HC Deb 12 December 1946 vol 431 cc1452-78

9.59 p.m.

Mr. Burden (Sheffield, Park)

I beg to move, That the Incumbents (Discipline) 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 submitted for the approval of the House after what I think I may fairly describe as extraordinary efforts to ensure that it fully represents, and is in accordance with, the overwhelming mass of opinion in the Church. I am advised that, in the first place, it received the unanimous vote of the Church Assembly. It was then submitted to the diocesan conferences for consideration. Of the 42 diocesan conferences 39 were in favour, one against, and two did not reply. The Measure was then most carefully considered by a com- mittee of the Church Assembly, and it was again approved by a majority of votes in the three Houses. I do not think that, in these circumstances, I am stating the case too highly when I say that the Measure has the full backing of those entitled to speak for the Church.

Perhaps, too, I may mention that the Measure has been most carefully examined, Clause by Clause, by the Ecclesiastical Committee. This committee has had the advantage of meeting the Legislative Committee of the Church Assembly in the detailed examination of the Measure. The report of the Ecclesiastical Committee is before the House. May I read the final paragraph of that report? It says: On some points of detail the Measure may be open to criticism. The Ecclesiastical Committee, however, are convinced, as a result of their conference with the Legislative Committee, that there is a real need for the Measure, and that procrastination, rather than improvement, would be the probable result of further consideration of its terms by the Church Assembly. Accordingly, the Ecclesiastical Committee are of the opinion that it is expedient that the Measure should proceed. I think it is fair to add, that that conclusion was arrived at after the most careful and detailed examination of the Measure in all its bearings.

May I endeavour to explain what the Measure seeks to achieve? I am sure that the House will agree with me when I say that a high standard of professional conduct, and deep appreciation of the duties and responsibilities of their sacred office, is characteristic, as a whole, of the 20,000 clergy of the Church of England. But, in that large number of men, there must be, on some occasion—fortunately, one can say, on rare occasions —someone who may be neglectful of his duties, or who may fall into misconduct. That these relatively few people should continue to hold their sacred office is wrong, and the Church seeks, in this Measure, the power to deal with those erring brethren who are proved guilty of neglect of duty and misconduct. [An HON. MEMBER: "By whom? "] I have said that these cases are relatively few; but, unfortunately, when they do occur the scandal which they cause is a matter of grave concern to the Church. I admit that the proposals in this Measure to deal with that type of case bring us up against the age-long problem of the parson's freehold. This is a complicated and difficult problem. The parson's freehold has much to be said for it, but I am not concerned to argue the question one way or the other. With all respect, I submit to the House that property has its duties as well as its rights, and if the parson's freehold conflicts with the spiritual needs of the parish and the parishoners, it is the parson's freehold that must go.

Let me say, having said that, that in my humble judgment it is necessary that every incumbent should be protected, and adequately protected, against hasty, malicious or even ill-conceived action. I hope to be able to show the extremely careful and elaborate system which the Measure provides against these possibilities. Clause 3 defines the persons who may institute proceedings. It provides that in the first place the complaint or complaints must be submitted in writing to the bishop. If the bishop after consideration decides that there is nothing in the complaint, that is the end of the matter and nothing further happens. Let us assume, however, that the bishop decides that there is something in the complaints. The incumbent must then be invited to discuss the matter privately with the bishop. The incumbent need not accept that invitation, but obviously this provides another means by which any complaint can be finally disposed of.

Let us assume that it is decided by the bishop that he wants another opinion in respect of the complaints. In these circumstances the complaints are investigated by a committee of six clergymen. The clergyman may object to any one or more of the members of the committee, and the bishop may disqualify those against whom objection is raised. Again, the committee may decide against the complaint, and once more, no further action is taken. On the other hand, if four out of the six clergymen deem it advisable that the charges should be investigated, they can authorise the framing of definite charges by a special court. Hon. Members will find the constitution of the special court provided for on page 11 of the Measure, and there, without going into details, it is clear that there is full provision for the protection of the interests of the incumbent.

Finally, on that phase of the matter, from the special court there is in addition an appeal to a Provincial tribunal to be set up by canon. If when all this elaborate procedure has been gone through and it is held that the charges are proved —and I ask the House to remember that it is only if the incumbent himself invokes the use of the machinery that it is used —only then can the bishop act. He can do one of three things. He can censure the clergyman. He can inhibit the clergyman for three years. This does not of course take the parson out of his freehold, but it prevents him from ministerially working for three years. Finally, the bishop may take the benefice—that is, dispossess the incumbent. I ask the House to note this carefully, because it is important to remember that this extreme penalty can only be applied after the bishop has gone back to the ministerial committee and received the concurrence of five out of six of the clergymen members of that committee. I would ask the House to remember that through all this machinery the clergyman is being tried by his peers, and, quite frankly, I do not know of any other profession where there are the same elaborate safeguards against any injustice being perpetrated as in this Measure.

It is perfectly true that a number of objections have been raised to the Measure, and I wish briefly to refer to three of them. First, it is alleged that the expressien, "Conduct unbecoming the character of a clerk in holy orders," is vague, and might be differently interpreted. The use of that language by the Church Assembly is deliberate, and, as I have endeavoured to show, clergymen throughout the whole of the machinery will be the judges as to whether the conduct has been unbecoming or otherwise. Without going back into history, I am sure that past legislation has proved that only by the use of some such general words, in the first place, can the interests of the parishioners be really protected, and that is, of course, an important phase of the question.

