HC Deb 17 July 1989 vol 157 cc174-93

2.6 am

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

I beg to move, That the Clergy (Ordination) 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. This is one of those occasions when the House is called upon to manifest the characteristics of a monastic order, rising to attend to spiritual exercises in the small hours. I congratulate the many colleagues here who have risen to the occasion. I am quite certain that they will receive a reward, although from a loftier source than the Patronage Secretary and the Whips.

The scope of the Measure is, in its narrow sense, quite limited and not very complicated, although the drafting of these Measures always looks a bit bewildering. Nor in any material sense is it very far-reaching. It will impinge directly on a comparatively small number of people, as I hope to show, but it has profound and much more far-reaching non-material implications, in that it deals with issues related to the nature and indissolubility of marriage ties. These are matters which are likely to be of considerable interest to millions of families and individuals, including many non-Anglicans.

In 1986, the latest year for which there are statistics, of the 348,000 registered marriages in England and Wales, well over half were solemnised in religious ceremonies, and one third of them were in Church of England ceremonies. A majority of the public thus still regard marriage as having important religious implications. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear.".]

I shall explain the strict scope of the Measure before I consider wider and more controversial matters. Under existing canon law, there is an absolute bar against a man seeking ordination as a clergyman of the Church of England if he is married but has a previous spouse still living from an earlier marriage or if the partner to whom he is married has a previous partner living from an earlier marriage.

I stress that the issue is not one of divorce alone. Divorce on its own is no bar in principle to a man seeking ordination as a clergyman in the Church of England, although in practice the circumstances of his divorce will be carefully scrutinised by selectors before he is recommended for ordination. It is only remarriage after divorce in the circumstances which I have described—of a previous spouse surviving—which activates the total bar to ordination.

The reason derives from the fundamental teaching of the New Testament, not only about divorce but about remarriage following divorce. The barrier I have referred to is at present absolute. It is provided for in section 9 of the Clergy (Ordination and Miscellaneous Provisions) Measure 1964, and neither a diocesan bishop nor either archbishop has any discretion to set it aside.

What is proposed in the Measure before the House is not that the absolute barrier of the earlier section 9 be abrogated or rescinded, but that under certain defined circumstances its full rigour should be capable of being waived or suspended, and that, at the final and sole discretion of one of the two archbishops, some exceptions to the rule should be allowed. This is a freehand summary of what is provided for in section 1 of the measure. To present it in this way is not, I assure the House, a resort to weasel words or to mere casuistry or sophistry. This is not a back-door way of quietly plundering the old prohibition, while leaving it overtly intact.

If I may draw upon an analogy to make the point: it did not detract from, or impair the operation of, the law relating to capital punishment, in a bygone age when that penalty was still on the statute book, if the Home Secretary of the day recommended a reprieve in a particular instance, and Her Majesty exercised the royal prerogative of mercy. Indeed, if anything, the occasional reprieve served only to emphasise the mainstream rigour of the law.

Nothing more far-reaching is being sought in the case of this Measure than a discretion for mercy, while leaving the hard core disqualification firmly on the statute book. The Archbishop of Canterbury has estimated that four or five cases per diocese may seek the dispensation—say, 240 altogether—and by no means all that number would secure it.

There are some individual cases in respect of which it would be the merest and crudest legalism not to be able to waive the absolute barrier against ordination. The Bishop of Guildford in another place cited one such case in which the potential candidate for ordination married a divorcee 15 years ago. His wife's first marriage was never consummated. When she had wanted the marriage dissolved, the lawyers advised her that it might be more straightforward to obtain a divorce than to seek a decree of nullity, so she took their advice and obtained a divorce. The man concerned is now married to a divorcee and automatically disbarred by law from consideration for ordination. Had his wife been advised differently by her lawyers she might have obtained a decree of nullity and her present husband would have faced no impediment to ordination.

Having considered this case, many right hon. and hon. Members attending this debate may feel that the case for allowing occasional exceptions to a solidly entrenched rule is almost self-evidently made, and that the Measure should be allowed to go through without hindrance. Alas, not all cases are as easy and straightforward as that.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley)

What would happen if the person whom the lady was marrying was already an ordained minister?

Mr. Alison

There would be no moral turpitude in the marriage between the ordained clergyman and the lady concerned, and there would be no basis for any ecclesiastical proceedings against him.

The objections arising from more complicated cases are, as right hon. and hon. Members will find, forcefully and succinctly set out in paragraph 5 of the Ecclesiastical Committee's report, the so-called red book, which right hon. and hon. Members will already have seen. The last of the listed objections in paragraph 5(iv) on page 3 relates to the absence from the Measure of criteria specifying the basis on which the discretion will be exercised. This has been satisfactorily dealt with, technically at least, by the provision, among the papers available in the Vote Office, of the Archbishop of Canterbury's statement about the criteria that the archbishops will use in exercising their occasional dispensation. In considering these criteria, an individual who successfully secures the archbishops' dispensation is not thereby guaranteed automatic access to ordination. He merely ensures access to the normal selection procedure, and he may fall at that hurdle.

The third of the four objections, contrasting the dispensation to divorced lay people on remarriage in church with that proposed for divorced ordinands, looks at first sight a little far-fetched, in that like is not being compared with like. As the Archbishop of Canterbury pointed out in another place, the difficulty about divorced lay people being remarried in church is that each wedding service is meant to be a testimony to, and a proclamation of, the Christian doctrine of the indissolubility of, and the life-long commitment involved in, marriage, so that a second wedding proclamation, involving a divorcee, constitutes a glaring contradiction.

However, this Measure is concerned with ordination and not marriage, and the same contradiction is not implicit in the proposal to make exceptions for ordinands that are not strictly authorised for lay people seeking remarriage. However, at a deeper level, the third objection in the red book underpins and illuminates two objections, which address themselves to the necessity to give clear signals and to maintain standards, not excluding ideal standards.

