HC Deb 24 February 1986 vol 92 cc775-82

Question again proposed, 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.

10.12 pm
Mr. Greenway

As I was saying before the interruption, the second central question that I want to put to my hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Sir W. van Straubenzee) relates to the possible age at which the Measure might be put with particular force in the direction of any bishop or archibishop. I had asked that the Measure be applied on the lenient side rather than with any severity and I had given my reason for that, pointing out that bishops can become ill physically and mentally, like anybody else, but they can also recover. I hope that when he replies my hon. Friend will be able to assure me that some allowance for that possible contingency will be made.

Will my hon. Friend say what will happen to the widows and young families of any bishop retired under the Measure? If one looks at what happens to the wife or widow of a clergyman, there is plenty of room for worry and dissatisfaction. Could a bishop be retired with his family into penury and without a home, as happens all too often with the widows of clergymen or clergy who fall by the wayside? I should be grateful for a response to that most important question.

10.14 pm
Mr. J. Enoch Powell (South Down)

It is unfortunate that we have to resume the debate in the absence of the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), who made such a characteristic contribution at an earlier stage. However, we must do the best that we can without the assistance of his lights. The right hon. Gentleman regarded the established status of the Church of England as a self-evident absurdity, but he was characteristically kind enough to show that he arrived at that conclusion not by any process of reasoning, but as a matter of prejudice. He repeated several times that that was a consequence of the liberal, radical and free-thinking background from which he sprang.

It is no bad thing to recognise that there are institutions which are valuable and durable but which express massive and widespread prejudice and may not necessarily be accessible to demonstration, either from history or contemporary logic, of their necessity or value. Such I believe to be the establishment of the Church of England.

Apart from that larger matter raised by the right hon. Member for Chesterfield, a misunderstanding was implicit in his remarks, which perhaps the Second Commissioner may be able to clarify before the end of the debate. The right hon. Gentleman seemed to believe that when the retirement Measure was put into effect a Member of the House of Lords was removed by the process, whether by the decision of an archbishop or the decision of the Crown. I believe that to have been mistaken. I understand that a bishop who is retired under the Measure remains a bishop. The see that he occupied is vacated and it is the see which is represented by an automatic permanent or rotating seat in the House of Lords.

Historically, the Lords spiritual are present in the upper House not by virtue of their spiritual character or the spiritualities with which they are endowed, but because they hold by barony the temporalities of their see of which they are seized as long as they remain a bishop. Consequently, the apprehension of the right hon. Member for Chesterfield that we are providing ourselves with the means of removing individuals from the service in another place is unfounded. The see will continue to be represented in the House of Lords either invariably or under law in rotation. I believe that it would be worthwhile for the Second Commissioner to clear up that matter if he comes to intervene.

Mr. Frank Field

The right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell) has said that we must continue our debate without the considerable skills of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn). However, he is not making too bad a job of it. Before the right hon. Gentleman completes his contribution, will he comment on another aspect of my right hon. Friend's contribution? He mentioned that we were presented with the Church of England as being the first nationalised body in Britain. My right hon. Friend also called for disestablishment. Is that not calling for its privatisation by turning over the national church to the sect?

Mr. Powell

The hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) has certainly illustrated some of the quandaries into which those who argue from prejudice but purport to be guided by principle may from time to time fall. I hope that the right hon. Member for Chesterfield may have the leisure at some future date to take note of the hon. Gentleman's intervention.

10.19 pm
Mr. Peter Bruinvels (Leicester, East)

I am pleased that we have an established Church, and the unique relationship between the Church and state is to be commended. Obviously, it is sometimes tempestuous, but at the best of times it is an excellent working relationship. That is why the Measure is to be welcomed.

I declare an interest as a member of the General Synod. I could not vote on the Measure when it came before the previous Synod in November 1983 and when it received final approval in July 1984, but if I had been a member then I would have supported it with the utmost vigour because it will enable diocesan and suffragan bishops to retire or resign with the minimum of fuss. We are asking for minimal requirements. It is correct that such a bishop can consult the archbishop of the same province and tender his resignaation to him in a written instrument.

I am worried about the age limit. It is strange that anyone can become a bishop at the age of 30 and can continue until he is 70, according to the Ecclesiastical Offices (Age Limit) Measure 1975. Why should all bishops remain in post until a certain age? Why cannot they retire earlier if they wish? Why should some elderly diocesan and suffragan bishops who are extremely good not be allowed to stay on for longer? Why must they retire at a set age?

