HC Deb 04 December 1952 vol 508 cc1893-906

10.11 p.m.

Sir John Crowder (Second Church Estates Commissioner)

I beg to move, That the Union of Benefices (Disused Churches) Measure, 1952, passed by the National Assembly 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. This Measure was favourably reported on by the Ecclesiastical Committee whose Report was presented to the House of Commons on 19th November. I think the objects of the Measure and the effects of its various Clauses are clearly explained in the comments and explanations in the appendix to the Report. It may, however, be of some assistance to the House if I try to explain in a few words the background and objects of this Measure.

The shift of population which has taken place during the last century from the country to the towns and from the towns to the new housing areas on their boundaries has presented the Church not only with the problem of providing priests, but also of dealing with the churches which have become redundant owing to reductions of the population in certain areas. This problem was considered by a committee set up by the Church Assembly under the chairmanship of the Bishop of Norwich in 1949.

In its Report the Committee pointed out that while the Union of Benefices Measure, 1923, provided powers to demolish redundant churches and sell the site and materials, or appropriating the building for any educational or charitable purposes in connection with the Church of England, the Reorganisation Areas Measure, 1944, included wider powers of appropriation. These powers, however, were applicable only to the limited number of churches coming within the provisions of the Reorganisation Areas Measure, which is of limited duration and applies only to war damaged and development areas. The Committee recommended that the power given under the Union of Benefices Measure should be extended so as to make the wider powers of the Reorganisation Areas Measure of general permanent application. The general object of this Measure is to give effect to that recommendation.

A particular effect would be to authorise redundant churches to be put to such wider use—as an example, for use as a museum or perhaps for use by the Boy Scouts. This will relieve parochial authorities in relevant cases from the burden of upkeep of the buildings which are no longer required for religious worship and which might otherwise fall into disrepair and generally in time into ruin. This Measure will, of course, help the Historic Churches Preservation Trust in its object of preserving historic churches.

Under this Measure the Church Commissioners may prepare and submit to Her Majesty in Council a scheme to give effect to proposals made by the pastoral committee, with the bishop's consent, for demolishing a redundant church and the sale of the materials on the site, excluding any land which is used as a churchyard, and may appropriate the church or any part of it to such use as may be specified in the scheme and subject to any scheme so specified which would include the appointment of trustees. A scheme made under this Measure is subject to the full procedure laid down in the Union of Benefices Measure, that is to say, a draft of it must be published locally and submitted to the patron of the parochial church council as well as to the pastoral committee.

Any party interested, and not only those who have received the draft of the proposals, has the right to submit objections. If and when this scheme is settled and the bishop consents, it is certified by the Commissioners to Her Majesty in Council and any interested party whose objections have been overruled has then a right of appeal to Her Majesty in Council, such appeal being heard by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. The Judicial Committee can advise Her Majesty to confirm the scheme, to reject it or to return it to the Church Commissioners for amendment.

There is an added safeguard, namely, that if the scheme proposes the demolition of a church it must be laid before both Houses of Parliament and either House may pray against it. If the building is left standing it can be appropriated only for the purposes laid down in the scheme and for no other. Once a building has been appropriated for a special purpose, it cannot be used for any other purpose until a fresh scheme is made, after complying with the statutory procedure once again.

I trust that the House will agree that this is a non-controversial Measure which has been very carefully gone into by all concerned, who are anxious to help the parishes to preserve certain churches which might otherwise be left uncared for by anyone, owing to the lack of funds.

Sir Richard Acland (Gravesend)

I beg to second the Motion.

10.18 p.m.

Mr. Godfrey Nicholson (Farnham)

I do not oppose this Measure, because I think that the Church, in a matter which concerns church affairs, has a full right to its own measure of self-determination. I agree with the Ecclesiastical Committee of which I am a member, that this Measure does not prejudicially affect the constitutional rights of Her Majesty's subjects.

But I think we ought to know quite well what we are doing in passing this Measure. No limit is put upon the use to which a church will be put. My hon. Friend referred to museums or something for the Boy Scouts. A church might equally be used as a cinema. My hon. Friend also referred to the fact that consultation must be had with the Central Council of Diocesan Advisory Committees for the Care of Churches, the pastoral committee of the diocese appointed under the Pastoral Reorganisation Measure, 1949, and the patron and the incumbent of the benefice and the parochial church council for the parish in which the church is situated.