Vital landmarks in our social life nationally are today in danger of being swept away by the swirling secular currents of casually contracted marriages and easy divorce. The objectors argue that the Church of England should stand against these currents, at whatever cost. It is almost as severe a contradiction as remarriage in church by divorced lay people when the incumbent solemnising the marriage of a young couple bids them pledge themselves to a view of, and a commitment to, a life-long partnership that he himself has already abrogated. That is why I confess that, had I been a member of the General Synod in 1987 when this Measure was voted on, I would have voted against it, on the grounds that the times were not propitious for sending out this signal about marriage, however meritorious the signal might be in itself. As I shall explain, I do not persist in that opposition now.

One further difficulty inherent in the Measure, which was considered at length by the Ecclesiastical Committee, is the manifest imbalance in the treatment at present applying to lay ordinands and that applying to ordained clergymen. For ordinands, there is the present absolute barrier against remarried divorcés being ordained which I have described. For a clergyman, divorce and remarriage do not in themselves and in principle constitute grounds for his being removed from his office or his living. He can be so removed by existing disciplinary procedures, but for that to occur there has to be some moral turpitude in his case in the divorce proceedings. Where divorce is secured on the modern ground of the irretrievable breakdown of the marriage, no moral turpitude need, by definition, occur.

The lot of the existing clergy is undoubtedly easier than the lot of the prospective clergy. The conclusion to be drawn from this imbalance will depend upon one's predispositions. Some will argue that the imbalance in favour of the existing clergy helps to make the case for occasional dispensation for prospective clergy. Others will argue that the real need is for a measure to make more rigorous procedures available to disbar existing clergy who have marriage breakdowns.

The General Synod of the Church of England, after an extended and agonising debate on the issue, decided by a substantial majority that the course of occasional dispensation rather than enhanced rigour against existing clergy was the most acceptable way forward.

Mr. Ian Gow (Eastbourne)

Is my right hon. Friend able to confirm to the House that at the time of the clergy ordination Measure of 1964 those who were then the Archbishops of Canterbury and York were in favour of the measure, and that there has been a dramatic change of mind on the part of the two right reverend prelates who presently hold the two offices?

Mr. Alison

I shall remind my hon. Friend of the course of history since then. There was the report by the Bishop of Lichfield's committee, which was subsequent to the 1964 Measure, on the nature of marriage and the problems arising for the Church of England on whether remarriage should he allowed in church, and on the imbalance between ordinands and clergy, which I have described. I think that the report of the Lichfield committee was the key factor in changing the attitudes of the present leadership of the Church of England.

I hope that in presenting and expounding the case for the Measure I have not shown myself insensitive or unsympathetic to the misgivings expressed by the Ecclesiastical Committee and elsewhere by the minority who objected to the Measure. As I said earlier, I was potentially among its number. I now have no hesitation in fully commending the Measure to the House. I hope that the House will have concluded that the arguments for and against it are finely balanced, especially where an absolute bar would involve sheer legalism. That is reflected in the Ecclesiastical Committee's close vote.

At a deeper constitutional level, I suggest that the House has no proper or justifiable grounds whatever for preventing the Measure from going forward for Royal Assent. The concordat between Church and State, which governs our proceedings and which is based on the Church of England Assembly Powers Act 1919, fully delegates responsibility for deciding domestic Church issues, such as the basis for ordaining its clergy, to the Church of England and its domestic machinery.

The Minister for Local Government (Mr. John Gummer)

When Parliament so delegated its powers to the Church—I take my right hon. Friend's view strongly on this issue—did it not provide that, on matters as delicate and important as those that come before us, a two-thirds majority was necessary? Is it not true that in this instance the Church did not give an opportunity for a two-thirds majority? Indeed, there was not a two-thirds majority in the House of Laity, which this place should be concerned about. Is it not true that the very people who decided whether there should be a two-thirds majority were those who were proposing this measure in the first place? Could it not be argued that this House has an important role in insisting that the protection of the minority, which it put upon the Church, should be followed and cared for on a matter so serious and important?

Mr. Alison

My right hon. Friend makes an important point. In the interests of brevity, perhaps all I should say is that the General Synod considered thoroughly and in great detail whether the Measure qualified for the two-thirds majority provision that applies to matters of fundamental doctrine and concluded, through its proper machinery, that it was not called for. The chairman of the Ecclesiastical Committee, Lord Bridge—a distinguished Law Lord—on reading the constitution of the General Synod, concluded that it had properly decided that an absolute majority, not a two-thirds majority, was right.

Mr. Ray Whitney (Wycombe)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that that was not the conclusion reached by the noble Lord Denning, who took the view that there should he a two-thirds majority?

Mr. Alison

That is true. I have heard some comments that Lord Denning, in his speech in another place commending the opposite view, was not at his most pristine, forceful and exemplary best—

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster)

Did my right hon. Friend actually hear Lord Denning?

Mr. Alison

I carefully read what he had said.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman

I had the privilege of attending that House of Lords debate.

Mr. Alison

I very much wish that the mere audio experience of words were sufficient to make a deep impression upon the conscious mind. If that were so, dulcet tones would always win arguments. However., that is not always the reality in debate. Lord Denning 's speech was not of exemplary clarity and conviction.

The concordat between Church and state fully delegates responsibility for deciding these matters to the General Synod. As the Ecclesiastical Committee makes plain in paragraph 6 of its report, no wider implications arise which bear upon the constitutional rights of all Her Majesty's subjects. My hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Latham), in his speech in the Ecclesiastical Committee, summed up the position succinctly. He said: There are many Measures where it is absolutely right and in accordance with the constitutional rights of all Her Majesty's subjects (as section 3(3) says) that we should seek to have changed or sent back. Stipends of clergymen, rights of dismissal, pensions: all those are basic secular questions where our duty is clear, if the Church oversteps the reasonable grounds of equity. But this Measure is concerned solely with a matter of theology and I do not think it is my job to decide it is inexpedient to proceed.

Mr. Conal Gregory (York)

My right hon. Friend has referred several times to the Ecclesiastical Committee of which I believe he was a member during the examination of this Measure. The voting was extremely close—10:9. Will he advise the House on why he did not participate in that final decision, which would then have balanced the voting?

