HC Deb 11 July 1995 vol 263 cc849-56 10.13 pm
The Second Church Estates Commissioner, representing the Church Commissioners (Mr. Michael Alison)

I beg to move, That the Church of England (Miscellaneous Provisions) 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. As the short title of the Measure indicates, it contains a miscellaneous collection of provisions relating to the Church of England. Their effect is described in the comments and explanations of the General Synod's legislative committee, which are annexed to the report of our own Ecclesiastical Committee. Hon. Members will have ready access to that report, if they do not have it before them now.

Two provisions in the Measure were the subject of special scrutiny in the Ecclesiastical Committee. Clause 2 permits Christ Church college, Oxford—which contains the cathedral of the Oxford diocese—through its constitution and statutes, to depart from earlier practice by acquiring the power to appoint up to two lay canons. The regius professorship of ecclesiastical history in the university of Oxford is annexed to a canonry in the cathedral, and the holder of that professorship must currently be a clerk in holy orders of the Church of England.

After discussion, the university and cathedral were both of the opinion that the present rules unduly restricted the range of candidates eligible for appointment as regius professor, requested the inclusion of clause 2 in the Measure. The Crown appoints the regius professor, but, obviously, only after taking soundings at Oxford. It has been consulted about the clause, and is content with it. The amendment had to be embodied in a clause in the Measure, because the changes have a bearing on the function to be performed by the regius professor and the residentiary canon of the cathedral.

Clause 6 amends the Church Commissioners Measure 1947, concerning the composition of the commission's assets committee. When the Measure was considered by the Ecclesiastical Committee, it became clear that the provision was regarded as premature by a majority of the Committee, in view of the recent report of the Select Committee on Social Security—under the chairmanship of the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), who is also Opposition spokesman on Church of England and Church Commission affairs—on Church Commission and Church of England pensions, and the impending report of the Archbishops' commission on the organisation of the Church of England, the so-called Turnbull commission.

In view of the misgivings expressed in the Committee, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York have said that they do not intend to exercise their power under clause 16 of the Measure to bring clause 6 into effect—clause 15 being an "appointed day" clause—pending consideration of the Social Security Select Committee's report, which has been studied closely, and the Turnbull report when it is available.

Against that background, the Ecclesiastical Committee has reported that the Measure is expedient, with—I am glad to say—the support, tacit or otherwise, of my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Mr. Powell). When the draft Measure was finally approved by the General Synod itself in November 1994, it was approved by 229 votes to one.

10.18 pm
Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead)

This is a miscellaneous Measure, which contains issues of considerable importance. I hope that what we say tonight will prove to be relevant to the members of the Turnbull commission who, while they are at a late stage of their considerations, have not yet reported.

Is it proper for Parliament to be presented with this miscellaneous Measure when clause 6 makes such fundamental reforms to the assets of the Church Commissioners that the archbishops have promised that, if it is passed, they will not implement its provisions? That is hardly a sensible state of affairs, and it arises for the simple reason that, under the Church of England Assembly (Powers) Act 1919, the Ecclesiastical Committee and this House can only accept or reject—it cannot amend—Measures that come over from Synod.

Many members of Synod are hooked on the idea that, if the House begins to amend Measures, cries of Erastianism will be abroad. That is a total misreading of history, as there was an interlock between Church and state during the period in which the Church of England as we know it today was formed. There is surely a role for this place to say that, on reflection, part of the Measure might be withdrawn, but that we find the rest of it expedient. We are not allowed to do that at present. Either we reject the whole Measure, or we accept the whole Measure.

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent)

The hon. Gentleman is making an enormously important point. My right hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Alison) said yesterday that a quarter of the population went to church on Christmas day. That must be a larger minority than almost any other minority whose affairs the House feels free to discuss.

Mr. Field

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I am hesitant to make these points, because they are read differently by members of Synod who look at our debates. They somehow manage to conjure up all sorts of conspiracies that they think are going on here. They cannot accept the most obvious point—that a large number of Members of this House are interested in what happens to the Church of England, are concerned about its future and want to contribute to that future. They consider that all sorts of plots are abroad.

Newman once made a marvellous point about the school of history which interpreted Lord Burleigh's nods. Instead of recording Lord Burleigh's nods, those involved would go into a rigmarole about why he nodded, why he nodded at that particular time and what was the significance of each nod. Newman dismissed that school of history by saying that it was irrelevant and that one had to judge people by other criteria. I hope that members of Synod judge the House of Commons' contribution by the spirit of our debates. Hon Members want to contribute to the well-being of the Church of England, either because they are members of the Church or because they believe that the prosperity of the country will be helped by its survival.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

Could the hon. Gentleman share with the House why he feels that Synod has put the Measure before us as it is? Why has it not put forward only that part of the Measure that clearly has overwhelming support, and not the part about which there are rightly considerable reservations and upon which the Archbishops of Canterbury and York have stated that they have no intention of acting now?