Second, it is urged that the patron of a benefice ought not to be a complainant, because that might place too much power in the patron, inasmuch as if the incumbent was deprived of the living, the patron might have the right to fill the benefice. I think that it may be clearly said, in reply to this objection, that in many parishes the patron, whether it be the landlord, college or a trustee, is the natural protector of the interests of the parishioners. It is not a debating point to say that, if anything, this Measure limits the powers of the patrons, because obviously, without any Measure, the patron could write to the bishop complaining about the parson. This Measure will enable the bishop to say to the patron, "Please make a formal complaint in writing, and then it will be considered, if necessary, by the ministerial committee." That is a definite limitation of the powers of the patron.

The third objection, as I understand it, is that the Measure, while it lays down that no action can be taken in respect of any doctrine, ritual, ceremonial or of social or political views of the incumbent, does not protect political activities as such. I need only say that the clearest possible indication has been given that the words "political opinions" are meant to cover political activity. Can any Member of this House really believe that action could be sustained against any incumbent through all the elaborate machinery which I have described, because of the political activity of any clergyman, be it with any political party? The Measure is a carefully considered attempt, by representative opinion of the Church, to deal with an extremely difficult problem. It has come up from the House of Clergy, and it has been well said by a member of the Ecclesiastical Committee that if this Measure is lost the reformers in the Church of England will almost lose heart.

The Church of England, in its more than 1,300 years of unbroken continuity, has helped in no small way to build and mould our culture and civilisation. The Church of England, conscious of its responsibilities, has faced the manifold problems of today with vision and with courage. I sincerely hope that the House will approve this Measure, being assured that no injustice can arise to those who are proved unworthy of their sacred trust, but so that they can no longer hamper nor impede the Church in the fulfilment of its historical and spiritual mission.

Commander Agnew (Camborne)

I beg to second the Motion.

10.17 p.m.

Mr. Driberg (Maldon)

Whatever views we may take of this Measure, I am sure that we shall all hope to address ourselves to it with the same moderation and courtesy that has been shown by my hon. Friend the Member for the Park Division of Sheffield (Mr. Burden) in moving it, and I am also confident that all of us who have taken an interest in this Measure have given very considerable thought and anxiety to it. It has not been an easy matter to balance the alleged advantages against the alleged disadvantages. Many of us took a long time to make up our minds, and were not immediately convinced by the considerable quantity of lobbying and the propaganda that various clergy and clerical organisations sent us about it, as they were perfectly entitled to do. Members will, I am sure, have received many such representations from, among others, the Society of Beneficed Clergy, the National Clergy Association, and an organisation which my hon. Friends on this side of the House may be more interested in—the Society of Socialist Clergy and Ministers. All are deeply concerned, from somewhat different points of view, about some of the implications of this Measure. Incidentally, the Archbishop of Canterbury has stated that the number of clergy or organisations protesting represents only a very small percentage of the total number of incumbents. That is not really so. For instance, one of these three organisations, the National Clergy Association, has, during its few years of existence, acquired 2,500 members, all of whom are beneficed clergy, out of a total of about 10,500 beneficed clergy in the Church of England. That is nearly a quarter of the total number—not by any means entirely insignificant.

There is common ground between the supporters and opponents of the Measure —between most, at any rate, I think— that something should be done to meet the occasional, but real, scandals and complaints that occur about clerical idleness, if nothing worse. Where some of my hon. Friends and I part company from my hon. Friend who moved this Motion in that we consider that in this Measure, as it is at present drafted, the disadvantages and dangers outweigh the benefits, and also outweigh the likelihood that anything really satisfactory can be done under it to deal with these scandals.

Let me outline one or two of the specific grounds of objection. My hon. Friend has referred to the looseness of definition of unbecoming conduct. Personally, I do not think that he was entirely convincing on that; I am glad, however, that he did not use one argument which has been used by the Arch- bishop—an analogy from military law and military discipline, because actually the definition in the Manual of Military Law, which I took the precaution of bringing with me in case that argument was used, is not comparable at all. "Unbecoming conduct" is surely dangerously vague—and this leads directly to the other objection, the political objection, to which my hon. Friend also referred, because it so happens that in one diocese which I know of, last year, immediately before the General Election, the Bishop— a man for whom I have the highest personal regard—issued a public pronouncement to the effect that he would personally regard it as "unseemly conduct" in any of his clergy to take any public part in the political activities of the election, on either side. That is not quite the same word, but "unseemly" and "unbecoming" are practically synonymous. That is evidence that at least one Bishop of the Church of England regards political activities, as such, as unseemly or unbecoming. I think that the distinction between political opinion and political activities is important, and not such a trivial distinction as has been suggested. There is a specific protection for political opinions in the Measure, but no reference to political activities. Obviously, no bishop —nobody—could say to a parson, "You shall, or shall not, hold these political opinions." But quite clearly, under this Measure, it will be open to complainants or to a bishop or to a committee to hold—perhaps in one diocese but not in another, or one province but not in another—that political activities, such as taking the chair at a meeting of the local Labour Party, or, in some circumstances, at a meeting of the Primrose League, are not becoming conduct in the clergy

Mr. King (Penryn and Falmouth)

Will the hon. Member make it clear that whatever the bishop's opinion is on that point it is not of great significance because it is the ministerial committee that has to take action?

Mr. Driberg

I think that the hon. Member will admit that the incumbent is exposed to considerable harassment in being brought before this court, even if he is ultimately acquitted.

Mr. Willink (Croydon, North)

To what court is the hon. Gentleman referring?

Mr. Driberg

The final court is the provincial court. I am sure that it would happen that in most cases he would be acquitted; but the final appeal would be to the provincial court.