Mr. Alison

If my hon. Friend had followed the earlier part of my speech, he would have heard me say that, had I been a member of the General Synod in 1987 when it voted definitively on this matter, I would have voted against it. I also hold the view that the argument is very finely balanced and that the Church of England, in a matter of theology and doctrine, has an absolute right, through the powers that we have deliberately delegated to it, to reach through its proper procedures a conclusion by a majority. Provided that the interests of none of Her Majesty's subjects is in any way threatened, it is reasonable for the Church of England to expect that Royal Assent will follow.

My own position was fully expressed in the words uttered by my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton in the Ecclesiastical Committee. After literally years of deliberation, the Church of England has passed the Measure—which received a substantial majority in all its houses—to us, and it is our duty to pass it, without impediment, to Her Majesty for Royal Assent.

2.30 am
Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead)

It was worth waiting until 10 minutes past 2 o'clock this morning to hear the right hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Alison) introduce the motion, because he showed a depth of humour that I did not think he possessed. If the right hon. Gentleman commended the Measure without any hesitation on his part, I only hope that I would be defended by him, if he thought that I was guilty.

When the right hon. Gentleman said that we are in a way debating our beliefs about marriage, a number of Conservative Members gave a very loud "Hear, hear!" Before we all become too self-righteous, I remind the House of one of its recent decisions. It reformed the divorce laws to make divorce possible after a period of marriage shorter than the term of the average hire purchase agreement. Before we ask the Church of England to set standards, we should consider our own conduct.

The most powerful argument to be made in this debate was forcefully put in an intervention in the Ecclesiastical Committee by my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike). Is it not unfair that priests who enjoy a freehold tenure can be divorced and remarry without losing their posts, whereas lay people who divorce and remarry are barred from ordination? If the argument were just about fairness, that imbalance should weigh heavily with the House.

I am reminded of a comment by Aneurin Bevan—if he did not make it, he would have done so had he thought of it—after Neville Chamberlain had introduced one of his many measures. Aneurin Bevan commented that listening to the Prime Minister was like a trip round Woolworth's—everything was in its place, and nothing was priced over sixpence. If one takes the view that in life everything has its place and nothing costs more than sixpence, my hon. Friend's intervention will carry weight. If one accepts that sometimes life is messy, and that in this instance, the freehold system should be defended because it is in itself important even though it is sometimes abused, one will not adopt the Woolworth view of life.

I hope that we shall not hear the argument this evening that the House has no right to intervene. My right hon. Friend—I call him that because in these matters, he is—almost made that point in his concluding remarks. He explained the balance of the arguments, commended the measure to the House, and said that it has no right to interfere. The House has every right to interfere until such time as it decides that certain matters need not come here from the General Synod for approval.

I hope that we shall not hear the disestablishment argument tonight. I voted against all the privatisation legislation that has come before the House and I shall continue to do so. I am against national institutions such as the Church of England being handed over to the sect. We have a right to intervene, to judge and to weigh up—hence our debate tonight.

Let me underline a point made earlier in an intervention. On all major matters involving policy in the Church a two-thirds majority is required, but those gaining a ruling for such a majority must make an appeal to the people promoting the Measure: those who wish it to go through will decide whether a two-thirds majority is necessary. If we were debating not the Church but a building society, would we be happy for those who were changing—or rigging—the rules to decide that a simple majority was all that was required, rather than a two-thirds majority? I think not. Had there been a two-thirds majority in every House of Synod, we would hear much of that point in tonight's debate.

Let me take the argument a step further, and ask how the measure will work in practice. We have duties in respect of our constituents. We should consider how Church authorities have already behaved to the House, through its Ecclesiastical Committee, before the Measure had gone through. The voting was fine: the hon. Member for York (Mr. Gregory) reminded us that it went through on a majority of one, the Second Church Estates Commissioner not having voted on that occasion.

Whether or not we agreed with that decision, we in Committee wanted to know what were the rules governing who should be given such exemption. Then, too, we were given a taste of the humour that was dominant throughout the right hon. Gentleman's introductory remarks tonight: he compared the position with that of someone allowed not to be hanged. We suggested that there should not merely be an agreement between the archbishops, because archbishops change—and they could change the rules after they had come into force. We wished to see the rules in the form of regulation when the Measure was introduced, but we have not seen them in that form tonight.

The archbishops issued a note full of high-sounding phrases, but offering little guidance on who would get through and who would not. How will the rules work? When the Measure first came before the Ecclesiastical Committee, we were told that probably a couple of people would come forward for ordination. Then we started to get the letters—and then the archbishop told us that there were already nearly 200 on the stocks who might come forward. At least one bishop was so confident that we would rubber-stamp the measure that he sent someone through for ordination who could not possibly be ordained under the current law.

Let us make a comparison with the way in which the deserted wives of clergymen have been treated, and the assurances that they and their parishes have been given when acts of adultery have occurred. I am currently in correspondence with a clergy wife who was assured—as were the parish and the parochial church council—that the man would never again be given a living in the Church of England because of the way in which he had deserted his wife and four children and broken up another marriage. In one sense the bishops and archbishops have kept their word. He has not been offered another living; he has already had two. I suggest that once the move gets under way flexibility will be introduced. I see some of my hon. Friends here tonight. I have received many letters about the Measure, but not one from a deserted divorced clergy wife recommending the measure. I have had many from wives who have married divorced clergy.

Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North)

My hon. Friend would not, would he?

Mr. Field

My hon. Friend says that I would not, but given the size of my postbag, people could have written to say that they disagreed with me. Many people write to me saying that they disagree with my line. Why should this Measure be the exception?

Before we discuss the rights of the wife of a person who wishes to be ordained, I hope that the House will have some respect for the rights and status of the woman who has been deserted by that person. Let me take the argument a stage further. This was not the whole Measure that went before Synod. The whole Measure was to change the Church's teaching on marriage. It stated that members of the laity who were divorced could be remarried in church. The Church, mindful of the fact that it should not give the laity rights that it denied to the clergy, decided that in those circumstances it would be proper for those who have been divorced and remarried and wish to be ordained to be able to do so.

The major part of the Measure which failed to get through Synod and has not been presented to us was that people who had divorced and remarried could get married in church. But the tail end of the Measure, which we are discussing tonight, was presented to Synod again and is now before the House. Far from the Synod not wishing the clergy to be inferior to the laity, we are now being asked to approve a Measure whereby some clergy would be in a superior position to the laity.

