HC Deb 07 July 1988 vol 136 cc1288-96

10 pm

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

I beg to move,

That the Church of England (Ecumenical Relations) 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.

In an increasing number of places throughout the country, the Church of England has been seeking closer relationships, since the 1920s, with the Protestant Free Churches in England and, since the late 1960s, with the Roman Catholic Church in England. Central to that co-operation have been shared acts of worship when clergy and ministers have preached and led prayers in one another's churches and congregations have joined in united services of worship.

Such co-operation increased rapidly in the 1960s and 1970s and today is widespread. There are more than 700 local councils of churches and almost 500 local ecumenical projects at present. The latter are places where local churches are often working together closely and where there is a considerable measure of shared worship. In many places, and in various ways, that shared worship has run ahead of the law. For example, section 15 of the Act of Uniformity 1662—to take the House back a little in this tercentenary year—requires everyone who preaches in the Church of England to have the bishop's licence. That provision has never been repealed. Therefore, technically, every time a Roman Catholic priest or Free Church minister preaches at a Church of England service, an offence is committed.

The Sharing of Church Buildings Act 1969 made it legally permissible for the first time for the Church of England and other churches to enter into binding agreements to share buildings. Although that Act allowed a measure of shared worship, that was not its primary aim. In 1980, the House of Bishops issued a code of practice on ecumenical relations to provide guidelines for ecumenical co-operation, particularly as regards the participation of Anglican clergy, non-Anglican clergy and lay people in each other's worship.

That code was an interim document. It was anticipated that the progress towards unity at a national level might soon make substantial changes in relationships between the Churches. However, sadly, those anticipated changes did not occur. For example, the proposal for a covenant between the Church of England and three of the Free Churches failed to win sufficient support in the General Synod of the Church of England in 1982, and thereafter lapsed.

Therefore, the House of Bishops established a working party under the chairmanship of the Right Reverend Cyril Bowles, lately Bishop of Derby, to discuss the Anglican involvement in local ecumenical development, and in particular, in Local Ecumenical Projects". In 1984, the working party recommended that the time had come to change the law in order to make permissible a certain measure of shared worship while retaining certain safeguards.

The Measure before the House and the two canons that are proposed attempt to implement the recommendations of the Derby working party report. Therefore, the Church of England (Ecumenical Relations) Measure has been drafted in the form of an enabling provision and clauses 1 and 2 make it lawful for the General Synod to promulgate canons on ecumenical relations.

Two canons have been drafted and they are set out in the annex to the report of the Ecclesiastical Committee. One is of general application, draft canon B43, entitled "Of relations with other churches", and one deals specifically with local ecumenical projects, draft canon B44, entitled "Of local Ecumenical Projects".

It should be noted that the draft Measure gives legal authority for the Church of England, its ministers and lay people to collaborate with other churches, but there are at every point carefully drafted safeguards. For example, clause 3(a) provides that services of holy communion according to the use of the Church of England may be celebrated only by episcopally ordained priests. Clause 3(b) requires marriages according to the rites of the Church of England to be solemnised only by clerks in holy orders of the Church of England.

Clause 4 allows priests and deacons from the United Churches of south India, north India, Pakistan and Bangladesh—Churches which include former Anglicans—when visiting England for a limited period, to exercise their ministry both in the Church of England and in another church to which the measure applies. Up to now, those clergymen have had to opt either to minister in the Church of England or in the Free Church with which they are in communion.

Clause 5 gives power to the Archbishops of Canterbury and York jointly to designate the Churches to which the measure applies. It should be noted from subsection 2(c) that the measure and the proposed canons will apply only to churches which subscribe to the fundamental doctrine of the Holy Trinity and which administer the sacraments of baptism and holy communion.

Clause 6 sets out various definitions in the Measure. Clause 7 makes it possible for persons who do not hold a bishop's licence—for example, ministers of other Churches—to preach in a Church of England church, notwithstanding the provisions of the Act of Uniformity 1662, to which I referred earlier. Clause 8 contains a saving in respect of the place where Church of England marriages may be solemnised. Clause 9 is in common form.

The Measure and the canons do not go as far and as fast as ecumenical enthusiasts would like. However, they have received the overwhelming support of the diocesan synods and of the three houses of the General Synod.

At this time, when no national union schemes or proposals are before the Church of England, it is necessary to establish some rules for local Church of England churches to follow in their ecumenical relations. The draft measures enable such rules to be established.

10.8 pm

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead)

I was going to say that after the introduction that we have heard from the Second Church Estates Commissioner, I would defy anybody to give a competent speech on this matter, but I see two Social and Liberal Democratic Members who are well known for their oratorical skills. Therefore, I should withdraw that challenge immediately because I know perfectly well that they will rise to the occasion.