Mr. Willink

Surely, the hon. Gentleman agrees that the incumbent is not liable to be brought before the court at all on the opinion of the bishop, without the opinion of at least four out of six of his ministerial committee colleagues.

Mr. Driberg

That is a matter of likelihood or probability or improbability. With all respect to the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for North Croydon (Mr. Willink), I am trying to deal with what is actually in the Measure and what is not in the Measure. That is surely what the House of Commons ought to consider

Mr. King

But it is in it.

Mr. Driberg

I do not think my hon. Friend the Member for Penryn and Falmouth (Mr. King) has got my point. I must move on because I do not want to take too long over any one point. Further evidence, I suggest, that there is a real distinction between opinion and activities is provided by the fact that in a similar measure relating to bishops, which has lately been passing through the Church Assembly and will come before Parliament, the words "or activities" have been specifically added to "political opinions"—as a result, it was explained in the Assembly, of the protests and apprehensions aroused by this Measure. Although that may be perhaps a gallant and handsome gesture on the part of the Church Assembly to meet these objections, nonetheless I do suggest that they must have had some feeling, in adding those words, that these apprehensions were well founded.

Mr. Skeffington-Lodge (Bedford)

If a bishop is free to indulge in political activity, as he is under the Measure which my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr. Driberg) has just referred to, how can he possibly logically proceed against an incumbent for the same type of activity?

Mr. Driberg

Logic does not always enter into every kind of procedure, in or out of court. In dealing with a Measure brought before Parliament for our approval we do want to see these things in black and white. We cannot be satisfied with the assurance that it is unlikely that any bishop will be so illogical or so tyrannical as to use these powers. Why cannot we see the words in black and white in this Measure, as they are in the Bishops' Measure? That is what we are asking. If it is argued that it is highly unlikely that any clergyman would be complained against for his political activities, I can only say that anybody who knows the extreme malignancy of the gossip and mischief-making which sometimes goes on, especially in a small country place, will not really feel that this apprehension is completely unfounded, particularly since the complaint can be lodged by such a variety of persons, including, for instance, any three adult communicants.

That brings me to the other objection mentioned tonight, in regard to patrons. I do not think that the hon. Member for Park Division of Sheffield (Mr. Burden) correctly stated the main ground of objection to the patron as a possible complainant. I think the main objection is that this implies a kind of continuing patronage, which has not existed before, while the parson's freehold is maintained undiminished. I should like to suggest that it would be much better—and it will be much better, if the Church Assembly reconsiders this matter—that the initiating body should be the Parochial Church Council, or perhaps a two-thirds majority of the Parochial Church Council. I think that would be a much safer and a more democratic method of initiating complaints. In the present Measure any three adult communicants can initiate a complaint. If I may give an imaginary illustration which I hope is not too fanciful, I should like to take a small village with a new parson coming to it who has perhaps rather unorthodox political views and engages in rather unusual ceremonial practices in church—two things apt to rub village people up the wrong way. Then this parson also forms the habit of going occasionally to the village inn for a pint or two of beer. I do not say he gets drunk, but many parsons do occasionally take a pint or two. I can very well imagine three adult communicants in such an English village who would be enraged equally by the ecclesiastical and political eccentricities of the parson and by his habit of frequenting the village pub; but in framing their com- plaint they would not, of course, mention the political or ecclesiastical eccentricities. They would accuse him of consorting with publicans and sinners, and frequenting ale-houses, or something like that. I suggest that this is not too fanciful a picture of the kind of thing that could happen very easily under this Measure, if we approve it.

There is another objection which is, perhaps, a minor one, but, I think, not unsubstantial. There is no provision for a friend or adviser to accompany the incumbent when he interviews the bishop, if the procedure provided for under Section 8 is followed. That, I think, is a minor amendment which I am sure the Assembly would have no objection to making, and which could be made quite easily if the Measure were sent back to them.

The last of these specific objections is that there is no appeal to a civil court, no appeal beyond the provincial court, which is an ecclesiastical court. That is the final appeal. I understand that, unfortunately, when this matter was being discussed in the Assembly, the Bishop of Winchester did unintentionally mislead the Assembly on this matter, which may have had a considerable bearing on the voles there. According to the Church Assembly Report of Proceedings, Spring Session, 1945: The Bishop of Winchester pointed out there was an appeal to the King now against any substantial injustice in the procedure proposed by the Measure, or any other, at any stage. If the clergyman whose case was being considered felt that he had been unfairly or inequitably treated by the Special Court or by the Ministerial Committee or by the bishop, he could go to the King's Bench and get a writ to stay the proceedings. The right hon. and learned Member for North Croydon will know far better than I do whether the statement of the Bishop of Winchester is correct or not, but I am assured that the Bishop was incorrect when he made that statement. I sincerely hope that something can be done to put that matter right. Even if that assurance by the Bishop of Winchester turns out to be correct, the reception, in its final stages, of this Measure by the Church Assembly can only be described as very mixed.

Mr. Willink

The hon. Gentleman has referred to some matters of fact on which he had, quite recently, an opportunity of putting questions both to the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Archbishop of Winchester. I do not recall him putting questions to either of these prelates.

Mr. Driberg

If the right hon. and learned Gentleman is referring to the private meeting in the Committee Room upstairs, I did not know that one could do so in Debates in this House—at any rate I thought it was unusual to do so. I did put a number of points to the Archbishop, but I could not take up the whole of the time of that meeting with these points. I think I did probably mention a question on the matter. I put a number of points, but there were a large number of Members present at that meeting who were also anxious to put questions.

