HC Deb 21 June 1972 vol 839 cc629-72

Order for consideration, as amended, read.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Miss Harvie Anderson)

Before calling on the hon. Member for York (Mr. Alexander W. Lyon) to move, "That the Bill, as amended, be now considered," I should inform the House that Mr. Speaker has not selected the Amendment in the name of the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley): That the Bill be considered upon this day six months. The substance of the new Clause and of the Amendments to the Preamble to the Bill may be discussed on the Question, "That the Bill, as amended, be now considered". If that Question is agreed to, the new Clause and the Amendments may then be moved formally and divided upon if required.

The new Clause is:


  1. (1) A uniting church may if so authorised by not less than three-fourths of those present and voting at a meeting of the members thereof specially convened for the purpose give twelve months notice of its intention to consider at a further special church meeting a resolution to secede.
  2. (2) Any notice given under the preceding subsection shall be transmitted forthwith to the clerk with a full statement of the grounds upon which secession is to be considered.
  3. (3) A uniting church which has given notice of intention to consider a resolution to secede shall provide written answers to any questions addressed to it by any court of the United Reformed Church and shall consider any written statement and or oral representations made to it by any officer of the United Reformed Church.
  4. (4) A uniting church, having complied with all the foregoing subsections of this section, may if so authorised by not less than three-fourths of those present and voting at a meeting of the members thereof specially convened for the purpose resolve to secede from the United Reformed Church. Any such resolution shall take effect twelve months after the date upon which it was passed unless the Moderator shall appoint an earlier day.
  5. (5) A uniting church which has passed a resolution to secede by virtue of the last preceding subsection may apply to the commissioners for an order in respect of the property used by and any investment belonging to that 630 uniting church. Subsections (3) and (4) of section 15 of this Act shall apply to such property and to any such investment.
  6. (6) This section shall extend to a non-uniting church admitted under section 28 of this Act as it applies to a uniting church.

The Amendments to the Preamble are as follows: In page 2, line 30, leave out from 'Church' to 'have" in line 32.

In line 33, leave out 'the achievement of that end' and insert: 'a union of their respective Churches or denominations'.

Mr. R. J. Maxwell-Hyslop (Tiverton)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. May I ask you to clear up any ambiguity about the hour to which the debate may go? Is there a terminal hour? If there is, may we be told what it is?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

As I understand it, there can be three hours of debate on the consideration of the Bill, as amended, and another hour on the new Clause and Amendments to which I have referred.

11.13 p.m.

Mr. Alexander W. Lyon (York)

I beg to move, That the Bill, as amended, be now considered.

The Bill is one of the most historic Measures in the history of the Christian churches in this country. For the first time since the Reformation two Christian denominations have agreed to joint together in a scheme of union which has been accepted by all the councils of their respective churches by more than the 75 per cent. majority that was required. Therefore, for the first time in the 60 years that the churches have been talking about union we have an effective scheme which is overwhelmingly supported by the Christians in those denominations. For that reason I commend the Bill to the House and feel deeply privileged at being asked to do so.

I put the Bill before the House as a Methodist without detailed knowledge of the practices of Congregationalists or Presbyterians. If detailed issues are raised during the debate my hon. Friend the Member for Farnworth (Mr. Roper) will seek to reply to them. I want to deal with the general issue and then say something about the right and the wisdom of Parliament interfering in the right of Christian churches to come together if they so freely desire.

I begin by stating my belief about Christian unity. One of the three Petitioners against the Bill before the Committee of the House was the father of the hon. Member for Acton (Mr. Spearing), in whose name there stands on the Order Paper a new Clause, which would be a substantial amendment to the Bill. In the course of a letter to The Guardianthis week, it was said by the hon. Member that the Bill was concerned only with property issues and that there was nothing of great controversy in the discussion that would take place tonight. That was not the view of his father when his father put forward a Petition against the Bill.

The second paragraph of the Petition reads thus: To me, Christian history reveals two continuous processes. One process consolidates for increasing authority. The other process separates for increasing freedom. Such is the nature of Christianity and such is the diversity among believers that both processes must continue. For that reason, he put forward the new Clause which his son is to move.

We are, therefore, at the very kernel in considering the new Clause and the issue which lies at the root of this union of the two churches. Always, throughout Christian history, there has been conflict whether Christianity is a matter of individual response to God or the reflection of that through the organisation of the church in which the individual is joined together with fellow Christians. The question of how the church should speak on faith and order has been resolved by different denominations in different ways—from those who believe in authority coming down from the top to those who believe, like the Society of Friends, in the measure of authority that stems from one's personal conviction.

The Congregational Church came to the conclusion that the right structure was that every individual Congregational church was autonomous in decisions about faith and order. For that reason, they have kept that distinctive ethos to the present day, even though, in recent years, over a quarter of a century or so, they have come together for service purposes where they thought that a Congregational Union was helpful. But the Congregational Union as such did not have power to bind the individual congregations.

The Presbyterian Church was organised in a different way. Rather like many other dissenting churches, such as the Methodist and Baptist Churches, it believed in a democratic process up from the ground roots, electing the various councillors to the council at the top. But when the council at the top took a decision by a majority, it was binding on all churches and members of the church.

When these two churches decided to come together in a spirit of wider Christian unity, there were difficulties in resolving these historic traditional differences between the two. There will always be difficulties whenever Christian churches of any denomination want to come together in wider unity, and some concession has to be made by the denominations. There are those who say that for that reason we should not look for Christian unity in the form of organicunion but we should look for it in each Christian being in fellowship with his fellow Christian across the denominational boundaries.

A great deal has been done in that respect in the last 25 years. But all churches, of whatever denomination, have found that that has limited use, because there are always difficulties about the resolution of problems about property, problems about faith, and problems about doctrine.

We in the Methodist Church have been engaged for some time, in consultation with the Anglicans, on how to resolve our historic differences. One of the differences has been that certain Anglicans took the view that Methodists could not join in Holy Communion in an Anglican Church. It is no good saying that the fellowship across the denominational boundaries could overcome that, because the historic commitment of the Anglican Church, through the authority of the bishop, meant that it was impossible to do it in that way. We had to come together in some kind of union.

So with this. What the congregationalists agreed to do was to come into a United Reformed Church where the organisational structure would be, as in the Presbyterian Church, from the ground roots up to the General Assembly at the top, with the General Assembly's decision being binding on all the churches and all members of the church. The Presbyterians agreed to give up their distinctive ethos of an ordained leader who was not a clergyman: he was elected, but elected as an elder for life; he had a particular status in the Presbyterian Church which was perhaps unique to the Presbyterian background.

What the Presbyterians have agreed to do with the new church is that the elder will be elected for only a limited period, to be decided upon by the church. That was that church's contribution to the cause of wider Christian unity.

Therefore, they came together, after 10 years of discussion, going through all the councils of the churches, to talk this over with the steering group that was working for this union, reporting back at intervals over the 10 years and getting affirmative resolutions from each of the councils of the churches, until in the end it had to be put to all the churches.

What they decided to do was this. Every council of the Church had to vote for the union by at least 75.per cent. That was also the commitment of the Anglican-Methodist congregations. Unfortunately, the Synod of the Anglican Church could not manage 75 per cent. All we required was two votes—one in the Methodist Conference and one in the Church Synod. What this required was a vote in the Presbyterian General Assembly which was binding, as always, on the member churches, with the exception that in this scheme any individual Presbyterian church could opt to go out, but then it would need 75 per cent. to go out of the scheme. Two Presbyterian churches agreed to do that.

In the Congregational Church, however, not only had the Congregational Union to vote for membership by 75 per cent., but every regional union had to vote for membership by 75 per cent. Fundamentally, because of the distinctive structure of the Congregational Church, every Congregational church had to vote for union by 75 per cent. To make it even more difficult, 66 per cent. of the churches had to vote for union before union could go through. That was a hurdle that no other test of union has ever had to survive. This one survived it.

The union survived the test in this way. There were 1,668 churches in the Congregational Church which voted for union. They comprised 136,856 members. This represented 73.7 per cent. of the churches. It represented 82.2 per cent. of the enrolled membership.

The House will recognise that, in whatever representative council we care to think of, whether it is a trade union group or any other, one does not get 100 per cent. of the membership at the meeting to vote. I do not suggest that that is what happened in this case. What happened was that the number who turned up as a proportion of the total membership was about 38 per cent. Of those who turned up to vote the result in the individual churches was as I have indicated.

