My Lords, it was 100 years ago this week that your Lordships’ House gave a Second Reading to the National Assembly of the Church of England (Powers) Bill. Speaking in support of the Bill, Lord Parmoor said:
“If this Bill is passed, for the first time the laity of the Church will have a recognised and substantive position in the corporate expression of church life ... The very object of the Bill is to give an effective part to a large number of Church men, earnest and eager to do their best for the Church and who cannot have an effective influence at the present time. That is why I, as a layman, have laboured for this Bill”.—[Official Report, 3/6/1919; cols. 1028-29.]
The Bill was passed and became the Church of England Assembly (Powers) Act 1919. It devolved legislative power to the Church Assembly, which has since become the General Synod. It is pursuant to Section 4 of the 1919 Act that this Motion is before the House today.
The constitution of the Church Assembly included rules for the representation of the laity. It was as a result of those rules that the laity obtained the,
“recognised and substantive position in the corporate expression of church life”,
referred to by Lord Parmoor; and it was under those rules that he became the first chairman of the House of Laity. I should add that the non-gender inclusive language of that time hides the fact that churchwomen, as well as churchmen, were members of the House of Laity of the Church Assembly from the very beginning.
In 1969, the rules for the representation of the laity were replaced with the Church Representation Rules. The life of the Church has changed in a number of ways over the past 50 years, and the time has now come to replace the rules once again. The Measure, and the new rules it contains, emerged from the work of a simplification task group established by the Archbishops’ Council. The task group’s role was to bring forward proposals to remove constraints on the mission and growth of the Church of England that result from existing legislation and processes. It recommended that there were three major ways in which the Church Representation Rules should be reformed.
First, they needed to be made less burdensome to the clergy and laity in the parishes who have to operate them. Unnecessary provisions needed to be identified and removed; other provisions needed to be streamlined. Secondly, parishes should be given much greater flexibility over their constitutional arrangements so that they can operate in the way that is most effective for the mission, life and work of the local church. Thirdly, the administrative burdens for those involved in running multi-parish benefices, especially in a rural context where the number of parishes and benefices can be considerable, needed to be radically reduced. It should be possible to establish benefice-wide structures to take the place of individual parochial church councils.
The Measure replaces the existing Church Representation Rules with a completely new set of rules. Many of the concepts remain familiar: church electoral rolls, annual meetings, parochial church councils, deanery and diocesan synods, and the House of Laity of the General Synod. But there are significant changes to the way in which the rules are presented and their substance. The new rules have been completely redrafted and are a great deal easier to understand. They are no longer characterised by overlong sentences; provisions are broken down into more easily digestible parts. Further, all the provisions relating to parish governance are now in a self-contained part of the rules. This should make navigation around the rules easier for those in parishes and others who need to refer to them.
In substance, one of the most significant reforms is provided for in Part 2. The default position is that the model rules set out in Part 9 apply to each parish, but the annual meeting of any parish can make a scheme to amend, supplement or replace the model rules. This will make it possible for a parish to make governance arrangements that are best suited to the mission and life of the church in that parish. There are some significant safeguards. A small number of essential provisions will be mandatory, and a scheme making rules for a parish will have to be approved by the bishop’s council, which must be satisfied, among other things, that the scheme makes due provision for the representation of the laity and ensures the effective governance of the parish.
Another major reform is the provision for joint councils. Under the new rules, joint councils can replace the individual PCCs. Where that happens, the number of local bodies and meetings will reduce, in some cases significantly, which should result in a significant reduction of the administrative burdens imposed on clergy and laity. In addition, various provisions of the current rules that were thought to be unnecessary or unduly burdensome have been pruned. Anomalies have been addressed and doubts as to meaning have been removed. The rules are intended to be compliant with recent data protection legislation; they provide for electronic communication and for better representation of mission initiatives in the Church’s structures; they enable parochial church councils to do business by correspondence; and they provide that lay people must form the majority of a parochial church council.
I briefly mention Section 2. It provides the statutory basis for the General Synod to make a provision by canon to extend the range of situations in which a newly ordained deacon or priest can serve his or her title. The Measure was carried by substantial majorities in all three houses of the General Synod. The Ecclesiastical Committee of Parliament has reported that it is of the opinion that the Measure is expedient. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am chairman of the Ecclesiastical Committee and confirm what the right reverend Prelate said. We heard oral evidence from Church House and were satisfied that this is a non-controversial Measure, which I am happy to commend to the House. As the right reverend Prelate said, we held that it is expedient, which is our duty.
It may be unusual for someone who has had no part in the proceedings until now to speak in such a debate. There were some sentences that the right reverend Prelate said that were perhaps lengthier and more convoluted than the report to which he was referring—but I congratulate the Church of England on taking into its systems procedures that seem to bring Methodism and Anglicanism much closer together.
My Lords, I should declare a family interest. My husband is the secretary and treasurer of Lewannick PCC and has been churchwarden on and off for the past 15 years—currently off for a year, but likely to be on for another lengthy stint next year. He is also lay chairman of the deanery synod of Trigg Major.
It is worth pondering the deanery, which may be typical of many rural deaneries in the country. There are 17 rural ecclesiastical parishes, each with a medieval church that is probably in need of extensive repair, and one town parish with four churches in a similar state. We may also wish to consider the average age profile in our rural parishes. The vast majority of congregations are elderly and, as nature takes its course, in decline. So, while Church representation rules are important, and these changes to simplify and modernise are welcome, it has to be said that in all the complexities of establishing and revising a church electoral roll, and administering a local parish council and synod, which will indeed be improved by the Measure, the thought of ever having such a long list of candidates for any election to any position in a rural parish church council will bring a wry smile to many churchgoers. In Lewannick, there has been no such election in modern history.
The only area of contention I see is the limitation on the terms of deanery synod members. The reasoning behind the proposal to limit service to six years, to ensure that new blood comes in to give fresh thought and enthusiasm, is welcome. However, in practical terms, in many rural deaneries such as I have described, a sensible balance may have to be allowed to ensure that a willing volunteer is not unnecessarily barred and replaced by a press-ganged member of the congregation. I would, therefore, in the first instance limit the six-year restriction to the lay chair of the synod, and encourage deanery synods to find new sources of wisdom and enthusiasm through persuasion rather than regulation. Otherwise, as I have indicated, I support the Measure.
My Lords, I thank noble Lords for their comments. The important point to assert is that this takes seriously the importance of local circumstances and the need for local adaptation. So the rules are permissive; they introduce a degree of permission, instead of constraint or restraint. So, for example, one of the most helpful things is that you could maintain a parochial church council with the subsequent deanery synod representation in every parish, or there is permission under these rules to merge that into one council for the whole benefice. But that decision will be taken locally—it is permissive rather than restrictive. I think that is the only response I need to make, so I ask the House to approve the Motion.