HC Deb 18 June 1998 vol 314 cc587-95 8.42 pm
Mr. Stuart Bell (Second Church Estates Commissioner, representing the Church Commissioners)

I beg to move, That the National Institutions Measure, passed by the General Synod of the Church of England, be presented to Her Majesty for Royal Assent in the form in which the said Measure was laid before Parliament.

The Measure effects a transformation in the national institutions of the Church of England. The object is to enable them better to serve the work and mission of the Church, as reflected in parishes and dioceses throughout the land.

The origin of the Measure lies in the recommendations of the Archbishop's commission on the organisation of the Church of England, chaired by Bishop Michael Turnbull, now Bishop of Durham, which reported in 1995. The commission examined the central structures of the Church against the background of the financial difficulties then facing the Church Commissioners, from which they have now happily recovered. The assets of the commissioners have increased from £2.1 billion in 1992 to £3.5 billion in 1997.

However, the Turnbull commission found that there had been a significant loss of confidence in the Church's national organisations, which were characterised by fragmentation of effort and a committee-bound culture. There was no focal point where responsibility lay for enabling the Church to meet the challenges and the opportunities facing it. The Turnbull commission recommended the establishment of a national council to provide such a focal point. It also recommended a reform of the organisation of the Church Commissioners and a redistribution of responsibilities between them and the proposed council, with the creation of a unified staff capability to serve all the national Church bodies.

Since the Turnbull commission's report was published, the recommendations have been the subject of widespread consultation and debate in the Church, involving many people throughout all dioceses, as well as Members of this House and of another place. The process included consideration of the related recommendations of the Social Security Select Committee under the chairmanship of my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field).

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley)

Does not the Measure go beyond the recommendations of the Select Committee?

Mr. Bell

The Measure incorporates the Select Committee's proposals, but it derives from the report of the Bishop of Durham.

I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead for his work as Chairman of the Select Committee. His consistency and firmness of purpose, and the clarity with which his Committee framed its recommendations, have been a source of enlightenment and encouragement to the Church and to me. My right hon. Friend is not with us tonight, because he has an engagement in Leeds as Minister for Welfare Reform.

The Measure provides that the Archbishops Council shall determine the application of sums made over by the Church Commissioners in accordance with mutually agreed plans should the council or the commissioners so request. That means that the council and the Church Commissioners will be able to assure themselves that expenditure is compatible with the purposes of the commissioners' trust, in particular for the making of additional provision for the cure of souls in poor parishes. That is in clause 8.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

Will the hon. Gentleman's and his successors' answerability to the House on such matters be affected by the transfer of responsibility?

Mr. Bell

The right hon. Gentleman has anticipated my remarks. I shall deal with that point shortly.

Clause 8 meets one of the main parliamentary concerns on the Turnbull report by ensuring that the commissioners retain ultimate control over how their income is spent. The other concerns of parliamentarians were that the balance of Church and state in the composition of the commissioners should be maintained, and that the accountability to Parliament for functions bestowed by Parliament should be protected.

The balance of Church and state in the composition of the commissioners has been maintained. The Measure provides for six state commissioners and 27 other commissioners. The accountability to Parliament has also been maintained. Indeed, that accountability has been strengthened by the appointment of a statutory audit committee with a duty to report to the state commissioners on any matter relating to the functions and business of the commissioners which causes the audit committee grave concern. That may be found in schedule 4(4)(c)(e).

The Measure provides that the commissioners are to retain their functions in respect of asset management and support for bishops and cathedrals, although any proposal to transfer any of their other functions to the council—including, most importantly, their quasi-judicial functions under the Pastoral Measure 1983—may be effected only after consultation with the Prime Minister and the commissioners, and with the agreement of the General Synod.

Any such proposal must then be laid before Parliament, and, if relating to the Pastoral Measure or allied functions under the Dioceses Measure 1978, will be subject to debate and the approval of both Houses. Any other proposal is subject to the negative procedure. That provision may be found in clause 5. There has been much concern in the Church about accountability, both to the new Archbishops Council and of the Church Commissioners. I hope that what I have already said about the commissioners will reassure right hon. and hon. Members that there will be sufficient accountability.

The Archbishops Council will have a majority of elected members. That provision is to be found in schedule 1. The archbishops will be able to appoint up to six people to the council, but the General Synod will have to approve such appointments. The Archbishops Council will require the approval of the General Synod and of the diocese in order to achieve anything at all. The autonomy of the dioceses is unaffected by the reforms.