Another argument presented to me in letters is that good men with a wealth of experience about broken marriages to bring to the Church are putting themselves forward and the Church is short of manpower. If the Church is so worried about a shortage of manpower, why does it not accept that a large number of women wish to be priests and are not divorced and remarried? That would not require the overthrow of any doctrine. Why can the Church not bring that measure before us, if its reasoning is that such people have a vocation? If the Church is short of vocations, we should change one part of the rules which have always existed.

The right hon. Member for Selby introduced the Measure with extraordinary skill and great charity. The intervention by the hon. Member for York demonstrated his torn feelings about the issue. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman's loyalty to the Church in presenting the Measure to us will not blind the House to the faults of the case that he presented. Should anyone say that if we do not pass the Measure tonight, we shall have a great constitutional crisis on our hands and the Church will call for disestablishment, I ask hon. Members to pause before they laugh. Would anyone really say that if we do not pass the Measure tonight the archbishops and bishops will go to the country on a programme that, because we were not mindful to pass a Measure to allow some divorced males who have remarried or married divorced women entry to the priesthood, we should allow disestablishment? The case would be laughed out of court.

We all know that no Government would find time for disestablishment. It would make trying to abolish the Greater London council appear a mere tea party because with disestablishment would come disendowment and those great constitutional issues would be taken on the Floor of the House. No Government would give up a year of parliamentary time to get that measure through, and certainly not because we had decided early this morning that we were not happy, on balance, to pass a Measure that would allow some divorced people to become priests in the Church of England. I rest my case on a balance of arguments and I hope that the House will not approve the Measure.

2.45 am
Sir John Stanley (Tonbridge and Mailing)

First, I wish to thank my right hon. Friend the Second Church Estates Commissioner for the sensitive and balanced way in which he moved this difficult motion. I found his opening remarks illuminating and helpful. I regard the Measure as modest and sensible, and a proper way to take account of the wide range of individual circumstances involved in considering whether individuals are appropriate for ordination.

The safeguards announced by the Archbishop of Canterbury are real and proper. There is no question but that this is an exceptional power which will be used in exceptional circumstances. As my right hon. Friend the Estates Commissioner has made clear, the safeguards are enshrined in the fact that the dispensation is in the hands only of one or the other of the two archbishops.

It is also a compassionate Measure. It is in the experience of every hon. Member that in issues of divorce there are often cases in which one party is wholly blameless for the breakdown of a marriage. It is wrong, unreasonable and unduly harsh that such blameless persons should for the rest of their lives, if they subsequently remarry, be denied the opportunity of presenting themselves for ordination.

I wish to cite one case in my own constituency. The hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) will be interested to know that it is the case of a woman who is currently undergoing training as a deacon but who, under the present rules, will not be eligible for ordination at the conclusion of her training. She asked for her name not to be disclosed, for understandable reasons, but she has given me permission to quote from her letter to me and it is instructive. She wrote: The reason for my not being ordained into Holy Orders, as I believe god has called me to be, is that I have re-married. In 1964, when I was nineteen I married, but the marriage lasted four months and was an horrific episode in my life. I was treated badly, beaten and left. A month later I discovered I was pregnant and nearly 7 months later gave birth to twins who did not survive the first day of their life. That marriage after many traumas was dissolved and I remarried my present husband in 1967. I am still married to him and have a lovely family. I have been a Christian since I was 8 and a church member apart for the few years in my late teens … In 1990 I will be at present only allowed to be licensed to be a Lay Minister and not ordained Deacon because of that teenage marriage that lasted only four months. It is in such cases that it is reasonable and proper for individuals to be able to offer themselves for ordination. I believe that it is right that in individual cases account should be taken of the circumstances which precipated the divorce and that the positive factors about individuals presenting themselves for ordination should also be taken into account, regardless of whether they have been divorced and subsequently remarried. For those reasons, I support the measure.

2.49 am
Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

When this matter came before the Ecclesiastical Committee of which I was a member, I started from the premise that I would oppose it for two reasons—first, because I had understood that remarriage after divorce was not countenanced in New Testament theology and should therefore clearly be proscribed for those who wished to be leaders of the Church, and secondly because of my experience as a member of a family in which this had been the theological issue which had most affected our view of family life. My parents were not allowed to marry in church because my father had been married before, and I had watched the only brother of mine who had been married go through a divorce. It troubled me greatly that this was a subject where theology had ultimately to win the argument against some of the arguments for compassion, but the principle had been held.

So I listened and, when it came to our conference with the Archbishops of York and Canterbury, I questioned the archbishops with some vigour about how they could justify, theologically, the case that they were asking us to adopt. They and their colleagues led me to believe that in theology the case is at least arguably justifiable. I say that not as a theologian or somebody who can be certain of what the Christian teaching would be, but as somebody who was driven for guidance to read the text in the New Testament, in the Gospels and in the Epistle to Timothy in particular, which deal with those matters. Although there is clear teaching about the responsibilities of leaders in the Church and about marriage, it would appear from those who interpret these matters and who are far more adept and able to do so than I am, that there can be a proper interpretation of the scriptures which suggests that permission both to remarry after divorce and to do so even if one is ordained as a minister of the Church, is theologically acceptable.

Mr. Gummer

If what the hon. Gentleman says is true—and, indeed, it is a position that some theologians uphold—would not the natural result be for the Church of England to seek to change its rules on marriage, not just for clergymen but for lay people? Is not the problem with this Measure that when the Church tried to do that, it had to have a two-thirds majority, and as it did not get a two-thirds majority it therefore withdrew the part dealing with the laity and left this tag-end? It then said that it did not need a two-thirds majority for that. When the Church—members of the Synod—appealed, they found that the group which was to decide whether the two-thirds majority was necessary or not was the very group presenting this Measure.

Surely the real issue facing us all is that in the sad case quoted to us by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Mailing (Sir J. Stanley), we are looking for a proper change in the Church's view and, in my view, for a better system of nullity—but not for this Measure, which must be damaging because it asks people to be allowed to be ordained but says that when they teach the Church's doctrine on marriage they have to teach that their own marriage is simply living in sin.