I do not think that some of our young bishops are the very best. Why cannot they retire earlier? Indeed, they can. It is regrettable that we lose some of our best bishops in the prime of their life when their theological views are welcome to the state and encourage us. I hope that a special provision can be found so that they can continue to represent their see for a further period. Those with the Christian faith and values are essential ingredients in the House of Lords, where there are 24 bishops and two archbishops. It is a loss to Parliament when they retire at retirement age.

I am worried about the six-month notice period. While I accept that some people may say that that is plenty of time to prepare the vacancy-in-see committee to advertise the bishopric, it takes a special person to become a bishop, and sometimes takes longer than six months to prepare for that appointment.

Similarly, while the vacancy-in-see committee looks after the affairs of a diocese, it is a serious matter when a suffragan bishop is not in situ. Obviously, when a bishop decides to retire, one hopes that there will be proper liaison with the archbishop and suffragan bishop to ensure that they can handle the trying business, and the additional responsibilities, including the spiritual help necessary.

Clause 1(1) enables a bishop to retire early. It may take a long time to find a suitable candidate. I wish that we were not discussing Crown appointments, and that a suitable list were hanging around from which to choose the right people—

Mr. Robert B. Jones (Hertfordshire, West)

Christian people.

Mr. Bruinvels

Indeed—a list from which to choose Christian people.

Clause 3(1)(2) deals with illness and incapacity, which I hope is an isolated problem. I hope that few bishops appear either incapable or ill. However, I must deal with the judgment of the two senior diocesan bishops who are required to give advice, and to assist the archbishop in deeming whether a bishop is incapacitated by physical or mental disability, and unable to perform his episcopal duties. I am worried that the senior bishops coming from the same province as the bishop who is rumoured to be unwell will know that bishop extremely well. They might be overforgiving and say that he is all right when he is not, or the situation may be reversed. Perhaps consideration can be given to bringing senior diocesan bishops from the other province to make that judgment, together with the archbishop.

I notice that my hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Sir W. van Straubenzee) will have additional responsibilities, as the cost of the medical examination is to be paid by the Church Commissioners' funds and naturally we shall be looking to that with interest.

It is sad when any bishop finds it necessary to retire. The responsibilities of a senior bishop are onerous. I look forward to seeing some bishops retire earlier than we would have expected and others—the excellent bishops who have given the best guidance to the Anglican community — being allowed to stay on past the maximum age of 70.

10.25 pm
Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

The hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Bruinvels) suggested that bishops reach the prime of their life at the age of 70, but if I remember my Bible correctly, it is normally at 70, or three score years and 10, that one is meant to pass on rather than be at one's best performing age.

This Measure was passed by the Synod with no opposition in any of the three houses, and I hope that this House, although it has the constitutional duty of overseeing such Measures, will, as always, be mindful of the view taken by the Synod. I hope that we shall not interfere, other than in matters of substantial controversy, with what the Synod has done when it has considered the matter in detail. Although we are a long-stop under the constitution for what the Synod does, increasingly the Synod is responsible for, and able to make, its own decision. I hope that we shall allow that ever more impressive body to do just that.

My second point may have been touched on in the opening speech of the hon. Member for Wokingham (Sir W. van Straubenzee), who spoke on behalf of the Church Commissioners. If so, I apologise for not having heard what he said, but the debate came on slightly earlier than we thought it would. I am concerned that this matter has taken from July 1984 to February 1986 to come from the Synod to the House. It is not excusable that it takes nearly two years for legislation approved by the Synod to come here for its final debate and approval.

I should be grateful if the hon. Member for Wokingham would explain why that has happened, and for some assurances that methods will be found, through the members of the Ecclesiastical Committee and those who are working to expedite business on behalf of the Synod, to ensure that we do not have such a delay again. It is in nobody's interest that the House gives a final assent to a Measure two years after it has been debated in the General Synod. On occasion such matters may have substantially changed in such a long period, and it serves neither of us well if there are such substantial delays. I hope that they will not be repeated.

10.27 pm
Mr. David Crouch (Canterbury)

I apologise to those who proceeded me for the fact that I was not here to hear their speeches. I had another engagement which kept me out of the Chamber.

The right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) was wrong to say that requests to the House to consider Measures coming from the General Synod go through on the nod. That was pointed out to him by the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), and it must be emphasised. These Measures should not go through on the nod. They should be considered seriously by the House, and I am glad that they are not being considered at as late an hour of night, or as early in the morning, as they sometimes are. This is a reasonable hour for us to consider a Measure.