On the council, there is a careful balance among bishops, clergy and laity. One of the benefits of the provision for appointed members is the opportunity to ensure that the necessary expertise, skills, and interests are properly represented. There must also be regular reporting to the Synod on the work and proceedings of the council. That provision is to be found in clause 4(1).

I hope that what I have said shows the carefully balanced nature of the package before the House. The package offers many benefits to the Church. Those include the creation of the Archbishops Council, which will provide a focal point for policy and strategic thinking among the Church's national organisations. In particular, it will bring together financial and policy responsibility, which are currently separate. It will create a stronger partnership, which will evolve, between bodies that work nationally on the Church's behalf. There will be greater clarity and transparency over the apportionment of central costs and the allocation of central support. Dioceses, and through them deaneries and parishes, will be brought more effectively into decision making at the national level. The Church will thereby be helped better to respond to the challenges of mission.

When the Measure was considered by the Ecclesiastical Committee, a major concern that was evident in the questions of witnesses from the Synod was the relationship between the Archbishops Council and the Church Commissioners, and, in particular, the desire to maintain through the commissioners an independent element in decision making at the central level, subject, of course, to parliamentary accountability—the point made by the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith). It will be seen from the committee's report that it believes that the Measure secures that objective. Members of the committee were satisfied that the Measure provides appropriate mechanisms for the various issues to be satisfactorily resolved.

The General Synod gave final approval to the Measure, with large majorities in all three houses. They may not read like football scores from the World cup, but they are significant none the less: bishops, ayes 36, noes 0; clergy, ayes 181, noes 11; laity, ayes, 175, noes 27. The Ecclesiastical Committee has also resolved that the Measure is expedient. I hope that the House will approve it.

The work and witness of the Church throughout this land should be supported by effective and accountable national institutions. This Measure should help deliver them.

8.55 pm
Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

It was very good to see the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) moving the motion—and from the Front Bench. That underlines the fact that he is a member of Her Majesty's Government. His sitting on the Front Bench exemplifies the very proper link between Church and state.

I should begin by declaring two interests, and by stating my position in this debate. My interests are that, since 1995, I have been an elected member of the General Synod, of which the hon. Member for Middlesbrough is an ex-officio member. Since 1971, I have been a member of the Ecclesiastical Committee, to which I was appointed very shortly after being elected to the House 28 years ago today. So, I have reasonably long experience of Church legislation.

My position—I must be honest with all Members—is that I was not wildly enthusiastic when the Turnbull report was first unveiled. As the hon. Member for Middlesbrough said, the Turnbull commission was established in the wake of what one might almost call a crisis of management in the Church of England. There was great disquiet over the management of assets, and it was felt necessary to appoint a commission to look into the form and structure of the Church of England.

The commission came up with proposals which went far beyond the initial cause for concern. My initial reaction was that there was a danger that the Church was becoming too involved in introspection. I was not persuaded that all the far-reaching changes were necessary, or that they would improve the standing or enhance the mission of the established Church.

I stress that I speak as a very strong believer in the virtues of establishment. I know that the hon. Member for Middlesbrough is entirely in accord with me on that. It is important that we maintain our national established Church. I think that it is of inestimable value that every man, woman and child in England lives in a parish of the Church of England and is entitled to the ministrations of the incumbent and to the services of the Church. I should hate to see that change.

Arch-romantic that I tend to be, I am strongly wedded to the idea of a national Church. I am an unrepentant traditional Anglican, and I have been greatly concerned for a long time by the diminished influence of the Church in many areas and in many aspects of our national life.

It seems to me that that diminution in influence has coincided with the advent of synodical government and the abandoning of our traditional liturgy, which themselves coincided with a seeming reluctance on the part of Church leaders at all levels to enunciate as unequivocally and clearly as I would like some of the unchanging verities of the Church. I happen to think that the average man and woman expects those in positions of moral authority to give clear and unambiguous guidance on the great issues of one's personal life, and to comment—perfectly legitimately—on great issues of state. I have never criticised bishops for talking about political issues, although I have sometimes hoped that they would stick more closely to religious issues.

Tonight, I want to put aside and not emphasise my initial fears and prejudices—we all have prejudices—because I willingly acknowledge that the Measure before us is in many ways different from, and better than, the original proposals of Turnbull. In that spirit, I welcome it, and I am glad to add my voice to that of the hon. Member for Middlesbrough in commending it to the House. However, my endorsement is based on the hope that our two archbishops will be able, through their new council, to renew their authority and to give that clearer guidance about which I spoke, because it is renewal that the Church of England needs as we approach a series of significant Christian anniversaries.