Mr. Hughes

I was intending to deal with that point later, but I will do so now. I believe that it would have been far preferable for the Church to bring before Parliament the question of the remarriage of divorced people in Church before bringing this Measure. That is one of the unsatisfactory elements of the Measure. It will permit a more liberal regime to appear to apply to priests than to lay people in the Church. Divorced people who ask a priest if they can be married and are told that they cannot will find it somewhat odd, to say the least, if they discover that the priest who told them that they were not allowed to be married became a priest after having been divorced and having remarried. I accept that that is not satisfactory. Having weighed that argument with others that I will relate briefly in a moment, I still believe that the balance of view that we should reach in justice and in charity as politicians, and as people concerned with the standards of the Church, should persuade us to support the Measure.

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent)

The hon. Gentleman is in danger of being led down a cul-de-sac by my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer). This not a question of where clergymen remarry. Many people—myself included—have remarried after a divorce. I was blessed in a church in a service that left it abundantly clear to the entire congregation that my wife and I had failed before and were asking God's blessing to succeed in future. That is far more germane to the question of whether the clergy or the laity can remarry in church.

Mr. Hughes

I will deal with that point in a moment as it is also an appropriate point.

We must decide whether the proposal is right according to theology, morals or ethics. We must also consider whether Members of Parliament have a right to intervene in this matter.

For as long as Parliament has the responsibility to approve matters that are put to us, we can, if we wish, disagree with the Church. I take that view even though I believe that the Church should be self-governing and should not have to come to Parliament. However, Church matters such as this come to Parliament under the present rules, constitution and practice. Clearly we have the right to say no to the proposal from the Church even though it is an internal Church matter.

What is the balance? I believe that the persuasive arguments against the proposal are theological arguments. But the Church and the theologians who advised us did not believe that they were determinative. I do not believe that those of us who have considered the matter would regard the theology as determinative either.

There is an argument that the Church should set clear standards and signals. However, I believe that that argument to oppose the Measure is impossible to sustain. If the present position continues, we say that someone who has been married and divorced and then remarries cannot become a priest, but someone who has lived with someone, or two people, three people or seven people can become a priest. Someone who has murdered can become a priest. Yet we reserve a bar to ordination uniquely for those people who have married, divorced and remarried. We do that irrespective of whether their previous marriage was a Christian marriage and irrespective of whether either or both parties were Christians when they were married or divorced.

We consider the previous marriage to be an absolute barrier to ordination even though it may have been a mistake, as in the example given by the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir J. Stanley). Even if the marriage was clearly wrong and had failed, and even if someone found a vocation calling him to the priesthood in a blessed second marriage, the bar to ordination would apply. It is anomalous to preserve this unique bar and not to apply to ordained clergy the principles that we apply to people hoping to be ordained. A priest can be divorced and then remarry without any automatic threat to his role as a priest.

The most persuasive argument of all is that, if the theology is not persuasive and clear, and if justice is abundantly in favour of the Measure and strongly against preserving the anomaly of denying a group of people the fulfilment of their vocation, one other matter becomes abundantly clear. That matter relates to the mission of the Church and I hope that it is also the duty of the House. It is to realise that the Church must be able to forgive as well as to teach, that it has a duty, even to those in authority or who seek authority, to say that they are capable of error and capable of forgiveness and grace.

That is the fundamental issue which determines for me and for many others that justice and theology must come down in favour of the overriding principle that the Church should be capable—if it is thought right at the highest level and on the best advice—of saying that it can put aside and forgive a mistaken marriage. It should he able to say that it regards that as no absolute bar to someone who wishes to become an ordained member of the Church.

I hope that people will realise that this is a sensitive matter which does not easily allow the conclusion that it must be wrong to allow people who have been divorced and have remarried to become priests. It is not so simple as that, and I hope that we shall give to those people and to the Church the benefit of our necessary doubt.

3.1 am

Sir John Stokes (Halesowen and Stourbridge)

This is obviously a difficult matter for the House, but having listened to the debate, I have to say that the House has distinguished itself. On such non-partisan matters we express the wisdom of a great many lay people in England.

I should like to add a few general points to those that have been made. England, unfortunately, has an immensely high divorce rate. About one third of marriages end in that way and that is the background against which we are discussing the Measure. There is also the question of the standards that the nation expects of its clergy. It is possible that hon. Members, who are more down to earth than some other people, expect a somewhat higher standard from our clergy than does the Synod. I have been a member of the Synod for four years, and I think that hon. Members represent the man and woman in the pew rather more accurately than does the Synod.

What worries me about the Measure is that if it is passed it will send out from the House a wrong or at least a confusing signal to people in England who look to the Church and the clergy to set high standards at this difficult time in our social life. I am also troubled by another matter which has not so far been discussed. I refer to the Measures that have come to the House from the Synod in recent years. They are all extremist, liberal Measures, and in time they may utterly destroy the fabric of the Church of England.

First, as many hon. Members may remember, we had the virtual destruction of the Book of Common Prayer on which the Church is based and its replacement by the alternative service book. That was done by the Church of England (Worship and Doctrine) Measure 1974. We were assured then that the prayer book would not disappear, but it is disappearing very fast. Then we had the revolutionary proposal to ordain women as priests and because of that the Church is in danger of splitting in two.

Now we have this Measure. Later, this Measure may be followed by one to introduce so-called non-sexist language in the alternative service book and other books of the Church which would upset the vast majority of Church people and only please a fanatical minority of feminists. In the turbid debate about those depressed women, I ask what the Cabinet feels about them—but there we are.

In view of the disruptive Measures, which I believe will be put before us, we must study each one carefully. All of us have sympathy for clergy and others with marital troubles. The difficulty is that, once one starts to relax standards, there is no knowing where one will end up. I believe that in this country there is a mood against the permissiveness of the 1960s and 1970s anti, in my experience, young people especially are looking to the Church for a lead. What sort of a lead does this Measure provide? If the Synod does not feel able to give a better lead than this, hon. Members, with all modesty, should decide not to pass the Measure and to maintain Christian standards in their entirety.