Of the other churches, 465 churches in the Congregational Union decided they could not accept, or did not achieve, the necessary 75 per cent vote. They represented about 25 per cent. of the membership. The proportion of the enrolled membership which voted there was just the same. [An HON. MEMBER: "Very small."] The hon. Members says it was very small, but that was how many of the churches took their decisions. Every decision of a Congregational church is binding upon its members by whatever the majority of the members who are there to vote. It was never intended and never suggested at any stage of the scheme that there had to be a 100 per cent. turnout or any specific percentage turnout. It was only said that the church should make its decision in the way it always had by the councils of the church voting in the usual way and that is what happened.

The overwhelming majority of the churches representing the overwhelming majority of the enrolled membership voted for union. Of the 465 that did not or could not achieve the necessary 75 per cent. majority, 89 have since voted and have achieved that majority and will come in. We now have the situation where hon. Members are moving an Amendment to try to take away the distinctive ethos of the new Church.

The Amendment standing in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Acton would allow any church which was formerly a Congregational church to secede from the new union at any time if it voted twice in the course of a twelve months to leave. That sounds reasonable enough until one examines the nature of the new creature that is being proposed in the scheme. The scheme is for a new Church. Any Congregational church that decided to opt out or any Presbyterian church which decided it could not go in—and there were two—could leave with all their property and church buildings.

The Amendment refers only to those churches which have decided to join the union by a three-quarters majority and which at some stage in the union decide they want to leave it.

My hon. Friend as a Congregationalist asks why the individual church should not have the right to make that decision. The answer is because it is no longer a Congregationalist church. It is a United Reformed church and it is subject to the new governance of the Church which has been introduced as a result of the scheme approved by the overwhelming majority of the adherents in both Churches.

Therefore if any church finds itself unhappy in the new union and cannot live with it and wants to leave, the General Assembly is bound to consider that situation sympathetically. Dr. Huxtable said on behalf of the Congregationalist Church that it was likely that if a case were as important as that, it would be reviewed sympathetically and the church would probably be allowed to leave. But the decision is one for the Church as a whole in the new structure. It is in the same position as the Presbyterians, Methodists and Baptists are now in. The only difficulty comes because of the Congregationalists' ethos. That has been surrendered in the new Church.

There is a technical difficulty about the Amendment of my hon. Friend the Member for Acton which illustrates that. The Bill makes it plain that from the time when the new Church comes into being the old churches disappear. There is no longer such a thing as a uniting church, which is the description in the Bill for an old Congregationalist church that decided to come in. From the moment when the new Church comes into effect, by Clause 5(3)(g) and (h) the uniting church and the uniting congregation disappear.

The Amendment defers to what would be the rôle of a uniting church. There will be no such thing, and therefore strictly speaking it is technically a void Amendment. I do not raise any issue about technicality, but only mention that to illustrate that the church is a new creature and that therefore we cannot go on with the old ideas of Congregationalism or the old ideas of Presbyterianism.

Therefore, the sponsors of the Bill cannot accept the Amendment. If passed, it would wreck the scheme, because it would have to go back to the churches for them to consider the position. That would put back the scheme for several years until the matter came back again through the councils. As all the churches knew about the scheme and about the Bill, it is not to be expected that they would vote differently from the way in which they voted in the past. All that would happen is that we should delay this first scheme of Christian union that much more.

The Bill deals not with the organisation of the new Church but only with what happens to the old trusts. It must come to the House in order that the old trusts can be dealt with. But we must look at the wider issue. Is it right for Parliament to interpose its judgment about what is the right way forward for Christian churches which in their own councils have decided as they thought right what they should do?

The hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. David Steel) and I are the only two hon. Members who are members of the British Council of Churches. There I have met many Anglicans who have been anxiously looking for ways to reform their Church. When I try to encourage them in that direction I always have thrown in my teeth the fact that the 1928 Prayer Book was thrown out by the House. That was a traumatic experience for the Anglican Church from which it has never recovered. It is always arising in discussion that the House of Commons is a body which will interpose its judgment about what it thinks right despite what the Church has said.

Let us lay that ghost tonight for ever. The House does not wish to interfere with the freedom of worship. If the churches decide upon their own course in their own way, it is not right for us to intervene. Still less, I say in sorrow, do I think it right for my hon. Friend the Member for Acton to intervene. He went before his own congregation and urged the course which is in his Amendment, against the union. As I understand it from the secretary of his church, everybody in the church voted for union except him. Now he urges upon the House the same course as he urged before. We cannot accept it. It is impossible for the churches to live in that kind of situation, where they are subject to the whims of a dissident who happens to be a Member of this House. That is not what we are here for, and I ask the House to reject the Amendment if it is put to the vote, and to pass this Bill.

11.35 p.m.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Acton)

I begin by saying how glad I am that the House is reasonably full and that it is taking an interest in this issue. I hope that right hon. and hon. Members will stay and vote, whichever way that may be. I say that because I believe that this House tonight can show that in dealing with these matters—and there may be others of this sort which we shall have to face in the next 10 years—it can lay the ghost of the Prayer Book debates which, I agree, was necessarily a critical debate.

I want to take up at once the challenge made to my right to appear here and move the sort of Amendment I propose. It is not designed as a wrecking Amendment. I will explain to the House why I believe this Bill needs some safeguards and some extra provisions. I have been approached by people within my own denomination who are unhappy about the terms of the Bill and who have been unhappy about the way in which certain events have come about. Parliament has a right to judge whether the Bill shall go through as it is; it also has a right, in its legal capacity, to decide whether the Bill requires safeguards. In such circumstances, it would be wrong for me to say that I can take no part in this because I just happen to have a particular personal interest, which my hon. Friend has outlined and which I confess at once.

I have no wish to stop the Bill from going through. I believe it would be quite wrong for me to do so because my own church wishes it to go through, as my hon. Friend has said. The point at issue is under what conditions the Parliament of this country believes certain charitable trusts can be, in effect, reversed. What sort of conditions does it require for a wholesale reversal of these trusts? Have the conditions been met? These are the questions at issue.

It is my case that by and large this House should require the sort of safeguards I propose in the Amendment—and I take my hon. Friend's point about the technicalities. I concede at once that a Parliamentary Committee has looked at a similar request because it included all the churches and not just ex-Congregational ones.

The whole history of this House and of Congregationalism has been about the self-determination of a gathered group of Christians in one place where the highest authority is the church meeting. It is right and proper perhaps for individual Congregational churches to say, "We do not wish to continue that form of church government." But that is where the legal aspect comes in. My hon. Friend said that in my letter to The Guardian on Saturday I said that this was a legal Bill, I wish to quote a particular phrase from my letter. I said: The Bill —not the union is not specifically religious because it is mainly concerned with changing trust deeds. I do not want to follow my hon. Friend too far into theological matters, because I am looking at this matter, from the House's point of view, as a legality. I join him in many ecumenical ventures; I am ecumenical in outlook. But this House has a responsibility, particularly in view of the historic nature of these trusts and the irrevocability of the vote which has already been taken in certain churches. He, for the first time as far as I know, has given the percentage of vote. What he has not given us is the percentage either way within that group; nor has he given the percentage inside the Presbyterian Church. I come to the point about the figures.

Mr. Alexander W. Lyon

Could I correct that? I did not give the percentage because I could not find the document. The position is that for the United Churches 35 per cent. voted in favour and 2½ per cent. of the enrolled membership voted against. For those who decided not to unite 30 per cent. voted against the scheme and 17 per cent. of the enrolled membership of those churches voted in favour of the scheme. In the Presbyterian churches I do not have the percentage broken down, but of those who voted there were, of the two small churches, 18 voting in favour of the Union and 197 voting against, out of 60,000 in the Presbyterian churches.

Mr. Spearing

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for these figures. Some of our difficulty can be judged from the fact that this is the first time to my knowledge that these figures have been released. As 75 per cent. in the Presbyterian church need to vote to go out, the actual number who voted for and against the scheme is important. I will not weary the House with that now.

I do not discount the organic union of the Church. There are many ways in which Christian unity can be expressed, not least in the co-operation of Christian churches of many traditions in a community. I am glad that my own Council of Churches works very well in this respect. If there is to be organic union of the sort canvassed widely and which, rightly or wrongly has not been achieved by the Anglicans and the Methodists, then in the mixing of the traditions of the Christian churches we must be sure that this is soundly based in every respect. This House has to take account of the legal matters and I want to put one or two suggestions as to the tests we should apply whether this is firmly founded.

My hon. Friend has mentioned the voting and I am sorry he has not been able to give the Presbyterian figures because it may be that with 75 per cent. needing to come out in the Presbyterian churches there could be a significant number of Presbyterians who actually voted against this Measure. We do not know how many there are and that could lead to difficulties because the Presbyterian churches are fewer—308 as against 15,000 Congregational churches. Now to these tests.