We all have the millennium very much in mind, and it is important to take every opportunity to stress exactly what the millennium is about and what is at its heart—the commemoration of 2,000 years of Christianity. However, there are other anniversaries: 2008 is the 450th anniversary of the Elizabethan settlement; and 2012 is the 300th anniversary of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, which gave us a liturgy the like of which no other Church in the world is privileged to enjoy. With the new institutions that we are being asked to approve this evening, the aim must be to reach out, to touch and to influence the lives and the conduct of those who are growing up in as great an ignorance of the Christian message as those to whom Wesley and Wilberforce reached out more than 200 years ago.

That is a great and a daunting task, so I trust that the Archbishops Council will not spend too much time on further restructuring and reorganisation. However, I hope that it will give careful consideration to making Synod more what it ought to be—the true representative voice of the Anglican in the pew.

The reason for my saying that, and for my slightly critical earlier comments about Synod, is a simple one: I do not believe that General Synod is really representative of the ordinary Anglican in the pew. I believe that for one reason above all others: there is a very small electorate. I should like everyone who is on the electoral roll of any church in the Church of England to be eligible to vote for his or her synodical representative. That would bring a new interest and a new legitimacy to General Synod, and it is a matter which I hope the Archbishops Council will consider.

I trust that the hon. Gentleman, whom I am pleased to call a friend in every circumstance other than the parliamentary, will use his influence to persuade the council to look into that issue. It is important and it needs to be addressed early. I hope too that he will forgive me for making those comments rather than merely following him. He gave us a lucid and admirable exposition of the Measure and outlined its provisions, so I am merely highlighting a few points.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud)

I very much support the hon. Gentleman's idea of opening out the electorate, but does he agree that one reason why that electorate and Church rolls have declined of late is the mismanagement of the Church Commissioners in recent times? So many benefices have had to be combined because of lack of cash. If nothing else, the Measure will, I hope, lead to streamlining, and will concentrate minds on what really needs to happen. The Church needs to be run efficiently as well as with the proper Christian basis.

Sir Patrick Cormack

I understand why the hon. Gentleman says that, and I am sympathetic to the thrust of his thinking, but without wishing to offend him in any way, I must say that he has telescoped a few things.

Until the unfortunate blip occasioned, perhaps, by an injudicious emphasis on investing in property at a particularly unfortunate time, the record of the Church Commissioners in managing the assets of the Church of England was quite good. We do not face some of the problems to which the hon. Gentleman referred, such as the amalgamation of benefices and so forth, because of bad management by the commissioners over a long period. There has been a decline in vocations, and we have to deal with many issues.

I cannot think that the House will divide on this Measure. I sincerely hope that it will not—it might be embarrassing if it did, given the number of hon. Members in the Chamber, so I trust that the Government payroll vote is on hand if needed. Let us use the passing of this Measure to give a new emphasis and sense of direction to the Church of England. Let us give the Archbishops Council every support and encouragement, but let us also point it in certain directions.

That was very much at the back of the minds of many of my colleagues on the Ecclesiastical Committee who took part in the questioning. As the hon. Member for Middlesbrough said, and the report shows, they expressed certain concerns about the relationship of the council to the commissioners. They stressed the need to maintain an independent element in decision making at national level and one that was subject to parliamentary accountability.

That was expressed particularly clearly in the three points put forward by and quoted in the document before us this evening by the Minister for Welfare Reform, the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field). He has made such a signal contribution to the Church of England, and we very much miss him this evening, although we fully understand that his ministerial duties prevent his being here. He has been a doughty champion of the establishment and of proper parliamentary accountability.

The hon. Member for Middlesbrough symbolises that accountability, and comes before the House—not perhaps as often as I would like, but that is not his fault—to answer questions regularly and reasonably frequently. His very presence and his being here to do that emphasise the national nature of the Church of England.

I do not want to detain the House, and I understand that other hon. Members would like to contribute briefly—I hope that they will do so—so I shall conclude by saying that, whatever misgivings some of us may have had, let us put those behind us and look upon this as a new opportunity for the Church of England. Let us use it to the best possible advantage by giving the Archbishops Council every possible support.

At the head of the Church of England, under Her Majesty the Queen, we have two extremely talented men in the Archbishop of Canterbury, who was plunged into the job but has grown into it, and the Archbishop of York, who is a representative of what he calls "the other integrity"—we have tensions within the Church of England, and it must be representative of both integrities. The two are working together extremely constructively—may they do so even more through the council. I wish the Measure parliamentary approval, and Godspeed.

