HC Deb 15 June 1976 vol 913 cc411-69

(By Order)

Order for Second Reading read.

8.30 p.m.

Dr. Edmund Marshall (Goole)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

This Bill has been promoted by the Methodist Church in Great Britain and it has been agreed by the appropriate courts of that Church by overwhelming majorities. To show how that agreement within Methodism has been reached, and for the benefit, I hope, of those hon. Members who may not be so familiar with the structure of the Methodist Church, it may be helpful to give a brief explanation of the way in which the Church is organised in this country.

There are about 550,000 members in 8,600 local Methodist churches or societies. Those societies are grouped into 734 circuits, the size of a circuit varying from the exceptional one society forming a circuit by itself to possibly 50 or even more societies. It is the circuits that appoint and pay the full-time ministers serving the societies within the circuit. At the most recent count, there were 3,768 ministers throughout the country.

Each circuit has a governing body, known as the circuit meeting, which is composed of representatives from all the societies in the circuit, most of them on an ex officio basis because of particular offices that they hold within their own local societies. In turn, the circuits are grouped in 32 districts, the district being the Methodist equivalent of the diocese of the Church of England, although I hasten to point out that the geographical boundaries between the two sets of bodies in the two denominations bear hardly any correspondence.

The governing body of each Methodist district is the district synod, which meets twice a year, in May and September. The synod is composed of all the ministers serving within the district and an approximately equal number of lay men and women elected directly by the circuit meetings, plus a number of ex officio lay officials and representatives of district committees. The membership of synod will vary from district to district, but it is nearly always more than 100 and may even be in excess of 500.

Because all the full-time ministers are members of synod and are duty-bound to attend synod, every society within Methodism has a direct link with its own synod. Therefore, there is a channel of communication by which every member of the Church can become aware of the business before synod.

Above the district synods, the national governing body of the Methodist Church is the annual conference, of which there are two sessions, one ministerial and the other representative, composed of almost equal numbers of ministers and lay people. For purposes such as the House is discussing tonight the key session of conference is the representative session, which has 670 members, of whom nearly 500 are directly elected each year by the district synods.

So one has the picture of a hierarchical structure, perhaps, but one in which there is direct representation from the lowest level of organisation to the conference. Although this whole structure may not satisfy the democratic purists, no one can deny that it enables the opinions of Methodists throughout the country to be expressed in all the courts of the Church. I can recall numerous instances in the Methodist conference of a president going out of his way to enable individual view-points to be heard, sometimes with great embarrassment but always with tolerance and understanding.

The standing orders of the Methodist Church lay down a specific procedure to be observed whenever a parliamentary Bill is to be promoted. That procedure has been observed meticulously in respect of the Bill at present before the House. At the Methodist Conference of 1974, a draft of the Bill was approved by a 99 per cent. majority—well in excess of the required three-quarters. Then, following standing orders, the Bill was submitted to all the 32 district synods, of which only one expressed any reservation about it, and that was only in respect of a single clause. Then the Bill came back again to the conference the following year, 1975, and was again approved by a 99 per cent. majority. It is remarkable that one of the petitions submitted to this House in opposition to the Bill is signed by 6,000 members and adherents of Methodist societies representing possibly 1 per cent. of the total membership of the Church and, therefore, in proportion to the minority viewpoint expressed in the conference.

Before I explain the main provisions of the Bill, it may also be useful if I remind the House of the main historical developments that brought present-day Methodism into being as we know it.

Methodism was founded, perhaps accidentally, by John Wesley, who died in 1791. In the 60 years or so following his death, there were a number of secessions from the main body of the Wesleyan Methodist Church. In 1796, the Independent Methodist Church broke away and has remained apart ever since. In the following years, there were successive secessions by the Methodist New Connexion, the Primitive Methodists, the Bible Methodists, the Protestant Methodists, the Armenian Methodist Connexion, the Wesleyan Methodist Association, and the Wesleyan Reformers. Of those, the Primitive Methodists were the only ones to retain an independent separate existence right up to 1932. Over the intervening years, all the others either grouped themselves together, mainly in the United Free Churches, or were left as an off-shoot called the Wesleyan Reform Union, which separated from the Wesleyan Reformers in 1859 and which again has been completely separate and independent to this day.

In 1929, the three main strands of the Methodist Church existing at that time—the Wesleyan Methodists, the Primitive Methodists and the United Methodists together promoted a parliamentary bill—the Methodist Church Union Bill—which was enacted and which led to Methodist union in 1932. I emphasise that the Independent Methodist Church and the Wesleyan Reform Union were completely outside that union and have maintained their separate existence ever since. There is no intention on the part of the promoters that those separate organisations should in any way be affected by the Bill.

The union of 1932 was brought about by the Methodist Church Union Act 1929, and it is the content of that Act which ensures that the main purposes of this Bill can be pursued only by further parliamentary legislation. Indeed, the Bill provides for the repeal of the 1929 Act, although some provisions would be reenacted in the Bill.

One difficulty that arises from the 1929 Act is that Section 8 (2) denies the Methodist Church any power to vary the doctrinal standards of the Church as expressed in a deed of union made by the first conference of the Methodist Church in 1932. This provision for the doctrinal standards of the Church to be entrenched was considered necessary at the time in order to combine the three strands within the new United Church to safeguard against the danger of withdrawal of membership in the early days. But the curious effect of Section 8 (2) is that the only way in which the Methodist Church today, 44 years later, can make any alteration to its own doctrinal standards is by further parliamentary legislation.

I fully recognise that the House is very jealous of its rights and powers, but it seems anomalous that Members of Parliament, several of whom are today sincerely apathetic, if not antipathetic, towards the Christian religion, should retain power in respect of the doctrinal standards of what is, after all, a nonconformist Church. One of the main purposes of the Bill, as expressed in Clause 5, is to give the Methodist Church freedom in respect of its own doctrinal standards, and to subject it to no further parliamentary restriction.

The position of the Methodist Church today is very different from that in 1929. Methodist union is an accomplished historic fact. Indeed, it took place eight years before I was born. The present generation of Methodists look to the future in this rapidly-changing world with awareness that doctrinal standards may from time to time need to be brought up to date. It is not that there are any proposals before conference to amend or refine the doctrinal standards, although the promoters would not seek in any way to hide the fact that there may well be need for such amendment in the years to come.

At this point I draw attention to the special safeguards referred to in Clause 5(2). That provides for a deferred special resolution procedure, which means that in dealing with any alteration to the doctrinal standards the conference will need a 75 per cent. majority of those present and voting, and such alteration will need to be approved by the same majority two years later before any amendment to the doctrinal standards can become effective.

As will be seen by the definition of the "deferred special resolution" in Clause 2(1), "appropriate consultation" which is also defined in that clause, must take place during the two-year interval between the passing of the resolutions. Already, in preparation for the enactment of the Bill, the conference has been preparing standing orders to prescribe the appropriate consultation. It will mean that any proposal to alter the doctrinal standards will have to be submitted for approval not only to the synods of the 32 districts of the Methodist Church but to the overseas districts and to the circuit meetings of all the 734 circuits of the Methodist Church. The House will see that any proposed amendment to the doctrinal standards of the Methodist Church would involve the widest consultation, not only in this country but overseas, in many parts of the world.

Another of the most important provisions of the Bill is contained, appropriately, in Clause 4, which, for the first time in any legislation, defines the purposes of the Methodist Church. Clause 4(a) declares that the primary purpose of the Methodist Church is the advancement of The Christian faith in accordance with the doctrinal standards and the discipline of the Methodist Church". It further declares, in subsection (c) that the purpose of the Church includes any charitable purpose for the time being of any society or institution being a society or institution subsidiary or ancillary to the Methodist Church". Clause 4 (d) further provides that the purpose of the Church includes any purpose for the time being of any charity being a charity subsidiary or ancillary to the Methodist Church. The significance of the clause is increased when one reads it in conjunction with paragraph 12 of Schedule 2, which declares that all property that is to be held upon the model trusts, as defined in the Bill, shall be held upon such trusts if and so far only as the execution of these trusts shall be in furtherance of or incidental to one of the purposes of the Church.

The broad terms of Clause 4, in conjunction with Schedule 2, will remove doubts concerning the user of model trust property and the purposes for which the proceeds of sale of any such property can be applied. It will give Methodists a wide latitude and flexibility in deploying their assets in such a manner as might be considered appropriate for the purposes of the Church.

Under the Bill, the managing trustees of model trust property would be able to change the use of, for instance, a church hall to become a child welfare centre, provided that the new use was covered, in accordance with the purposes of the Methodist Church as defined in Clause 4. The provisions will enable the Methodist Church to act more flexibly.

Mr. Albert Roberts (Normanton)

I am a member of the Church of England. A Methodist chapel is being voluntarily built in my constituency. Those concerned can see the control of the chapel being taken away and the power of the local trustees being taken and vested in the hierachy. Can my hon. Friend the Member for Goole (Dr. Marshall) explain that for me?

Dr. Marshall

I am aware of the chapel to which my hon. Friend the Member for Normanton (Mr. Roberts) refers, but I am not familiar with its legal situation. Only when one has full knowledge of the local deeds of the property can one come to any conclusions. My hon. Friend's concern is widely shared in many Methodist chapels. It is a concern that I recognise, and that I believe the promoters of the Bill recognise. I hope to be able to deal with this concern in such a way as to show that much of it is inappropriate and misplaced.

The third main purpose of the Bill is to provide for a new system—the system to which my hon. Friend the Member for Normanton referred—of vesting the legal ownership of all Methodist property held at present under the deeds listed in Part I of Schedule 1. The first part of the answer to my hon. Friend's question is to find out whether the chapel to which he refers has such a deed.

Each of the 8,600 Methodist churches in the country has its own trust body, which holds the building in trust for the whole Methodist connection and ensures that the property is used in accordance with the trusts upon which it is held. It also keeps the building in good order and repair. In short, the local trust is responsible for the fabric and the proper use of the local church building.

At the same time, alongside the trust, each church has a church council, with especially important duties, exercising the pastoral oversight of the local society, arranging for services of worship and other church activities, and generally filling a rôle similar to that of the parish church council of the Church of England. Each Methodist society has a church council and a trust—two distinct bodies, usually but not always with overlapping membership but with quite distinct functions.

The membership of the church council is easily and frequently changed with the passage of time, but under the present law the trustees can continue as members of the local trust even though they may have ceased to be members of the local society to which the trust relates. They still have to be members of the Methodist Church somewhere in the country, but they do not need to be associated with the local church.

On occasions, trustees have grown out of touch with the needs of the local church and the local community. Sometimes they have become out of harmony with the active members of the local church. I know from experience in some of the Methodist churches with which I have been associated that it is a complex legal operation to reconstitute the trust of a local Methodist church.

Dr. Alan Glyn (Windsor and Maidenhead)

The whole point of a trust is that the trustees should observe the terms of the trust. If they fail to do so there is a perfectly good legal remedy. The Bill attempts to take away the rights of the trustees under the trustee deed by which they operate.

Dr. Marshall

No, that is not correct. Under the Bill, although there will be a move to transfer the legal vesting of the trust to a central body to serve as a custodial trusteeship, the management of the trust at local level will be transferred to the church council—the other body that I have described. That gives a much greater degree of local involvement in all the matters relating to the Church. The reason why the Methodist Church wants to make this change at this time is precisely to end the sometimes awkward diarchical system that I have just described.

Over the last 10 years there have been wide consultations at district and circuit levels of the Methodist Church, and each year the reports of working parties have been approved by conference in trying to find a solution to this overall problem. As long ago as 1969 the proposals for central vesting were approved by conference. In 1973, following consideration and approval of the proposals by the districts, conference unanimously approved changes in the structure of the organisation and government of the Methodist Church including an alteration so as to confer upon the local church council authority and oversight over the whole area of the ministry of the local church, including, on the passing of this Bill, the management of the local property. Subject, therefore, to the necessary consent of Parliament, the conference desires to shift responsibility for the management of model deed property from the existing trustees to the church council. Each church council comprises a large number of individuals appointed annually by the church members.