We assume that a good deal of information was given to Congregational Church members concerning the changes that would emerge from the union. There may be votes but we know in this place that it is information before the vote that is important. To my knowledge there was no summary of the vast changes taking place in the Congregational Church. My hon. Friend has rightly said that the basic traditions of Congrega- tionalism beliefs are disappearing. There was a Scheme of Union which was sent round and there were many copies of this. I do not know how many, and I have asked about this but there has been no reply. There was no summary pamphlet as far as I know given to each member of the Congregational Church. So we have great difficulty in knowing the actual number of people who had something on paper.

As to the legal matter of property, we read in this Scheme of Union on page 11 subsection (2)—and this is a matter of property which is vital in terms of individual church self-determination—that: Property held for or in connection with a uniting church or congregation … is to be held for or similarly in connection with the corresponding local church of the new Church … Existing … trust deeds, are to be replaced by new trusts: see Schedule 2 to the Bill. If we turn to the back of this book we find in Schedule 2 that there are indeed trustees and in respect of a church having full control of its own property the councils of the new church, rightly or wrongly, have power under Schedule 2(5) to dispose of the church premises or to say that they are no longer useful if in their judgment they believe that to be true.

Mr. John Roper (Farnworth)

Would my hon. Friend agree that if we turn to page 10 of the Guide, at the bottom of paragraph 9 in the summary there is also a reference to the fact that it would be the Synod that would have ultimate control over the alteration and the disposal of church property? It would not be necessary to go to the end of the book or to the Schedule to see this.

Mr. Spearing

My hon. Friend may be right. Nevertheless it overturns the basic principle of Congregationalism and I do not know how many people had this book.

The second point is rather more serious, in my view, because it affects the sort of criteria we would wish to apply when looking at the joining of Christian churches. I am very jealous of the power and the influence of the Christian churches. I am sorry to see that in this particular union there was a condition placed upon certain ministers and churches. I was surprised to find it, and in my mind it engenders no confidence for the future. Indeed, people have said to me that this particular requirement has caused great trouble inside the Congregational Church. That provision says: A minister of a non-uniting church or congregation who resigns and also sends his name to the Clerk to the new General Assembly with a view to eventual appointment to a new local church may expect to receive reasonable interim financial support". The difficulty about that is that if a minister of a church wishes to come into the new scheme and the church does not, then before the vote is taken there is a special church meeting, and, if there is not the 75 per cent., he will have to go. The relevant Clause does not make it very clear when he should resign; but it says he should resign. It seems to me that that provision is not fundamental to the scheme, but it muddies the difficulties for a church member, because he would have to take into account, were the75 per cent. not reached, whether he would wish the minister to retain the pastorate of the church.

I quote from a letter received by a church member from her minister: Would it be possible for you to express your disapproval of the course taken, for your loyalty to the Congregational Association —which is the alternative body, which was in existence— by abstaining from voting? In other words, in certain circumstances—I am not suggesting they would be widespread—the difficulties caused by this and other provisions would mean that certain ministers would be in difficulties with their own congregations. We have here an inbuilt factor which one would not expect to find in the sort of unity which we hope to find in Christian churches.

It is true that the Committee of the House which heard the argument for the Bill rejected certain Petitions. I wish to read the findings of that Committee: The Committee, however, drew attention to the undertaking given by the promoters that the United Reformed Church will give very careful consideration to requests made in due form by individual churches to secede from the United Reformed Church, taking with them their property". This undertaking was given by the promoters, quite properly, but only in that Committee.

The object of the new Clause goes a little further than that, as my hon. Friend the Member for York mentioned. It takes the onus from the Assembly, which is the authoritative body, on to the church, after due consideration—a whole year after notice of wish to secede, a year for conversations and questions, and then another vote.

I hope that the House, considering these ancient trusts and this ancient tradition of independence, with their very great intermingling with the history of this House, would safeguard the trusts, the heirs and successors, who become members of the United Reformed Churches—as I may myself become, for I hope the Bill will go through in some form. I hope the House will give some protection against arbitrary power, and the arbitrary power of the Church Council, which has been no part of the life of the majority of the churches in this particular communion. That is why, it being a legal matter, Parliament is the only body which can judge. If we are to have a soundly-based Christian union of churches, it must have a legal foundation so that there is no doubt whatsoever.

Mr. Eddie Griffiths (Sheffield, Brightside)


Mr. Spearing

I am sorry that my hon. Friend disagrees. I hope that when the churches join together there will be sufficient confidence among those who are being united that any doubts can be assuaged by a legal enactment in the Bill.

Mr. Griffiths

Does not my hon. Friend agree that if Christian men and women of whatever denomination wish to join together the last thing they want is to be told by law what is right and what is wrong? If they wish to join together, according to Christian philosophy, they will find a Christian solution to their problems and not a legal solution as my hon. Friend suggests.

Mr. Spearing

I think my hon. Friend has misunderstood what I have been saying. I do not believe that there should necessarily be legal powers of compulsion inside a Christian denomination. That is precisely the difference between the Congregational element and the other element. The existence of Districts, Synods and the Assembly—the Assembly has the final power on matters of belief and practice—brings into the structure a religious authoritarianism.

We should insert into the Bill a protective Clause providing that in the event of disagreement the church is not held by law, as it is if the Bill goes through as it stands. Once the churches move together by a vote, if there is any dispute they cannot secede, and it is the duty of the House to give that protection.

My hon. Friend has said that if the new Clause is accepted it will wreck the Bill. That may or may not be so; I hope not. Minorities have every right to the protection provided by the new Clause. If it delays union by one year, or even three years, is that not a small price to pay for the coming together of two denominations after 300 years? If my hon. Friend is right in saying that the insertion of the new Clause would wreck the whole idea of union, does not that reflect more upon the nature of the union as negotiated than upon the safeguarding Clause?

As an ecumenical Christian, I hope that any union will be founded on confidence and trust so that in surrendering their practices and beliefs the congregations can be assured that they will not be subjected to any arbitrary power from which they cannot escape.

The new Clause will give that degree of flexibility and confidence in the United Reformed Church that will make it the success I want it to be. I hope the new Clause will be accepted. If not, at least, I hope that hon. Members will remain until the debate ends.

11.55 p.m.

Mr. Michael Clark Hutchison (Edinburgh, South)

I speak as a member of the Church of Scotland and as the grandson of a Moderator and son in law of the Clerk to Presbytery in Aberdeen.

The Church of Scotland favours this move towards unity. This is the first time that two churches of different denominations have come together and it is very welcome. I think I am right in saying that ministers of the new United Reformed Church, whether they have been Presbyterians or Congregationalists, will be able to speak in the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in Edinburgh and would be welcome.

It seems to me that these few words, giving an idea of what we in the Church of Scotland think, might be of use to the House on this important question.

11.56 p.m.

Mr. David Steel (Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles)

The hon. Member for York (Mr. Alexander W. Lyon), in introducing this debate, made such a clear and admirable speech that it is almost superfluous for anyone else to say anything in support of this Measure and many will share my desire to get on as quickly as possible to a conclusion.

The fact that so many are here shows our interest in this provision but I want, as briefly, I hope, as the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Clark Hutchison), to say that when a Bill of this kind has already been through the other place and has been under examination by a Committee of this House and is designed basically and technically to facilitate a union, and has been discussed, as the hon. Member for York rightly pointed out, by the two churches for a decade, it ill becomes this House at the last minute to try to throw a spanner in the works. When the great majorities in these conversations which have taken place in both churches have come to a conclusion on this matter, I hope we should feel able to let the Bill pass without further obstacle.

I am perhaps prejudiced in favour of this union—if, like the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South, we are declaring our personal experiences—because my father was a minister in the Presbyterian Church, in Scotland, of course, and my mother was brought up in the Congregational Church. I have always been prejudiced in favour of unions of this kind.

My regret is that conversations north of the border have not proceeded at the same speed to the same happy conclusion as they have in the south. The fact that this is the first union across the denominational lines since the Reformation is a significant point for this House. Somebody wandering into this debate a few minutes ago might have concluded that we were enacting a scenario from a Trollope novel, so abtruse were the interesting points being discussed.

Often in our general debates, when we are not discussing church matters specifically, we hear references to the impact of the Christian churches and Christianity on our country as a whole, but I believe that one obstacle to the continued impact of the Christian churches in our country as a whole is the scandal of disunity. If, in this not radical but relatively minor step forward in a church unity, the House of Commons were to create an obstacle in any way, it would be to our everlasting shame.

11.59 p.m.

Mr. Marcus Worsley (Chelsea)

We have heard views from the different points of the ecclesiastical compass and it would be suitable if an Anglican were to speak at this juncture.