3.5 am

Ms. Jo Richardson (Barking)

I have listened with the utmost care to the debate and have been impressed by what has been said by hon. Members on both sides of the House, although I am supporting the Measure. I have been impressed because I am not a member of the General Synod or of the Ecclesiastical Committee—I do not suppose that I ever will be—and I am sometimes confused by the language that is used. I shall therefore make my contribution in the simplest possible lay language.

I want to make two points. First, as has been said, the General Synod of the Church of England has deliberated and—as the right hon. Member for Selby, (Mr. Alison) said—agonised for a long time about this and many other matters. I understand the point that was made—that it is part of a package but it is before us, and we must make a decision.

The General Synod is the parliament of the Church of England. Its members are experienced, dedicated and distinguished theologians, which I and many right hon. and hon. Members in the House are not. The Synod came to its conclusion and supported the Measure, albeit, I accept, not by a two-thirds majority. It had a two-thirds majority in the House of Bishops and in the House of Clergy, but a majority of only 59 per cent. in the House of Laity, which has been a cause of some concern. It is to me, however, a substantial majority by any standards.

I do not believe that it should be the role of this Parliament—the Parliament of the people—however deeply some individuals may feel about the issue, to overturn the expressed view of the parliament of the Church of England. It is true that we are not disestablished, and I am not in any sense arguing for disestablishment, but our role is to consider the Measure. However, I believe that, once the Synod has come to a conclusion, both Houses of Parliament—the House of Lords and the House of Commons—should acquiesce in that decision and let it pass. We would be wrong to use our superior powers—superior in the sense that we have the power to destroy this Measure—and to use our heavy hand to frustrate the Measure.

My second point relates to the principle of the Measure, which I believe enacts a basic social justice. I have read the ecclesiastical report and I have read the Lords Hansard as well as some other documents that I have been able to find. I understand that the objection of many right hon. and hon. Members is based on the idea that marriage is something that cannot be dissolved, and that therefore remarriage is a sin. Those who have been divorced or are now married to a partner who has been divorced are considered to have committed a sin by remarrying.

My hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) has said that that argument does not apply to priests. As I understand it, a priest is not barred from marrying or remarrying a divorced person and then sanctifying the marriage of other people. Tonight, however, we are deliberating on whether people who are not priests but who wish to be ordained should have that same privilege.

The Measure specifically relates to giving a few mature people who have valuable and much-needed skills and wisdom to offer, but who have been divorced and whose partner is still alive, or who is now married to a divorcee, to be ordained. Such people can be ordained only after each case has been considered by the diocesan bishop and reported to the archbishop. The person who wants to be ordained does not have an easy passage. To allow that person to be ordained would not mean that the floodgates would be opened. It would mean that there would be a tiny chink in the dyke through which might flow some good people with wisdom. The Church would benefit if it allowed that chink to be opened.

I do not believe that the Measure threatens the sanctity of marriage. Many people have a break in their marriage because of the death of their spouse. We do not say that they should not be allowed to remarry. We accept that that death is a sad occasion and often we are pleased when friends or relatives remarry some years later and find happiness with a second partner.

Many others suffer a break in marriage because, after trying hard, they find that it is not a marriage. They have to seek a divorce for the sake of their life and that of their partner, and the happiness of their children.

The House may know that I take a close interest in domestic violence and the problems associated with it. Over the years, I have been in contact with women who have been the subject of violence. Hon. Members may speak about the ease with which one can seek a divorce, but I beg them to believe that it is not easy. Women who sue for divorce after a violent marriage and who have fled the home do not do so lightly. Many return to the marital home after they have been beaten up because they want to keep the family together. If they seek a divorce, then make a clean break and remarry and their new partner wants to be ordained, should that person be prevented from doing so? That is what would happen.

Mr. Frank Field

The House is with my hon. Friend, but what of the person who does the beating?

Ms. Richardson

Good question. I always wonder, "What of the person who does the beating?"

Mr. Field

I intervened because there were two sides to the marriage that was being described—the person who was being beaten and the person who was doing the beating. My hon. Friend followed the line of the person who finally leaves that intolerable situation, and asked whether the person she marries should be disqualified from being a priest. I am suggesting that we know from divorced clergy wives who are given assurances that their husbands will not be given livings again that they are given more than one living. How can we be sure that it is not the beater, rather than the person who has been beaten, who is presented for ordination?

Ms. Richardson

I would have thought that my hon. Friend would trust the wisdom of the people who consider who is to be ordained. I do. As I said earlier, ordination for such people is not automatic.

Mr. Simon Hughes

The hon. Lady has said that the rigour with which the Church considers these applications is even greater than the rigour with which it considers people who remain priests but who have failed in their priesthood. The matter has to go to the bishop and then to the archbishop. Only when the application has been personally sanctioned will it be approved. Presumably a beater will not get through that system.

Ms. Richardson

That is the obvious point. I am a little surprised that my hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) should rest his case so heavily on a letter that he may have had from a person who feels disadvantaged in the way he has described, because I do not think that such a person would get through such a complicated procedure.

Most ordinary people do not divorce lightly. It is a difficult and traumatic experience. We are not talking about the small fraction of the population, whom we read of in highly publicised stories, who marry, divorce and marry again, apparently on a whim. That is not what it is like for most people. Nor are we talking about all divorced people. It is worth quoting what the Archbishop of Canterbury said in one of his speeches to the joint conference of the Ecclesiastical Committee and the Legislative Committe: On the number of candidates coming up, I have made inquiries diocese by diocese about this position. There are about 16 deaconesses who cannot become deacons because they married a divorced partner. Apart from this I am reliably informed that the total numbers—mark that—the total numbers known to bishops and their Directors of Ordinands, of people offering themselves who are caught by the present rules, are 183 men and 57 women, a total of 240. This amounts to just over four men per diocese and one woman. I thought, when I first heard about the Measure, that umpteen people were waiting to be ordained. I now find that there are very few. It would be reprehensible if the House decided not to pass this very modest Measure.

I have always thought that the Church is about forgiveness and love, not about taking it out on people. It seems that, in some cases, people have had it taken out of them because they have been divorced or because they are married to a divorcee. I hope that Parliament will not frustrate what that other parliament, the General Synod of the Church of England, wants to pass. I hope that my hon. Friends and other hon. Members will join me in the Lobby in support of it.