Mr. Field

The answer to my hon. Friend, as I shall call him tonight, stems from the nature of the Measure and from the procedure that governs Synod. The deliberations of Synod were ambushed at a late stage. The wishes of the standing committee—the equivalent of a Government's Cabinet—and the archbishops were deliberately disregarded by a minority of Synod who wrote in this part of the Measure.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Alison) was kind enough to say that, in a sense, Synod was holding back while others considered the impact of the Social Security Select Committee's report on the Church Commissioners' assets and pensions, but the big report for which the Church is waiting is that of the Turnbull commission, which is trying to consider carefully the structure of the Church and the changes that should be made, including changes to the structure of the Church Commissioners' organisation.

Anyone with an ounce of sense knows that one does not try to pass piecemeal reforms affecting the Church Commissioners while waiting for a major commission to report on the structure of all Church organisations, including the Church Commissioners.

Given the present procedure of Synod and the other clauses that should be implemented quickly, the only alternatives were either to do what my right hon. Friend the Member for Selby explained tonight—he told us that, if we passed the whole Measure, clause 6 would not be implemented—or to lose the rest of the Measure, many aspects of which contain necessary reforms that people want to be implemented quickly.

I hope, therefore, that we shall pass the Measure without a Division, but that the Turnbull commissioners will examine our procedures carefully. It is important that they make recommendations for changing the procedures of the 1919 Act because, for reasons that I explained earlier, our suggestions for reform would be misinterpreted.

I hope that the Turnbull commissioners will come to the conclusion that business could be expedited more effectively if the House had the chance, on occasion, to reject aspects of a Measure without endangering the rest of it. We should not then find the archbishops in the slightly absurd position, which has been explained tonight, of having to say, "Please pass the Measure, but like boy scouts we give you our promise not to implement clause 6." That is not a satisfactory way in which to undertake legislation.

I hope that the Turnbull commission is considering the sense behind grouping often major reforms under the guise of "miscellaneous Measures". Synod reads the House wrongly if it thinks that we shall not provide sufficient time to consider Measures. They do not have to be grouped. My right hon. Friend the Member for Selby, who always steers Church business through the House well, is never refused time to debate a Measure that he wants to put before the House, and the issues could be broken up into separate subject matter. I hope that the commission will consider that idea.

I hope that the commission will also consider the advisability of giving the House the right of veto, not according to our own wishes, but when the standing committee and the archbishops have said, "That amendment was carried against our wishes. We should like you to strike that aspect down, but to maintain the integrity of the rest of the Measure." That would improve our procedure and the way in which we look after and safeguard Church interests in the House.

As I have said, I hope that nobody will oppose the Measure simply because clause 6 is so unsatisfactory. There are other clauses that represent long overdue reforms—I believe that my right hon. Friend drew our attention to clause 2 in particular. I hope that we shall agree the Measure without a Division, but I also hope that the members of the Turnbull commission will prove themselves eminently more sensible than some members of Synod, who dislike our having a say over Church matters as we are doing tonight, and resent our having the power to approve or not to approve Measures.

I hope that we will be seen by the commission as friends who can improve Measures and who do not want in any way to overturn the enabling Act of 1919 or to put ourselves in the driving seat. We should be seen as a group of friends anxious for the well-being of the Church of England, either because we are members of it or because it is impossible to understand English history without understanding the role that the Church of England has played in our affairs. We know that, although there is increasing secularisation, many people look to the Church as being on their side and as their Church. That being so, they expect Parliament to be involved.

10.29 pm
Mr. William Powell (Corby)

Not for the first time, it gives me real pleasure to congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Alison) on the way in which he introduced the Measure. I shall put him out of his misery: I do not propose to divide the House tonight.

I wish, however, to take this opportunity to protest about the Measure and some of its provisions. I do so because I feel that it is completely unnecessary. It is symptomatic of the way in which the Synod feels it has a duty to legislate, whether or not legislation is necessary or, indeed, urgent.

We were told during the Measure's consideration in the Ecclesiastical Committee that there is some urgency about it. The fact is, however, as the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) so clearly made plain, that one of the consequences of our passing the Measure would be to enact, after it has received Royal Assent, some thoroughly bad law that neither the majority of the Synod, during the early passage of the Measure, nor the archbishops of Canterbury and York regard as necessary or desirable.

The House, alas, has become all too used to passing bad law. I can certainly recall one occasion during the past decade on which the Government felt it necessary to make a similar announcement to that which the archbishops of Canterbury and York have made. The Government said that they would not bring into operation a particular section of a statute, which was then before the House and was going through its last stages, because they felt that it was easier not to do so than to ask the House to reject it altogether.