Mr. Patrick Mayhew (Royal Tunbridge Wells)

The hon. Gentleman referred to approval for this part of the scheme having been given at district level, but is it not the case, in the instance of the Anglican and Methodists conversations for church union, that the conversations were extended right down to circuit level? That has not been the case in the matter that is the subject of the present Bill. This is a subject of great anxiety amongst Methodists. Would the hon. Gentleman at some convenient moment, care to explain why that is so?

Dr. Marshall

The answer is that under the standing orders of the Methodist Church, proposals to promote legislation in Parliament are required to be discussed only by the conference and the synod. There is no requirement for the proposal also to go to the circuits. The reason why that procedure was extended in the case of the Anglican/Methodist conversations of 1969 was that that issue was felt to be of much more importance to the whole life of Methodism than even the provisions in this Bill. Anglican/Methodist union would have altered the existence of the Methodist Church beyond all recognition for ever. It was of momentous importance, far beyond the importance of provisions of a Bill such as the one now before us.

However, there was nothing to stop individual members of conference or synod making an effort to discover the views of the people in their localities within the Methodist Church in respect of this Bill. If there is any complaint that people in local churches have not been consulted, the responsibility must rest partly with themselves, in that they have not taken the trouble to keep in touch with their circuit and synod representatives, and partly also with their synod representatives who have failed to report back to them on the business before the synod.

Mr. Richard Wainwright (Colne Valley)

Is the average Methodist chapel likely to have a synod representative of its own whom the congregation could meet on a Sunday? Is that the impression that the hon. Gentleman is seeking to give?

Dr. Marshall

I am certainly seeking to give the impression that every member of the Methodist Church has easy access to a member of synod, namely, his own minister, because every minister is duty-bound to attend synod and every member of the Methodist Church is under the pastoral care of a minister of the Church. Therefore, I answer the hon. Gentleman's question clearly in the affirmative.

Mr. William van Straubenzee (Wokingham)

Does a non-Methodist also correctly understand that it is open to a member of the circuit, or groups who are members of the circuit, to address a memorial to the district synod, and thereby to have a direct access to the synod, so that they can make representations—as, indeed, has happened—in that way?

Dr. Marshall

I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for reminding me that every Methodist circuit has the right of addressing a memorial not only to synod but to the conference of the Methodist Church on any subject relating to the business of the Methodist Church. Over the last few years circuits have done this in relation to this issue. They have been able to make their views known in that way, and have also received the replies of conference to those memorials.

Similarly, the synods, although they are in a position of being able to discuss this item on their agendas, are able to send what are called suggestions to the annual conference of the Methodist Church.

I am also reminded of the fact that every Methodist minister, with the approval of his district synod, may seek to attend and be heard by the whole ministerial session of the annual conference. That also would give him or her an opportunity of raising any doubts about the Bill before us.

I shall curtail my remarks in the hope that some of my hon. Friends will be able to fill in the gaps in the argument, but I wish to make reference to the petitions lodged in respect of the Bill.

The petitions, as I understand it, come from two particular local societies, which have properties under Deeds 5 and 6 respectively in the list given in Part I of Schedule 1 to the Bill. In both these cases the local congregation has been, at least, for the last 10 years, separate from the membership of the Methodist Church as a whole.

I understand that they each wish to remain independent of the Methodist Conference. If their properties are to be vested centrally, as would occur under the intentions of the Bill, in theory it would be possible for the Methodist Conference to establish new bodies to manage the buildings of these churches. If the dreadful situation arose in which the future of the buildings was in question, the conference, by this Bill, would have power to dispose of the properties.

I believe that it would be contrary to the spirit of Methodism for action to be taken in such a dictatorial form by conference, and I can understand the concern of these two local congregations. I know that a similar petition was brought against the Bill in another place, as a result of which it was amended by an addition to paragraph 23 of Schedule 2, which would enable these properties to be sold to the local congregations.

If the petitioners are not satisfied by that amendment, they have every right to be heard further by a Committee of this House. That is the whole purpose of the private legislative procedures. But I do not understand why these petitioners should wish to block the passage of the Bill for the Methodist Church when the Bill has the full support of the main body of Methodism throughout the country. We may be jealous of the rights of small minorities, but we must never allow the situation to develop in which the tiny minority can decide issues for the vast majority.

I conclude on a personal note. For 20 years I have been in full membership of the Methodist Church, in which earlier I had grown up under the influence of my Methodist parents. During those 20 years I have belonged to five local Methodist societies, scattered around the country, widely differing in size, characteristics and local activities. On occasions I have served as a member of the synod in varying districts from Lincolnshire to Merseyside and from the London area to Leeds, where I now live.

I know the Methodist Church to be rich in diversity and to be strong in local character and colour. Methodists meet together in the spirit of fellowship at all levels of organisations. There is an atmosphere in the synod and at conference which I have found in no other organisation. Given a true truly Christian spirit and a spirit of toleration and understanding, I can see nothing in the whole of this Bill which does not redound to the benefit of all in the Methodist Church. I commend the Bill to the House.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Oscar Murton)

It may be for the convenience of the House if I indicate that Mr. Speaker has selected for debate the proposed Instruction on the Bill in the name of the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) and certain other hon. Gentlemen—namely, That it be an Instruction to the Committee on the Bill to ascertain to what extent the trustees of property held upon the trust of the deeds referred to in paragraphs 1 to 7 of Schedule 1 to the Bill have been informed of and consented to the provisions in the Bill relating to property held by or vested in those trustees and to exclude any such property from those provisions unless the trustees concerned consent to those provisions. I remind the House that, following the business motion to which the House agreed at 3.30 this afternoon, a total of three hours is available for the two parts of the debate. We shall first take the Second Reading debate, which has now begun. Then, if the Bill is read a Second time, we shall debate the Instruction.

9.7 p.m.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

The whole House will be grateful to the hon. Member for Goole (Dr. Marshall) for the painstaking and careful way in which he introduced the Bill to the House and for the way in which he dealt with its clauses. Even though I may dissent from some of his conclusions, I shall not depart from that judgment. The hon. Gentleman was a great help to the House.

When Private Bills of this kind come before the House, we have to apply certain tests as part of our responsibility. As I see them, the tests are three in number. The first is whether a Bill is needed, the second is whether it is fair and the third is whether it is based on the widest possible consultation and agreement with the various interests affected. Those are the tests which the House must apply to private legislation, from whatever source it comes.

I have an interest in the Bill since, like many others present tonight, I am a Methodist and, indeed, I am a local preacher. I am not a trustee, and I have not the special interest in the Bill of those who may be discharged from responsibility under one part of the Bill. The Bill is important for those of us who have a direct interest in the work of the Methodist Church in carrying out the work of God. Therefore, we must judge the measure on the ground of whatever it will advance that cause. That, however, is not the test that the House should apply to private legislation. That test must be based on fairness and the degree of consultation with the interests affected. Therefore, we must look at the various aspects of the Bill in the light of that test.

I wish to look first at the subject of doctrine. The doctrine of the Methodist Church is protected by Parliament. It was not chosen by Parliament, it was not determined by Parliament and it was not worked out by Parliament. Nobody would ever ask Parliament to be the arbiter or the assessor of the doctrine of the Methodist Church. That would be an absurd proposition. The only church whose doctrine this Parliament has ever sought to be concerned about—it has now divested itself of much of that concern—is the established Church.

It would be quite absurd for Parliament to be the body which worked out or even adjudicated on the value or the validity of Methodist doctrine. That was not the task which Methodism asked Parliament to undertake in 1929 in preparation for the union of 1932. What Parliament did was to entrench an agreement made between the three parties who joined into a united Church. It ensured by entrenchment that the agreement could not be changed. The doctrine on which the agreement was based was without further recourse to Parliament.

I do not necessarily think that the doctrinal formulation that the Methodists chose at that date was the best that was possible. I do not think that it is ideal for all time and not suspectible to change or alteration. However, I see no reason or need for the conference to be removed from the safeguard of having to go to Parliament before changing the agreement or from the safeguard of having to use a very special procedure to ensure that the various people who regard themselves as successors to the parties to the agreement have an opportunity of presenting their views and interests before Parliament.

If they were to do that, I emphasise that it would not be for Parliament to judge the theological validity or standing of the views before it. It is the job of Parliament to satisfy itself that the various parties to the agreement have been fairly treated and that the power of the majority has not subsequently been used to overturn the position of any minority party to the agreement.

The promoters of the Bill say that they have no wish to change the doctrine—at the moment, at any rate. There is no intention or proposal before the conference to change the doctrine. If we accept the clear statement that the promoters have made, why is the doctrinal clause necessary? Why should it be brought before us?

There is a danger of confusing these proceedings with those engaged in by a similarly attentive House some months ago over the position of the Church of England. Parliament changed the relationship of the established Church with Parliament in a significant way. Some hon. Members were in favour of that and some were not. Some hon. Members now in the Chamber took an active part in that debate. That was an entirely different proceeding. It had nothing to do with the issues now facing us. On that occasion Parliament was divesting itself of the power to determine doctrine and worship in the Church of England.

Should we continue to safeguard the kind of agreement which was arrived at by the parties to the Methodist Union? If Parliament does not safeguard that, the way is opened to certain rather serious risks, such as going back on the guarantees that were given between 1929 to 1932 without testing the need and without testing the way in which the decision had been reached. That does not give very much hope or encouragement to the schemes of union which may now be being considered between the Churches, and there are many such schemes under discussion. One has gone through from the United Reform Church and there may be others. We are likely to have such agreements again.

It will be necessary for parties who arrive at agreement between different Churches to sink their many differences and to arrive at a formula and compromise which each side is confident will be respected. This may involve large and small groups joining together. The procedure is common to Parliament not only in religious denominations but in other areas—namely, to safeguard proceedings when they involve property by the way it turns on private legislation.

Mr. Eric Ogden (Liverpool, West Derby)

The hon. Gentleman asked what I thought was a serious question, although it may have been merely rhetorical. He said that Parliament should have no part in deciding the doctrine of the Methodist Church although we should have a place in deciding the safeguards relating to how that doctrine was decided. Does he agree that at present Parliament has a veto on deciding the doctrines of the Methodist Church and that the Bill, right or wrong, would remove the veto? In fact, I happen to agree with the Bill. We can use the words "veto" or "safeguard", the latter being the hon. Gentleman's word.

Mr. Beith

As an exchange of words, we could make "safeguard" into "veto". This House would not contemplate arguing about the doctrine of the Methodist Church if it were confronted with a situation in which the Methodist Church changed its doctrine. The debate we are now having, if it were opposed on the Floor of the House, would be concerned with the necessary tests to be conducted and the procedures to be followed to ensure that the widest possible support existed and that it did not represent only the wishes of one section of the parties concerned. I do not see why we should be asked to answer the question in the abstract when confronted with a situation in which the doctrine is proposed to be changed.

Mr. van Straubenzee

I am following the speech of the hon. Gentleman very closely. He will remember that some of us were closely associated with a similar operation relating to the Church of England. If there were to be an application for a change in the doctrine of the Methodist Church under the law as it now is, would not this House be bound to debate that change of doctrine? Would it not find itself being the judge of Methodist doctrine? Does the hon. Gentleman feel that that is satisfactory in 1976?

Mr. Beith

The question would not be the theological question whether a particular doctrine was sound, but the question whether the views of the Methodists and the various parties to the agreement had been ascertained and were fairly reflected in the decision that was taken. That was not the position with the Church of England. That was a different question. The hon. Gentleman must know that there is a difference.