I respond to what has just been said on the unity of the churches and many Anglicans feel a bit ashamed, especially in a debate opened by a Methodist, by our failure to respond to the tremendous gestures made by the Methodists in seeking unity with us. Many of us feel that we would want to do our best to help this forward as a real measure of unification between two Christian churches.

I wish to make only one simple point. Had the unification scheme between the Anglicans and the Methodists come to fruition, we, as Anglicans, would have had to come to this House for permission to unify. Whether that should be so is a matter that we can discuss some other time. But it is not necessary for Congregationalists and Presbyterians getting together to seek the permission of this House, and they come to this House only to achieve certain powers over property and trusts.

If we turn down this Bill or amend it in a wrecking way, it is clear that we shall be using our power over property and trusts to frustrate this measure of unity between the churches. That would be an abuse of our power. I should regard with great alarm the situation which would arise if two churches decided on this step after tremendous consultation over many years and this House said to them, on the ground that the trusts ought to be amended differently, "No. We shall not allow you to come together."

I feel that the great majority of, if not all, right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House who are Anglicans will support this Measure and wish it Godspeed.

12.1 a.m.

Mr. Anthony Wedgwood Benn (Bristol, South-East)


Sir Charles Taylor (Eastbourne)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I may be wrong about this, but I seek your advice. Will the right hon. Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn) speak for the official Opposition from the Opposition Front Bench? If not, would not it be more customary, regular and according to past practices if the right hon. Gentleman spoke from one of the back benches?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Robert Grant-Ferris)

No. The hon. Member for Eastbourne (Sir C. Taylor) is wrong. There is no distinction made between benches in this House, except by common custom. All benches in the House are free to any hon. Member who can find a place in which to sit.

Mr. Benn

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Sir C. Taylor) for raising that point. I raised a similar point with my Chief Whip, asking from which position I should speak, thinking, as the hon. Gentleman does, that my contribution would come more appropriately from one of the back benches I was advised that it was customary for aright hon. or hon. Member to speak from his customary place in a case like this but to explain that he was speaking for himself, as was my intention. Since I now have the opportunity to speak from one of the back benches, at any rate I shall not be accused of making a long Front Bench speech.

Two points have struck me in the debate so far. The first came from my hon. Friend the Member for York (Mr. Alexander W. Lyon), who drew attention to what happened in the 1928 Prayer Book debate and said that it would be quite wrong for Parliament to repeat that. I agree with my hon. Friend. That is not the point at issue. We are not discussing the administration of any church.

The other point was made by the hon. Member for Chelsea (Mr. Worsley), who said that it would be wrong for Parliament to frustrate the wishes of these two churches to come together. I fully support what the hon. Gentleman said. There is no proposal in my mind nor in that of my hon. Friend the Member for Acton (Mr. Spearing) in any way to frustrate the union of the two churches which have come together.

We are considering whether it is right for Parliament to legislate in such a way—for we have to legislate to do it—to extinguish for all time the property rights of churches which have now voted by a majority to enter into the United Reformed Church. That is a proper task for Parliament. That is why we are here today. If we are considering the Congregational Church, with all the contributions it has made over the centuries to the right of dissent, I hope that the House will listen patiently if some dissenters within the Congregational Church have their case put for a different way of handling these property matters.

There is no doubt that the ecumenical movement, of which this union is a part, has captured the imagination of the Christian churches and the House in recent years. Looking across the waters to Northern Ireland we are reminded of what happens when denominational differences are still used as a justification for dispute and warfare.

There are two views whether the ecumenical movement should express itself in organic unity, as proposed in the Bill, or by a mosaic of unity in diversity in which churches build upon their own foundation. That argument is in part what lies behind the Amendment. After all the labour, effort, love and devotion which has gone into the preparation of this union, I would not ask the House to frustrate in any way the union of those churches which wish to come together.

What we are considering is whether it is right that Parliament, by using its power, should shut out for churches which wish to join the new Church the right, if they wish, to leave it by a majority vote, twice recorded after careful consideration, under provisions laid down by the new Clause before the House. That is the sole and simple issue which lies for consideration in the new Clause.

My hon. Friend the Member for York pointed out that there were 465 churches which had not wished to join the new United Reform Church. My hon. Friend pointed out that 89 of them had come back to it and were likely to reconsider their position. If it is the case that churches which are now outside are to join, what possible objection can there be that by a similar majority vote the churches that have gone in, if they wish under the provisions laid down by Parliament, can leave the United Reform Church after due consideration?

Mr. Eddie Griffiths

Will my right hon. Friend make up his mind whether he wants the union of the Presbyterian and Congregational Churches, or whether he is making an argument for the minority which wants to opt out? My right hon. Friend is making a pseudo-political argument—I do not mean "political" in the true sense of the word—in favour of opting out rather than giving full hearted blessing to the union between the Congregationalists and Presbyterians which will enable them to go ahead with the Christian work that is ahead of them rather than make all sorts of excuses.

Mr. Benn

If my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Eddie Griffiths) allows me to make my speech, he will hear the line of argument which I am putting to the House. To give the historic background, it ill befits the House, which learned its liberty of conscience made over the centuries, to dismiss even a small minority of Congregationalists who wish to retain—it is for them to decide—the Congregational tradition of autonomous government described in Clause 1.

I do not mean in any way to engage in strong argument tonight. However, Congregationalism is synonymous with the right of people to decide for themselves how they will worship God, organise their affairs and run their affairs. However small the minority may be, if there were only five churches that had not wished to join or only two that were in and wished to leave, that would not be a mean cause to come to Parliament and ask us to provide, if we think fit, that they should be able to do so under proper arrangements.

I shall go on to try to meet the arguments that might be put against so doing. First, it might be thought that those who promote the union believe that they should seal the frontiers between the new Church and other churches. But that is not so, because Clause 28 provides that any non-uniting church can join at any time. I fully support Clause 28.

Is it because the new Church is firmly set against anybody leaving it? Not at all. As hon. Members who have followed the matter know, a Mr. Huxtable, giving evidence to the Committee which recently sat under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley (Mr. John Robertson), made it clear that he could visualise circumstances in which churches would leave. I will not weary the House at this hour with the quotation, but he made it clear that, for instance, the church in Wales might want to hive off.

Mr. Eddie Griffiths


Mr. Benn

Because of another scheme of union. When pressed on the possibility of other churches wishing to leave, Mr. Huxtable made it clear that he was ready to contemplate that situation.

Is it that nobody can conceive of any circumstances in which any church might wish to leave such a union? We have the experience of the United States where, only 10 years ago, a similar union was established into which 100 churches went with the high hopes expressed by hon. Members tonight and subsequently decided to leave, not because they did not want Christian unity, but because, as my hon. Friend the Member for York said with clarity and candour, Congregationalism, as we know it, is ending and a new Church is coming forward. My hon. Friend would, I am sure, be the first to admit this is a fundamental change in what is known as Congregationalism.

Mr. Alexander W. Lyon

My right hon. Friend is in error on one point. A congregation is a church in the Congregational Church. A Presbyterian congregation is merely part of the total Presbyterian Church. The order in the Presbyterian Church is that the council of the church, the General Assembly, designates the policy for the whole Church. When a Congregational church wants to join the union, it is for the individual congregation to make that decision. When it wants to come out of the United Reformed Church it is merely part of a total Church. It is not just an autonomous congregation any more. It has finished with that; it has become part of a total Church. It is for that reason there is a distinction between going in and coming out. My right hon. Friend got his figures wrong about America. Only 20 churches withdrew over 10 years.

Mr. Benn

In fairness, my hon. Friend, who presented his argument with clarity and candour, has made the point I was seeking to make. The very thing that brought churches out in the United States might bring churches out in Britain. When they discover the change which my hon. Friend described so clearly, they may feel that, because it is different from Congregationalism, to which they have adhered for hundreds of years, they would rather be out working with the new church than remain in. That is the nub of the issue we are considering.

We are not asked to adjudicate between one view and another; we, as Parliament, are asked to provide a fair system for handling property when these matters come to be settled.

This point was brought out absolutely clearly in the Committee upstairs by Mr. Drinkwater's cross-examination of Mr. Watson in which it was established that, under the provisions of the Bill, if a church wishes to leave it has to get the approval of the General Assembly of the new Church made up of a minority of former Presbyterians, whereas the Congregational Amendment, which I support, wants the right to leave to be provided in the Bill.

The question before the House is this: when dealing with the property of others, of bequests and trusts given to the Congregational Church over many hundreds of years, are we so sure that we are right to say that once one 75 per cent. majority vote has been cast the autonomous nature of that church comes to an end? That is the argument; it is no more than that.

Mr. Tom Ellis (Wrexham)

Is my right hon. Friend saying that we are concerned with legal technicalities or that we are concerned with the continuance of Congregationalism?