Dr. Morgan (Rochdale)

On a point of Order. May I ask whether it is in Order to make reference to some secret meeting held outside this Chamber, a meeting held without the knowledge of Members?

Mr. Eric Fletcher (Islington, East)

A private meeting has been referred to at which a number of Members of this House were present. I was present for part of the time, but I do not know who was invited. I think it is relevant to inquire whether any shorthand note was taken at that meeting, and whether a transcript of what was said at that meeting will be available to those who were not present.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Major Milner)

I know of no reason, on the ground of Parliamentary Order, why the matter of the meeting should not be mentioned.

Dr. Morgan

With great respect, how can the Members of this House follow a Debate when reference is made to a meeting of which they have no knowledge? Surely it invalidates the whole of the discussion that has taken place here. It is unfair to the Members who were not present at that meeting, and, so far as they know, were not invited.

Mr. Skeffington-Lodge

Before you reply, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, may I point out that this meeting was mentioned in the Whip issued to both sides of the House, and that all hon. Members were invited to attend?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

That may be so; I do not know. All I say is that very frequently in this House, as hon. Members know, statements are made, for which the hon. Members making them must accept responsibility. As I have said, I know of no reason for ruling out of Order the statement made by the right hon. and learned Gentleman.

Mr. Gallacher (Fife, West)

Are we to understand from the way this matter has been raised, that if an hon. Member does not raise a question at a meeting upstairs, he is not entitled to raise it in this House?

Mr. Driberg

I am sorry if I am taking rather longer than I had intended, but I think hon. Members will agree that there have been a number of interruptions which I have yielded to, both on points of order and otherwise. Since the right hon. and learned Gentleman has referred to the meeting in the Committee Room, might I remind him that quite a large number of hon. Members were present who wanted to question the Archbishop? I did put several questions myself, but I could not on that occasion make the whole of the speech which I am making now. Incidentally, I thought it was a slightly unusual procedure, to say the least, that a Member of another place—as His Grace is—should have made his speech appealing for the Measure in another place, and then come specially to talk to hon. Members of this House about it. Whatever the rights or wrongs of the point about the Bishop of Winchester, and whether he did or did not mislead the Assembly, I notice that no denial of that point came from the right hon. and learned Gentleman, the Member for North Croydon, although he interrupted me after that point.

It may be said that the Assembly gave the final stage of the Measure a decidedly lukewarm and mixed approval. I am not going into all the details of the figures, but some of them are there on the back of the Ecclesiastical Committee's Report. The Ecclesiastical Committee itself also gave a far from enthusiastic blessing to the Measure. As my hon. Friend has reminded the House, very fairly, it said that the Measure does, of course, affect the constitutional rights of some of His Majesty's subjects; and Any Measure of this nature must necessarily affect the rights of incumbents, but the Ecclesiastical Committee are satisfied that the Measure safeguards their rights so far as is practicable, having regard to its objects. Then it is added that, "on some points of detail, the Measure may be open to criticism" and, on the other hand, that the safeguards introduced at various stages into the Measure "may prove in practice to be so numerous and cumbersome" as to impair the efficacy of the. Measure. Thus, what the Ecclesiastical Committee appear to be saying is: (a) this Measure is objectionable in principle, (b) it will be unworkable in practice; and (c), by a rather breath-taking logical leap, that we should, therefore, pass it.

If I may end with two objections which seem to me much more basic than the specific points I have mentioned, they are these. My main objection to the Measure is—and I say this with all respect to the bishops, who are a most estimable and worthy body of men—that it gives the bishops more power. The Bishops, as I have said, are extremely estimable. They rise admirably above the undemocratic and secular nature of their appointment. But there has been in the Church of England in recent years an increasing tendency, doubtless in the interests of efficiency or supposed efficiency, towards a somewhat bureaucratic centralisation of power in the hands of the bishops and the official hierarchy of the Church. Anglican bishops should not, in their own best interests and those of their clergy, became little Popes, but this tendency has been growing in recent years. They are arros gating to themselves, for instance, a jus liturgicum far more sweeping than was ever exercised either in the Middle Ages or by the Roman Catholic church today. In recent years they have also assumed the right, and instructed their clergy, to disregard the express wishes of Parliament in another Measure brought before us in this way. I am, therefore, opposed to doing anything which will tend to concentrate still more power in the hands of the bishops.

My second basic objection is this: I cannot conceive how, if such a Measure had been in force before, such mildly eccentric geniuses as Conrad Noel or Hawker of Morwenstow could have escaped coming under at least a charge or complaint, if not actual removal from their living, under this Measure. Nobody who opposes this Measure can be accused of wanting to defend the lazy or the intemperate clergyman. We all want a good Measure to get rid of them, but I would say that it would be better for a few dozen lazy or intemperate clergymen to remain in their livings than to run the risk of getting rid of a Conrad Noel or a Hawker of Morwenstow, or such other slightly eccentric figures as these, who have been among the chief glories of the Church of England, especially in the countryside.

It has also been argued that, as so many years' work has been put into this Measure by the Assembly, it would be disheartening to the Assembly if it were now sent back for revision. Seriously, I do not think that that is a respectable argument to present to this House. We must judge these Measures, like Bills, on their merits. Moreover, when it is said that it would take a very long time to revise the Measure, I do not believe that that is so. In 1927, this House rejected the revised Prayer Book, and another version of it was brought forward only a year later, in 1928. I do not see why it need take so long, particularly as there is now a new Assembly, just as there is a new Parliament. This Measure was the work of an old, tired, war-time Assembly, and I suggest that that might be an additional point for consideration by hon. Members.

