HC Deb 18 January 1988 vol 125 cc663-5
24. Mr. Harry Greenway

To ask the right hon. Member for Selby, as representing the Church Commissioners, what is the commissioners' policy towards the commissioning of anonymous prefaces to Crockford's Clerical Directory, and if he will make a statement.

25. Mr. Adley

To ask the right hon. Member for Selby, as representing the Church Commissioners, what is the policy of the commissioners towards the commissioning of anonymous prefaces to Crockford's Clerical Directory, and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Michael Alison (Second Church Estates Commissioner, Representing Church Commissioners)

The Church Commissioners and the Central Board of Finance took over the publication of Crockford's from the Oxford University Press in 1984. It had been a long-standing position to include in each edition an anonymous preface in which the author was given complete freedom to express his personal views. Although some earlier prefaces had proved controversial, the extent of the controversy over the current edition is clearly quite exceptional, and, in the circumstances, the commissioners and the Central Board of Finance will be reviewing the arrangements to be made for future editions.

Mr. Greenway

May I pay tribute to the late Dr. Gareth Bennett, whom I knew for over 20 years, for his mastery of theology, his erudition and his warm and compassionate personality? May I ask my right hon. Friend whether Crockford's prefaces, which have been so valuable over the years, will continue, and whether the Church Commissioners will consider giving their authors the option to be open or anonymous? If anonymity is chosen, will it be respected in all circumstances?

Mr. Alison

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's kind and well-judged words about the late Dr. Gareth Bennett, and I am sure that what he has said will be widely appreciated, at least in Church of England circles.

The question of anonymity is to be reviewed. My hon. Friend's idea of an option of identification or anonymity will certainly be considered by the commissioners.

Mr. Adley

As a background to the affair, does my right hon. Friend agree that, up and down the country, thousands of parish priests are selflessly giving dedicated service to their parishioners, but that many feel that their work is being undermined by a handful of politically motivated bishops?

Mr. Alison

My hon. Friend has switched the target slightly from the anonymous author of the Crockford's preface, now known to be Dr. Bennett, to the bishops of the Church of England. I entirely endorse his view that the heart and soul of the Church of England are the millions of parishioners who get on with the daily work of Christian living and worshipping in their parish churches. As for my hon. Friend's more controversial point about the bishops, I am only too glad when conservative bishops speak out in a Conservative frame. However, controversy has always been a feature of the Christian religion.

Mr. Frank Field

Will the right hon. Gentleman allow me to say that the preface was a serious piece of work which the Church would do well to consider carefully at its next meeting of Synod and beyond? Does he agree that having a preface that is unsigned can led to unfortunate consequences when the person has to lie about whether he is the author? Should the Church not take that into account when it considers the next edition?

Mr. Alison

I am grateful to the hon. Member for his contribution to this point. As he knows, he featured personally in the preface. In weighing the points that he has made, I should point out that Dr. Bennett was at pains in the preface to praise and laud the standard and tradition of anonymity, which he said he found useful and helpful. At the same time, if it leads to anonymous authors having to repudiate their authorship by lying, the Church Commissioners will obviously have to consider that point in the future.

Mr. Stokes

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the importance here is the substance of the preface, not whether it was anonymous, which is no concern of the House? In view of the present difficulties of the Church, does my right hon. Friend also agree that, although some of us may criticise the hierarchy from time to time, it surely behoves us to do all that we can to back up the good and godly men who deal with Church of England affairs?

Mr. Alison

I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend's comments. In this case, the preface to Crockford's was an exceptionally vigorous and stimulating analysis of a wide range of issues, including the wider implications for the Anglican communion and certain practices in Anglican churches overseas. It was well worth reading and writing.

Mr. Cormack

Is it not a great pity that more people did not behave with the dignified restraint that the Archbishop of Canterbury showed when the preface was published? Would it not also be a good thing if more of those who talked about it read it?

Mr. Alison

I agree with my hon. Friend on both points.