Mr. Benn

We are concerned in this Bill only with property rights. Congregationalists are autonomous, not only in the way in which they worship God and in the way in which they call their ministers but in the way in which they organise and control their property. Therefore, it is extremely difficult to deal with the property question, which is all that is before us, without coming to the heart of Congregationalism at the moment when we discuss it.

I know that the House wants the union; I am not opposed to the union. I know that the House wants the Bill; I am not opposed to the Bill. But I beg the House to listen to my argument because it has the support of a number of people who fear that the Congregational identity and hence its contribution to our society will accidentally be snuffed out by a legislative provision which we all support because we are so strongly in favour of Christian unity.

Mr. Huxtable, who has dedicated himself to this union, made it clear in the Committee that he could foresee circumstances in which the General Assembly would let out churches. By the new Clause we are trying to legislate to help him to ensure that what he thinks will happen does happen, because otherwise we are relying on the word of a dedicated individual who cannot speak for the General Assembly.

The difficulty is that the Bill provides for the extinction of what we call Congregationalism. I invite hon. Members to look at paragraph (1) of the preamble to the Bill, which reads: The Congregational Church in England and Wales … is a voluntary unincorporated association of autonomous groups of persons … of the congregational denomination the affairs of which are regulated by a council and an assembly". That is Congregationalism. Clause by Clause, the pillars of that Congregationalism are removed in favour of a new sort of Church.

I do not know how many churches who go in will realise later how big a sacrifice they have made in pursuit of organic unity. There may be very few; there may be none. But even if only one or two churches believe, on reflection, that they may have paid too high a price for Christian unity by giving up a 300 or 400-year-old tradition, we must be sure that we have legislated in such a way as to provide that this is possible.

Mr. Eddie Griffiths

I wonder whether my right hon. Friend would like to comment on the debit and credit sides of union. How many Congregationalists—and I include myself—would feel that they had given up a certain amount of Christian philosophy by the union? My right hon. Friend speaks of 300 or 400 years of heritage. Would he talk, not in materials terms, but in Christian terms?

Mr. Benn

Three generations of Congregationalists went to make me. I am not a Congregationalist, but the sense of debt that I feel to the Congregational Church for the contribution it made to the maintenance of the liberties of this land is such that the least I can do is to make the case for the minority who believe that liberty of conscience requires them to ask Parliament to make it possible for them to leave.

Minorities and majorities have their rights, but my hon. Friend must know, after the passage of the Act of Uniformity what succesive Parliaments have done to dissenters and how it is the Congregationalists who have taught this Parliament time and again the lessons of liberty which we now have to remember in considering a small minority of that church.

Dame Patricia Hornsby-Smith (Chislehurst)

How can the right hon. Gentleman reconcile his democratic faith with the fact that a 75 per cent majority locally is right but he discards an 80 per cent. majority which is cumulative nationally?

Mr. Benn

The right hon. Lady may not have heard my argument clearly. If she had done she would know that I am asking for no majority to be overturned in any church. I am saying that if 75 per cent. wish to join to United Reformed Church, good luck to them. The Bill is for them, and we should pass it and let them go in. But if 75 per cent. of that church later wish to come out, we should not have frustrated them by our legislative eagerness to make possible the original union without providing for an orderly way that they can return to the nature of their autonomous independent Congregationalism.

There is nothing that I am advocating that would in any way overturn the democratic principle. The right hon. Lady will know that the basis of Congregationalism is the gathered church, the priesthood of all believers, the common ownership of property within the church and the rejection of outside authority.

Mr. Eddie Griffiths


Mr. Benn

I have yielded to my hon. Friend already. I wonder whether he would allow me to develop my argument a little further.

I have received, as other hon. Members have, a number of letters on this subject, and one which came to me says what I have tried, in less good words, to say: That foundation principle of the Congregational churches states that they were founded upon full recognition of their own distinctive principle, namely, the scriptural right of every separate church to maintain perfect independence in the government and administration of its own affairs. That is Congregationalism and that, as my hon. Friend the Member for York said, will be fundamentally changed by the Bill. Many others have written in a similar vein expressing anxiety on this score.

I apologise for having spoken for so long. I believe that the House would be least advised of all to disregard or dislike a minority view on this matter. For the reasons which I have given, I believe that this Parliament and this House of Commons have been more enriched by the Congregational tradition than by almost any other heritage that we have drawn from the past, and the least that we can do in considering the future of that great Church and its desire to join others is to have regard now for those who, rightly or wrongly, see their way forward in the maintenance of the autonomous principles of Congregationalism. The new Clause, which is carefully constructed not to wreck the Bill, should commend itself to the House.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I understand the reason for the large attendance—property is involved—but I wonder whether you could assist me on an important matter. How is it that certain hon. Members who have made a solemn and binding undertaking not to be present after midnight find themselves here tonight? Would you assist me to get rid of the hon. Members on the Liberal bench?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I think that the hon. Members suggestion is rather improper.

12.25 a.m.

Rev. Ian Paisley (Antrim, North)

We have listened with interest to what has become a debate on ecumenism. I should be very happy to debate that. But tonight I do not propose to deal with something that does not concern the House. What concerns the House is the Bill. The Title states: An Act to make provision as to property held on behalf of the Congregational Church in England and Wales and its member churches and of the Presbyterian Church of England, and for other purposes incidental to or consequential upon the formation of the United Reformed Church (Congregational-Presbyterian) in England and Wales. It will be seen—[An HON. MEMBER: "Not Northern Ireland."] As hon. Members on the Opposition benches have acted to the detriment of Members of Parliament for Northern Ireland in putting over constituency matters in Northern Ireland debates, as a Member of the House I am entitled to take the opportunity in this debate and I shall do so.

Tonight it seems that the Motion raised in the House is not on the issues before the House but whether all of us should be asked to give our blessing to a union between the Congregational Church and the Presbyterian Church. If those churches want to enter into a union, that is their business and the House should have no say—and has no say—in that matter. The leaflet circulated by the sponsors of the Bill makes plain that No parliamentary sanction is necessary to confirm this act of conviction namely the coming together of the two churches. If they so desire, these two churches can come together, and it is no business of the House.

I believe that the State should not interfere in the Church and that the Church should not interfere in the State. [Interruption.] I knew that I would hear those remarks. But the Church has every right to use its influence like any other body, and if it wants to sponsor candidates or to support a line of thought it is entitled to do so. After all, the Liberal Party was once the voice of English non-conformity in this land. There is no need for noises from any part of the House about this matter. I believe—I know that there will be loud opposition when I say this—that the Church of England should be disestablished and should stand on its own legs and look after its own affairs.

It has been suggested tonight that this is a parallel case to the debate that took place in this honourable House over the Prayer Book of 1928. But no parallel can be drawn because that was a debate on doctrine. I do not want to enter into that tonight—although I should value the opportunity so to do—because I should not be in order.

However, there is a parallel in the history of both Houses of Parliament, and that is the Free Church case. The Free Church of Scotland entered into a union with the United Presbyterian Church of Scotland. As a result of that union, action was taken by the continuing Free Church members. It was carried through the courts in Scotland and came before the House of Lords. The House of Lords decided that the property should remain with the people who were continuing to uphold the basis upon which the trusts concerning that property were based. The House of Lords decided that the property should become the property of the continuing Free Church. This is a relative issue that we should discuss and a parallel case.

It has been widely circulated by the sponsors of the Bill that the purpose of those who have opposed the Bill is to seek in some way to stop the union. It is not possible for the House to stop the union, for this union does not need any sanction from the House. What I would like the House to do, is to have a look at the property and also at the way in which the Bill came before the House.

A booklet was published entitled "Joint Committee for Conversations between the Congregational Church in England and Wales and the Presbyterian Church of England". The booklet sets forth the basis of the Bill. In this booklet great disrespect is shown to the House, because the booklet says that the Bill would automatically become an Act.

Mr. Alexander W. Lyon


Rev. Ian Paisley

I will read the relevant passage from page 8: (1) This explanation is designed to help members of the two denominations in their consideration of the accompanying Scheme and Bill, which are necessarily somewhat technical in form. The aim is to explain shortly what the structure of the proposed new Church will be, how members and ministers of existing local churches will be affected, how the assets of existing churches will be dealt with, and how it is intended to bring the new Church into existence. Doctrinal matters are not here considered. (2) The general constitution of the new Church is set out in the Scheme. The Bill supplements the Scheme by providing for matters, mostly relating to church property and trusts, which cannot be dealt with privately but need legislative authority. That is what we are discussing now. If the necessary preliminary resolutions are passed, the Scheme will eventually be adopted by a 'Uniting Declaration'. This will be made by a meeting of the combined Assemblies of the two existing Churches and will on the day on which it is made (the 'date of formation') bringing the new Church into existence and the Scheme into operation. The Bill will by then have received Royal Assent. There is no suggestion that the Bill could be amended. There is no suggestion that the House might want to reconsider it. It will just automatically receive Royal Assent. It continues: and it too will operate as from the date of formation, so that in effect the new Church will come into existence and be subject to the provisions of the Scheme and the Bill (now an Act of Parliament), on that day, which is expected to be in the latter part of 1972. There is no suggestion that the Bill may not be acceptable to the House in regard to its content.

