal congregation of the church who are invited to the meeting.

All adult parishioners should be told about the annual meeting, and invited to take part in the election of the people to represent the parish. I hope that we can get to that point because, at the moment, some churches find it more comfortable only to invite their own to the meeting. There is a great opportunity here, rot just in terms of democracy but in terms of evangelisation and outreach from the church to the people.

Photo of David Taylor David Taylor Labour/Co-operative, North West Leicestershire

Many church electoral rolls contain the names of people who live outside the parish. Would the hon. Gentleman expect that a by product of a future move to disestablish the Church would be to remove what many see as an antiquated right for parishioners in general to contribute towards the selection of churchwardens?

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I do not want to get waylaid, but the debate is about churchwardens so the question is proper. The role of parish representatives in the Church would not continue after full disestablishment, but two sorts of disestablishment are on the table, in effect. One centres on whether members of the Church of England can be in Parliament, whether bishops should be in the House of Lords and whether the Prime Minister should appoint the bishops. In that model, there is an argument about whether the monarch should be both head of the Church and the head of state. The other sort of disestablishment centres on the arrangement of the parish structure. Disestablishment from Parliament—

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. The hon. Gentleman, who came late to the debate, is being extraordinarily discursive.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I give way to the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve).

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Minister (Scotland)

I do not want to widen the point, but it would place a considerable burden on parishes if they had to advertise their annual meeting as the hon. Gentleman proposes. In the parish where I worship, it is clearly stated on public notices that everyone can come to the meeting and vote. The meeting is split into two parts for that purpose. However, does the hon. Gentleman agree that his proposal is unrealistic in terms of cost?

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

Any good parish communicates with all its parishioners on a regular basis. The message will therefore get pushed through doors and pinned on the notice boards in church and throughout the parish at no unusual or additional cost. Good churches tell people what is going on, and I hope that every Church of England church would want to do that and find the necessary resources.

There is unity on the issue because the Church accepted the advice of Parliament. The relationship therefore works, and the Measure will put churchwardens' relationship with the Church on a firmer and better footing. They, and we, will be grateful for that.

Photo of Stuart Bell Stuart Bell Second Church Estates Commissioner 11:42, 20 March 2001

With the leave of the House, I shall respond to some of the points that have been made.

I shall begin by thanking the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) for his contribution. I shall follow your advice, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and avoid the intricacies and interstices of the disestablishment argument: I hope that we will have that debate in the not-too-distant future.

The hon. Gentleman was right about the controversy surrounding the Measure, but, in the end, Church and state came together in the proper fashion. The House, in the shape of the Ecclesiastical Committee, exercised its judgment and responded to the concerns of churchwardens and parishioners. An expression of will went back to the Synod, which was sufficiently flexible and understanding to accept that the power of the bishops should be removed from the Measure.

The hon. Members for Worthing, West (Mr. Bottomley) and for Southwark, North and Bermondsey both referred to the role of churchwardens, and commended the people who do such a sterling job up and down the land. The House will know that Canon El provides that churchwardens are to be the officers of the bishop, and the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey made the point about their dual capacity. It also states that they are to be foremost in representing the laity and co-operating with the incumbent. It states that they: shall use their best endeavours by example and precept to encourage the parishioners in the practice of true religion and to promote unity and peace among them". That shows the importance and significance of the role of the churchwarden. As the hon. Member for Worthing, West said, the nature of the sort of people who take on the role of churchwarden means that they might well step aside if a difficulty arose.

In a very important intervention, my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) pointed out that this House and the Ecclesiastical Committee are not rubber stamps and never can be in relation to the legislation that comes from the Synod on to the statute book via proceedings here.

I thank the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) for his graceful encapsulation of what the Measure contains, for sharing with us his experiences as a churchwarden and for his support for the Measure. It is important that when the House deals with Church matters it reaches a consensus, without the sort of hostility and controversy seen elsewhere, so I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his support.

The hon. Member for Worthing, West was extremely helpful in the Ecclesiastical Committee. His was a lone voice, sometimes, but he articulated a view that others might well have held. He was very graceful in his comments about me, and I am grateful to him for that. When I took on the role of the Second Church Estates Commissioner, Lord Dixon said that I was the Church's shop steward. As a fellow trade unionist, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will understand and appreciate that.

The hon. Gentleman said that he might write his memoirs one of these days and that there would be a chapter dealing with the Churchwardens Measure. He might, in the meantime, like to read "The Churchwarden's Handbook—A Practical Guide", written by Ven. Ian Russell, recently retired as the Archdeacon of Coventry, who was a member of the steering committee on churchwardens. The book has been so popular that the first edition has sold out. The second edition will remove the contentious issue of whether the bishops should have power over a churchwarden. It reads rather like a Jeffrey Archer novel, with the ending changed according to the audience.

Photo of Stuart Bell Stuart Bell Second Church Estates Commissioner

We will not go into that particular controversy.

If the hon. Member for Worthing, West does get around to writing his memoirs, the practical guide to churchwardens will be a very sound base.

I commend the motion to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That the Churchwardens Measure, passed by the General Synod of the Church of England, be presented to Her Majesty for Her Royal Assent in the form in which the said Measure was laid before Parliament.