3.19 am
Mr. Michael Latham (Rutland and Melton)

It is an honour to follow the hon. Member for Barking (Ms. Richardson) and to take part briefly in this debate. The fact that the Benches are so full at this time of night shows the importance that hon. Members attach to the issue and the strength of feeling about it. That is all the more reason why it should have been debated at a reasonable time.

The subject has perplexed and attracted the attention of the House for well over a century. If hon. Members read the speeches made in 1857 on the Divorce and Matrimonial Causes Bill, they will see that similar arguments were offered then about the sanctity of marriage. Mr. Gladstone, for example, whose speech covered 32 columns in Hansard—the second speech that he had made in a week on the subject—said: Sir, I shall enter into the theological argument under protest. It is impossible to conduct it in this House as it should be conducted …That is a matter for the assembly of divines or a synod of theologians; it is not a discussion which can be entered into by a popular assembly."—[Official Report 31 July 1857; Vol. 147, c. 836.] Being Mr. Gladstone, he then went on at considerable length to deal with the arguments for and against divorce. with what the Greek word "porneia" meant, and so on.

Many of my hon. Friends are troubled by this Measure. One of the most recent books published on this subject was written in 1984 by two distinguished evangelical theologians. The bibliography—it is described as selective—on the subject of divorce alone runs to 19 pages. This is a matter on which our Lord said relatively little and on which biblical interpretations differ. For instance, in the Old Testament, there were circumstances in which divorce was mandatory. They are to be found in Deuteronomy and elsewhere. Distinguished theologians have arrived at many different perceptions of the issue.

The Church of England holds the most rigorous position of all churches. After the Reformation, the Protestant churches tended to allow divorce and remarriage on the grounds of adultery, whereas the Catholic church forbade divorce, but permitted dispensations. Uniquely, the Church of England offered neither the Protestant concessions nor the Catholic dispensations. As a result, a large number of people who had the money promoted private Acts in the House for divorce. That was why the Act of 1857 was passed—to allow more general divorce. Exactly the same issues were anguished over at the time and all sorts of different perceptions were advanced. They are all to be found in Owen Chadwick's "The Victorian Church". The bishops in the House of Lords put forward all sorts of contradictory views on the rules and on the biblical teaching about divorce.

There is no black and white in this matter. Theologians, bishops, divines and churches differ on it. In the eastern Orthodox Church, second marriages are permitted in church and there are specific services for them. These are complicated matters on which Christian people can and do honourably disagree. As several hon. Members have said, they also affect real people seeking the grace of ordination, who have written to and been to see their Members of Parliament about the problem. The House has absolute rights over the matter, but if we decide to turn down the Measure, those people will be lawfully denied the grace of ordination that they seek—the right to test their vocation against ordination, which could be extended to them only by the Archbishop of Canterbury or of York, and in no other circumstances.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Alison) was good enough to quote me, I should make my position clear. Of course the House has the legal right to reject any Measure of the General Synod of the Church of England, and on occasion it has done so. When the Conservative party was in opposition, my right hon. and learned Friend the present Attorney-General, whom I welcome to the debate, was largely instrumental in correctly persuading the House to reject a Measure on a basically secular matter wherein the Synod and the Ecclesiastical Committee had not noticed that the clergy were given inadequate rights of appeal. The House did its duty and rejected that Measure, and it was right to do so.

This matter, however, is entirely theological and, although our rights continue, I ask my hon. Friends the following question: is it personally right for us? Do we have the ability or the skill to set our theological judgment above that of the Archbishops of Canterbury and of York?

Mr. Hugo Summerson (Walthamstow)


Mr. Latham

Many others of my hon. Friends may think in the same way and, if so, they will vote in that way. I am simply saying that, if the bishops and archbishops of the Church of England, and the clergy—both of whose houses were substantially in favour of this Measure, and by well over two thirds—have debated and prayed to know the mind of Christ as they see it, then I will not set my theological judgment against theirs.

3.25 am
Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North)

I came here tonight to fulfil an obligation to a constituent and had not planned to speak. However, after listening to the speeches, I felt that I had to make one or two points if I were to fulfil my obligation properly.

On most issues, I share common ground with my hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), and I hold him in great affection, but I found his arguments tonight uncharacteristically confusing. He said that, as the Measure is not the whole loaf, rather than vote for half of it, we should let it fall by the wayside. Later, he argued in principle against the Measure.

We heard the authentic voice of 19th century England as it survives into the 20th century—that of the hon. Member for Halesowen and Stourbridge (Sir J. Stokes). His view typified the undercurrent of feeling among Tory Members which made me feel that it was necessary to intervene—that the Church of England is all about cream teas on the village green, and tut-tutting about goings on.

The Church of England has moved into the real world in recent years, and has addressed central issues. We are talking about real lives and real people and about those whose vocation may be tested by other means. They should not be tested purely on the basis of marital history. There are other more important tests. In many cases, real people have suffered anguish over the years while they have waited for the Measure to go through the procedures of the Church, and come to the House. It has now gone through those procedures, and it would be intolerable if Parliament were not to accept what the Church has considered carefully and decided was the right thing to do. The House should support the Measure.

3.28 am
Mr. William Powell (Corby)

As the son of a clergyman who administered to congregations for 58 years, I know that he would find the suggestion that he has not existed in the real world extremely difficult to comprehend. The Church has administered to people of England for centuries, and not just in the past year or two.

It is with considerable regret that I must disagree with the conclusions reached by my hon. Friend and my constituent, the Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Latham). For reasons that have been substantially argued by the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), I must ask the House to join us in the No Lobby tonight.

A point that has not been underlined as it should is that this is the worst piece of legislation that has been introduced in the six years that I have been a Member of Parliament. It is so loose and general that it is a legislative disgrace. Even the members of the Ecclesiastical Committee who voted with the majority were less than enthusiastic about the quality of the legislation. There was an almost universal view that it should be accompanied by a statutory code of conduct, or at the least a draft statutory code setting out how it would be administered should be made available to Parliament before it came to a decision. As the hon. Member for Birkenhead said, a wide discretion is laid down in the Measure, and initially one or two individuals will be let through. It is extremely likely that every one of the 244 individuals currently in the pipeline—more are joining it all the time—will in due course be ordained.