I have only three small points to make and I do not possess the skills to weave them into a good debating point. Therefore, the best thing that I can do is to list them. First, as I listened to the Second Estates Commissioner I could not help thinking back to the essay written by Thomas Arnold well over 150 years ago. He thought that the Church was in such danger that it would do well to worry less about dogma and more about its comprehensiveness. Indeed, he thought that the test should be dropped, so that most citizens, apart from Roman Catholics, could become part of the then established Church. It says something about English society that 150 years later we have moved a small way towards the ideal that Arnold laid down for us. For that reason, I welcome the Measure.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

Was it not also Thomas Arnold who, as headmaster of Rugby school, said: My object will be, if possible, to form Christian men, for Christian boys I can scarcely hope to make. Although that indicated Thomas Arnold's understanding of his pupils, did it not also give some evidence of his general outlook on life?

Mr. Field

It did, but to those hon. Members who understand how to give a coded message, I say that I accept the rebuke of my hon. Friend—as I shall call him tonight—the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Green way), that in pointing to the eloquence of the Social and Liberal Democratic Members, I did not also point to him as somebody who can make a speech out of a point that did not exist at all. I look forward to hearing his contribution later.

My second point is that, in the Measure's preamble, it would have been possible for the Church to proceed by laying bishops' orders rather than seeking legislation. It is part of the Church of England's sickness that whenever there is an opportunity to ask for legislative changes, it does just that. That is all part of the politics of decline. Being a member of the Labour party and aware of the difficulties in which it finds itself, I recognise the symptoms when I see them in another body. One of the crosses I must carry is belonging to both organisations.

My final point is that, given the Synod's legislative programme, this is probably the last Measure that will come before the House and pass without a vote, as I hope it will tonight. There are stormy times ahead, and I look forward to participating in those events. Tonight I welcome this Measure, and I congratulate the Second Estates Commissioner on the eloquence with which he presented it to the House.

10.11 pm
Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne)

I take this opportunity—the first since my election to the House—to make a general comment about Church matters. I enter this area with some trepidation because I am not an Anglican, and it is that which makes me want to speak. I am saddened that the long-awaited coming together of various Christian denominations should need the House's formal approval. My general point for the record is that the sooner there is disestablishment, the better—because Christianity is something that can work happily without politicians intervening.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

Does the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) accept that there is a strongly held view in the Anglican Church that disestablishment would be good for that Church, as it is for all the other denominations?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Paul Dean)

Order. I remind the House that in debating this narrow Measure, it is not in order to discuss disestablishment. I realise that the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) is still on his preamble, which is allowed before he speaks to the Measure.

Mr. Wilshire

I am touched by your generosity, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I take your point, as I take that of the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) with whom I do not disagree.

I find it enormously encouraging—as I am sure all hon. Members present in the Chamber do—that this Measure is for our consideration tonight, because clearly the concept of Christian unity is alive and well, which is something we should welcome. I hope that all hon. Members of whatever denomination rejoice in the fact that the House is being asked to consider this Measure tonight. I too hope that it will win unanimous approval.

10.13 pm
Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Mossley Hill)

The hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) said that it was possible for politicians to make points where none existed, and we are all guilty of that from time to time. But it would be wrong for a Measure of this importance to go through the House without hon. Members from every party making brief contributions to say why they support it.

I welcome the Measure. It is almost paradoxical that just two hours after our debate on the tercentenary of 1688, in which we heard so much about the old prejudices, the old bigotry and even the old hatreds, the House is now putting behind it past injustice and persecution and the glorification of such events, and thinking instead of the future and considering how much progress we have already made towards the goal of Church unity and Christian reconciliation that so many hold dear.

Many who were present at Canterbury when Pope John Paul and Archbishop Runcie came together in that historic meeting were very touched to see the culmination of a process of which the late Archbishop Ramsey was the major initiator. It is worth recalling that fact, just a week after the memorial service that was held for him in Westminster abbey.

I come from a mixed marriage, with an Anglican father and a Catholic mother—and, in two and a half weeks' time, will consummate my own ecumenical act by marrying an Anglican, the daughter of a Church of England clergyman. The hon. Member for Birkenhead will be glad to know that she comes from the broad church that he describes—in the sense that I suppose she would regard herself as coming from the evangelical wing of the Anglican church, and her father from the Anglo-Catholic tradition.

Sometimes, however, such labels can be misleading. In the Roman Catholic Church, people are often surprised at the breadth of thinking exemplified by the renewal movement of charismatics and evangelicals. We are debating this Measure in a week when the Roman Catholic Church has seen its first schism in over a century caused by those who hanker after the Tridentine rite. That split is the result of feeling among some people that progress has been too fast. Many of us feel that it has been too slow.