Mr. A. P. Costain (Folkestone and Hythe)

Would the House have any say in whether the theology was right or wrong? What would be the machinery? Would there have to be another Bill, a Statutory Instrument or an Adjournment debate? How could it happen? Why does the hon. Gentleman, as a lay preacher, contend that he has more confidence in this House than in the conference to respect the views of Church members?

Mr. Beith

I shall come to the conference later. It would have to be a Bill. It would be by legislative proceedings. No reason has been advanced why it should be done in any other way, except the strange analogy with the proceedings in the Church of England.

Mr. Ivor Clemitson (Luton, East)

As I understand the position, if the Methodist Church wished to change its doctrinal basis a Bill would have to be presented to this House. A Bill is capable of amendment by this House, but if a measure comes to this House from the Synod of the Church of England we cannot amend it. We either accept or reject it in toto.

Mr. Beith

The procedure which would be used on any subsequent occasion would be to put the doctrinal standards not into the Bill but into a document referred to in the Bill. The House made no attempt in 1929 to change the doctrine or to modify the agreement which was reached. It gave an entrenchment to the agreement that was reached. That was contained in the deed of union. It was not amended or capable of amendment by the House. Parliament entrenched that document. In that sense, the House is in the same position as with a worship and doctrine measure. There is no question of amending or changing it.

The principle involved is significant. The doctrinal standards in the deed of union must be seen in the context of the connectional structure of Methodism, which is a fairly authoritarian structure in some respects. It differs markedly from the Congregational type of church government. If the doctrine is changed, severe consequences follow for those who might dissent from any change. Some objectors fear that a different group might be affected. It would depend on the change that was envisaged. We do not know what groups would be involved.

The point at issue concerns not only the internal procedures of the Methodist Church but the model deed. A new version of the model deed is contained in Schedule 1. Paragraph 14(3) of Schedule 2 provides: Subject to the foregoing sub-paragraph and to any provision of the Act of 1969 or of any sharing agreement made thereunder affecting the property or any part thereof, the managing trustees shall not permit any person, at any service or meeting for religious worship held at or in any part of any premises comprised in the property, so to preach or expound God's Holy Word or perform any act as to deny or repudiate the doctrinal standards. The importance of that is that anyone who obtains his or her livelihood as a minister or a deaconess in the Methodist Church could be placed in the position, if the doctrine were changed, of being deprived of that livelihood and any opportunity to preach in Methodist pulpits. The conference did not enter upon that matter lightly. However, it has the power to preclude from its pulpits and its ministry those who dissent from the doctrines. If one changes the doctrines, one risks putting people in that position. It is not unreasonable that there should be safeguards for people who are at risk of being placed in that position. The three Methodist movements wisely had that consequence in mind when they entrenched that provision.

It is difficult to see that it is fair and reasonable to take the risks involved as regards livelihood and the effect on those who preach and obtain their living and ministers and deaconesses of a change of doctrine without a clear safeguard for their own position and future. That is one of the areas in which the House must be satisfied that there is fairness and reasonableness.

There is a special case, to which the promoters of the Bill have referred elsewhere, in regard to the position of those from other denominations who are invited now to preach in Methodist pulpits. I have great sympathy with the objectives of the promoters in trying to ensure that Methodism does not get itself into a legality where it invites ministers from other denominations to occupy its pulpits. One of the reasons advanced for a change in the doctrinal clause is that it applies too harsh a limitation on the invitations to ministers of other denominations to preach in Methodist pulpits. However, that difficulty does not derive from the doctrinal standards themselves and would not necessarily be solved if one changed the standards, because however one changed them one would be likely to leave some denomination or group with which one wished to continue to exchange preachers from time to time which might not be covered by it. The way of dealing with that problem is by amendment of the model deeds themselves. The promoters have used this device and seem to be trying to have a double method of achieving it. The change in the doctrinal clause cannot be justified on those grounds.

The second area in which the House must apply the tests of fairness and reasonableness is in relation to local trustees, their discharge from present responsibilities and their replacement. I accept what was said by the hon. Member for Goole. Problems arise in the relations between trusts and those who run local churches and societies and who now organise them in church councils. Situations can arise where a gulf opens up between the trust and what we used to call the society, the active church members. It should not do so, because any sensible society should make sure that its members are among the trustees, but it has happened and does happen.

I understand the desire of the promoters to ensure that the local trustee responsibility and local management of the Church's affairs are as closely bound together as possible. Not only am I unhappy, but many others are unhappy that central custodian trustees should be the device used to achieve this purpose. I believe that it would be much better if we could have an established procedure by which we kept membership of trusts closely aligned to local churches rather than become involved in a process of centralisation.

The difficulty is felt at its keenest where this is associated with the awkward occasion that arises when a society or local church feels for some reason or other that it must leave the Methodist connection or when it finds that the Methodist connection no longer wants it and wishes to declare it redundant. In those cases, the existence of a central instrument of power and responsibility causes those who fear this situation to be very worried about central custodian trustees.

Their Lordships tried to deal with the case which could arise when a society had to leave the Methodist Church be- cause it was declared redundant. An amendment was introduced into the Bill, but the difficulty about that is that it may be defective in drafting. This is a Committee matter for later, but it depends on the whole redundancy procedure being followed through to the end. As the hon. Member for Goole knows, that often has not happened. At the end of the day the unfortunate members have found their church closed over their heads.

They have one small benefit if the whole procedure is correctly followed. They have the privilege of being able to buy back on the open market the chapel which their forefathers built and to which they have devoted their life's efforts. In some cases they may not be able to afford to buy it back, but in other cases they may be fortunate because it may be on the market at a low price.

There is an additional problem. There is no intention to embrace the various chapels which have nothing to do with the Methodist Church but belong to the Western Reform Union or other separate or breakaway Methodist groups, some of which are very small, or even limited to one chapel only. The difficulty arises because the list of trustees in the schedule goes a long way back and can embrace chapels which have never had anything to do with the Methodist Church at all.

Dr. Edmund Marshall

Has the hon. Member any evidence that any one of those in the Western Reform Union or these independent Methodist chapels has a deed included in it?

Mr. Beith

Quite a number of bodies, and certainly the Western Reform Union, are very doubtful about indicating on which deeds their chapels are, because they are uncertain of the consequences of such legislation. It is incumbent on the promoters of the Bill to bring before us a schedule to embrace these chapels and the deeds they have lost. The promoters cannot except Back-Bench Members of this House to pursue through the safes of the United Kingdom the deeds of all the chapels involved. The areas of risk are well enough known for the promoters to draft the Bill in such a way as to safeguard them. This is why the Instruction has been tabled, and even those who are enthusiastic about the Bill should ensure that the promoters ascertain whether they are not sweeping into the Bill people who do not want to be any part of it.

A third area on which the House must ask questions is whether those affected have been consulted adequately. Are the promoters satisfied that consultations have taken place? It is simply not good enough to say that the synods have seen copies of the Bill. It has been widely claimed at synods at which the Bill was available that copies of it were taken away and were not available to take back on to the circuits to local churches. The fact that ministers are synod members does not necessarily mean that this is an effective method of communication. My chapel shares its minister with eight others. When the minister is not there, services are conducted by local preachers. On his quarterly visit, the minister can hardly be expected to take part in the kind of discussions described. Many people did not become aware of the Bill until a fairly late stage in the procedures.

Methodism is a connectional movement. It has always been influenced by both connections and by congregational traditions and attitudes. It seems that the rôle of local societies in seeing that their needs are met by representation at synod level is unfair to the Methodist tradition. I do not think that the hon. Member for Goole can reasonably suggest that the vote in conference represents the potential result of the same referendum among Methodist people. Of course, the conference produced an overwhelming majority in favour of the Bill. I am sure the hon. Member will recognise that if one took a poll among societies or Methodist members they would divide in the same proportion.

The hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. van Straubenzee) said that Methodist churches had the opportunity to put before the conference memorials indicating their view. Even in spite of the lack of early information at that level about the Bill, many societies and circuits did precisely that. Quite a number of memorials came before the 1975 conference deploring the lack of information about the Bill. One was from the Hoylake and West Kirby circuit, and the Birmingham Mission circuit urged a withdrawal of the Bill. From the Redruth circuit came criticisms, and doubt about the Bill were raised by the Bolton and Rochdale synod. The Bolton meeting, with 100 people present, voting by 82 to 17, came down against the Bill. Other representations include those from Bury and Heywood, Bridlington and the Forest of Dean.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Ernest Armstrong)

The hon. Member said that many people were not aware of the Bill, and now he says that circuits that were not consulted have been making representations. How does he square those two statements?

Mr. Beith

I have said that knowledge of the detailed provisions of the Bill was not available at local church level, but in a very large number of circuits people did what the hon. Member for Goole said they should—they went to great pains to find out more about the Bill. Now that a great deal more is known about it, there are memorials on the agenda to the conference for 1976—a conference which has not yet met—requesting that the Bill should be substantially changed, withdrawn or not acted upon. The Birmingham Central Mission is responsible for one of the memorials and others come from Romsey, the Brigg circuit, and Southport. The circuit at Worksop deplores the fact that in March 1975 the circuits were not given access to, and therefore could not discuss the contents of, the Bill.

Mr. Kenneth Lomas (Huddersfield, West)

Is the hon. Member aware that the Huddersfield Methodist Church has said that it is in favour of the Bill? Would the hon. Member care to comment on that?

Mr. Beith

He is a wise Member of Parliament who takes the trouble to ascertain the views held locally. There are differences of view among a great many people who favour the Bill. We are discussing tonight whether adequate consultation took place, whether the Bill should proceed and whether the different views involved have been adequately met. The hon. Member for Goole sought to give the impression that the most inconsequential group of people was opposed to the Bill I do not think that the circuits I have referred to can be put into that category.

Even if there were a large and clear majority of every circuit throughout Methodism in favour of the Bill, there would still be a large minority opposed to it and it would be the duty of this House to take notice of that opposition. The circuits which I have quoted have indicated in their memorials that there is a wider degree of dissatisfaction and concern at the proposal than had been thought hitherto.

The conference made replies to those memorials and said the kind of thing that the hon. Member for Goole has said. It recommended that the Bill should be dealt with in accordance with our long-established procedures for dealing with all items of legislation. Frankly, the circuits concerned did not share that view and were unhappy about it. It gives me no pleasure to make criticisms of a measure brought forward by people I respect in the Church to which I belong.

Whether Methodist or not, however, I would be failing in my duty as a Member of Parliament if I did not express concern at the sort of issues I have raised. I would have been much happier if substantial agreement could have been reached to avoid this spattering of the conference agenda with genuine, deep-seated misgivings from circuits in all parts of the country. It behoves hon. Members to acknowledge the existence of these feelings and to be accommodating towards them.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. Before I call the next speaker, I should point out, after the two reasonably long speeches that we have just heard, that if the Instruction is not reached before the end of the three hours allotted for this debate, the House will not have the opportunity—it may not wish to have the opportunity, of course—to vote on the Instruction. If the Second Reading debate lasts for three hours, I shall not be able to call the Instruction.

9.35 p.m.

Mr. Ron Lewis (Carlisle)

I claim no special qualifications for intervening in this important debate, but, like the two previous speakers, for my sins, I am a member of the Methodist Church.

Mr. Speaker

I know that I am impartial, but that would not be for one's sins surely.

Mr. Lewis

I was going to say that if I am spared until August of this year I shall have completed 45 years as a Methodist local preacher. I look back on those 45 years with great pleasure.

The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) quoted certain circuits. I have not received one letter from my constituency, yet he quoted my circuit, the Worksop circuit. I want to be fair to my superintendent minister there. It was only when he arrived on the scene last September, I understand, that this question was stirred up there. Even now, some of the ministers in that circuit are supporting this measure, as proposed by conference.

