HC Deb 24 February 1986 vol 92 cc732-5

Queen's Consent, on behalf of the Crown, signified.

6.44 pm
Sir William van Straubenzee (The Second Church Estates Commissioner, Representing Church Commissioners)

I beg to move, That the Bishops (Retirement) Measure, passed by the General Synod of the Church of England, be presented to Her Majesty for Her Royal Assent in the form in which the said Measure was laid before Parliament.

The Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. John Biffen)

, by Her Majesty's command, acquainted the House, That Her Majesty, having been impressed of the subject matter of the motion, gives her consent, as far as Her Majesty's interest is concerned, That the House may do therein as it shall think fit.

Sir William van Straubenzee

I know that the House expects whoever proposes these Measures to justify them—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Ernest Armstrong)

Order. I am sorry to intervene, but would it be convenient for the two Church Measures to be taken together?

Sir William van Straubenzee

With respect, Mr. Deputy Speaker, they should be taken separately. I have in mind your ruling about proposed private business, and I shall speak briefly.

The House expects whoever proposes these Measures to justify them. For this Measure, that can be done briefly. A large part of it is consolidation of minor amendments of the law concerning the resignation of a bishop due to incapacity because of physical or mental disability. The Measure sets out the new arrangements for that. Such arrangements were last set out in 1951. The Measure also brings within its ambit similar provisions, although with appropriate amendments, for the resignation for that purpose of archbishops.

It was felt that the arrangements for bishops suffragan and diocesan were unduly burdensome for them to have to be confirmed by Her Majesty in Council. Therefore, this Measure has a new provision which requires a bishop wishing to resign to consult the archbishop of the province and then tender his resignation for approval in a written instrument. The Order in Council will still be necessary for the resignation of an archbishop.

I have the voting figures for the Court of the Ecclesiastical Committee, which deemed the Measure to be expedient, and those for the General Synod. No votes were cast against the motion.

6.47 pm
Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)

Church of England Measures come in a special category of parliamentary business and are normally passed on the nod, because there is a general convention that the Church should be self-governing. Since the famous 1928 Prayer Book case, the House has never decided to go against the advice of the Church of England. Therefore, the general principle that the House has adopted is that if the Church of England wants a Measure, it should have it. That is why the hon. Member for Wokingham (Sir W. van Straubenzee) presented the Measure with commendable brevity, and without feeing it necessary to argue the details and the merits of the case. However, this is a specially interesting Measure because we have an established Church. We are talking not just about the resignation of a bishop, but about the removal, under statutory provision, of a Member of the House of Lords. A bishop who sits in the House of Lords enjoys, in accordance with our normal parliamentary language, the status of a lord spiritual. If a bishop wishes to retire on the grounds that he is physically or mentally incapable, there is a proper provision for him so to do. There is no provision for a peer to resign, as I learnt to my cost some years ago. If a Member of Parliament wishes to resign, he or she must apply for an office of profit under the Crown.

I ask the House to consider what would happen if a bishop who is thought to be physically or mentally incapable is asked to resign but does not do so. Two of the senior bishops of the province in which he serves can go to the archbishop of the province and have the man removed from Parliament, not just from the episcopacy. If an archbishop who is mentally or physically handicapped is asked to resign but chooses not to do so, the procedure is slightly more complicated. Two bishops from his province go to the archbishop of another province and the archbiship is removed from Parliament.

I do not intend to oppose the Measure. If that is the way the Church wants to run its affairs, presumably that is the way the House wishes it to run them, but the question that arises is the implication of this Measure for the status of the established Church. I come from a radical background. For a long time I believed, and I still strongly believe, that the more we continue to nod through Measures such as this without examining the implications because we feel that we should not interfere, the more the question of establishment will need to be considered.

The Church of England was nationalised by Henry VIII because of his conflict with the Pope. In one sense it is our oldest nationalised industry. Henry VIII was not prepared to have a foreign potentate exercising great power in Britain. Therefore, the Act of Supremacy was designed to secure that the Church of England conformed to the wishes of the king of the day. The reasons for this have long since disappeared. There is a very wide diversity of faith in Britain. If one considers attendances at communion, other denominations appear to have a larger membership than the Church of England. However, we continue to preserve the fiction of an established Church whose bishops are appointed by the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister's powers are now limited to a choice between one or two names that are offered by the commission. But the Prime Minister does not have to be a Christian, let alone a member of the Church of England. The House retains a residual power to determine all sorts of questions, including that of the Prayer Book.