But this is only consultation, and the power is entirely in the hands of the Church Commissioners and the bishops. I am saying what I am saying because I do not think this Measure should be accepted by Parliament without full warning being given to the Church Assembly that Parliament is well aware of the dangers that may occur if the rights conferred under this Measure are used without a due sense of responsibility. I believe that the Church Commissioners and the bishops will use this Measure with a due sense of responsibility, but I felt it was my duty to point out the dangers which are inherent in it if by any conceivable chance the powers are misused.

10.20 p.m.

Mr. S. S. Awbery (Bristol, Central)

The changes involved in this Measure adversely affect a considerable number of my constituents. They have been to see me to discuss the problem of the closing of churches in the Bristol area, and I want to put two or three questions to the hon. Member for Finchley (Sir J. Crowder). In the Bristol area there are churches which have served this and past generations well, but I can see that, as a result of this Measure and the suggested reorganisation, a bill will be put up outside churches stating, "These churches are for sale." Indeed, there is already a plan in my constituency that two churches shall be sold, and my constituents are very much concerned about it. Other churches are to be merged, and I want to know exactly what is going to happen.

The blitzed cities are affected more than any others, and that is why my constituents are concerned. When a church was destroyed in 1941–42, the parishioners improvised and did the best they could in the circumstances to keep the members of the church together and their Sunday school going. In one case, with only a lay member in charge, there were 120 children in the Sunday school. That church is to be closed down and possibly transferred to a church at the other end of the parish. I do not know whether the children will go to the new church, but I am concerned about the plan and should like to know what is likely to happen under this scheme.

Some of the areas from which churches are to be taken will be redeveloped. For instance, in one case where a church is to become redundant, flats are shortly to be built in the area, and there will then be no church accommodation for the people who move into the flats when they are built. What do the Commissioners intend to do in those circumstances? Where two churches are merged, as has been suggested in one case brought to my notice, what is to happen to the people at the far end of the parish? In one instance, I understand that a parish will have 20,000 parishioners with only one incumbent and one lay man to look after them. I suggest that to make a church redundant in such circumstances is not the right course to adopt. In other cases, churches are a great distance one from the other, and it is unreasonable to expect parishioners from one church to go to the other.

Another point which I should like the hon. Member for Finchley to answer concerns endowments. When churches are amalgamated, what is to happen to endowments which have been made to the parishioners? Perhaps I may also take this opportunity, because I shall get no other, of commenting on the state of churchyards, particularly where the churches are still in use. They have got into a deplorable condition, and perhaps the hon. Gentleman will draw the attention of the Ecclesiastical Commissioners to them.

10.24 p.m.

Mr. Angus Maude (Ealing, South)

There is no doubt that we should look carefully at this Measure, but I must say, having studied both the Measure and the Report, that I should not have thought that any of the points raised by the hon. Member for Bristol, Central (Mr. Awbery) could conceivably come within them. As I understand the purport of the Measure, it has nothing whatever to do with a decision as to which churches should be merged or which closed down. As I understand it—and I think it should be explained clearly to us—this Measure provides only for what can be done with the building when the decision as to the parish and the benefice has already been taken under another Measure. So that I should not really have thought that the points the hon. Member has raised, which in themselves clearly are of the greatest importance to his constituents and to everybody else, really had anything to do with this Measure.

What, I think, we might have explained to us quite clearly is a question which, I think, arises out of the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Farnham (Mr. Nicholson). As I understand Section 1 of the Measure, it is not in fact possible to sell a church building as such. It is possible, as I understand this Measure, to have the church pulled down and to sell the materials when it has been pulled down, and it is possible to sell the land which forms the site of the church; but I do not understand that it is possible to sell a consecrated building as it stands. I would agree that it would be an exceedingly dangerous thing if one could, because I doubt if any safeguards we imposed could really last in perpetuity. So I think we ought to be quite clear about this—and if my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley (Sir J. Crowder) would clear it up, I think we should all be grateful—that we cannot, under this Measure, sell a church building as it stands.

Mr. Nicholson

Section 1 (2, c).