There are two contentious issues—the dissolution of the local trusteeship and the withdrawing of the unalterability clause relating to doctoring. My own humble thought is that the affairs of the Methodist Church should be in the hands of those who for the time being comprise that Church and who are reacting to its needs and those of the time. Applying that reasoning to doctoring rules out any clause made at one time, in this case back in the 1930s, which seeks to fix matters for all time.

There is however a personal view which to me is satisfying as a principle but which ignores the reasons for the unalterability clause in the deed of union going back to 1930. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Goole (Dr. Marshall) that it is still relevant to recall the clause, which arises from the deed of union, the document which set out the terms of the union of the three United Churches—the Wesleyans, the Primitives and the United Methodists. After all these years, we are not now uniting three previously separate Churches, as they were in the 1930s.

According to one eye witness, the clause sought to placate the hard liners of the Wesleyan pastoral ministerial session who wanted to guard against eroding the status of ministers, particularly superintendent ministers, while the hard liners of the Primitives and the United Methodists wanted to guard against any enhancing of the status or function of the ministry and corresponding erosion of lay authority and responsibility.

That conflict is understandable in the context of the discussions in 1928–32, because for years the only thing that kept the uniting churches apart was the question of ministerial-lay authority and responsibility.

Therefore, in my view the clause functioned as a means to an end. It was a mechanism to assist the uniting of three previously separate Methodist Churches, and that is important. But this most certainly is not the issue now. Therefore, this reason for such a clause no longer applies, in my humble opinion.

Is there any virtue, in 1976, in maintaining an anachronism, therefore? I appreciate that there are those who see the clause as a safeguard against changes of which they fear they may disapprove. However, having said that I think that to shelter behind the clause and to decline to argue a case is somewhat immoral. If the real concern of those who wish to maintain the clause is to safeguard the future from hasty or immoderate change, surely the way forward is to devise a procedure within the Church to ensure that no change can take place without full discussion and a substantial majority being in favour of it.

On this point, the current proposals seem to me to be satisfactory. However, if they are not judged to be satisfactory, surely it is the proposals that require amendment. Nothing needs to be stopped by the blunt instrument of the unalterability clause. What is more, I see no reason why the legislative and secular authority of this House should be the guardian of matters theological. I think that the Methodist Church should be free from parliamentary encumbrance. As I understand it, that is what this measure seeks to do.

My thoughts on the proposals to dissolve the local trusteeship and to vest all Methodist property in a central body of trustees acting for the Connexion seems to be reasonable. Again, I hold the view that the current affairs of the Church should be in the hands of those who are the Church for the time being, and that applies to the local church as well as to the Connexion as a whole.

I know that a number of Methodist ministers, after their attendance at the synods, have referred the proposed change to every trustees' meeting that they have attended, and have done that as their churches' representatives to the synods. If some ministers did not do so, I suggest that they were abdicating some of their duties. But a number of ministers have told me that they raised this question at meetings of their local trustees time and time again when it was first mooted several years ago. As far as I have been able to ascertain from the various ministers to whom I have spoken, there were very few exceptions at the time that they raised the matter and made their report on this measure, especially when it was realised that all but the legal responsibility was being transferred to the church council.

Mr. Richard Wainwright

We all applaud the spirit in which certain ministers spoke to the bodies of trustees to which they were responsible. Although these have not been quantified or specified, is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that in doing that ministers were under an instruction from the conference? In other words, was there a rule that all ministers should tell the trustees of their churches?

Mr. Lewis

I am saying that a minister who goes to synod is under an obligation to report back to his trustees' meeting what happens at the synod. If ministers did not do that, some of them probably erred and strayed in that regard.

Only the legal responsibility was being transferred to a central body. This seems relevant, because it is the legal responsibility that local folk have shied away from when asked to become trustees.

Another relevant issue is the absent trustee. The older a trust is, the more likely it is that its members will be dispersed and therefore lose touch with local matters. They consequently become less willing to act, even if they go to meetings. This situation is no help to the local church. On this practical issue, I welcome the proposed change, because it keeps the responsibility local, where it should be, and maintains an elected body. I regard that as a real improvement.

I appreciate that some regard the proposed change with fear, thinking that the Trust for Methodist Church Purposes can now close our chapels, but as that cannot happen without the agreement of the church council, circuit meeting, district synod and conference, I do not see any closures resulting from the proposed change. We shall watch with great interest, but I do not foresee the Trustees for the Methodist Church Purposes initiating any closure. There would be too many ready to say "This is just what we feared."

I am content with this move, because it draws attention to the connectional form of Methodism as distinct from the congregational form. That is good for the Methodist Church.

Bearing in mind that we have a membership of about 600,000 in the great Church and that only about 8,000 have so far petitioned against this, I hope that the House will give its full support to the elected body of the Methodist Church, the Methodist Conference.

9.49 p.m.

Mr. Paul Dean (Somerset, North)

I shall remember your appeal for brevity Mr. Speaker.

I am glad to follow the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Lewis). He and I had the pleasure of living in the same village for a number of years. I know that he and his family are great pillars of the Methodist Church in that village in North Somerset.

I think that I am the first Anglican to speak in the debate. I support the Bill. The hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Goole (Dr. Marshall) made a persuasive case for allowing the Bill to go to Committee, where the details can be considered.

I have three general propositions, which I find useful guidelines in approaching Church matters. The first is that I am a firm believer in retaining an established Church in this country. It symbolises the link between the Church and the State, between the spiritual and temporal and is of great value, particularly in these days when practising Christians are, alas, a minority.

My second guideline arises from the closer links that have been developing in recent years between the Churches. I rejoice to see the barriers breaking down and new links being forged. The Bill will assist in forging those new links and will give additional flexibility within all Churches.

My third guideline is the principle that there must be compelling arguments to justify the House rejecting a Bill put forward by any responsible Church.

For years the trend has been towards maximum self-government in the Churches and a minimum of intervention by Parliament. Churches are responsible bodies, and we should treat them as such. They have their own methods of government and representation of clergy and layity, and we should be careful before we interfere. If we were to make a practice of intervention in the growing amount of legislation coming to the House from the Churches, what effect would it have on relations between the Churches and Parliament? History gives us a warning that we should proceed with caution. That warning also applies to the Churches.

I have one suggestion, which I hope will be followed up. We must work out a better early warning system than we appear to have at present, so that when a Church is thinking of legislation, ways will be devised for informal consultations to take place in the early stages, to avoid potential clashes developing between the Church and Parliament.

Although I disagree with many of the remarks of the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), I agree that consultation with membership is not one of the Church's strongest points. Perhaps the Methodist Church and other Churches may wish to reflect upon that.

I ask myself whether there are arguments that are sufficiently compelling to justify rejection of the Bill. My answer is clearly "No". Are there sufficiently compelling arguments for asking the House to impose this Instruction? My answer to that is also "No". The hon. Member for Goole put forward compelling arguments in the references he made to the amendments introduced in the other place to try to meet the understandable fears put forward on the part of some trustees. It would be unfortunate for the House to try to pre-empt the later stages of the Bill by accepting an Instruction of the kind suggested.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

Despite what he said, does not the hon. Gentleman agree that the House has responsibility for the generality of the membership of the Methodist Church, who apparently on this occasion were not as widely consulted as they might have been?

Mr. Dean

I am coming to that.

There are two aspects that need to be looked at separately—the spiritual and the temporal. First, as to spiritual matters, matters of doctrine, the Methodist Church, as the hon. Member for Carlisle reminded us, is asking that it should be able to determine its own doctrine and be released from the bonds of the 1929 Act. It asks for the freedom that other Churches have. In introducing the Bill the hon. Member for Goole referred to the history of the 1929 Act, and I need not go into that.

It is wrong, certainly in modern times, that spiritual matters which are the concern of a responsible Church should be decided by a secular Parliament composed of Christians and non-Christians. There is no doubt in my mind, from my discussions with Methodists, that their feelings on this matter are very strong. If I were a Methodist I should feel exactly the same. Although the Bill deals with temporalities, on the spiritual side the House should hesitate before throwing it out and thereby also throwing out that aspect.

On the temporal side, the issues are not so clear and the House is entitled to do some probing in the light of its responsibility as the ultimate watchdog of the national interest, national justice and individual rights. I admit to some misgivings. I at least understand the argument put forward on behalf of the petitioners with regard to the trustees. I understand the misgivings about consultation, but there are two arguments that counterbalance the misgivings that have been expressed.

The first argument is that these proposals will enhance the power of the local church community. They are designed to enable the local church community to respond more effectively to new needs. The managing trustees will be the people on the spot—the church council. That seems to be a compelling argument, which we cannot lightly gainsay.

The second argument, which is important, is that the Methodist Church assures use that it has gone through its well-established procedures before bringing forward the Bill. We have the clear statement on behalf of the promoters in paragraph 4 of the paper that: In accordance with the Standing Orders of the Conference, and after full consultation within the Methodist Church, the provisions of the Bill have been submitted to the Conference in each of two successive years and, on each occasion have been approved almost unanimously. It has been argued that the consultative procedures are not perfect, but what should be pre-eminent in our minds is that the established procedures laid down by the Methodist Church have been gone through. The case that has been put by the promoters of the Bill is convincing. Any misgivings we may have are much better dealt with in Committee. There is no case for rejecting the Bill, with all the serious consequences that would entail for the Methodist Church. Neither is there a case for the Instruction. I hope, therefore, that the House will give the Bill a Second Reading.

10.0 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Ernest Armstrong)

At the outset I would like to say that I speak for myself tonight and not in my capacity as a Minister of the Crown. I was reluctant to intervene, but in 1974–75 I was vice-president of the Methodist Conference. During that year, when the Bill was being discussed in chapels up and down the country, I was privileged Sunday after Sunday to visit chapels throughout Britain and my experience prompts me to say what I hope will be a brief word tonight.

I grew up in a West Durham mining village where the chapel was the social centre. It was the training ground for involvement in community life. It was the sort of chapel where we were not given permission to go into politics: we were expected to go into politics. It was also the place of worship.

I am bound to say that the Methodist folk in my village have had a profound influence on my life. I cannot pay too high a tribute to the influence of the chapel in my thinking. In that village we had a built-in suspicion of everything that was said and done south of Darlington, let alone what happened in London. We were against anything which came from London. We ran our own affairs and we resented interference from circuit, synod and particularly the Methodist Conference. Therefore, my traditions are with the traditions of those who have voiced the minority view tonight, because it is a minority view so far as the Methodist Church is concerned. Yet I find myself, as it were, commending the Bill.

I believe the Bill to be sensible, reasonable and forward-looking. I know, and I say this with great sincerity, that it is supported by the overwhelming majority of Methodist people. There is not the slightest shadow of doubt about that, otherwise I would not say it. Anybody who was fortunate enough, as I was, to grow up in a closely-knit, neighbourly community will understand the doubts, fears and misgivings which I know are sincerely and genuinely felt by those who have petitioned against the Bill. I assure hon. Members concerned that I understand those fears because I grew up in that kind of background. It is because I believe that those fears are groundless that I am making these remarks tonight.

The Methodist Conference is a democratic body—make no mistake about that. The democratic procedures have grown up over the years. There is equal representation of the ordained ministry and lay persons, as we now describe what in the old days we used to call laymen.

My hon. Friend the Member for Goole (Dr. Marshall) detailed the provisions of the Bill. It has been discussed in the Church for some years now. It was discussed in conference, then went back to the synods and then back to conference again. At no time has there ever been—and I say this with some authority—any attempt or wish by anybody I know in the Methodist Church to prevent people discussing what is in the Bill. Indeed, the very opposite is the truth.

It may well be that the formal procedures of consultation ought to be looked at, but I assure the House that the fact that there was not an instruction to ministers to consult the local church does not mean—certainly in my own experience—that ministers, laymen and certainly the vice-president have failed to take every opportunity to discuss the proposals in the Bill.