Another argument that seems equally invalid is that we can accept the assurance that the Measure will not be improperly used. I think my hon. Friend's words were that "a clear indication had been given" that it would not be improperly used; but, as I said in reply to one interruption from below the Gangway, it would be intolerable for a clergyman to be constantly harassed by the threat or fear of such proceedings—although I quite agree that he would be likely to be discharged and that the Bishop might even quash the proceedings. I do feel that this is a real danger.

Obviously on this occasion there will be a completely free vote of the House. We shall divide against the Measure, and I hope that, when we reach, that stage, some of my hon and right hon. Friends from the Front Bench will come into the Lobby with us, and so help to give the Church Assembly a chance to produce a really worthy and workable Measure.

10.44 p.m.

Mr. Orr-Ewing (Weston-super-Mare)

On a point of Order Reference has been made, in response to certain interruptions, to a meeting held in a Committee Room upstairs. Certain suggestions have been made as to what took place within that meeting. I would ask your Ruling, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, because, if this Debate is to be continued by referring to what took place in another unofficial meeting upstairs, I think it will lead to a great deal of trouble in the House. It is very difficult for those of us who were unable to attend that meeting—though we may have wished to attend it—and who have no report of the proceedings, of which no record was taken, to know whether these reports put forward by hon. Members on the other side of the House are correct or incorrect. I therefore ask your Ruling, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, whether any reference to any meeting which took place upstairs on this matter is in Order or not.

Mr. Willink

I did not refer to a meeting upstairs, and did not desire to refer to it. I merely desired to ask the hon. Member for Maldon (Mr. Driberg) through you, Sir, whether he had not, without defining the occasion, had an opportunity, in my presence, of meeting both the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Winchester, to both of whom he made very controversial references in his speech, and whether he had not then had an opportunity of putting the points to which reference has been made.

Mr. Driberg

Although the right hon and learned Gentleman did not refer to a meeting by name, it was quite clear to my mind what he was referring to, and I suggest that, although obviously not out of Order, it is definitely contrary to the etiquette of this House to do so.

Mr. Wilson Harris (Cambridge University)

If a meeting had been held, let us say at Church House at which various Members heard observations by the Archbishop of Canterbury, would it be out of Order to make reference to that meeting? And can the fact that a meeting was in fact held in a Committee Room upstairs, make any possible difference?

Mr. Eric Fletcher

When giving your Ruling on this matter, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, would you bear in mind that this Measure was the subject of debate in another place, when the Archbishop of Canterbury, to whom reference has been made, was the spokesman for the Measure? As I understand the matter, it would be out of Order to make any reference in this Debate to a speech addressed in another place in support of this Measure.

Mr. Orr-Ewing

In the case just quoted, I believe that a true record was taken of the words that were used. I am concerned with the Parliamentary issue in this matter—whether, once we get involved in what was said in some unofficial meeting, we shall not land ourselves in endless trouble, where no official record has been taken.

Dr. Morgan

May I ask whether, as a Measure is before the House and reference has been made to this meeting, the necessary papers will be laid, to enable hon. Members who wish to cast their votes for or against the Measure to know exactly the point of the reference to this meeting upstairs?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

In reply to the several points of Order, I would say, in the first place, that it is out of Order to refer to what was said in the Debate in another place. In the second place, I can see no objection, except, perhaps, on the ground of desirability, but no objection on the ground of Order, to reference being made to what was said at a meeting in a Committee Room. I would, however, point out that hon. Members must themselves be the judges of how far they should accept conflicting statements, if they be conflicting, as to what was said. It appears to me to be what in the law courts would be called "hearsay evidence," and I suggest that hon. Members should, as far as possible, avoid reference to what happened at the meeting upstairs.

Dr. Morgan

These remarks were made with the object of swaying hon. Members, one way or another, against this Measure now before the House. Is it not in Order, therefore, to admit these references; and may I ask if the papers will be laid?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

No question of the laying of papers arises. Frequently, as hon. Members in all parts of the House know, meetings are held to further various causes in Committee Rooms upstairs, and it is not usual to refer to them. All I say is that, in my view, there is no point of Order, and no Parliamentary objection can be taken to that being done, but it is not a very desirable practice.

10.50 p.m.

Sir Arthur Salter (Oxford University)

I am happy to have caught your eye at this moment, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, because after the two speeches to which we have listened, it does seem to me that, so far, the Debate has been proceeding upon the wrong lines, and on an incorrect assumption. The hon. Member for the Park Division of Sheffield (Mr. Burden), who moved this Motion, and the hon. Member for Maldon (Mr. Driberg), who opposed it, both argued the merits, pro and con, of this Measure, exactly as they would have done if we had before us an ordinary Bill on secular affairs, in regard to which the responsibility of Parliament was that of detailed legislation. That is not at all the case. In 1919 Parliament deliberately passed the Church of England Assembly (Powers) Act, in order to give, subject to certain precautions, legislative powers to the Church Assembly. A principal precaution taken at that time, in order to preserve the general rights of the citizens of this country, was to provide that there should be an Ecclesiastical Committee, composed, I believe, of 15 Members of each House of Parliament, which should have the duty to draft a report stating the nature and legal effect of the Measure, and their views as to the expediency thereof; especially in relation to the constitutional rights of His Majesty's subjects. Under that Act this Measure is now presented to us, for acceptance or rejection.