I am not altogether out of touch with the Church in my Canterbury constituency, and this Measure disturbs me a little. I do not intend to oppose it, but it was decided some years ago—I think in 1975—that bishops should retire at the age of 65. That seems to be a little early, although not quite so early as the retirement age of civil servants. They retire at 60. However, their contribution to public life does not end at 60. Permanent secretaries continue to make a great contribution to public life, based upon their long experience in the Civil Service.

The suggestion that bishops should have to retire at 65 worries me, but that is not the subject of this debate. We are debating whether they should be allowed to retire before the age of 65. This Measure makes provision for retirement on that basis. If, however, a bishop is thought to be unfit either in body or in mind before he reaches the age of 65, the Measure provides for his removal from his post. I do not dispute that this power should be provided, but it is a formidable power to place in the hands of the Church. We ought to consider what would happen if hon. Members were subject to such a formidable power that they could be removed.

Mr. Peter Bruinvels

We are.

Mr. Crouch

Some are, but not my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Bruinvels). He maintains a position that allows nobody to get at him, I am sure. He is not quite all things to all men, but he is all things to the right men. I notice that the hon. Member for Birkenhead is nodding in agreement. We know that this is a political fact of life. We can be deposed if we are thought to be not fit politically for our appointment, but we cannot be deposed if we are thought to be unwell. We might be unwell for two or three months, or for six months or a year. Should we then be deposed? Certainly not. A Member of Parliament is not thrown out because people say, "He is not doing his job because physically he is a sick man." A Member of Parliament is not thrown out because somebody says, "He seems, because of his views, to be a sick man." How terrifying a prospect that would be.

If it is Parliament's responsibility to consider what is done in that other realm of the state, the Church, it is important for Parliament to pause and consider this formidable power of archbishops and bishops to remove somebody who they think might be unfit for the job.

I have perhaps over-exaggerated the implications of this small Measure, but it is the duty of the House of Commons sometimes to look behind the written word and ensure that it is not passing something that is wrong or over-emphasised and which we might later regret.

I rest my case in the hands of the Church. I am sure that it will take guidance about its decisions, not by coming to us, but by going to another place. I hope that it will do that. On this occasion, and at this hour, I am a little disturbed at the formidable power that it has given itself.

10.35 pm
Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury)

I warmly welcome the Measure and I shall support it. When my late father was consecrated Bishop of Sherborne in 1946 he was the youngest bishop in the Church of England. He spent a long time as bishop, and within a year of his consecration the diocesan bishop died and my father therefore had to assume his responsibilities for a year. If I have one regret about today's synodical government, it is in the time that it takes to put measures through the Synod.

In those days there was one suffragan bishop in the diocese whereas today there are two—who do less work because of the bureaucracy which has taken over. I am interested in this because, being a member of the Standing Committee on the Gas Bill, I am interested to note that the Church Commissioners have bought the freeholds of local gas and electricity showrooms. Perhaps that means that they know more about Sunday trading than we do.

This measure shows how interested the Synod and the Church Commissioners are in the well-being of the bishops who are often given responsibility and social positions which are impossible to maintain without the full support of the Church.

I regret the attacks sometimes made on diocesan bishops because they happen to live in houses which have been in the Church's ownership for many generations. Such attacks are unwarranted and unjustifiable.

Over the years I have watched with admiration the care in which the Church has for its bishops and for their widows. I am delighted that this is a further step forward.

When my father was diocesan bishop of Truro he fought long and hard to reduce the retirement age for bishops to 68. This measure will give a little more freedom and a little more reality. It will help to avoid some of the appalling conditions which our bishops have suffered over many years. In the days when my father first became a bishop his salary was paid out of diocesan fees. This led to many extraordinary ambiguities, not least of which was that we lived in six different houses in Salisbury close, always taking on the tail end leases of others when they were about to fall. Indeed, one of the houses designated to become the house of the Bishop of Sherborne is now occupied by my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath). However, I warmly welcome the measure and I commend it to the House.

10.39 pm
Sir William van Straubenzee

By leave of the House, I shall reply briefly. I am obliged to the House for the care which properly is being taken about the Measure. It is a care which I am certain that the General Synod and the Church of England not only do not resent but of which they are appreciative.

I do not want to go into the wide matters raised by the right hon. Members for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) and for South Down (Mr. Powell) about the establishment of the Church. They are both far more learned than I. I was at school with the right hon. Member for Chesterfield who converted me at about 14½years to being a member of the Labour party. I matured earlier than he. On these matters, I accept what the right hon. Member for South Down said and believed to be the correct statement. This Measure does not create any history. There was a retirement Measure in 1951. In so far as Members of another place are "retired", it started in 1951. This Measure consolidates and perhaps gives greater rights to the person concerned. Enforced retirement has been mentioned in several speeches, but it is not mentioned in the Measure, and it is of much older provenance.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) spoke with his usual care and was anxious—I quite see why—about the steps that have to be taken. I hope that he will study clause 3 closely. The archibishop of the province has to be concerned, two senior diocesans have to be brought in, their concurrence has to be obtained and there is a medical inspection, the cost of which is properly not met by the diocesan concerned. The medical inspection might reveal possibilities of recovery. That is the point of such a careful inspection. My hon. Friend questioned the age of retirement.