If I thought that discussion and consideration at local level would have meant any difference, I would have had doubts about my enthusiastic support for the Bill. Nobody would accuse a Northumbrian or Durham Methodist of being an autocrat. I learned my democracy in the Methodist chapel, and I was very disturbed to hear my Church being described as one that was not ready to consult the grass roots.

The two issues which seem to be troubling the objectors are concerned, first, with property and the rights and duties of the trustees and, secondly, with doctrinal standards. Legal ownership of Methodist property will be transferred to the Central Board, and custodian trusteeship gives the central authority no duties or functions to perform in respect of the property vested in it other than actually holding the property and ensuring that it is not party to a breach of the trust upon which the property is held.

On the other hand, the managing trustees—in other words, the local church council—will have spiritual oversight over the local church and also manage the property. Far from being a resort to central administration or control, the Bill will in reality enhance the powers of the local church fellowship.

The Bill gives no new powers to close any chapel which are not already available to the Church. The Bill does not confer new powers to deal with redundancy. The chapel of which I have such vivid memory is now closed. When we decided to close it I regretted it, in a way, but I realise now that by joining the ex-Wesleyan and ex-Primitive Churches together we did a service to the Church and to the local community. Indeed, we now recognise that this was a step forward.

It has just been suggested—I do not quarrel with this—that there are people who want to be away from the Methodist Church as we know it. I think that the hon. Member who said this over-emphasised it. I remind him that since powers were taken there have been 1,122 redundancies and that 1,121 of those were voluntary. Only in one case has compulsion been used.

I am bound to say that the experiences in that one case have, I am certain, taught the Church a lesson. In these changing times, however, when there are three chapels in one village, it is surely sensible that redundancies should occur and that the Christian community should work together. I hope that not only the Methodist churches but other churches as well will see the light in that respect.

I stress to the House, therefore, that in no sense is this a vesting of power centrally and a taking away of power from the local folk. The Bill provides flexibility in deploying the assets of the Church, as long as the use comes within the broad purpose of the Methodist Church.

On doctrinal standards, I am sure that the House may wonder why a non-conformist church is unable to alter its statement of doctrine without parliamentary approval. The conference—it represents the Methodist people—believes that the Methodist people, through their democratically elected decision-making assembly, should have the power to alter or amend the doctrinal standards, provided that such amendments are approved by a substantial majority after careful and prolonged consultation. Certainly "appropriate consultation" as defined in a standing order could not be more democratic.

The conference must first approve any change by a 75 per cent. majority. Then for two years there will be consultation right down to circuit level, and the whole of the Methodist people will be consulted. Every local Methodist church has direct representation to the circuit meeting. Then, two years after the first proposal, it will be submitted again to conference. Again, conference must have a 75 per cent. vote before any proposed alteration must become effective. I know of no more democratic procedure than that in any organisation to which I am attached.

The Bill will bring up to date the whole statutory machinery controlling the affairs and trust property of the Methodist Church. The genuine nature of this exercise, which has been the subject of many years of earnest and honest discussion, is clearly established by the overwhelming support of Methodists throughout the country. Because I believe that it is the express wish of Methodists, and because I believe that the Bill is in the best interests of our Church, of our nation and of the world, I commend this measure to the House.

10.12 p.m.

Mr. Patrick Mayhew (Royal Tunbridge Wells)

Many hon. Members wish to take part in the debate, and I know that many of them will have a better claim to speak in this debate than I have since they are members of the Methodist Church rather than as in any case, of the Anglican Church. I shall heed the request from the Chair for short speeches, and I can only hope that in trying to accede to that request I shall be acquitted of any charge of superficiality in dealing with this important Bill.

I intended to begin by saying that I had no interest to declare because I am not a Methodist, but that would be wrong, because as a Member of Parliament I believe that I do have an interest to declare. As Members of Parliament, we are vested by the 1932 Act with a responsibility. Whether it is right or wrong that we should have that responsibility, the fact remains that we have it. That responsibility is to scrutinise measures brought forward by the democratic processes of the Methodist Church.

I believe that there is value in this procedure, which, I recognise, is somewhat anomalous. In the case of the Anglican Church, our minds go back a few months to the occasion when the Vacant Benefices Measure was before the House and when, for the first time since 1928, this House threw out a measure that came to us through the Anglican processes, it having been through the Synod and having been before the Ecclesiastical Committee of the Anglican Church. We threw out that measure not because we were against its purpose but because the Anglican Church had produced a legislative abortion. We threw it out, and the Church Times said in a leading article the following week that the Church should be grateful to the House of Commons for having been so vigilant.

I personally believe that there is value in the responsibility of this House in these matters. Whether there is value in that process or whether it is right that we should have that responsibility, the fact is that we possess it. Therefore, we must ask ourselves by what criterion we should exercise our powers. I am clear that we should not exercise our powers by the criterion that we are arbiters of theology in the Methodist Church or from a belief that we are arbiters of the proper administration of the Methodist Church. We should exercise those powers according to the question whether, in our view, the Methodist Church has been consulted fully, thoroughly and painstakingly.

I do not doubt that those responsible for the Bill sincerely believe it to be right and to represent the wishes of the majority of the Methodist Church—and, for all I know, it may well be so. The vast preponderance of correspondence that I have received from my constituents is on the other side. I do not understand it to be contested by the hon. Member for Goole (Dr. Marshall). They say "We have not been consulted at church council or at circuit level". They say—and who am I to contest it?—that the lower one is in the Methodist hierarchy, if I may use that expression without offence, or the nearer one is to the grass roots, the greater is the degree of opposition to the Bill. If the circuits in a formal sense and the church councils have not been consulted, that represents a serious question mark against the rightness of voting for the Bill.

I observe the contrast between the procedure which has been thought right for this Bill and the procedure which was thought right for the Anglican-Methodist conversations. In the latter instance it was thought right to take the consultations down to circuit level. I was not impressed by the answer I was given when I put that point to the hon. Gentleman. He said that the Anglican-Methodist conversations represented a proposal which went to the very roots of the continuence of the Methodist Church, that this Bill is of lesser importance and that, therefore, that procedure is not necessary. I hope that does justice to the nature of the hon. Gentleman's reply.

The crucial features of the Bill are twofold. The first is to remove from the surveillance of this House any changes which may be put forward in the doctrine of the Methodist Church. The second is to remove from the control of local trustees the right to dispose of local church property. Those would seem to be matters of great importance.

I am told in the vast preponderance of letters that I have received that this is a matter of great anxiety to Church members in my constituency. They resent the fact that there has been no consultation at circuit, let alone church council, level. When they tell me that their fellow Church members do not know what the Bill proposes, as a non-Methodist but as a Member of this House, as at present advised on the basis of what I have heard, I feel bound to oppose the Bill.

Mr. van Straubenzee

I have been following closely my hon. and learned Friend's cogent argument. Would not a closer analogy be with the actions of this House at the end of 1974 when it granted freedom over worship and doctrine to the Church of England, doing so upon a request by the General Synod of that Church, realising that the dioceses had been consulted but not having any knowledge that the consultation had gone down to parochial level? That is surely a closer analogy. On that occasion the House gave its assent.

Mr. Mayhew

That is an important point that occurred to me. I believe there to be a distinction. I hope that I can be put right if I am wrong. Whereas in the Synod of the Church of England I believe there to be a more directly democratic foundation or basis, I am told that the Methodist Conference, which comes at the top of the pyramid as it were, is composed as to 50 per cent. of lay representatives and 50 per cent. of ministers. I understand that the lay representatives consist of heads of departments and chairmen of districts and that there is no election by way of mandate. There is a strong official or office-bearing component in the Methodist Conference. I am told that the district synods are chaired by district chairmen who are appointed from a general purposes committee. Therefore, there is a strong office-bearing component within the membership of the synod. That, if it is right, seems to be an important distinction between the hierarchy, as it were, of the Methodist Church and the example put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. van Straubenzee).

I do not want to say any more, but I hope that I have indicated the considerations that are a great cause for anxiety to me, trying to do my best as a Member of Parliament who is vested, rightly or wrongly, with a share of the duty to survey a proposal of this nature. The considerations that I have outlined have weighed strongly and with urgency upon those who have written to me. On the basis of what I have heard, I am bound to say that they will oblige me to vote against the Bill.

10.21 p.m.

Mr. Eric Ogden (Liverpool, West Derby)

The hon. and learned Member for Royal Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Mayhew)—that is a speech in itself—is absolutely right to take an interest in this debate on behalf of his constituents. He is right to do so, whether he be a Methodist, an Anglican, or a member of any other denomination. His duty as a Member of Parliament is to supervise and consider the legislation before us.

The hon. and learned Gentleman and I have almost exchanged places. I had the temerity to take part in the Church of England measure on worship and doctrine. I hope that my support on that occasion was welcome to the Anglicans. Any support on this occasion from Anglicans will be welcome to the Methodists.

The hon. and learned Gentleman made two references which I would take up straight away. First, he referred to the Methodist hierarchy. If anything, that hierarchy is longitudinal rather than pyramidical, but if it is an inverted cone we believe that the churches and chapels are at the top level and that the Methodist Conference is at the base. I say that with no disrespect to those who may or may not be witnesses of this debate.

The hon. and learned Gentleman referred to consultation. Perhaps he will listen to the words of a Methodist minister in the West Derby constituency with whom I took up the issue of consultation by asking how far along the line conference should have gone and how far along the line it went in different areas. He makes the point that Parliament decided what the procedures of the Methodist Church should be. Parliament decided how that consultation should take place, and the minister asks "Can Parliament direct the Methodist Conference to overrule its constitution, which is itself guaranteed by an Act of Parliament?" That is one of the dilemmas.

In coming to this Bill, the Methodist Church has done everything that Parliament asked it to do. If Parliament had wanted conference to do more, we should have asked conference to do more. The Methodist Church, after its consultative processes, comes before Parliament having done everything that Parliament has asked. In individual circumstances, conference has done much more than the minimum that Parliament imposed.

Mr. Spearing

Does my hon. Friend recall in another context that Caesar asked one to go a mile and one had to go? As Parliament is Caesar in this rôle, and as the Methodist Church is a Christian church, why did the Church not go the second mile towards its total membership?

Mr. Ogden

I have the highest and warmest regard for my hon. Friend, but he is the "Great Dissenter" in these matters. I always welcome interventions from Congregationalists, but sometimes I wish they were in other places. My answer to my hon. Friend is that this is a matter of personal opinion. The Methodist people in West Derby have no complaint about the consultation. It might be that people in other parts of the country are more backward in coming forward than we are in the North-West. I never heard of a Nonconformist of any group who was not more than capable of knowing what was going on in the world and saying "Ah, but listen. They are not all south of Darlington or north of Watford".

My purpose is to support the Bill and to help to reduce the average length of speeches in this Chamber on this occasion. It is known that Members of this House belong to an infinite variety of religious groups. There are Catholics, Anglicans and Protestants. Christians, members of the Jewish faith and members of no faith but humanity itself. It is equally known with affection that there is a parliamentary group known affectionately as the Mafia. Its full title is the Methodist Mafia. You, Mr. Speaker, are a witness to the fact that this group has friends in high places. The Methodist connexion in Parliament is deeper than is ever declared in the Register of Members' Interests. If I have to lobby you later, I hope that you will give your casting vote in support of the Bill.

Equally, however, hon. Members have put forward cogent, proper arguments in opposition to the Bill and done their duty to themselves and other interests. I am pleased that they did not begin quoting my constituents' points of view, because I might have had a point of principle to raise. It happens that I belong to the Methodist Church. My family, whether they came from St. Erth in Cornwall or from Lancashire, were known in that lovely term "Big Methodists". We were Primitive Methodists. I have been told by one of the Catholic hierarchy in Liverpool that if they had to have a Protestant they could not get someone much more Protestant than a Primitive Methodist. I still regard myself in that light.