In the leaflet which has been sent to all Members of the House—I take it that it has been sent to all Members—the promoters say that they very respectfully submit that the matter having been referred to a Committee of your Honourable House and dealt with by them should not now be re-opened". So they would deny the House the right even to discuss the Bill. What is more, the last page of the leaflet says that if any Amendment is made to the Bill, the Bill will have to be withdrawn—that the House must take it all or nothing.

All this illustrates that the way that the Bill has been brought before the House has not shown much respect for the House. Many people think that we should not discuss it at all but should just pass it en bloc— —

Mr. Eddie Griffiths

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Will the hon. Gentleman indicate his interest in this matter? I have followed the hon. Gentleman's career in the House. This is the first time in his career here that we have heard him talk about a subject which has nothing to do with Northern Ireland.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. That is not a point of order for me. The hon. Gentleman knows that.

Rev. Iain Paisley

Surely an hon. Member has the right to express himself on any subject, and this being a Private Member's Bill anyone who wishes to do so can take part in the debate. It was because I put up the barrier to prevent the Bill passing through the House quickly that the debate is taking place. This has also given hon. Members on the Labour benches the opportunity to speak. The hon. Member is most welcome to take part and we shall listen with interest to what he has to say.

Another matter has been stressed relating to the large size of the majority, but how were the figures arrived at? On page 19 of the first day's proceedings in Committee when the Minister Secretary of the Congregational Church in England and Wales was being cross-examined, he said that 1,668 churches, comprising 136,856 members have resolved to unite. When he was cross-examined about the figure it was discovered that these numbers did not all resolve to unite. On page 27 reference is made by Mr. Woolley to the Warwich Road, Coventry, Congregational Church. The church had 550 members. At the church meeting 100 members voted in favour of union but it was reckoned that as a two-thirds majority was achieved at that meeting the whole 550 must be regarded as voting in favour of the union although there was a substantial vote against the proposal. We have received the percentage of the people voting from the hon. Member who is sponsoring the Bill, and this is the first time the House has been given that percentage.

Mr. Roper

The hon. Member referred to two-thirds of the members voting in favour. It would have been three-quarters in this case. My hon. Friend the Member for York (Mr. Alexander W. Lyon) also pointed out that 38 per cent. of the total voted, making 47,000 voting in favour of uniting the Churches and only 2,555 voting against.

Rev. Ian Paisley

The hon. Member is right but he must concede this: it is not right to say that 136,856 resolved to unite, because that includes the entire membership. I am glad the hon. Member nods his head in approval. That figure is the total membership of the uniting churches, but there was only a two-thirds majority of those who voted. It is misleading to say that they resolved to unite when some members did not even attend the meeting and others actually voted against the proposal. How can they have resolved to unite?

There is another point concerning the Presbyterian churches. They had the right to opt out of the union, not the right to vote to go in. So far we have had no percentage of the Presbyterians who attended the meetings at which the decision was taken who voted to opt out. They could have been in a majority and yet, because the necessary two-thirds majority was not achieved, they were not regarded as dissenting from the proposal for union.

Various trusts are to be changed by one sweep of the Bill, which is a serious matter. People have given their money to support a particular form of Christianity. They have said that they want that money to be invested so that that particular form of Christianity can carry out its witness. Tonight we are to change thousands of trust deeds, because all the Congregational churches concerned are held on individual trust deeds. Some of the older ones are held with a rider that certain doctrines should be upheld by the particular church. By one sweep, Parliament is tonight to wipe out what has been legally established over many years and to say that the deeds must all be changed to conform to one title deed, as suggested in the scheme of union before us. That is something in which every hon. Member is entitled to take an interest. The matter could lead to great litigation, because some of the trust deeds have a proviso clause that if the church is ever sold the money must go to a church of like faith and order.

The matter is one not of ecumenical union but of property. [Interruption.] There is no mention of ecumenicism in the Bill. It would be against the power and authority of the House to try to say to any Church, "You should unite with another." I am sure that the hon. Gentleman who made such a stupid intervention has not even read the scheme of union, let alone the minutes of the meeting upstairs.

Mr. Michael English (Nottingham, West)

Is not the hon. Gentleman now denying the powers of the House in the way he earlier accused the document of doing?

Rev. Ian Paisley

No, I am simply saying that the House has no legal right to push the Congregational or the Presbyterian Church into a union, or to say that they should not have the union. They have the absolute power in themselves to have the union. That is not disputed in their own statement, which has been circulated, that: No parliamentary sanction is necessary to confirm this act of conviction namely the coming together of the two churches. That is the point I am trying to establish. I repeat that the matter has to do with property, and that is where the House comes into it.

Mr. Timothy Raison (Aylesbury)

My hon. Friend says, I think fairly, that the Bill is about property. I assume that his proposed new Clause is also about property, but the first four subsections have nothing to do with property. They define a procedure by which people may secede from the Church. It therefore seems to me that it is not a logical argument that my hon. Friend is putting forward.

Rev. Ian Paisley

The whole aim of the Amendment is that the people can secede and if they have a majority still retain their property.

I want to make one other point about the Amendments standing in my name. The Preamble to the Bill says The Assembly of the Congregational Church and the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church being convinced that the will of God is a union of their respective churches … It does not say "the will of God for them" but "the will of God". That strikes at the dissenters and those that have left, those that do not want to be in the union. My simple Amendment to the Preamble is to take those words out of the Bill and to let those concerned decide why they want or do not want the union. Let this House not be asked to decide who has the mind of the Almighty on this subject.

12.45 a.m.

Mr. Norman St. John-Stevas (Chelmsford)

I wish to say a few words in support of the hon. Member for York (Mr. Alexander W. Lyon) who—it seems a long time ago—spoke so restrainedly and sincerely and movingly. I dissent from only one thing in that he seemed to cast, I am sure unintentionally, some doubt on the motivation of the hon. Member for Acton (Mr. Spearing). I would only say a word of warning, if I may lapse into my native Latin, there that there is only one thing worse than odium politicum, and that is odium theologicum.

I feel at a slight disadvantage in this debate. There are those who, like my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Clark Hutchison), can produce a Moderator of the Church as an ancestor. Others have produced ministers. I wish I could produce a bishop as my paternal ancestor, but it would also do neither me nor that hypothetical person very much good.

A few years ago, it would have been asked why I, as a Roman Catholic, was intervening in this debate at all. Roman Catholics might have said, "What is it to us if conventicles of heretics wish to get together?" Others might have said, "What right has the 'scarlet woman', speaking through one of her lackeys, to make a contribution to this kind of discussion?" Those times are fortunately passed and we consider these questions in the whole context of Christian unity.

In one sense, I suppose that this is a minor occasion. It is taking place late at night in the House. On the other hand, it is remarkable how many right hon. and hon. Members are here, and, I think, if one looks at our debates on the European Communities Bill, one can say that at least Christianity is a greater draw than the Common Market. Some doubt has been expressed about right hon. Members speaking from the Front Bench. I welcome right hon. Members from the Front Bench here on a religious topic; it may well do them some good. They, as we well know, are more endowed with original sin than are back benchers. That is why they are where they are and we are where we are.

This is a matter in which I dissent from the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley). It concerns much more than property. Property brings the issue before us, but much wider issues than that are involved. What is involved here in a particular way is the whole ecumenical issue which is now before the country. It is right that it should be discussed in the House of Commons. I think that what the Measure represents is this—that although there may be differences at the intellectual level, although there may be differences about theology between various branches of the Christian Church, on the level of feeling, of what people desire, those divisions are gone.

I remember talking about this to the Patriarch Athanagoras of Constantinople. He said, "I am surprised to find that all theologians, in whatever Church they may be found, seem to have had the same mother." I think that it is appropriate that the House of Commons, which is a non-theological body can give a lead in this direction, which theologians cannot.

This is a union which concerns the Congregationalists and the Presbyterians. I have had some experience not of the Presbyterian Church but of the Congregational Church, because we have a very flourishing Congregational community in Chelmsford and members of that community have written and, indeed, telegraphed, to me to seek my support for this Measure tonight.