We have no responsibility with regard to the details. We have only to consider whether, having regard to both the letter and the spirit of the Act of 1919, this Measure is of such a kind that it is reasonable for us to reject it. If we look at this Measure from that point of view, no arguments have yet been adduced—and I think none can be adduced—to show that this is the kind of Measure which, in the view of the Parliament of 1919, was to be regarded as, so to speak, ultra vires in relation to the legislative power they were then conferring upon the Church Assembly. We have the report of the Ecclesiastical Committee, which summarises the main purpose of the Measure, which is to allow the institution of proceedings against incumbents in respect of—

  1. (a) conduct and unbecoming character of a. clerk in Holy Orders; or
  2. (b) serious, persistent or continuous"" neglect of duty."
The Committee goes on to say: Any Measure of this nature must necessarily affect the rights of incumbents but the Ecclesiastical Committee are satisfied that it safeguards their rights so far as is practical having regard to the objects. That is to say, in effect, if it is intended to meet the main purpose—and surely it is a purpose which we all realise is a proper purpose—the utmost practical safeguards have been taken, and the rights of the rest of the community are not adversely affected.

I suggest that if, in those circumstances, we reject this Measure, we shall be creating a precedent which would make nonsense of the Act of 1919. If Parliament intends to take away the legislative rights conferred upon the Church Assembly in that Act, I suggest it should be done by the introduction of a new Bill definitely repealing that Act and substituting something for it. We ought not to proceed to reject a Measure in circumstances which would mean that we were destroying that Act by creating a precedent of a kind which those who passed that Act certainly never contemplated.

Mr. Orr-Ewing

I quite follow the gist of the right hon. Gentleman's argument, but I would ask this question. If some of us feel that this Measure—all the intentions of which are quite clear—does, in fact, not give powers to carry out those intentions, should we not be justified in throwing it out?

Sir A. Salter

I should have said that, having regard to the general spirit and intention of that Act, the answer to the hon. Gentleman's question would be something like this. If those who are members of the Church of England desired to change that Act, I think they should have exercised their influence to get the Measure amended in the course of the 15 years during which it has been negotiated. On the other hand, if we are not members of the Church of England— and I am not myself—I personally feel that it is an impropriety to interfere with the internal discipline of clerks in holy orders when the rights of the general citizens are not affected; and particularly an impropriety in relation to the Act which constitutes the law of the land at this moment.

Mr. James Callaghan (Cardiff, South)

Does the right hon. Gentleman mean that a non-member of the Church has no right to take part in this Debate?

Sir A. Salter

I certainly think that a non-member of the Church of England has the right, otherwise I would not be taking part in the Debate. But the question such a person should have in his mind is whether this is a Measure which so affects the rights of the community generally as to be one of the measures which those who passed the Act of 1919, deliberately giving legislative powers over Church matters to the Church Assembly, contemplated that Parliament should continue to watch over. That would be the question to which, personally, I would put my mind. None of the arguments produced indicate that the Measure is of that character, particularly in regard to the terms of the Report we have had from the Ecclesiastical Committee. I say again, that I think that if Parliament desires to resume some of the control over the. Church which it deliberately transferred to the Church Assembly in 1919, it ought to bring in a new Bill. If that new Bill were introduced I should vote against it because I think the movement, not to the disestablishment of the Church of England, but in the direction of relaxing the control of Parliament over the Church has corresponded with the changing position of the Church and the changing attitude of the people of this country towards the Church. I think it would be setting the clock back in a very undesirable fashion. I am surprised that at this time some hon. Members should be contemplating action which in effect would have that result. Is this the time, is this the Parliament, to decide that we should reverse what has been the steady direction of public policy with regard to the Church of England? I suggest that it would be very regrettable if today we should, as I say, make nonsense of the policy and intention of the Act of 1919.

10.59 p.m.

Mr. King (Penryn and Falmouth)

May I say at once how welcome to me was the speech to which we have just listened? My only regret is that it completely destroyed the speech which I intended to make, but the right hon. Member has put the case better than I could have done. I am surprised at the attitude of some of my hon. Friends on this side of the House. I should have thought that they, perhaps more than most people, would have been in favour of disestablishment. But I cannot go into that issue on this occasion. So far from taking that attitude, it appears to me that if they reject a Measure of this kind they are assuming a measure of responsibility over the administration of the Church which I, for one, would not be prepared to assume. If the 1919 Act had been read and studied, it seems to me that it would be apparent that the object of that Act was to transfer away from this House, and to the Church Assembly, at least the major part of the administration of the Church. If we are to go into detail on these Measures, then it means that we are attempting to re-establish in this House a responsibility which I, for one, do not think we ought to have. There is only one ground upon which I would accept that interference, and that is if I thought the Church Assembly had taken to itself such powers as would infringe the liberty of the subject; but unless we can go to the point of saying that this is an interference with civic liberty, then I do not think we ought to interfere.

I have received, as I think all hon. Members have, a long sheet from the National Clergy Association. I fact, I have received two communications. One came on 27th November, and is addressed me as "My Lord," which I thought rather premature; and the other, which reduced me to the ranks, came on 10th December. They put forward five arguments, nearly all of which were reproduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr. Driberg), who, I regret to see, is not here. The first point they raise is the question of "unbecoming conduct." My hon. Friend the Member for Maldon rejected the comparison with Army administration. I would not take up that comparison, but I would take up another comparison, that of "unprofessional conduct." I see around me some hon. Members who belong to the professions of law and medicine. They are conscious of the meaning of "unprofessional conduct." I do not think anyone has ever suggested that the meaning of "unprofessional conduct" is so vague as to constitute an injustice to the members of those two professons. I think that is the exact parallel with the phrase "unbecoming conduct" applied to a priest.