This is a strange Bill. Perhaps it would have been better if we had had two Bills, one on doctrine and one on property. Clauses 3 and 4 are supremely important to me, and much more important than the other clauses. These two Clauses, 3 and 4, are about the doctrine of the Church, and surely that ought to be decided by people outside this House. Clauses 5 and 6 concern the power to unite with other Churches. Would anyone oppose that? Those four clauses out of the 17 are essential and are four very good reasons why the House should give a Second Reading to the Bill.

Fortunately or unfortunately, in this sceptred isle we are bedevilled by land and by property. Ten out of the 17 clauses of the Bill are about property. As my dad used to say, "Get hold of a bit of land or property." But that is not the fundamental point or purpose of the Bill. Presumably for some reason these matters had to be linked together. We do not have such Bills every few weeks. This is an expensive procedure. However, let us not throw out constitution and doctrine, purposes, amendment of the deed of union and the power to unite with other Churches because of differences about property that ought to be able to be accommodated within the Second Reading and Committee proceedings.

I have done my best to consult those who have a direct influence and concern in Liverpool, in my constituency of West Derby, about this Bill. They have no complaints about the consultation procedures or about any lack of information. They know more about what has been happening in relation to this Bill than what their Member of Parliament has been saying about certain other parliamentary events. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Mr. Ellis) will know, if Liverpool Members say something it is published in the Welsh editions of local papers, and if a Welsh Member says anything it is put in the Lancashire editions. There are no complaints from the people in my Liverpool constituency about this Bill. We should give it a Second Reading and send it on its way to Committee tonight.

10.29 p.m.

Mr. Peter Mills (Devon, West)

I welcome this opportunity of speaking in the debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Goole (Dr. Marshall). He put his case very fairly, properly and very well. I do not agree with all he said, but he made a very reasonable speech.

I am not a Methodist, but I was a Nonconformist in my younger days until I joined the Anglican Church in a marvellous service called "Baptism for those of Riper Years". It was in the "riper years" that I transferred from being a Nonconformist to being an Anglican.

In my area of Devon, particularly in West Devon, there is a very large number of Methodists. If I may say so without being rude, they are a particular type of Methodist, in that many are Bible Christian Methodists. They feel these things very strongly indeed. As a matter of interest for the House, I think that the Bible Christian Methodist movement started in a little village called Shebbear in my constituency.

I believe that because I was a Nonconformist, and because I have many Methodists in my constituency, I have the right to speak on their behalf and try to put forward the views which they have expressed to me. I also believe that this House has a role to play. I do not see why we should be shy about this and apologise for speaking. Surely it is our duty. The Methodists came to this House with the Church Act of 1932, and now they have come again with this Bill. It would be very funny if we in the House of Commons did not speak about these matters and air the views of our constituents. Let us do away with this nonsense that we are not supposed to speak of these things. We have every right to do so and indeed, a duty to do so. I only wish that these things were discussed more often than some of the other stupid things we have to debate.

The House of Commons should act as a sort of long-stop in these matter's. We should say to the Church concerned "Think again", because that is the role of Parliament. It is as true of the Methodist Church as it is of the Church of England. Recently we told the Church of England to think again, and that is absolutely right.

I am opposed to disestablishment. I think that this link is absolutely vital. It will be a sad day for the Methodist Church if, as has been suggested, it wants to break that link. Let us continue to try to work together. We should never forget that we have a Christian heritage in this country, and Methodists and Anglicans should count it a privilege that they have a link with the Mother Parliament. Long may it continue.

Again, we in Parliament should be the protectors of minorities and the views they express. Much of this Bill must be correct and must be wanted by the Methodists. I do not argue against that. But I am desperately worried about the whole business of consultation. According to my constituents, there was not the full consultation that there should have been. I think that this sort of thing happens in most denominations. The criticism made by my people in West Devon, and in the South-West generally, is that they have not been consulted fully on these matters. They may be wrong, but I should express their views tonight.

Mr. Lomas

I am very interested in what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but when he says that his constituents were not consulted is he referring to lay preachers or to the ordained members of the Methodist Church?

Mr. Mills

I am talking entirely about the lay people who make up the body of the Methodist Church and attend Sunday after Sunday those tiny chapels in the countryside. People feel very strongly, even passionately, about these matters of doctrine and trusteeship, both of which are very sensitive areas.

I would have thought that the Methodist Church as a whole should go out of its way to see that every person was consulted about these matters, if possible. It should bend over backwards to see that these were no grounds for such criticism. I say this to the Anglican Church as well.

It is important that bishops, superintendents and other leaders of the Churches must get it firmly in their minds that people are not prepared these days not to be consulted. I therefore ask that the Bill should be put back for proper consultation. I do not believe that that would do any harm. If the Bill is important and in the interests of the Methodist Church, it should be put back for a short time so that this further consultation can take place.

I have heard no one say that that would be difficult or would upset or spoil what is intended. After all, the Methodists have been going on the way they are for a very long time. What would six months' delay mean if it were to lead to fuller consultation? The strength of the Methodist Church lies in the very people who are saying that they have not been consulted. These are the people who regularly attend, God-fearing people who go to the chapels every Sunday.

Perhaps I may quote some of the letters which I have received on this subject to prove that these are not simply my views but that my local people are bitterly concerned about the matter. I have a letter from a circuit at Winkleigh, in Devon, which says: We feel that our freedom as members of this body is being taken from us, and we feel that eventually not only will our places of worship but also the doctrine of our beloved church will also be affected. The Northlew circuit wrote saying: So you can appreciate one reason why opposition may be very small. Methodists are getting more and more frustrated by so much being done 'over their heads' without consultation.

Mr. Ogden

Will the hon. Gentleman give the date of those letters? Did he offer to meet any of these groups to explain, as he would for any other Bill, the intention behind the Bill?

Mr. Mills

I have done my best to explain it. I am a fairly busy lay reader in the Church of England on Sundays and at other times, and it is difficult to get round to the Methodist chapels. One letter was dated 25th April 1976 and the other 9th February. I have many other letters which express the same views.

This House is right to discuss these matters. I must ask the Methodist Church please to go back and consult fully. Once it has done that, it can go forward with the full confidence that is needed. I would then wish it very well indeed.

10.39 p.m.

Mr. Richard Wainwright (Colne Valley)

Like other hon. Members, I approach this debate with the care that this House always takes over Private Bills of substance, especially when the interests affected are not selfish but public-spirited. To approach a private measure with care must involve the House in inquiring carefully into its parentage.

I know that there is still time to go and there are revelations to come, but I suggest that in terms of parentage the Bill should be called the Methodist Conference Bill, not the Methodist Church Bill. Although there has been a certain amount of generalised talking, and although the Bill has been discussed by eminent Methodists in the areas they have visited, there has been no evidence that the generality of Methodists throughout the country—the 600,000 members of the Church—have been informed about the Bill.

Secondly, I approach the Bill—

Dr. Edmund Marshall

Has the hon. Gentleman heard of the Methodist Recorder? Does it circulate in his part of the country?

Mr. Wainwright

I have taken certain precautions and established that the circulation of the Recorder at the last count was 41,000. I have noticed that in Yorkshire, where I practise my Methodism as a lay preacher and have done so since 1936, the Recorder is taken less and less, probably because of the lower spending power of Yorkshire people rather than through any fall in the quality of the Recorder. To expect active and hardworking Methodist people to rely on a wholly commercial newspaper with a modest and falling circulation is no compliment to the Methodist authorities and is not a point of substance in discussing the parentage of the Bill.

Secondly, like other hon. Members I approach the Bill with particular care because of the high expression of regard which Methodist people of all different traditions held for this House in 1929. Some hon. Members are overlooking or have forgotten the fact that it was the three different Methodist Churches, nation-wide bodies with very different social backgrounds, which asked Parliament to act as referee in future if any wish were expressed by the conference for a change of doctrine. The House was approached to confer this boon on Methodist people, and when Parliament is treated with that degree of respect it should not easily contemplate passing back that duty as something which is no longer appropriate.

Mr. Tom Ellis (Wrexham)

Reverting to the circulation of the Methodist Recorder, does not a circulation of 41,000 among a membership of 600,000 compare favourably with the circulation of any newspaper in the country?

Mr. Wainwright

I am not discussing—with respect, it is not material—the degree of penetration of the Methodist Recorder in newspaper terms. I am simply saying that if we are inquiring what the generality of 600,000 Methodists think about the Bill it is not a great help to be told that 40,000 copies of the Recorder are sold. Even if one allows three readers per copy, one is still short of a quarter of the Methodist membership.

Thirdly, I approach the Bill, as many others have done, with just the bonus of some little knowledge of Methodism, at any rate in Yorkshire, as secretary of the trustees of a chapel in a vast and battered down-town housing estate, a post which I gave up only when I was elected to this House. That piece of knowledge, scrappy and experiential though it is, enables me to put a gloss on some of the academic statements made in support of the Bill. I do not suggest that anything inaccurate has been said, but when, for instance, the hon. Member for Goole (Dr. Marshall) told us that, through its minister, every church had a live and close link with the district synod, which is the highest level which has been told about the Bill, let alone discussed it, I could not repress a chuckle.

The chapel that I know is visited by a minister once or twice a quarter. No one would be so tactless, foolish and boring as to detain the minister about a Bill when four or five people were queueing up to tell the minister about the boiler that had burst, six or seven others were queueing up to tell him that they wanted him to stay another two years, three or four more were waiting to ask him about the condition of the manse and, far more important, the stewards were doing their duty by telling him about those members of the society who were sick and needed a visit from him. The idea that the minister comes flashing like Mercury into the chapel saying "Boys, I have news from the synod. Come and ask me questions about the matters raised in the district meeting.", bearing in mind that he is meeting 270 eminently respectable but highly establishment characters, is beyond belief.

Then we had the interesting and very characteristic speech of the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Ogden). I must point out to him that, when he speaks of procedures such as those which the Methodist Church went through before presenting the Bill, he must not think that those procedures were ever laid down by Parliament. There is nothing about these procedures in the Act of 1929. They are simply the current standing orders of the conference.

That brings me to conference standing orders, and I ask for the attention of hon. Members because this is a matter of great substance which in my view contains what should be in the Bill. If the House allows the Methodist Conference to dispense with the parliamentary safeguards which conference itself sought in 1932, surely there should be put into legislation some definite form of obligation for future consultation on changes of doctrine. But that has not been done. The only words in the Bill which lay down any guideline or standard for the future conduct of doctrine negotiations within Methodism are the vague, sentimental words "appropriate consultations". It is left entirely to the Methodist Conference to interpret those two pale, weak words which are in the Bill.

On the subject of the standing orders. I ask the House to appreciate that the Methodist Conference, time and again throughout history—even when it was accused in The Times of being a Star Chamber—has boasted that it is always master of its own house. That means that any standing orders, which have been described even tonight as a safeguard in the matter of future discussions about doctrine, could be cancelled, substituted or amended by any Methodist Conference as it pleased. The idea that this House is bequeathing to Methodism, as a substitute for its own safeguard, any kind of built-in, sacred standing orders is entirely wide of the mark.

I suggest that if the Bill is to proceed it should contain as a matter of principle—as part of the statute—a definite procedure for remedying the gross defects of the lack of consultation which have been exposed by so many hon. Members in this debate.

Mr. Costain

If the hon. Gentleman is showing so little confidence in conference, why not say that this House should authorise every standing order of conference? Why not go the whole hog? Surely the Nonconformist Church is designed to give its members the right to run their own affairs.

Mr. Wainwright

My point must have escaped the attention of the hon. Gentleman. It is that Methodists, running their own affairs and in full control of their own affairs in 1929, voluntarily, expressly and deliberately said "We ask Parliament to give us this safeguard." That is exercising exactly the power that the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Costain) wants.