This must be seen as part of a wider move for Christian unity, not only of Congregationalists and Presbyterians coming together, but of Methodists and Anglicans coming together—another issue which is before the country—and I hope that we shall see also Anglicans and Roman Catholics coming together. If I may be allowed a personal reflection, it is a great grief to me to be separated from our national Church, with all its beauty, its dignity, and its holiness, when it is a Church which has sprung from the same root as my own Church. One looks forward to a union which will eventually incorporate all Christians. That is the context in which we should consider this.

When one has said that one must also say that the rights of conscience must be paramount. No one must be forced or dragooned into unity against his will. I think here of the words of Cardinal Newman in a letter to the Duke of Norfolk when he said, If I am asked to drink a toast to the Pope in an after-dinner occasion, which hardly seems to be the thing, I shall certainly drink to that; yes, to the Pope second, but to conscience first. We must in this House always be zealous about the rights of conscience. They are in fact respected in this Bill because any Congregational or Presbyterian congregation which wishes to contract out of the Bill has the right to do so. That is firm, but what the Bill is also saying is that once the commitment has been made that commitment must be permanent because if it is possible to reserve a right to withdraw later then the whole scheme will be wrecked. That is a practical not a theological point. It is linked up with ecumenism as a whole.

There cannot be, in ecumenism, any cast-iron guarantees for the future. It is not possible to move forward with a whole series of insurance policies guaranteeing one against what might happen. We simply do not know. No Congregationalist, no Presbyterian, knows where this path to which they have set their feet will end. All they can do is to make an act of faith, which is what this Measure is, to move together, to grow together. That takes time. If there has been a growing apart over hundreds of years there will not be an immediate coming together because of a Clause in a Bill; there has to be a gradual growing together.

This is where the contribution of the right hon. Member for Bristol, South East (Mr. Benn) while perfectly legitimate and totally sincere was wrong-headed. He spoke about Congregationalism ending. That is his view but I see ecumenism in a quite different way. In the ecumenical movement there is no loss but only gain. No one loses his own traditions; people add new perspectives to those traditions. They are enriched by others, not impoverished.

We are moving into a new era and we want to look to the future. We do not want to look to the past. This is a small stone, admittedly, but a stone of great importance in a new edifice. What the House is being asked to do is not so much to contribute positively to the building of this edifice, but not to stand in the way, to get out of the road and let those who are committed to the Christian religion get on with the work of unity to which they are commanded by their Founder.

12.54 a.m.

Mr. Ron Lewis (Carlisle)

I speak this evening as a sympathetic Methodist observer who wishes to see this scheme succeed. It has been warmly welcomed as a whole by the Methodist Church. To my hon. Friend the Member for Acton (Mr. Spearing) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn) I would say that I can sympathise with them to a degree, and I am glad they have had their say, and I would not in any way doubt their sincerity, but, having said that, I do not think they have particularly helped the Christian Church as a whole by their contributions here this evening.

I get the impression that what has aroused parliamentary controversy this evening is the desire of some to include in the Bill the possibility of withdrawal from the scheme at some future date; I get the impression that the debate has centred around that. Against that inclusion I would argue four things.

First, this scheme has been slowly developed over some 39 years, during which gradual steps have been slowly taken. Second—and this is important—there has been consultation at every level, Assembly, county union, Presbyteries, even down to the local congregations. At the end of the day we are not so much discussing property as people, and it is people who form the congregations. Third, the scheme was overwhelmingly accepted by both denominations at their respective General Assemblies in 1971 and ratified during the year by county unions, on the one side, and Presbyteries on the other. Fourth—and this is important—individual congregations then had to decide for themselves whether to enter into or to reject the scheme. Congregationalists, as I understand it, had to have an affirmative vote with a three-quarters majority; and the Presbyterians a negative vote, according to the booklet, at page 12.

I think it can safely be said that every opportunity has been given for discussion, for criticism, and even for rejection of the scheme. It can now be argued that those congregations which have voted in favour by such a substantial majority ought to be totally committed. Ample time and opportunity have been given for discussions and positive decisions. Having spoken in several debates concerning the church, for which I make no apology, my view is that it would be morally wrong at this stage for Parliament to interfere in any way with this Measure.

I have been requested by some of my evangelical friends to support opposition to the Measure as advocated by my hon. Friend the Member for Acton—

Mr. Spearing

My hon. Friend referred to opposition to the Measure as proposed by myself. I say once again that I wish the union to take place but on such terms that we can be confident of its success. I wish the Measure to go through. I am not putting the Amendment to block it.

Mr. Lewis

I am just saying that I have been asked to support some of my evangelical friends. I want the scheme to be accepted in its entirety. No one expects the union by itself to deal with the missionary needs of the church. But, despite all its weaknesses, the Measure should enable all members of the United Reformed Church to be more effective ambassadors for Christ and his Gospel. It will be a new church, it will be out ward-looking, and I give it support.

In my constituency there are four churches that are involved in the Measure. Fisher Street Presbyterian Church has 500 members and it has voted in favour. Warwick Road Presbyterian Church, with 183 members, has voted in favour. Charlotte Street Congregational Church, with 80 members, has come out in favour of the scheme. A Congregational church with a smaller membership is the only one to express some dissatisfaction, although the minister, who is now retired, supports the scheme. This reveals an indication of a world-wide picture in which congregations have had full opportunity for debate and have made free decisions on the scheme as it stands.

I hope that my hon. Friends, having had their rearguard action here tonight, will allow the scheme to go through without a Division, and will throw in their lot to make the new United Reformed Church a mighty power in the land—heaven knows, the country needs it.

1.3 a.m.

Mr. R. J. Maxwell-Hyslop (Tiverton)

Contrary to the declared view of the promoters of the Bill whose statement shows that they think it is wrong for the House of Commons to discuss this matter seriously—there is no other possible interpretation of the last paragraph of page 2—the fact that nearly a hundred hon. Members are present an hour after midnight shows that a large number of Members of Parliament are interested in the issues at stake and in learning from the debate. I am certainly interested and am still learning from it.

There is a marked similarity between the Amendment which has been tabled and the Married Women's Property Act. Once upon a time when a woman entered into a newly created relationship—marriage—she brought in any property she had. If she ever, for any reason whatever, left that marriage she left behind everything she had brought in with her. It is not to derogate marriage as an institution to say that in my view the Married Women's Property Act introduced an element of justice which was previously lacking.

The Amendment says, as I understand it, that if two churches unite into a new entity—and everyone in the House agrees that that is desirable—both bringing with them certain tangible assets which were contributed by their forefathers for a specific purpose, it is right that, insofar as legislation is passed by Parliament to regulate, not the doctrine, not the religious practices, but the law of ownership and disposal of that property, then, just as in the case of marriage, Parliament has laid down how, in the event of a lamentable breakdown, the distribution of that property should be equitable, so, when two churches hopefully enter into a new and richer union, bringing property with them, then, if for reasons however lamentable, that union should fail, then, rather than the subsequent disposal of property becoming a matter of litigation and consequent bitterness, it should be known in a declaratory manner in the legislation which deals with the purely physical aspect of this union what the circumstances will be in the possible, but one hopes improbable event of a dissolution of that union.

This is not an unreasonable proposition to place before the House on Report stage and I have, to date, heard no arguments which suggest to me either that that analogy is false, or that that proposition is inherently unjust.

This Bill has nothing to do with what people believe, with where they meet, with religious practices or forms of worship adopted, but has to do with the gathering together of property. That is what it declares itself to have to do with.

The gathering together of this property is a vehicle towards a desirable end, just as the junction of two people in marriage creates something which is more than the sum total of the two individuals who uniquely and individually existed, previous to that marriage, but experience showed that that was not enough and that it was desirable that Parliament should lay down an equitable system to deal with the regrettable eventuality of the failure of that union. I have yet to hear a convincing case as to why what is so reasonable in the case of those human relationships, should be cast out of court and regarded as unreasonable and destructive in an inherently parallel situation.

1.8 a.m.

Mr. Eric Ogden (Liverpool, West Derby)

I shall try to be as commendably brief as was the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Clark Hutchison) earlier, but it seemed to me that there were times when Christian charity was a little thin on the ground.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas) for, in his inimitable way, cooling the temper, and also to one or two others.

Is this Bill about property or the ecumenical movement? I take as my text the document given to us by the promoters, or the Book of Addendums, Chapter One. There is a phrase there which puts the case clearly: Any proposal which confers a right to secede would be in conflict with the Scheme of Union which as been approved by the Churches. The Promoters respectfully ask that the proposed clause be not added to the Bill because they have no mandate to accept such a proposal and if the clause were so added they would consequently be unable to proceed with the Bill and the Scheme itself could not take effect". Clearly the choice before us is between a scheme of unity now and an untold period ahead of doubt and deferment. Having listened to the debate, I intend to do what was in my mind when I came into the Chamber, which is to support the Bill and to resist the Amendment. With respect to those with a different viewpoint, nothing that I have heard has changed my mind.