The Church of England faces a crisis in the number of its ordained Ministers. A generation ago, there were about 20,000 beneficed clergymen. There are now about 10,000, and about 10 per cent. of ordained Mininsters, taking priests and deacons together, are women. That is how important the ordination of women has become in terms of the Church's ordained manpower. The Times predicted last week that within 15 or 20 years the number of ordained clergymen will decline to about 5,000. It has become of paramount importance to all the bishops of the Church of England to try to increase the number of candidates available for ordination. I suspect that the hon. Member for Birkenhead was spot on when he told us how the discretion was likely to operate in practice, on the basis of what has happened in the past. More than anything else, this is part of the numbers game that is played by increasingly desperate leaders of the Church of England as they trawl to try to find more and more people from a smaller and smaller pool to fill the vacancies that are appearing.

We all know from our constituency experience that there are long vacancies between incumbencies in small parishes and in large. These vacancies cause considerable damage to the fabric of church life within the parishes.

I must say that I consider the quality of this legislation to be a disgrace. The House would be entirely right in rejecting it because there is no code of conduct setting out how the Measure will be administered in practice. Without a code of conduct, we should not agree to the proposed legislation.

3.33 am
Mr. Alison

Even at this late hour, the sands of time continue to run out. I hope that I shall be allowed to reply to the debate, which must end in three or four minutes, by making two quick points. First, I must tell my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Mr. Powell) that the details of how the archbishops propose to exercise their discretion and the instructions that they are proposing to issue in the diocese have been made available in the Vote Office and can be scrutinised. My hon. Friend may not have succeeded in procuring a copy of the relevant document.

Some right hon. and hon. Members, including my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government in an intervention, expressed continuing anxiety about whether the General Synod properly reached its majority conclusions without having recourse to the two-thirds majority voting procedure. I shall explain briefly the technicalities underlying the decision that a two-thirds decision was not applicable. Among other things, article 8 of the constitution of the General Synod applies to a Measure or Canon providing for permanent changes in the services of Baptism or Holy Communion or in the Ordinal"— that is, measures relating to ordination. A special procedure applies where there are permanent changes, and in those circumstances an article 8 measure, so-called, must have a two-thirds majority in each house of the General Synod at final approval.

In June 1986, immediately before the so-called revision stage in the full General Synod, more than 25 members petitioned that the Measure be designated as article 8 business—that is, statutorily requiring a two-thirds majority vote.

As required by the constitution—article 8(2)—the matter was considered by the two archbishops, the so-called prolocutors together with the chairman and vice-chairman of the House of Laity. They ruled that the Measure was not article 8 business and that it did not require a two-thirds majority on the ground that, in their opinion, the Measure is not providing for a permanent change in the Ordinal. That decision was constitutionally properly reached and was accepted in the Synod. Lord Bridge, the chairman of the Ecclesiastical Committee, endorsed that decision. It was therefore right that the Church of England General Synod reached its conclusion without a two-thirds majority. I remind hon. Members that the voting in the House of Laity, the nearest group corresponding to us, was 125 in favour and 77 against.

It being one and a half hours after the commencement of proceedings on the motion MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER put the Question, pursuant to Standing Order No. 14 ( Exempted Business).

The House divided: Ayes 45, Noes 51.

Division No. 304] [3.36 am
Alison, Rt Hon Michael Garel-Jones, Tristan
Barnes, Harry (Derbyshire NE) Golding, Mrs Llin
Beith, A. J. Hardy, Peter
Bennett, A. F. (D'nt'n & R'dish) Harris, David
Blackburn, Dr John G. Heathcoat-Amory, David
Boswell, Tim Hogg, Hon Douglas (Gr'th'm)
Bottomley, Peter Howarth, George (Knowsley N)
Bottomley, Mrs Virginia Hughes, Simon (Southward)
Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich) King, Roger (B'ham N'thfield)
Brooke, Rt Hon Peter Knapman, Roger
Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln) Lyell, Sir Nicholas
Corbyn, Jeremy McKay, Allen (Barnsley West)
Couchman, James Mayhew, Rt Hon Sir Patrick
Cousins, Jim Meale, Alan
Cryer, Bob Michael, Alun
Davis, Terry (B'ham Hodge H'l) Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling)
Mitchell, Sir David Thurnham, Peter
Nellist, Dave Waller, Gary
Pike, Peter L. Wise, Mrs Audrey
Primarolo, Dawn Young, David (Bolton SE)
Richardson, Jo
Shaw, Sir Michael (Scarb') Tellers for the Ayes:
Skinner, Dennis Mr. Michael Latham and Mr. Andrew Rowe.
Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John
Stern, Michael
Amos, Alan Lightbown, David
Arbuthnot, James Lilley, Peter
Arnold, Tom (Hazel Grove) Lord, Michael
Bennett, Nicholas (Pembroke) Maclean, David
Benyon, W. McLoughlin, Patrick
Bowis, John Malins, Humfrey
Butterfill. John Mans, Keith
Carlisle, John, (Luton N) Miller, Sir Hal
Carrington, Matthew Sackville, Hon Tom
Chapman, Sydney Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)
Chope, Christopher Speed, Keith
Fallon, Michael Stanbrook, Ivor
Favell, Tony Stevens, Lewis
Field, Frank (Birkenhead) Stokes, Sir John
Finsberg. Sir Geoffrey Summerson, Hugo
Gow, Ian Taylor, John M (Solihull)
Greenway, Harry (Ealing N) Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)
Gregory, Conal Waddington, Rt Hon David
Gummer, Rt Hon John Selwyn Watts, John
Hamilton, Neil (Tatton) Whitney, Ray
Hargreaves, Ken (Hyndburn) Widdecombe, Ann
Howarth, Alan (Strat'd-on-A) Winterton, Mrs Ann
Howarth, G. (Cannock & B'wd) Winterton, Nicholas
Hunt, David (Wirral W)
Hunter, Andrew Tellers for the Noes:
Jessel, Toby Mr. Alistair Burt and Mr. William Powell.
Kellett-Bowman, Dame Elaine
Leigh, Edward (Gainsbor'gh)

Question accordingly negatived.

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