Mr. Maude

No, I do not think "appropriation" means sale, but this is precisely the sort of point that I should like my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley to explain to us. I understand that the term "appropriation", as it is explained, I think, in the Report of the Ecclesiastical Committee, means that a church building may be used under a scheme made in the diocese, and subject to the control of the committees set up by the diocese, and can be used for purposes approved by the Church; but I do not believe one can sell it under the terms of Section 1 (2, c). "Appropriation" and "use" of a church are surely not the same as selling a building as it stands, but I think we should be grateful if this could be made quite clear to us.

10.32 p.m.

Mr. Tom Driberg (Maldon)

I think all of us who have served on the Ecclesiastical Committee share some of the apprehensions that have been expressed on both sides of the House; but I also think that the hon. Member for Ealing, South (Mr. Maude), who has just spoken, was quite right in his reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, Central (Mr. Awbery), who was really discussing difficulties that arise under a different and much earlier Measure, the Union of Benefices Measure.

I am quite sure that the ecclesiastical authorities will take careful note of the views and feelings expressed by my hon. Friend, particularly with regard to possible future shifts of population back to areas and districts which are at present rather empty owing to the blitz or any other cause. It is possible to foresee that some areas which are at present under-populated may be re-populated again in 10 or 20 years' time, and that will certainly have to be borne in mind.

I think also that the hon. Member for Ealing, South was correct in his comment on the other point about which anxiety has been expressed by the hon. Member for Farnham (Mr. Nicholson). A building that is at present a church or has been used as a church cannot become a cinema under this Measure, unless the bishop or the Commissioners are so foolish—or short-sighted, perhaps we would agree—as to say that it should be so.

Mr. Nicholson

I am sure the hon. Member will realise I was not exaggerating. There is nothing in the Measure to prevent a church becoming a cinema. I know it is ridiculous to suggest that a bishop would permit that, but, technically, there is nothing in the Measure to prevent that.

Mr. Driberg

Oh, but I assure the hon. Member that there is. Under this Measure one can pull down a church, one can sell the materials, and one can sell the vacant site; but one cannot sell outright the existing, perhaps the consecrated, building.

Mr. Nicholson

No. Under Clause 20 (1, a) in the Appendix, there can be appropriation for any use provided under the trust arrangements. After all, it is the duty of Parliament to consider anything that may happen from the Measures that it agrees to. I repeat that there is nothing technically to prevent the bishop agreeing that St. Paul's Cathedral should become a cinema.

Mr. Driberg

I absolutely agree that it is our duty in Parliament to "vet" these Measures very carefully, and I have always believed in that. Long before I was a member of the Ecclesiastical Committee, I occasionally used to divide the House against some of these Measures. In fact, I thought that the hon. Gentleman leaned over too far at the beginning of his speech in saying that we ought to give the Church almost absolute self-determination in these matters, which was never intended by the original Act.

However, on this point I think that the hon. Gentleman is misunderstanding the word "appropriation" which does not mean the same as "sale." "Appropriation" means that it can be used for other purposes, subject to all sorts of safeguards and, of course, subject to the bishop and the authorities concerned not being absolute lunatics or absolutely sacrilegious in intention. One has to admit that much, but I do not think it is very likely that that would happen, and I do not think that the hon. Gentleman imagines that it would.

Mr. Nicholson

I agree.

Mr. Driberg

Under this Measure, an existing church building cannot be sold outright. That is a safeguard against its being turned into a cinema.

Mr. Nicholson rose

Mr. Awbery

Under the reorganisation scheme, a draft of which I have before me, it is stated specifically that one of the churches, called St. Silas' Church, shall be vested in the Church Commissioners for sale on lease or exchange. The other one is to be taken down, and the site where the ruins would be would then be offered for sale, also for some other purpose. I should like to know whether that is quite clear, and whether the people in the area have been consulted in what has been suggested by the reorganisation committee.

Mr. Driberg

The hon. Gentleman who sponsors this Measure will correct me if I am wrong, if he replies by leave of the House, but my impression is that that is a purely local scheme under a previous Measure. It has nothing to do with the Measure we are discussing tonight.

I do not know the rights or wrongs of that particular case in Bristol, but under the previous Measure there was a debate in the House, a year ago or less, about a scheme affecting churches in Lambeth. We had quite a discussion about it, because there was some apprehension that the congregation of a particular church in Lambeth were being unfairly treated. I think it is fair to say that as a result of the debate in this House, although the scheme was not cancelled, its application was somewhat alleviated and delayed, out of deference to the wishes of the congregation of the church. It is possible for my hon. Friend to pray against particular schemes, which have to come before the House for approval, anyway, but that is not the point we are discussing tonight.