I agree entirely with what the hon. Member for Birkenhead said about the difficult waters that lie ahead. It will be extremely difficult to bring every Christian towards the objective of Christian unity. While the hon. Gentleman reflected on the problems in his party, my hon. Friend the Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) and I reflected that we too knew something about the problems that a merger can create—vide the mess in the Liberal-SDP alliance. If anyone has any doubts about going for the lowest common denominator or easy merger options, let me say that I do not think that that is particularly to be commended. What is commendable is a respect for one another's traditions, and a recognition of the validity of each other's orders and rites of service.

Although my Church has moved a long way in the 40 years since my parents were married, I was surprised to learn that I required dispensation to marry someone of a different religion. I had to ask permission to be married to an Anglican. I find that offensive, and I hope that it will not be long before it is changed.

Mr. Harry Greenway

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman understands—if he does not, let me explain it to him—that the same is true in the other direction. When an Anglican is marrying a Roman Catholic he is required to sign over the children, which is very sad.

Mr. Alton

That is true, although I should point out that there have been changes in the past 40 years. Forty years ago, people were expected to sign a declaration that they would bring up their children in the Catholic faith, and a partner on the other side of the mixed marriage was expected solemnly to sign such an undertaking. I am glad that that is no longer the case. I must add that the form to which I have referred does not refer to a partner's denomination, but classifies an Anglican as a person from another religion.

Mr. Frank Field

In this case, as the hon. Gentleman is marrying an Anglican, surely he would not have to sign a declaration about bringing up the children in the Catholic faith, as the Anglican Church claims to be part of that faith.

Mr. Alton

That is the point that I am making. Yet the declaration has to be made nevertheless. The form of words has been slightly mellowed from what it was 40 years ago. I have to give an undertaking that I will do my best to ensure that any children are brought up in the Roman Catholic faith. I find that difficult at this time, and I do not understand why, given the great movement that there has been, Christians cannot decide what is best for their children and ensure that they have the best possible education and are brought up with an understanding of both our traditions.

I recall that the day after I was elected to the House, the late Airey Neave was assassinated in the precincts of the House of Commons. When I made my maiden speech a couple of days later, just before the House was dissolved for the general election, I referred to my city of Liverpool. I pointed out that when I was first elected to the council in 1972 the old Protestant party still sat on the council. There was still sectarianism in that city, which has such a bitter past. Perhaps Belfast, particularly, can learn from the reconciliation that has occurred over the years in Liverpool

In 1929, when the Catholic authorities tried to obtain planning permission to build its cathedral, the Protestant party on the council, in coalition with the Conservatives, turned down that application, after the revered Councillor Longbottom, the leader of the party, led a great campaign against the construction of the cathedral. The following year, the Labour party came to power and by just one vote it gave planning permission to build the cathedral, leading the Archbishop of Liverpool at that time, Archbishop Downing, to comment that it was better to win by a hair's breadth than to lose by a Longbottom.

The city of Liverpool, its Archbishop, Dereck Warlock, and its Bishop, David Sheppard, have put the old hatreds behind them. Yet, as recently as 1949, Archbishop Warlock's predecessor, Archbishop Beck, wrote to The Times to say that he could not say the Lord's Prayer with an Anglican. He also refused to give a joint blessing with the Anglican Bishop of Winchester on the grounds that the bishop did not have valid orders and was only a layman.

We have come a long way since then. We have come a long way since 1829 when, as a result of Daniel O'Connell's intervention in the County Clare by-election, he was able to force the Duke of Wellington's hand to give Catholics emancipation and allow them to sit in this place. However, there are still memories. Some of the churches in my constituency were built in the form of tithe barns so as not to give offence to the established Church. Yes, we have come a long way, but it seems slightly bizarre to me that a house of 650 hon. Members, all of them I am sure waiting outside in the Lobbies in case a Division is called, should be considering matters like this at all. Surely these matters are better resolved between Christians.

I have some sympathy with the remarks of the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) about disestablishment. It is ironic that we are debating this Measure in the week when the Church of England Synod has been talking about women priests, an issue which will cause great problems and impede reconciliation in future. We cannot dodge the possible side effect of that in terms of Christian unity. Nothing should be done to restrict the most important task of all for Christians—reconciliation.

The Measure is a useful step in that direction. One has only to look at Northern Ireland to see the scandal for Christianity when religion is used to set people at odds with one another. I pay particular tribute to the Rosstrevor community of the Church of Ireland, St. Columba house in Derry, which is run by a group of Catholics seeking reconciliation, and the Maranatha and Corrymeela groups and all those who are working in Northern Ireland trying to build bridges. It gives the lie to the atheist who points the finger and says, "See how these Christians love one another."