The Church-state link is also uneasy for contemporary reasons that have come to the fore in the last year or two. Bishops have properly found themselves compelled by their faith to make sharp criticisms of the state of which they are supposed to be a part. For example, the Archbishop of Canterbury was rebuked for his sermon after the Falklands war. There have been more recent examples. Bishops have made political comments that have led to counter comments against the bishops because of their theological opinions.

This measure provides a legitimate peg upon which to hang the question whether the link between the Church of England and the organs of the state should finally be severed, notably the link between the Church of England and Parliament. There are many other Christian denominations. Other people call themselves humanists and atheists. People from other countries who come to live here have a range of different beliefs. I refer to the Hindus, the Sikhs and the big Jewish community.

The hon. Member for Wokingham performed his function with commendable parliamentary skill—[Interruption.] I am not making fun of him; he presented the Measure in exactly the way that this lingering residual link should be handled in Parliament. However, it is manifestly absurd that we should be asked to deal with the question theoretically by vote although actually on the nod. There are many people—I am one of them because of my radical, liberal background—who believe that it is absolutely wrong that the Church should be an agent of the state, even in the very limited way that this now operates.

I do not wish to oppose the Measure and I shall sit in my place when the vote is called, but I know, because I have spoken out against the Church-state link and in favour of disestablishment, that many churchmen believe that the time has come to negotiate a parting, with good will, between the Church of England and the British state. The implications of this retirement Measure for the membership of Parliament provide a suitable opportunity to raise this matter. It will not be long before the pressure for change is felt. When it is, I hope that the House will play a constructive role in making possible the disestablishment of the Church of England.

6.55 pm
Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead)

I wish only to correct the record. In doing so, I welcome my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) to these debates. I have been a Member of Parliament since 1979, and I have attended every debate on ecclesiastical business, bar one. I do not remember having seen my right hon. Friend at any other debate on Church business. Had he attended our debates more assiduously, he would know that Church of England business does not go through on the nod. On 16 July 1985 we rejected the bishops Measure that was considered on that occasion.

6.56 pm
Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

The hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) is absolutely right. He might have gone further. He might have corrected the history lesson of the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) and invited him to investigate the true catholicity of the Church of England. What he said was erroneous in many respects. I accept that he did not intend it, but it could cause great offence to many sincere, practising members of the Church of England.

Mr. Benn

When I made a major speech some years ago, I consulted a large number of people who held high positions in the Church. I am sure that the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) will be the first to admit that there is a large and growing body of opinion in the Church of England that it ought to be disestablished so that its freedom can be preserved and developed.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. In this debate we are not interested in whether the Church of England should be established or disestablished. The House must confine itself to the Measure that is before it.

Mr. Greenway

The right hon. Member for Chesterfield was allowed to dilate on that point for some time, Mr. Deputy Speaker. However, that is not my point. The right hon. Gentleman challenged the ancient catholicity of the Church of England, which has something to do with the establishment of the Church of England, but that is not the point that I was trying to make. The autonomy of the Church of England is accepted by most hon. Members, and the function of the House has been described by the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field).

I ask my hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Sir W. van Straubenzee) to deal with this question when he replies to the debate. If it is thought that a bishop is physically or mentally incapable and that he should therefore be asked to resign from his see, the Measure does not make clear at what point the procedures will be set in train. People can be seriously physically ill or infirm, but can then recover. They can also be seriously mentally ill or infirm, but can then recover. The result of the Measure might therefore be that bishops are removed from their bishoprics.

I should like to be reassured that these procedures will not be put in hand lightly. A solid assurance ought to be given that a bishop must be immeasurably beyond recovery, either physically or mentally, before this Measure can be enacted, or it could be dangerous.

I should also like my hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham to deal with the age at which bishops retire. Does he consider that the present age of retirement is worth having, or does he consider that there should be a retirement age? The Measure relates a little to the retirement age of bishops.

Many agree that bishops and archbishops make their best contributions in old age. I cite in particular Dr. Cyril Barbage, Archbishop of York, who died at 81 years of age, having said when he became bishop that he would retire at 65. He said that he would never allow himself to be called "My Lord" or any other fancy title. He went on well beyond the age at which archbishops and bishops are expected to retire. I hope—

It being Seven o'clock, and there being private business set down by THE CHAIRMAN OF WAYS AND MEANS, under Standing Order No. 7 (Time for taking private business), further proceedings stood postponed.