I conclude what I was saying about conference with two points. First, this determination of conference not to submit itself to any of the checks and balances of a normal senior constitutional body was brought out clearly in the Select Committee proceedings in another place only a few weeks ago, when the secretary of the conference, a most zealous servant of Methodism, was in Committee: You are asking that the Conference should be unfettered in decisions if it wishes to take them? and he replied: Yes, indeed. It is for the Conference to decide in the light of the seriousness of the issue and its knowledge of our own people what kind of consultation is best likely to serve the interests of the whole church. Conference is to be the total master. It is not to submit to any standards of conduct from outside or to submit to any instructions from Methodist people, but is to run its own proceedings.

What is this conference to which it is suggested that this House should hand over power which at present vests in Parliament? It consists of 576 people, half of them travelling ministers of the Church, and half of them lay persons, who include local ministers and local preachers. Of those, seven are current office holders, six are past presidents and vice-presidents, eight are assistant secretaries, 24 are secretaries and treasurers of departments, 20 are elected by the conference as laymen and 20 are elected by the conference as laywomen. Twenty-six are chairmen of districts, office-holders by their very nature. Last year 11 were ministers' wives. Eighteen are elected by divisional boards, 20 come from other Methodist conferences and 55 others are additional members of connectional committees. There are, therefore, 221 national ex-officio members, if I may so describe ministers' wives. Of the members who come up from districts, a number are mandated members of the local Methodist establishment. The same names appear year after year, and the conference has an even more spectacularly high average than this honourable House.

I turn to the question of whether the circumstances which led the Methodists to beg this House to act as a referee and safeguard have materially changed. The hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Lewis) put the point that circumstances have greatly changed since 1932, and I would put two points. The hon. Member spoke as though the 'thirties were some vanished palaeolithic age. That is strange talk, especially from the Labour Benches, from which we are still continually reminded that the memories of the 'thirties are of great importance, a view which I personally support. I would say, from the observations I have been able to make, that the tensions, potential splits and fissures are as dangerous and potent now as they were in 1929.

Mr. Ron Lewis

What business is it of ours?

Mr. Wainwright

The business of ours is that the circumstances which led the Methodists ask the House of Commons in 1929 to take on this job still obtain today. There is just as much tension today as ever there was, and it is perfectly honourable and understandable tension, between those whose passion is for the local church or for independence for practising one's Christianity on the spot in local fellowship, in very much a New Testament fashion, and the equally honourable stance of those who say "In this wicked world we want a strongly-directed centralised church a power in the land, able to speak with a powerful voice."

I conclude with a further piece of evidence. The tension in respect of independence is far greater than it was in 1929, because then, as I remember, local resources were desperately strained. It was a time of intense depression and people were lucky indeed if they could get a grant of £25 a year out of Methodist headquarters in London. Today, the growth of the Charismatic and Pentecostal Churches shows that it is the easiest thing in the world to build up an instant congregation provided there is the talent available. Sometimes those of us who are in established denominations turn our eyes away deliberately from the extraordinary material, outward success of the Charismatic and Pentecostal Churches, which in our towns attract much greater congregations than those of most of the established bodies. There is just as much danger in Methodism today of a split if there is no outside referee as ever there was in 1929.

Mr. Ogden

Is there not an alternative? If the need for a particular form of consultation inside the Methodist Church, which the hon. Gentleman argues for, is accepted by Parliament, would it not be possible to give the Bill a Second Reading and in Committee write into it a form of consultation taking it much further along the line than the synod? If that form of consultation were not followed through, members of the Church who were aggrieved would have the ordinary right in law, because the constitution and the law had been changed. All the hon. Gentleman's fears could he removed in Committee. If that were not done, would not Third Reading—not tonight—be the time to reject the Bill?

Mr. Wainwright

I still believe that retaining the safeguard of parliamentary approval is what many Methodists want. It has never been found wanting. There has been no defective operation of that section. Therefore, I am not anxious to lose it. The promoters have shown no disposition to meet us on this matter. As a minimum safeguard there should be a procedure written into the Bill.

There is abundant evidence that the Bill in its present form, especially Schedule 1, would catch properties which possibly for more than 100 years have had no official connection with the Methodist Conference or any of the Methodist conferences, properties which belong to the Wesleyan Reform Union and which one sees throughout the country, especially in the North, with a big, proud notice outside saying "Free Methodist Chapel". The bodies concerned run their own affairs, and many of them do not do badly. It is not a Committee point only, but a point of principle, that the House should not give a Second Reading to a Bill which will catch an uncertain number of properties which do not belong to the body promoting the Bill, and have not belonged to it for 100 years. The promoters have not been willing to meet us in any degree.

If it is suggested that I cannot state which of those Wesleyan Reform chapels are caught, it is for the reason given by my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) that the promoters are keeping mum about it, because if the House were unwise enough to legalise a polite form of theft their chapels would be involved. There can be no doubt that chapels which were Wesleyan until the secession, which are held on deeds of 1832, 1842 and possibly 1846, and which since 1859 have had no connection with the Methodist Conference, will be caught by the schedule.

On those two grounds of principle, I hope that the House will reject the Bill.

10.59 p.m.

Mr. Robert J. Bradford (Belfast, South)

Before coming to some of the details, I should like to make some comments about the method which the conference has adopted to pursue its objective expressed in the Bill.

With a certain flush of pride, the hon. Member for Goole (Dr. Marshall) said that 33 bodies were consulted and that that is the ultimate in democracy. But other hon. Members have made clear during the debate that some thousands of local congregations and hundreds of circuits have not been consulted.

When we talk of conference being representative of the whole Methodist Church, we must be careful. As a minister ordained in the Methodist Church in Ireland, I have had long experience of conference, which, I am sure, is run on similar lines to that on the mainland. Conference is not representative of the vast majority of Methodists in Ireland, and I suspect that English conference is not representative of Methodists on the mainland. As the hon. Member for Caine Valley (Mr. Wainwright) said, the type of people who attend conference are those who tend to go there whether or not they are those most fitted to do so. Perhaps the time has come when the Methodist Conference should substitute its opening hymn "Are we yet alive" by the song "I'll be seeing you in all the old familiar places". The same people turn up, particularly when fundamental decisions are to be taken.

The hon. Member for Goole said that those who object to the Bill represent only 1 per cent. and number only 6,000 members of the Methodist Church. If we listen to Dr. Coggan—I often do because he is a distinguished theologian—we are led to believe that for every person who takes the time and trouble to sign a document there are at least 100 who agree with a particular proposition. Even if that figure is halved, the number objecting to the Bill could be half the Methodist population on the mainland. It is not valid to argue that, because only 6,000 people petitioned against the Bill, only that number are in opposition to it.

We have heard that procedures are being meticulously observed, but that is untrue. A Methodist minister with 4,000 signatures to his document tells me that in 1974–5 the circuit meetings were not consulted, and great care was apparently taken so that information did not reach the March 1975 circuit meetings in time for them to send memorials to conference against the Bill. Scant information emerged, instructions to submit memorials were hindered and few memorials were discussed at the 1975 conference. Procedures have obviously not been adhered to.

I now turn to property. If we indulge in central trusteeship, we move towards monopoly and manipulation. Many argue that central trusteeship is a way of enforcing adherence to a future doctrine on which there may not be agreement. Central trusteeship is almost an immoral problem. I am not trying to attack freedom. Freedom with dignity is a well-known gospel concept. I am attacking irresponsible licence. If a Church usurps to itself authority over property which did not belong to it in the first place—which is apparent from Part I of Schedule 1—there is in that action an element of monopoly and manipulation for reasons best known to the conference which indulges in that improper practice.

The question we should be asking is, what are the motives for this great desire to change the deed of unity and the theology of the Methodist Church? The House is not in a position to judge theological matters—this is not a theological convention—but the House is capable of objective judgment of the motives for change.

I suggest that there are two reasons for this desire for a change in doctrine. The first is to make easier future transition into a united church with the Anglicans. To do that, Methodists have to contravene their sources of belief, practice and doctrine, which are Wesley's "Notes on the New Testament", and the 44 sermons recognised by the Irish conference and the British conference.

I come to the interpretation of the sacrament. The Methodist Church has a committee which is liaising with a committee of Roman Catholic theologians. The Anglican Church has taken a new stand on the sacraments. It no longer adheres to the consubstantiation doctrine. It clearly stated two years ago that it adhered to the doctrine of transubstantiation. Again, the Methodist Church will have to contravene its doctrine as stated in Wesley's sermons and the "Notes on the New Testament" if it is to facilitate further dialogue with the Anglican committee and the Roman Catholic committee.

The second motive for the desire for change might be that the Methodist Church realises that it has no organic future unless it is united with a larger and more viable body. The pursuit of the Bill to safeguard whatever is left of the Methodist structure because it is no longer a viable unit is not a very commendable motive. I can think of many reasons for joining the Anglicans. I have the greatest regard for the Anglican Communion, but surely one of the worst possible motives is to join out of a position of financial weakness. That certainly is one of the ulterior motives of those who urge acceptance of the Bill.

I would ask the Methodist theologians who are here in great strength, what are their reasons for departing from the established doctrine? What have they now discovered to be so deficient about the Methodist position over all these years which urges them to change the doctrinal basis? They may say that that has not yet been done, but many Methodist preachers and ministers have done so unofficially. What the Bill seeks to do is to afford them the right to do so officially and legally.

I well remember the time when Dr. Sangster was packing to the doors that great structure not far from this House. It attracted men and women of every nationality. They found there a spontaneous warmth and dignity and a true Methodism. When that kind of ethos dominated the Methodist Church here in Great Britain and Ireland, we truly had a mission and a witness. The interesting thing is that the Anglican churches which have now assumed that sort of ethos are the vibrating churches within the community. They are the churches which are attracting the people. They have no financial difficulties or difficulty about finding their mission or theology or what they ought to be doing in the community. We are sacrificing that kind of heritage and tradition for an unknown quantity, for a system which has yet to be defined.

We have been told by the Secretary of the Methodist Conference that if John Wesley were here today he would have supported the Bill. That is completely to ignore the position which Wesley adopted in his writings and which the Methodist Church, both on the mainland and in Ireland, purports to adhere to. It is quite clear that for the Secretary of the Methodist Conference to make that sort of statement there is a serious casualness in the highest quarter of the Methodist Church. That does not augur well for Methodists who are seeking some kind of safeguard as far as their future position is concerned.

Mr. van Straubenzee


Mr. Bradford

For one of the chief office-bearers in the Church to make such a ludicrous statement and to misrepresent Wesley's position does not augur well for those who would seek to hold on to the traditional doctrine and teaching of the Methodist Church.

I make a plea to this House and to Methodists, Anglicans and atheists to retain democracy. It has been established beyond a shadow of doubt that all the procedures were put into operation to establish the consensus of the whole Church. Whether we are churchmen or not, we ought to be interested in democracy. This honourable House is eminently suitable to exercise surveillance over democracy, to demand it where it has not been present and to purify it when necessary.

Of course, the Methodist Church in Great Britain and Ireland is free to change its doctrine by a majority vote and decision. Once it decides to scrap its traditions and heritage, let it come as such with one mind to this House. Let it declare itself no longer to be the Methodist Church. Let it call itself the Church of the Reformation, let it join Mr. Moon, but do not let it call itself the Methodist Church. The true Methodists in Great Britain and Ireland are looking to this House for protection. They must have the protection of this House against the capricious escapades of conference. I plead with hon. Members to vote against the Bill.

11.15 p.m.

Mr. William van Straubenzee (Wokingham)

If it is an advantage to a debate to have contrast, we have been greatly benefited by the speech to which we have just listened, because up to this moment it has been a debate of the very highest level and for a brief moment we heard some of the reasons for our tragedies in Northern Ireland.

There is one short answer to the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Mr. Bradford), and it is this. He knows it, and that was why he would not give way to me. Nothing in this Bill refers to Northern Ireland. If later a change is required in the Methodism of Northern Ireland, a Bill will be necessary for that.