I am arguing for a fulsome response to Measures such as this from Catholics in the country. Respect for each other's orders and rites and a willingness to pray, worship and celebrate the eucharist together does not seem unreasonable.

We are considering a Measure allowing for joint services, including services of holy communion presided over by a minister of any other participating Church. The problem is that even if we pass this Measure, as Roman Catholics we are not allowed to participate. However much I welcome such a Measure, until my Church recognises, as it does for the Greek Orthodox Church, the right for Catholics to receive the eucharist inside the Anglican tradition, such motions are simply measures of good will and expressions of hope, rather than anything that will bind our Churches closer together.

We sometimes fool ourselves into believing that great strides have been made in accepting and respecting the beliefs of other Christian traditions. There is still hostility and suspicion. Ecumenism is sometimes only skin deep. I feel a growing sense of anger and frustration at the narrowness of vision and the obsession with Church positions which place strict limits on how far Christian laymen may go in terms of reconciliation. Arcane rules and restrictions on worship cause bewilderment, pain and hurt. It is Christianity at its worst.

These Measures are a movement in the right direction, but they are a long way short of reconciling two traditions which have so much to offer to each other. I hope that it will not be long before the right hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Alison) will introduce other Measures which will truly bring our Churches much closer together.

10.24 pm
Mr. David Nicholson (Taunton)

I associate myself with my hon. Friends, if I may so term them, on both sides of the House who welcome the Measure. The hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) referred to future controversies and no doubt we shall look forward to debating them. The hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) referred to earlier debates today on an anniversary of a subject of political and religious controversy. As you will know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, since you are a neighbour, my constituency has reason to recall from 300 and 303 years ago events such as the battle of Sedgemoor and Judge Jeffreys and the Bloody Assize—examples of political and religious intolerance and not, as an Opposition Member remarked earlier, myths. They were facts and realities.

This year we are celebrating another great anniversary—the defeat of the Spanish Armada. I believe that I am right in saying that today the university of Cambridge—not an institution with which I am closely acquainted or associated—gave honorary degrees to the King and Queen of Spain in respect of their great contributions to history and democracy in recent years. A particular college flew the Spanish royal standard today because it was established by King Philip and Queen Mary some 400 years ago. That shows how time can heal these great historical rifts which many of us were told in our schooldays were almost impossible to heal. This evening we must remember and recommend that lesson.

For those reasons I am pleased to speak briefly in this short debate and welcome the Measure.

10.27 pm
Mr. Michael J. Martin (Glasgow, Springburn)

I apologise for not being present for the opening speeches, but I had an appointment outside the House and, unfortunately, I could not find a taxi.

As a practising Catholic, I welcome the Measure. Like Liverpool, Glasgow inherited an Irish tradition from both sides of the divide—from Ulster and Eire. In my grandfather's time there was a great deal of bigotry. In my parents' time, some of that had died down. In my young days when a Catholic girl and a Protestant boy were going out with one another it caused anger and arguments in the families about which Church they would be married in.

I clearly remember an argument in the street between two future mothers-in-law. The son at the centre of the problem went up and said to them, "Perhaps we should discuss this out of the gaze of all the neighbours." He was told to go away and mind his own business as it had nothing to do with him. Fortunately, that was back in the 1950s. When my wife, who is a Protestant, and I were married both families were happy. I have an excellent relationship with my father-in-law and mother-in-law which meant that there was no bitterness at the wedding. That attitude exists in Glasgow at the moment. It has meant that our children have a different outlook on religion. They have more respect for other people's religions and for their parents, and that is a very good thing.

Nowadays, blatant discrimination has gone. People are not discriminated against in employment and promotion as they used to be, and companies no longer have a policy of employing only Protestants or only Catholics. Some small and, in my opinion, stupid things remain to be ironed out. When I first came to this place I heard debate about whether the heir to the throne should be entitled to marry a Catholic. I was asked to sign an early-day motion. I said, "I have an even bigger problem. There's a bowling club down the road from me, which is 150 years old and it has not had a Catholic member in all that time." These stupid things cause aggravation and small-minded people would allow them to continue.

Since I came to the House I have considered myself to have two parish churches—my parish church at home and the parish church here in Westminster, at which I have regularly attended services shared by hon. Members from all parties. That means that I now know the true meaning of the ecumenical movement. Even with all the differences of opinion that we have in this place—it is right and fitting that we do—every month or so we can meet as Christians and share in a common bond and belief which builds up our friendship.

That principle should be extended into the community as a whole. One thing that being a Member of this place has taught me is that people are willing to come together to try to break down barriers, and I am thankful for that.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Church of England (Ecumenical Relations) 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.

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