HC Deb 31 May 1949 vol 465 cc2071-5

11.57 p.m.

Mr. Burden (Second Church Estates Commissioner)

I beg to move, That the Parochial Church Councils (Powers) (Amendment) 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 has been circulated with the Report of the Ecclesiastical Committee, the appendix to which contains a full statement of the object of the Measure and the effect of the two principal clauses. I think, therefore, that at this hour I need not detain the House with a detailed explanation of the Measure. Briefly, it is needed to enable parochial church councils, particularly in the urban and industrial parishes, to play their part in the social welfare of the people in their parishes. There are a number of instances in which land or buildings held by a parochial church council form the only site on which a youth or community centre can be established, but the narrowness of the term "ecclesiastical purposes" has prevented this being carried out by making it impossible for that work to rank for grant from the Ministry of Education. This Measure is intended to meet this difficulty.

Although the extended powers apply equally to parochial church councils in rural areas, it is not expected there will be any great use of them, and it is certainly not intended that they should in any way be used in competition with the secular parish councils. The requirement that the consent of the diocesan education committee should be obtained should help to ensure that there is no duplication of effort in the rural areas. In fact, the wider power should make for a much greater degree of co-operation between the parochial church councils and the parish councils than has hitherto been obtained.

The proposed extension of the parochial church councils' powers has the full approval of the Church Assembly, as is evidenced by the fact that the Measure passed through all its stages without a Division. It has been seen and approved on behalf of the Ministry of Education. The Measure has been considered by the Ecclesiastical Committee, which reports that it does not affect prejudicially the constitutional rights of His Majesty's subjects and is of opinion that it is expedient that it should proceed.

Commander Agnew (Camborne)

I beg to second the Motion.

12 m.

Mr. Sorensen (Leyton, West)

I rise to support this Measure. I think a word may be said by one who is not a member of the Church of England and who therefore represents, paradoxically, an outsider judging that august body. I have the greatest appreciation of that communion. I only wish I could be accepted into their membership. One of these days, when the changes have taken place that will enable people of a theological mind like mine to be accepted, then I and others will be able to become members. Meanwhile, we are in the curious position of being called upon to judge on the needs of a Church which, however much we may respect her, has to come to this secular institution.

In passing, it is interesting to notice how the term "ecclesiastical" has been considerably widened in recent years. There was a time when "ecclesiastical" did not mean what it is now going to mean when this small Measure has been adopted. It includes not merely the specifically spiritual welfare of members of the Church of England, and indeed, of the citizens of this country, but also includes within its orbit their physical wellbeing. In my estimation, this will be of real help in breaking down the false division between things physical and things spiritual.

I welcome this Measure because it means that the Church of England will do all that it can to extend its service, particularly to the youth, though it may not be along specifically doctrinal or theological lines. I think it also contains a certain financial advantage. At the present time the Free Churches and the Catholic Church can put up buildings for recreational and other purposes and secure grants from the Exchequer, and that enables these communions to do their work well. It is certainly an anomaly and a disadvantage to the Church of England that, because of its State connection, it should be put in the position that has obtained up till now.

Therefore, this Bill is a measure of equity. It extends to the Church of England what the Free and Catholic Churches already enjoy. It will be of financial advantage to the church in a direct way, because I suppose a large number of clergy will be able to be classified as youth leaders or officials responsible for recreational facilities and grants out of the national Exchequer will in many cases go to meet their great needs and in some measure ease them of financial burdens. I am very glad indeed that it is made clear that this Measure will enable premises to be used for purposes that include the political. I have been sorry sometimes in the past that church buildings have been denied to political parties. Now I presume—if I am wrong my hon. Friend will correct me—that not only will church halls be used for recreational purposes in the ordinary sense of the term, but that they can and should be used for political purposes as well. For that reason, I believe this is a liberal Measure, enabling the Church of England to perform its great service to our country better than in the past. I hope that the House will give it unanimous support.

12.4 a.m.

Major Legge-Bourke (Isle of Ely)

I, too, should like to welcome this Measure because I believe it will help many parochial church councils to carry on their work in a better way than they have been able to do up to now. I should like to consider what the Mover of the Measure said regarding where it would be most likely to help. I hope this Measure will be freely used in rural areas as well as in urban areas. There certainly seems to me to be a substantial case, without in any way overriding the secular parish councils, for encouraging parochial church councils to take far more interest in the day to day life of our villages than they have been able to do in the past. I hope they will be able to work in co-operation with such bodies as the Youth Hostels Association and that there will be a pooling of resources. I hope the church will play the part in the life of rural areas that it obviously intends to do in urban areas.

Before leaving the Measure, I should like to point to what might lead to a little confusion. I hope it will not. In Clause I we understand that the schemes which will be drawn up under this Measure must be for the spiritual, moral and physical training of persons residing in or near the parish. Reading that as though it were an ordinary Bill, although I know that we should never look at these Measures as though they were ordinary Bills, one would presume that any scheme must serve those three purposes, namely, spiritual, moral and physical training.

It seems to me that that particular wording may lead the parochial church councils into a certain amount of difficulty if their right to take over certain property is ever challenged by a secular body. I hope that matter has been considered by the legal advisers to the Church Assembly, and I have no doubt that if it has been considered by them, they are quite satisfied. It would be a tragedy if this Measure were proved, in certain cases, to be unworkable because of faulty drafting. I hope we can have an assurance upon this point.

Mr. Burden

As one of the Church Commissioners, I should like briefly to reply to the point which the hon. Member has raised. I am grateful to him for raising the point regarding the phrase, "spiritual, moral and physical training." I can assure him that that phrase will be carefully looked at by the legal advisers to the Church Assembly. I hesitate to express what might be taken as a legal opinion, but it seems to me that if the word "or" were inserted, that would make it an exclusive phrase and would mean that spiritual, moral and physical training could not go forward at one and the same time. It is a difficulty of words, and I am sure that the point will be looked at.

As regards the secular parish councils, all I wanted to emphasise was that we are anxious for the fullest measure of co-operation between the parish councils and the parochial church councils. Everyone knows that one of the most gratifying features of rural life is the development of the work of the parish councils, and particularly of the National Association of Parish Councils. The words were put in specifically to help forward the work of the parish councils and of the national association.

Resolved: That the Parochial Church Councils (Powers) (Amendment) 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.