I want to take this opportunity to protest also about clause 2(3). The hon. Member for Birkenhead says that it is necessary and overdue, but I could not disagree more. Its effect would be to provide in future that the regius professor of ecclesiastical history of Oxford need no longer be an ordained clergyman of the Church of England—as Mr. Thwackham would have said, by law established. With that position has gone a canonry in the cathedral church of Christ at Oxford—Christ Church. Christ Church is at the very heart and centre of the university of Oxford, and although I have no particular affection for that institution, I have to say that I regard the traditional ties of the ancient universities with the Crown and the Church as necessary and worth preserving.

Those of us in the Commonwealth who listen each year to the annual service of nine lessons and carols from King's college in Cambridge will recall that the bidding prayer mentions the two royal and religious foundations of King Henry VI, here and at Eton. I regard those royal and religious foundations as of lasting importance, and in no way should the traditional ties between the Crown, the Church and our ancient universities be lessened.

I also regard the position of professor of ecclesiastical history—particularly a Crown appointment, the regius professorship—as a very important chair in the university. It has been held down the years by some very distinguished men, including men who have gone on to be bishops in the Church of England—not least, of course, the great Bishop Stubbs, the famous ecclesiastical historian whose charters some of us were privileged to study when we were rather younger than we are today.

Cambridge has a chair of ecclesiastical history—the Dixie chair. The holding of that chair is not confined to ordained clergymen of the Church of England. I regard it as very important that the Church of England has within its ranks a large number of scholars, not merely of divinity and the ancient languages, but of ecclesiastical history.

To eliminate the requirement that the holder of the chair be an ordained member of the Church of England is retrograde and unnecessary. It was vaguely suggested to us that the number of candidates for any forthcoming appointments might not be sufficiently large—a contention that I reject as incorrect, but also, in principle, entirely wrong. Clergymen of the Church of England should be encouraged to be scholars of the history of our Church, which, as the hon. Member for Birkenhead suggested, has played a central part in the development of this nation over the centuries.

This morning, I was reading from a volume that I hope hon. Members will consider taking with them on their summer holidays during the long recess—"Retrospect on an unimportant life", by Bishop Hensley Henson. It is a remarkable, thoroughly readable and scholarly document of memoirs, which contain some of the most caustic comments about those with whom Bishop Hensley Henson—one of the most outstanding ecclesiastics of the 20th century—served his academic and episcopal life.

Bishop Hensley Henson was chaplain to the Speaker. He was a canon of Westminster and vicar of St. Margaret's church. When he was vicar of that church in 1908, the Prime Minister, Mr. Asquith, wrote to him offering him the regius chair of ecclesiastical history. Bishop Hensley Henson, as he became, felt that he was not up to the task and made a counter-recommendation to the Prime Minister, which, alas, was rejected.

I say that because, although I do not wish to bring blushes to his cheeks, the Speaker's Chaplain is one of the people who is qualified to occupy that chair. He is an ecclesiastical chaplain of considerable distinction and, although his tenure were he to be appointed might be more limited than some of the holders of the post, he would hold it with at least as great a distinction.

My point is important. It is vital that the Church of England is aware of, and remains deeply committed to, its history and its heritage. If we say that the holder of the most important chair in ecclesiastical history in this country should no longer be an ordained member of the Church of England, he could be a member of the Roman Catholic Church or of the nonconformist Churches.

Mr. John Marshall (Hendon, South)

My hon. Friend said that the Measure provides that the holder of the chair must not be a member of the Church of England. Surely it is proposed that the range of choice be widened, but that it would be perfectly in order for the successful candidate to be a member of the Church of England and, indeed, to be the Speaker's Chaplain.

Mr. Powell

Not as Speaker's Chaplain, of course. If I said that that would no longer be in order, that would not be the correct way of formulating it. The Measure says that the regius professor need no longer be an ordained clergyman of the Church of England or an ordained member of that Church. I am protesting about the signal that that sends out.

I want ecclesiastical historians as clergymen and scholars in the Church of England, and I want them to hold prominent roles within the Church of England itself. There always used to be at least one outstanding scholar of ecclesiastical history on the Bench of Bishops. The last one to hold that post was Bishop Moorman, the Bishop of Ripon. It is now some 20 years or so since his retirement and there has been no one of anything like his scholarly distinction since, or indeed, judging from the Church of England today, is that at all likely or in prospect. I regard that as undesirable, and I believe that there should be incentives for scholarly men who are ordained to hold major professorships at the university of Oxford.