My second point is a simple one, and I say this with no disrespect to my hon. Friend the Member for York (Mr. Alexander W. Lyon), who argued his case cogently and persuasively. However, I disagreed with the way that he referred to my hon. Friend the Member for Acton (Mr. Spearing). It may be thought unfair to pick upon one point in an otherwise admirable speech, but it hit me hard.

Other right hon. and hon. Members have declared their religious affiliations. I happen to be a Methodist. Had I been born in a different house in a different street, I might have belonged to another denomination. However, we all speak as Members of Parliament. That is our right and duty, and I hope that those hon. Members who have been criticised for speaking only on behalf of their own interests and sections of the country will continue to speak as Members of this Parliament, whether they be from Antrim, North or from anywhere else.

My hon. Friend the Member for Acton has been described as a dissenter. I remind hon. Members that the Presbyterian, Non-Conformist and Baptist Churches were based on and born out of dissent all the way along the line—what Dante called "divine discontent". They have put forward their points of view, and they are right to do so. Having said that, and perhaps looking both ways, I am glad that my right hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn) is so much in favour of dissent—on this one point, at least. This is a choice for us. There is no question of a referendum. The choice is between a scheme of unity now which is not concerned with narrow property rights, and uncertainty. My choice is in favour of a scheme of unity now.

1.12 a.m.

Mr. John Roper (Farnworth)

Right hon. and hon. Members have been declaring not only their interests but their genealogies, and perhaps I ought to declare my own. I am a member of the Congregational Church and the son, grandson and great grandson of Congregational ministers. But I was baptised by a Presbyterian minister. Therefore I have an interest in this Measure.

I am glad to support the Bill, as the Congregational Church is on the threshold of an historical development. The growing together of the two churches has been going on for many years, as my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Ron Lewis) said. There have been not only conversations between the two churches but a number of links at local levels. The first Congregational church that I remember, the one of which my father was minister at the beginning of the war, was a joint Congregational-Presbyterian church.

The proposed union shows evidence of years of prayer, discussion and decision, and the Bill is to deal with certain of the property links in the process. My hon. Friend the Member for York (Mr. Alexander W. Lyon) has outlined them to the House.

It is not my intention to delay the House long. I wish merely to reply to some of the points which have been raised in this very useful debate. I ought first to refer to the speech of myhon. Friend the Member for Acton (Mr. Spearing), whose sincerity in this matter is held in high esteem throughout the House. As my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Ogden) pointed out, we should not be Congregationalists if we did not dissent from time to time. I have a great respect for the views which my hon. Friend the Member for Acton put forward, and the way in which he has ensured that this important matter was discussed by the House. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for York pointed out, there is a possible defect in the hon. Member's new Clause as it refers to "A uniting church", and that will be dissolved by Clause 5(3)(g).

It seems that there is something rather unfortunate about a Bill and a scheme of union which will bring uniting Congregational churches and Presbyterian churches altogether as a United Church, if once they are in the United Church we should remember which were ex-Congregational, and give them special rights, and which were ex-Presbyterian. Once the new Church has been formed, we should think of all these churches as local churches going through together.

My lion. Friend the Member for Acton said that his Amendment was not a wrecking Amendment. I know that my hon. Friend wishes to see the Bill go forward with his new Clause included, but it must be repeated that in the view of the promoters of the Bill, if my hon. Friend's new Clause were included the scheme of union would have to go back to all the churches for further discussions. It must be brought out that the degree of local autonomy which would be maintained for Congregational churches might not be acceptable either to some of the Congregational churches, or the Presbyterian churches, to maintain this degree of independence within the new denomination. Although in general this is a property matter, the new Clause introduces once again the whole doctrine of church government which would operate within the new Church once it has been formed. Reference has been made to information to church members. As well as the scheme of union, there have been earlier documents going out to all the churches—in 1968 an interim report, in 1969, a report to the assemblies, and later the scheme of union.

The churches concerned have had full opportunity to discuss and consider all that is implied. Those with whom I have discussed the matter, who have been present at church meetings, know that there have been full discussions. The churches concerned have realised what they are entering; Congregationalists giving up certain measures of autonomy and Presbyterians changing in some ways some of their practices and going forward together. A new United Church would contain part of their traditions, an amalgamation which would be stronger than either of their own traditions.

The important thing is that the churches have decided to come forward in this form of union. They have accepted that in future they should make decisions not individually but as a community of churches. To insert this new Clause would cut away the essential principle, which has been accepted by the churches, that in future decision-making, instead of being individually carried out by the church, should be done by the collective bodies working together.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn), whose Congregational heritage I am proud to share, indicated some of the same points. My right hon. Friend stressed the importance of the independence of the Congregational Church, of which in the past we have been proud. The churches now feel that the time has come to go forward into this wider union, and that in future decisions should be taken collectively rather than individually.

Those who have had the right to maintain the independent position of the Congregational churches have had the right to opt out, but the others have decided that from now on they will act together in a collective form. It is not fair to quote the experience of the United States. That Church maintained a large degree of Congregational Church government, even though it was a United Church. It was not a United Church with the same sort of structure as this Church. The experience of the United Churches of Canada, Jamaica and Ghana, which have followed structures more similar, would have been a great deal more encouraging. As the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas) said, we are not talking about the extinction of Congregationalism; we are talking about the Congregational Church going forward into a new United Reformed Church.

I now turn to what was said by the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) about the phrase in the preamble referring to the conviction of the churches concerned that they were acting in the will of God. It is for them to decide whether they are acting in the will of God. I think that the hon. Gentleman's Amendment to delete the statement of their belief is a gratuitous insult to the churches concerned. It would be a great pity if the House accepted that Amendment.

The hon. Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop), in a brief intervention, made some remarks about a parallel with the Married Women's Property Act. This is not altogether a correct analogy. As was made clear in Committee, if a church decided to leave the union it would be appropriate for the Charity Commissioners to work out a scheme for the allocation of the property. I do not think, therefore, that we need to build into the Bill a complicated scheme for the allocation of property in those circumstances. Indeed, the new Clause would not seek to do so.

Mr. Donald Stewart (Western Isles)

I have not heard any right hon. or hon. Member deal with one particular point. What is the objection to the Amendment? Would any church want to retain a congregation where the majority wanted to break away?

Mr. Roper

Of course, no church wishes to have discontented people among its congregation. I do not wish to create a situation in which there is always the question of churches coming in or out of the union when it has been established and the trusts have been properly worked out together. I hope the House will accept the Bill without the Amendment. I believe the Bill represents the will of the churches. They have acted in the right and proper way in coming to their conclusions. It would be a tragedy if a minority in the Congregational Church, who have had the right to opt out and maintain their independence, should now persuade the House to prevent the vast majority of congregationalists maintaining their objective of union with the presbyterians.

Rev. Ian Paisley

Before the Hon. Gentleman sits down I should like to ask him about the point he made concerning my speech. Does the hon. Gentleman not feel that the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church and the Congregational Church Union Assembly have a right to speak only for themselves about the will of God? This is what I pointed out in my speech. Some people in those assemblies were thoroughly convinced that union was not the will of God. Therefore, I repeat, I do not think there was any insult. I had no intention of casting an insult. They may speak for themselves, but they should not speak for those who, within their ranks, felt that it was the will of God to pursue a different course. This point is vital. It cannot be glossed over by saying that it is an insult.

Mr. Roper

No doubt the hon. Gentleman has read paragraph 7 of the preamble. That does not refer to the Congregational Church and the Presbyterian Church. That would lay itself open to the charge the hon. Gentleman has laid. The words are clear: The Assembly of the Congregational Church and the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church being convinced that the will of God is a union of their respective churches. That refers specifically to the Assemblies, and the Assembly of the Congregational Church, meeting within a few miles of this House only two months ago, decided, by an overwhelming majority, with only four votes shown against, that it was the will of God for a union of their churches. I believe they are entitled to say it is the will of God.

The promoters of the Bill believe that union between these churches would not only be a desirable end in itself, but a first step towards wider ecumenicism. I hope the House will therefore reject the Amendments and the new Clause.

Question, That the Bill, as amended, be now considered, put and agreed to.

Bill, as amended, considered accordingly.

Mr. Spearing

As the mind of the House appears to be made up, and as it has demonstrated its concern for Christian unity, lest any Division be interpreted as destroying that sole wish, I do not propose to move the new Clause.

  1. Preamble 58 words
    1. c672
    2. ADJOURNMENT 13 words
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