Mr. Maude

I think I have now found the part of this Measure which clears this question beyond doubt. The last words of Clause 2 (1), which completely clarify the position about appropriation, say that when the property is appropriated, it shall be held by the Diocesan Authority on trust … which, surely, definitely precludes sale under any scheme of appropriation.

Mr. Driberg

Quite. I am obliged to the hon. Member, and I think that that is the answer to the hon. Member for Farnham about appropriation.

This will not be the first time, of course, in modern times that so-called redundant churches have been demolished and their sites and materials sold. Most of us could quote instances. Many of us remember the Church of St. Mary in Charing Cross Road, where there was a prominent Calvary that used to look down night after night on the changing scene below. Many of us regret its disappearance a few years ago. All of us are sorry when that happens, but on the whole the apprehensions expressed tonight—which are genuine, and I sympathise with them—are unfounded or irrelevant, and therefore I think we are right in supporting what is a necessary, though, in some respects, a sad, measure.

Mr. Awbery

I thank my hon. Friend, and consider it is wise for me to pray against this reorganisation system rather than oppose these proposals.

Sir Patrick Spens (Kensington, South)

I felt the same anxiety as my hon. Friend when I saw the Measure, particularly because the provisions of appropriation in the original Measure of 1944 were limited to educational and charitable purposes. The whole object of this Measure is to extend the purposes for which the appropriation could be made. It was pointed out in the explanation that there were certain churches which it was not thought could be usefully appropriated within the narrow limits of the original Measure. Therefore, this Measure does, as my hon. Friend the Member for Farnham (Mr. Nicholson) has pointed out, make it possible to appropriate a church for any purpose whatever. The question then arises about safeguards to prevent its being appropriated for a purpose of which none of us would approve.

Any scheme under the Measure is to be fully advertised locally. That is the first thing. Everybody in the parish, or anyone else outside, can then make representations to the Commissioners. The Commissioners have to prepare a scheme, the bishop has to approve it, and it is still possible for anyone who objects to take the matter to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, even though the bishop has approved the scheme. Even so, my hon. Friend is right in saying that it has to come before both Houses, which gives us a chance to pray against it. It is clear, in those circumstances, that appropriations outside the educational and charitable limits in the original Measure are going to be few and far between. It is inconceivable that in any built-up area or town there would not be any educational or charitable purpose for which the building would be wanted. It is only in country areas, where strictly there was a legal educational or charitable purpose, to which it could be put. Subject to those safeguards, there is every protection to prevent a church being used for a purpose against which we could object.

Mr. James Hudson (Ealing, North)

I usually stay for these debates in which ecclesiastical questions are involved in the general expectation that there will be some hon. Member saying precisely what the hon. Member for Farnham (Mr. Nicholson) has said. It has been dealt with by my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr. Driberg), but, he and all of us, will have to remember that Parliament has been placed in the position of holding general supervision over the arrangements made by the Church. It is not of our doing. It is a position the Church defends as necessary for the problems it still has to work out.

The Church has, in the past, generally insisted on the Establishment and all that flows from it. It insists that Parliament should continue to have a general supervision over these matters. I confess quite frankly that I feel disqualified for the job, especially on this occasion. I belong to a religious communion that cannot understand the point made by the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Kensington, South (Sir P. Spens), when he said that there must be some purpose for which churches could be used.

I belong to a communion which pays no respect to the buildings in which they hold their religious observances. Even today you will see old members of the Society going into the church building with their hats on as a mark of disrespect for the building in order to emphasise that it is not the building that is important. Although that may have been the original stand taken by the Society of Friends in their long experience, they have had to end up by being in much the same position as that mentioned by hon. Members.

They know enough to appreciate that there is a very anxious feeling about places where religious observance has gone on. For that reason I am getting up now to say that I should certainly not think of opposing this Bill, and associate myself with everything that has been said about the buildings without agreeing to the rather fundamental point that was put by hon. Gentleman opposite.

Sir P. Spens

I personally should have very strong objections indeed to a building that was used as a Friends meeting house being turned into a night club.

Mr. Hudson

I should feel the same thing. Curiously enough I know of a Friends meeting house which was turned into a canteen.