Dr. Morgan

That shows that my hon. Friend knows nothing about medical practice.

Mr. King

My hon. Friend will have an opportunity of making his remarks later. The second point they make is that a clergyman is not allowed to take a friend with him when he is first interviewed by the bishop. I would ask hon. Members to consider the position of any salaried profession. Take, for instance, the Civil Service, or schoolmasters and teachers. When an assistant-master is sent for by his headmaster, or when a civil servant is sent for by the head of his department, he does not at once take a friend with him. If after that interview the head of the department concerned then takes the matter to court, then, of course, it is different. It is also different in this Measure. From the moment the priest appears before the committee, he is entitled to a friend, as he should be. He is not entitled to take one with him to the bishop, because the bishop has no power. The bishop can only refer the matter to the ministerial committee, and as soon as he gets there, the priest is entitled to full representation.

Mr. Callaghan

In the case of the Civil Service it would be quite untrue to say that a civil servant cannot have a friend with him before it becomes a criminal charge. From the first moment any disciplinary action is proposed to be taken against him, he may have a friend, or a trade union official, or anybody else with him to help to represent him.

Mr. King

We are not now dealing with criminal justice or a criminal charge.

Dr. Morgan

With regard to the power of a bishop, in Section 4 it is stated distinctly that any qualified person desiring to institute proceedings shall, in the first instance, make a complaint in writing to the bishop, who shall then consider whether he can deal with it satisfactorily. The position is that the bishop has power to deal with it if he considers he can deal with it satisfactorily.

Mr. King

The bishop has power to deal with it, but that power can consist of nothing other than ordinary conversation He has no power to punish. Therefore, his power of dealing with it usually ends in conciliation.

Mr. Bing (Hornchurch)

Will my hon. Friend look at Section 8?

Mr. King

That Section is about 40 lines. Perhaps my hon. Friend had better develop that in his own speech.

I want now to deal with the powers of patrons. It is not sufficiently appreciated that a patron already has, and does frequently exercise, the right of complaining to the bishop. Indeed, bishops are constantly complaining that their post bags are full of such complaints and that they find great difficulty in dealing with them because they have no power to quash the complaints. Now, for the first time, a complaint may be referred to a properly constituted committee which can reject it, or give the bishop their opinion and make an end of the matter. In the pamphlet which has been referred to, the National Clergy Association suggests that if Parliament passed this Measure, an amending Measure would be placed before the Church Assembly to meet points which have been raised. I do resent that. The Archbishop of Canterbury in a place which I am not allowed to specify stated that it was not the intention.

There are many possible grounds upon which this Measure could be supported. Most people who are familiar with the history of this matter would agree that for a long time there has been a notorious lack of any sufficient disciplinary power in the Church. That is an argument that might be advanced. On another occasion I would certainly advance the argument that there has been a greater lack of disciplinary power in the Church, than in regard to any other salaried occupation I know. I might also argue that this Measure does not go far enough, and that many other things are necessary for the efficiency of the Church. It might be said that if a bishop were efficiently to organise his diocese, he would want to be able to move a man, for no reason at all, in order to get the right man in the right place, which is often the normal power of any other organiser. But that is another matter and I am not raising those points, or basing my arguments on them.

Mr. Platts-Mills (Finsbury)

Is the hon. Member not confusing the British jumble sale with the chain stores, in this efficiency drive?

Mr. King

No more than my hon. Friend confuses the Communist Party with the Church of England. The point I wish to make is that this is not my main argument. On the contrary, the main point is that under the 1919 Act our powers were only meant to extend to repelling an attack upon the citizen, and that the internal administration of the Church should be left to the Church Assembly. Therefore, I urge this House to support this Measure.

11.9 p.m.

Mr. Wilson Harris (Cambridge University)

The hon. Member for Penryn and Falmouth (Mr. King) complained that the senior Burgess for Oxford University (Sir A. Salter) had taken his speech out of his mouth. I congratulate him on the success with which he has extemporised a substitute. I desire to say very little on this subject because I feel that the question is in essence extremely simple. Like my right hon. Friend the senior Burgess for Oxford University, I am not a member of the Church of England. I do not feel that that deprives me of any status in this matter, because every hon. Member of Parliament has a status in a case like this, but I feel that, speaking with that degree of detachment, I should be incurring a very grave weight of responsibility if I cast my vote against this Measure. We have been reminded that the arrangement of the Enabling Measure was that the Church should manage its own internal affairs. Viewing the Church from the outside, it seems entirely proper that it should do that. Its decisions have to be brought to this House for acceptance or rejection, and that they should be accepted is the normal course. Only in the event of the gravest possible objection, should the other course be taken.

I think nobody in any part of the House can fail to agree with the general purpose of this Measure. There is the rare but serious case of the unsatisfactory incumbent who must be dealt with in some way or other. The Church, and indeed, all religious bodies, are fighting an uphill fight to-day, and there is nothing more harmful to the Church of England than an incumbent failing to discharge the duties of his high office. But I must say that I am a little surprised by the suggestions in one or two of the speeches made by hon. Members opposite, that the bishop and his incumbent are to be regarded as antagonistic on this matter. To suggest that the incumbent should not be asked to discuss the subject with his bishop without a friend to support him is surely a travesty of the relationship which should exist between incumbents and bishops; at any rate, that relationship which I believe and hope has always existed.