Mr. Greenway

My point was that the process should not be started if there is any possibility of recovery, although I accept the value of the inspection as a fall back.

Sir William van Straubenzee

With any Measure or Bill, we have to consider the cold print. I hope and believe that, in application, if there is any hope whatever of recovery, the process will not be started. The House is used to looking at the cold print of legislation. Neither Ministers nor anyone else can rely on good faith. We have to safeguard people's rights by cold print. Written into the Measure are rights which will be of enormous benefit, especially in the type of case that my hon. Friend has in mind, assuming that it ever arises. I believe that the safeguards will ensure that the matter is handled with the greatest sympathy and care.

The Measure does not deal with the age of retirement. My hon. Friend's study of these matters is far more erudite than mine, but when he gave the example of the great Archbishop Barbage, I thought that he gave one of the best examples of the need for a compulsory retirement age. As a boy, I sat enraptured by some of the magnificent sermons that he gave as Bishop of Winchester. Like many others, I hold in immense esteem his work for Church and state. The saddest section of the beautiful biography of Archbishop Barbage was the account of his chaplains having to go to him as an old man and tell him that he was past his work. He asked to be left alone so that he might ponder their advice. He then asked them back and, great and marvellous man that he was, thanked them for their courage in telling him. I want to tell my hon. Friend that he is a long way from retirement, but I am much closer to it. Sadly, one of my reasons for leaving the House—not sadly for everyone else but sadly for me—at the end of this Parliament, is that I have seen too many hon. Members of this honourable House stay on just a little too long. It is far better to go while people are still able, as in my case, to grate out the words "What a pity" about one, than "When is the old goat going to realise that he is past it?"

Mr. Greenway

I would point out to my hon. Friend that there was another biography of Dr. Cyril Barbage which did not take the kind of line that my hon. Friend has described. Indeed, it took the opposite line. Does my hon. Friend know about Bishop Winnington-Ingram who is still playing first-class hockey at the age of 72?

Sir William van Straubenzee

I have listened to Bishop Winnington-Ingram literally preaching with his hands. I doubt whether my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North will remember, but he preached with his hands and was the most expressive of preachers.

Obviously, there are exceptions to the general rule, but the general rule is important. My hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Crouch) raised this point and I must emphasise that the general rule is not retirement at 65; that is when the pension is payable. The age is 70. I hope that that will assist my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury. In so far as one can measure these matters in human terms on the number of years a man, and perhaps in future a woman, spends on the earth, 70 is about right. I know, as all hon. Members will know, that there are some hon. Members who have been dead since they took their seats. On the whole, these things must be measured carefully.

The hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) asked a reasonable question about the delay. If the hon. Gentleman notices the rather special date of the re-examination of this matter, he will see that it was at the time when the previous bishop's appointment Measure was turned down by the House. That was a traumatic moment for the Church of England and the hon. Gentleman will know that, as he follows these matters very closely.

It was not unreasonable to look at the matter closely and to consider how it ought to be handled in relation to the next Measure which I hope to speak on shortly. That may not be a good answer to the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey, but we are both politicians and we therefore understand the realities of these matters.

I was grateful for the quick and personal comments from my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) as he speaks from experience of the care of bishop's widows. I trust and believe that such care is extended to other clergy. Only today I signed a letter to an Opposition Member in relation to the death of a young clergyman in the hon. Gentleman's diocese. I know that money and housing cannot bring back a young husband who was killed in an accident. However, in so far as those caring things can help, they have been provided in that case.

My hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Bruinvels) made the interesting suggestion that the panel of bishops should come from another province. Is this not a case where men who have worked with somebody ought to play a role? Apart from anything else, it might be a safeguard against — though heaven forbid that this should happen—some kind of witch hunt. These men would know each other, would have worked together and would know each other's eccentricities. That is the reason for drawing the senior diocesans from the same province.

I trust that I have, in accordance with the traditions of the House, dealt with each speech, however inadequately and briefly. I sense that the mood of the House is, I hope, to give assent to the Measure and certainly that would be appreciated. I commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, 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.