Sir P. Spens

I hope the canteen was run on the principles for which the hon. Member stands.

Mr. Hudson

The building had passed out of their control, and it was then that it was turned into a canteen in which things were done to which I should object.

As one who holds the views that I do on church buildings and on questions of segregation, I cannot be expected to conform to the views of hon. Gentlemen opposite, but I count it my right and duty to give judgment on questions of this sort. I do it to the best of my capacity with sympathy for the feelings of men and women who, I am quite sure, hold their views very seriously indeed. I must add this warning. The churches will find that the logical result of this arrangement will repeatedly bring us to a situation of this kind where so many of us will take responsibility for matters that we would rather see left outside the domain of Parliament. That can only be when the Church is willing to take an attitude similar to that of the Nonconformist Churches.

Mr. Nicholson

May I say that I am sure that the Church of England uses Parliament as a jury consisting of honourable men who are Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Nonconformists, even atheists, who, acting as a jury, will look after the interests of ordinary people with just as much conscientiousness as if they were ardent churchmen. As an Anglican I welcome the fact that the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Hudson) is a member of that jury. I was not meaning to impugn the right of Parliament, or the duty of Parliament, to give a verdict on this Measure. I think it is of importance that the affairs of the Church of England should be watched over not only by the Church Assembly but by the elected representatives of the people.

Mr. Driberg

While agreeing with much of what the hon. Member has said, I suggest to him that we must admit that the Church of England did not accept the verdict of the jury in 1928.

10.47 p.m.

Sir J. Crowder

With the leave of the House, I will try to reply shortly to the questions raised. The hon. Member for Bristol, Central (Mr. Awbery) raised the question of the closing of a church in Bristol. As has been pointed out, there is already power to do that. This Measure is only concerned with the future use to which that church shall be put. There has been a prayer against the closing of this church in another place this afternoon. I understand that it has been withdrawn. I believe that there is to be an appeal to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council.

I thank the hon. Member for Maldon (Mr. Driberg) for explaining that this Measure has nothing to do with the closing of churches, but only with the future use of churches which are closed. I am advised that no church can be sold as such. What other hon. Members have said is correct, that the church has to be pulled down and the site sold. For those who are still nervous regarding the safeguards, I would say the consultations must be real, full, and formal. Moreover, before proceeding to draft a scheme, the Church Commissioners require to be satisfied that there has been full consultation.

In many cases, probably a large majority, the proposal will be initiated by those interested because they cannot afford to keep the church going. There must be consultation with the Central Council, the pastoral committee of the diocese, the incumbent, and the parochial church council. The Church Commissioners are appointed by the Archbishop of Canterbury in some cases, and in others by the Government. They go into these cases fully. They are appointed to look after the interest of the Church. We would never agree to any scheme—I do not think any committee would put forward a scheme—to turn a dis-used church into a cinema, or into anything not suitable. All these questions go through two or three committees of the Church Commissioners before coming up for final decision. The bishop concerned is consulted, hon. Members of the House approach me, and every possible method is employed to see that the wishes of the majority of people are carried out.

I must say that the Church of England is short of priests and of money. We shall have to go on amalgamating parishes so as to be able to carry on. It is a fact, I agree, that in many cases local people want to keep a church going with very few people in it; but it is just impossible to find an incumbent in most cases. More benefices will have to be united as time goes on; and that may be to the good, or perhaps not. But, in the circumstances, we think it as well to unite perhaps four or five benefices and have a curate under one incumbent.

The measure I have introduced tonight is simply for more power than we have at the moment, and I hope that I have satisfied everybody although, if there is any point on which any hon. Member needs help, I shall be pleased to try to give it.

Mr. Awbery

I understand that the premises are not to be sold. But the re-organisation committee states that St. Silas's Church shall be vested in the Church Commissioners for sale. If sold, will it be used for a canteen, or even a cinema? Is not this irregular in relation to the Measure now before the House?

Sir J. Crowder

I do not say it is irregular, but this is a different point. The Church Commissioners would sell the church to be pulled down, but not to be used in the ways in which the hon. Gentleman suggests. I think that that is quite clear. The trustees would have every sort of safeguard put in, and it would not be sold for any of the purposes which he suggests.

Resolved: That the Union of Benefices (Disused Churches) Measure, 1952, passed by the National Assembly 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.