We all know what it means to a parish to have the religious life left dead, because the incumbent has failed to command the respect of his parishioners, and it is a lamentable thing for anyone in such a parish to have to view that spectacle. Some years ago I attended a church in the constituency of the hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Dodds-Parker). It was a church attended by no congregation; on the day on which I visited it, I found that I was the total congregation. I found the rector ringing his own bell, and startled though he was at the unwonted appearance of a congregation, he paid me the compliment of going back to his rectory and putting on a collar. Then the service was held. I came in strong with the responses, and the reverend gentleman extemporised a little sermon for my benefit. But, here was this man, who had so alienated the whole of his parish that, week by week, and Sunday by Sunday, nobody attended this church. Surely some action must be taken by the right authorities in such cases. The Church has chosen its own way of doing this. One or two details of the Measure might well be criticised, but I hope that hon. Members, and especially those who are not members of the Church of England, will feel that they are assuming a very grave responsibility if they attempt to reject this Measure which has received the considered approval of all the appointed councils of the Church.

11.14 p.m.

Mr. Dumpleton (St. Albans)

The hon. Member for Maldon (Mr. Driberg) referred to the great care and concern with which some of us approached this subject. That is especially so in my case. As other hon. Members have stated of themselves, I am not a member of the Church of England, and it is with reluctance that I speak on this subject at all. It is, I think, a domestic matter for the Church. But, after all, this Measure does come before this House, and in considering it we have a duty to perform, to, among others, our constituents. I have received very strong representations from people in my constituency who are affected by this Measure, and I, therefore, regard it as a duty to pay careful consideration to its merits or demerits. With great respect, as a new and inexperienced Member of this House, I cannot follow the reasoning of the junior Burgess for Cambridge University (Mr. Wilson Harris) that a Measure of this kind, coming from the Church Assembly, should be accepted by this House whether it is good or bad, without discussion and consideration. I do not think that was the intention and purpose of the 1919 Act, which provided that Measures of this nature should come before this House.

Mr. Wilson Harris

I never used language of that strength. What I said was that it was the normal course for Parliament to pass Measures that had been adopted by the Church Assembly and not reject them, unless in some exceptional case for some exceptional reason.

Mr. Dumpleton

I should very much dislike misrepresenting what the hon. Gentleman has said, but there did seem to be a suggestion that Measures coming from the Church Assembly were brought before this House for formal acceptance. Surely, it was the intention of the 1919 Act, in providing that Measures should come before this House, that there should be a considered judgment upon them? To say that we should accept them and that we are endangering and raising the issue of disestablishment when we attempt to interfere in the domestic affairs of the Church, seems to me all wrong if it has been provided by legislation that these Measures are to be presented in this House and have to have our approval. It has been admitted by the Committee which considered this Bill, and by those who are supporting it, that there are imperfections, faults, and objectionable features in it. Surely, then, it is entirely unsatisfactory and undesirable, that we should be told that it is not possible, for some reason or another that we do not understand, for it to be taken back by the Church Assembly and amended where it seems desirable that there should be amendments.

I have consulted incumbents in my constituency who are likely to be affected by this Measure. [Laughter.] Is that so entirely fantastic? We are considering grounds on which action can be taken, and according to this Measure any three persons can come along and complain that, for instance, there has been "persistent and continuous neglect of duty." Who is to decide that issue? There is no definition of what is "persistent and continuous neglect of duty." Must an incumbent visit every house in his parish, and if he does not, can someone come along and complain that there has been persistent and continuous neglect of duty? Must he run youth organisations, must he circulate a parish magazine, and must he take part in the public affairs of the locality or diocese? If he does not do all these things, is it not open for some busybody to come forward and complain that there has been persistent and continuous neglect of duty?

Mr. Skeffington-Lodge

I hope the hon. Member for St. Albans (Mr. Dumpleton) recognises that the bulk of the criticism against this Measure comes from the clergy, but the people who are most seriously affected are the laity; and the laity have approved the Measure by a very large majority indeed in the Church Assembly, and generally are in favour of it throughout the country.

Mr. Dumpleton

I do not know whether the laity in the Church of England represent the majority of the population of this country, but I do submit that we have the responsibility here, to see that undesirable infringements of our civil liberties, as they appear to us in this Bill, are not allowed to pass without objection and without question. Several of the objectionable features of the Bill have been referred to, and I am not going to take up the time of the House by referring to them again, or by debating such issues as, for instance, that in regard to political opinions and beliefs as distinct from political activities. However, there is one feature which has not been referred to and which I think is particularly objectionable. That is the provision that the proceedings at a special court might be held in private by decision of the court.

I can see, in reasonable instances, why that might be desirable, but there is no provision in the Measure against a hearing in camera if it is against the desire of the accused man that it should be held behind closed doors. In other words, if a man has an accusation against him which he feels is unjust, and which, even if he is acquitted, will mean that he carries a stigma for the rest of his life, and he is opposed to these proceedings being held in private, then, in my view, they should not be held in private, and provision should be made for such instances. The main objection which I urge, on behalf of those of my constituents who are incumbents, is that a Measure of this kind with all the objectionable features that have been pointed out should not be passed by us without our seeing if it cannot be taken back, amended, and again presented to this House.

Captain John Crowder (Finchley)

I beg to move, "That this Debate be now adjourned."

There are many hon. Members who still want to speak, the hour is late, and, outside, the weather is inclement.

Question put, and agreed to.

Mr. Bowles (Nuneaton) rose

Mr. Speaker

The Question has been put.

Mr. Bowles

I was on my feet before the Question was put.

Mr. Speaker

I think I had already collected the voices when the hon. Member rose.

Debate to be resumed Tomorrow.

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