To people who say that, of course, there are those who are not members of the Church of England but who are qualified, I can but mention the Dixie professorship at Cambridge. That has been held with great distinction by Professor Rupp, who was a nonconformist. It can, of course, be held by others, but I do not see the need to break a link that goes back hundreds of years, which has been valuable and important to the history of our Church—and, therefore, to the history of our nation—and which has been held by some outstanding people. Too often, we dispose of the old links, and do so in a way that I regard as unfortunate. Often, such moves are rushed, and I take this opportunity to protest that the Measure was unnecessary.

A professor of ecclesiastical history would be able to be promoted beyond that position in due course. As I have said, it is necessary that those on the Bench of Bishops in the House of Lords are scholars of the history of our Church. Of course, their main function is to attend the House of Lords, support the Government of the day and preach improving sermons, especially before Parliament on occasions of national importance such as the delivery from the gunpowder plot.

It is necessary that those on the Bench of Bishops recall the history of our Church and do so by remembering that the Church of England is in danger, as it always has been. It is necessary that they are also able to preach about the great sermon delivered before the Lord Mayor by Dr. Sacheverall, which reminded the nation that the Church was always in danger and remains so. Too often, such matters are overlooked and forgotten, and I regard that as highly undesirable.

We are passing into law a Measure that is another retreat from the traditional position of the Church of England. That is a wholly undesirable development. Although I shall allow the Measure to be passed without a Division, I take this opportunity to protest.

10.41 pm
Mr. Alison

With the permission of the House, I shall speak a second time. In doing so, I am conscious of the fact that the hon. Member for Easington (Mr. Cummings) is having to be on duty this evening and is not necessarily very much in sympathy with Church of England affairs keeping the House up too late. I shall therefore do my best to be brief. I concede, however, that the hon. Gentleman was helpful in his earlier interchanges with me about Church Commission housing in Easington. If there is anything that we can continue to do to help him, I shall be glad to do it.

The hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), who spoke for the Opposition, kindly told me that he would have to leave early. I shall in his absence make a quick response to the points that he made, and he will no doubt take note of them through the Official Report. I take seriously his criticisms of the offending clause 6, to which he specifically referred. Indeed, I was party to the device by which its effective non-implementation was secured—the archbishops undertook not to implement it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Mr. Powell) offered trenchant criticisms of the procedures of Christ Church, Oxford. The fact is that such a Measure is not likely to come before the House again precisely for the reasons given by the hon. Member for Birkenhead—the gestation and birth of some fundamental proposals for reform along the lines that would appeal to my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton). The so-called Turnbull committee will examine the relationship between the General Synod and Parliament and questions such as whether we should have more of an opportunity to make amendments. Such proposals are being made, and I hope that some of the misgivings expressed this evening will themselves be the subject of reform.

I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Corby will be interested to know that I am advised that Lord Bridge of Harwich, an early chairman of the Ecclesiastical Committee, is chairing the synodical government review, which is looking at the Measure procedure. At least he knows from his experience of chairing the Ecclesiastical Committee how frustrated we have been in the past. At least he knows the kind of anxieties that Parliament has about the Measures.

I do not think that the strictures of my hon. Friend the Member for Corby about the changes proposed for Christ Church would command universal support or assent in the House. I suspect, for example, that there are colleagues who feel that England may have invented cricket, football and rugger, which we did—

Mr. William Powell

Or regius professorships.

Mr. Alison

And clerically ordained regius professorships—but that the fact that Wimbledon was won by an American combating a German, that the All Blacks have proved to be extraordinary rugger players and that England does not always win the World cup has enriched those games.

Let us therefore enjoy the extra richness that will come to the university of Oxford by the throwing open of the regius professorship, as happens at Cambridge, to members of other Churches with other status. It is, after all, a competitive environment in the university world nowadays and it is precisely because Cambridge is able to appoint a Professor Rupp that Oxford is feeling a cold draught and feels that it should be enabled to develop its scope and range of appointments more widely. I hope that there will at least be some sympathy with the "Oxford" approach, if not with the "Corby" approach.

With relief that neither my hon. Friend the Member for Corby nor the hon. Member for Birkenhead—nor, I hope, the hon. Member for Easington—will seek to divide the House, I hope that the Measure will be passed.

10.46 pm
Mr. Peter Brooke (City of London and Westminster, South)

Because my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Mr. Powell) spoke on historical matters, I would make a minor plea to him. He might have a look at the text of his speech. The report of his rendering to the Ecclesiastical Committee reveals that, whenever he mentioned a proper name, there is a question mark after it, as though the writer was not absolutely certain of whom he was speaking. Bishop Moorman is a notable exception to that observation. In at least one case I believe that the writer has spelt the name wrong, although I do not blame him or her for that.

In the interests of historical accuracy, given that these matters will be read by PhD students in 200 years time, it would be helpful if my hon. Friend would supervise the record taken in Hansard tonight.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Church of England (Miscellaneous Provisions) 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.