The Bill, in its Long Title, refers to Great Britain. That is what we are talking about, and the hon. Gentleman is perfectly entitled, as a Member of this honourable House, to speak. I did not care very much for the glimpses of the Popery which he found so unpleasant behind the Bill. It seems to me to conflict almost exactly with the general attitudes of almost every hon. Member who has spoken, whether for or against the Bill.

I must be brief. If we are to come to a decision, as I hope we shall, those of us who are now to be called must be very brief indeed, and I put my short comments in note form only.

There is a very considerable lesson in the Bill for Anglicans, because there are many Anglicans who search after disestablishment in the belief that thereby they would get relief from control by this House. Here we are dealing with a Church which is not established, but as soon as property rights of any kind arise, whatever church it may be, it is subject and rightly so, to the jurisdiction of this House. This House is right to be careful and watchful where property rights are involved, whoever may be concerned.

I confess, quite frankly, that I have not myself, as a non-Methodist, found it at all easy to decide whether it was right for this House to agree to the greater centralisation of powers and the removal of certain powers to central trustees, which is inherent in part of the Bill. But as one of a number of Church Commissioners, under powers given by this House, month by month I take part in a centralisation process in the Church of England.

I reluctantly at times have to make corporate decisions with others about the redundancy of churches, under authority given by this House. With others I have to make decisions about the amalgamation of parishes and the rest, sometimes, as well I know, causing acute hurt and anxiety to the devout Anglicans working within those parishes.

The truth is that the churches, if they are to survive, must live. They must live in the modern world, and part of this, as I believe, is the bringing up to date of their affairs. That is hard on the active church people, and a number of active Methodists have had a pretty hard time, in a friendly way, from hon. Members on both sides of the House tonight. They are the activists who are so often criticised, but they are the people who are seeking day by day to bring their respective churches into the last part of the twentieth century.

Have the members of the Methodist Church been adequately consulted about the Bill? I consulted the minister of one of my local Methodist churches, and he used a phrase which I found persuasive. I think I could understand it as an elected member—I think I am the only Member here who is—of the General Synod of the Church of England. He said "It is in our Methodist tradition to deal gently with those who take a different view from the majority view that the rest of us will take." That group of ordinary church people, who play a vital part in the affairs of my constituency, are content and happy with the situation. They do not believe that those who represent them in the various groupings are unrepresentative of the work of the Church of England.

Finally, I wish to draw attention to the analogy to which I have drawn attention on other occasions—as did the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) in a very persuasive speech—namely, what this House decided rather less than two years ago with the doctrines of the Church of England. I am not sure whether this House has understood what a profound occasion that was in the life of the Church of England or how difficult it would have been for devoted members of that Church had this House not given it freedom over its worship and doctrine.

It has been said that we must draw a distinction because for Methodists this is a compact to which we are witnesses, with the implication that the situation in the Church of England is different. But is that the case? Of course, historically in a doctrinal sense, in many ways the situation is different. We as the sovereign Parliament were witnesses to part of the settlement of the Reformation. That is what we were "breaking" when we made that historic decision in 1974. We then decided that it was no longer fitting for us as a House of Commons—a House which until 1829 required of all its Members that they should be members of the Church of England—to sit in judgment on the doctrines of the Church. It is that argument which I find totally persuasive, and it is that which I hope will lead hon. Members to vote for the Bill tonight.

11.23 p.m.

Mr. A. P. Costain (Folkestone and Hythe)

Time for debate is short, and I shall come briefly to the point.

I was brought up in a strict Methodist tradition. My uncle was the Headmaster of Rydal School, a leading school in the Methodist Church. When I was a schoolboy I would sit with my uncle in the days just prior to the 1929 Act of Union. Therefore, I probably know a good deal more than most hon. Members about what went on in the minds of Methodists at the time when discussing union. I also remember Dr. Burton, a leading Methodist and hymn-writer. These matters were discussed carefully at that time many years ago.

From what I remember, the feeling at the time was that it was unusual for the Methodist Church to wish to get itself tied up in parliamentary affairs. But in considering union with other faiths with the same basic belief which had been separated over the years, who else could act as arbiter and keeper of their conscience? That is my recollection of the feelings leading to Parliament being given these powers.

I find it extraordinary tonight to hear leading Methodists and local preachers say that we must retain powers in this House and appear to have no confidence in the Methodist Conference. What an extraordinary speech we had from the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Mr. Bradford) on that score.

Let me turn to the subject of consultation. The first things I did when I heard of the Bill was to send a copy of it to the minister of Methodist church in my constituency. I said to Methodists "This Bill has been introduced. Do you want it explained?" I had meetings with them. Even tonight I telephoned every Methodist minister in my constituency and said "The Bill is coming up tonight. Are you quite satisfied? Do you wish me to vote for it?"

The argument has been put forward that people have not been properly consulted. When I telephoned ministers in my constituency, they replied "Good gracious, have all Members done what you have done?" For hon. Members to suggest that the Bill should be turned down because their own constituents have not been properly consulted is not a reflection on the Methodist Conference or on the Methodist Church but is possibly a reflection on themselves. Hon. Members should have taken the trouble that I have taken to consult, to explain, to take copies of the Bill to their constituencies and to take photostat copies. I did not think it was fair to ask the promoters to do that. Therefore, the photostat copies were taken not here but in Folkestone.

Hon. Members now say that the Bill should be rejected and put back for six months, with extra expense. Surely they know how difficult it is to raise funds for the Methodist Church. What right has the House to say that the Bill should be put back? It would put the Methodist Church to considerable expense to reconsider the Bill. It is the duty of every Member who wants to help the Methodist Church to support the Bill.

11.27 p.m.

Mr. David Mudd (Falmouth and Camborne)

In the few moments that remain I shall, if I may, become somewhat disjointed and speak rapidly from notes.

My first fear is that in rural areas where Methodism means a great deal to the social and moral life of communities there will be a tendency on the part of many local Methodist societies to go totally independent and to break outside the Methodist Church, thus causing fragmentation.

My second fear is that in future many churches that are now kept going by the very real sacrifice of worship will be closed at the whim of centralised accountants, and for no reason relating to worship.

My third fear is that we shall see in the Methodist Church, as in the Church of England, a growing standardisation and centralisation in what is traditionally a free form of worship. Indeed, we would see not only centralisation but standardisation from the various decisions of conference until such time as conference, with a 75 per cent. majority and two years of deliberations, declared itself redundant. I believe that the Bill could better be known as the Methodist Church Dismemberment Bill. For that reason I shall be opposing it tonight.

11.28 p.m.

Mr. John Farr (Harborough)

I give my full support to the Bill. I think it is a first-class measure. I was sorry to hear the remarks my hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. van Straubenzee) made about the speech of the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Mr. Bradford). Although some of the

hon. Gentleman's remarks went further than some hon. Members would have gone, I thought that he rightly stressed —I think I am right in saying that he never said the words "Northern Ireland" but referred continually to Ireland as a whole—that in Ireland there are many Methodists. It is a flourishing organisation in Ireland, and I am lucky to call many Methodists in Ireland my friends.

I am much in favour of the Bill. Like many of my hon. Friends, I have been approached from people in various parts of the country—for example, by circuits in Leicestershire and the East Midlands, which are substantial Methodist areas. They are particularly anxious to see the Bill proceed.

Dr. Edmund Marshall

rose in his place and claimed to move, That the Question be now put.

Question, That the Question be now put, put and agreed to.

Question put accordingly, That the Bill be now read a Second time: —

The House divided: Ayes 115, Noes 33.

Division No. 183.] AYES [11.33 p.m.
Archer, Peter Fletcher, Raymond (Ilkeston) Ogden, Eric
Armstrong, Ernest Ford, Ben Page, Rt Hon R. Graham (Crosby)
Ashton, Joe Forrester, John Parry, Robert
Bennett, Andrew (Stockport N) Fox, Marcus Perry, Ernest
Berry, Hon Anthony Garrett, John (Norwich S) Rees, Peter (Dover & Deal)
Bishop, E. S. George, Bruce Roberts, Michael (Cardiff NW)
Blenkinsop, Arthur Gow, Ian (Eastbourne) Rodgers, George (Chorley)
Boardman, H. Gower, Sir Raymond (Barry) Roper, John
Booth, Rt Hon Albert Grant, Anthony (Harrow C) St. John-Stevas, Norman
Bray, Dr Jeremy Hamilton, James (Bothwell) Shaw, Giles (Pudsey)
Brittan, Leon Hampson, Dr Keith Silvester, Fred
Buchan, Norman Harper, Joseph Sims, Roger
Buchanan, Richard Harrison, Walter (Wakefield) Small, William
Callaghan, Jim (Middleton & P) Jones, Dan (Burnley) Smith, John (N Lanarkshire)
Campbell, Ian Kilroy-Silk, Robert Taylor, Mrs Ann (Bolton W)
Canavan, Dennis Knight, Mrs Jill Thomas, Jeffrey (Abertillery)
Cant, R. B. Knox, David Tinn, James
Carlisle, Mark Lambie, David Urwin, T. W.
Clemitson, Ivor Lamborn, Harry van Straubenzee, W. R.
Coleman, Donald Le Marchant, Spencer Walker, Rt Hon P. (Worcester)
Cook, Robin F. (Edin C) Litterick, Tom Walker, Terry (Kingswood)
Cordle, John H. Lomas, Kenneth Ward, Michael
Costain, A. P. Loyden, Eddie Watkins, David
Craigen, J. M. (Maryhill) Lyons, Edward (Bradford W) Watkinson, John
Crouch, David McElhone, Frank Weatherill, Bernard
Cryer, Bob Madden, Max Weetch, Ken
Davies, Bryan (Enfield N) Mahon, Simon White, Frank R. (Bury)
Dean, Paul (N Somerset) Mallalieu, J. P. W. Wigley, Dafydd
Dempsey, James Marks, Kenneth Willey, Rt Hon Frederick
Dormand, J. D. Mates, Michael Wilson, William (Coventry SE)
Douglas-Mann, Bruce Mawby, Ray Wise, Mrs Audrey
Duffy, A. E. P. Mellish, Rt Hon Robert Wood, Rt Hon Richard
Dunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth Miller, Hal (Bromsgrove) Woof, Robert
Ellis, John (Brigg & Scun) Montgomery, Fergus Wrigglesworth, Ian
Ellis, Tom (Wrexham) Morgan-Giles, Rear-Admiral Younger, Hon George
Evans, John (Newton) Morrison, Hon Peter (Chester)
Farr, John Nelson, Anthony TELLERS FOR THE AYES:
Fernyhough, Rt Hon E. Newens, Stanley Dr. Edmund Marshall and
Fitch, Alan (Wigan) Noble, Mike Mr. Ron Lewis.
Flannery, Martin Oakes, Gordon
Adley, Robert Mayhew, Patrick Skinner, Dennis
Bates, Alf Mills, Peter Smith, Cyril (Rochdale)
Bradford, Rev Robert Molyneaux, James Spearing, Nigel
Cocks, Michael (Bristol S) Mudd, David Steel, David (Roxburgh)
Dunlop, John Nott, John Stradling Thomas, J.
Freud, Clement Pardoe, John Varley, Rt Hon Eric G.
Glyn, Dr Alan Penhaligon, David Wiggin, Jerry
Golding, John Powell, Rt Hon J. Enoch Winterton, Nicholas
Hooson, Emlyn Roberts, Albert (Normanton)
Johnston, Russell (Inverness) Ross, Stephen (Isle of Wight) TELLERS FOR THE NOES:
Lester, Jim (Beeston) Ross, William (Londonderry) Mr. A. J. Beith and
McCusker, H. Shepherd, Colin Mr. Richard Wainwright.
Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin

Question accordingly agreed to.

Bill read a Second time and committed.