9.9 pm

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West)

I thank the Second Church Estates Commissioner, the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell), for the way in which he presented the Measure, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) on the way in which he responded—it demonstrated, as I said at the Ecclesiastical Committee, the importance and validity of the adaptation of the rules for Church Measures.

For all the faults of the system—they were acknowledged by many members of the Synod—I believe that it is better that the Synod should take the early stages of legislation, so that we avoid having Second Reading and Committee stage in the House of Commons and in another place.

The Ecclesiastical Committee has sometimes—although not in this case—taken too long to decide whether a Measure is expedient. I share the views of successive archbishops and others in the Church of England, but I believe that moving to a synodical method has, on balance, proved better than retaining all stages of consideration in Parliament. However, that depends on the good will and the ability of hon. Members and Members of another place to understand that compromise means, at best, agreement.

In the presentation to the meeting of the Parliaments, which is fully recorded in the report, and in the Ecclesiastical Committee, those who seemed to discuss the residual issues that Members of Parliament wanted to raise did a service both to the Church of England and to this country. It is important that those people—I am not one—who have doubts about improvement, change and adaptation, should be fully heard, but it is reasonable to expect others who think that some of the doubts and arguments are wrong to meet them halfway. That is part of the notion of compromise, on which I put some store.

My declaration is that I tried, both in a by-election and in a general election, to be elected to Synod, and failed—I am a member of the General Synod, failed. To balance that, I spent some years as a trustee of Christian Aid and, for a time, served as the chairman of the Church of England Children's Society, which overlaps with the established parts of the Church of England, even though it is not one.

I believe that we need to learn from those from outside our Churches—I try to describe myself as a Christian (Anglican), rather than say that being Anglican is more important. I believe that perhaps the most significant change in the 23 years during which I have had the privilege of serving in the House is that the Churches have come together in a way that is remarkable, somewhat unexpected, and a result of the deliberate efforts of many people in the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of England and the free Churches.

I pay tribute to the leaders of each of the denominations—they deserve more credit than they are usually given. Many matters that are beyond the usual realms of the Church and that spread into politics owe something to the insight and perspiration—as well as the inspiration—of our leaders.

The Measure deals with issues that one might call Church management of resources and assets—it does not in any way represent a substitute for our responsibilities on spiritual leadership. The leadership comes not only from archbishops and bishops, but from the laity and those who are ordained as deacons and priests. The Measure will help them to concentrate on bringing together—and bringing in—those who regard themselves as members of the Church and those who usually do not.

I mention two events that have made an impression on me in recent years. The first occurred in my previous constituency of Eltham. When six teenagers tragically died in a car crash, the local vicar opened his church, which provided the children's contemporaries with a sense of congregation and an opportunity to express their grief. It was plain that about half the young people at one of the memorial services had never had to open a hymn book, let alone a prayer book. That illustrates the failure of those of us who take seriously the work of the Church.

The second event that affected me was when James Noble, who represents, and created, the group known as A Company of Speakers said that, when the Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in which he had suffered was liberated and the guards had gone, an Australian chaplain got into the stand where the commandant used to stand, and said, not that it was a matter for celebration but that people had a second chance to start doing something with their lives.

That is roughly equivalent to the challenge that William Temple issued in Oxford in the 1930s, when he asked what people intended to do with their lives, and not only in their work and with their families. He asked what would really matter most if and when people had the chance to know in advance that they were about to die, and whether they had done things that required some sacrifice and understanding and were for the greater good; that is one part—not the only part—of the Christian message. It is part of the nonconformist and the established traditions, and part of the universal Church, which is what the Roman Catholics would lay claim to.

For all that to happen, there needs to be a system of Church use of resources, and that is where the Measure comes in. We in Parliament need to understand that, if a Measure has the overwhelming, if not unanimous, support of the bishops, the clergy and the laity, we need to have extremely strong reasons to challenge their decisions. We should not allow anything through on the nod, and we should pay attention, but we should also understand that those who came to bear witness or to answer questions deserve respect. I want to thank those people for the preparation and the presentation that they have offered us.

9.16 pm
Mr. Stuart Bell

I am grateful for the very kind remarks of the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack). There is no greater honour in the House than to call an hon. Member from an opposing party a friend. I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's friendship, which I have enjoyed for many years, since I first became a Member of Parliament. He said that it is 28 years to the day since he came into the House, and 18 June 1970 is also engraved in my memory: I flew all the way back from New York to see a Labour victory, and when the first results came in, I turned off the television and went to bed. I slept soundly.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Angela Eagle)

You missed all the fun.

Mr. Bell

In fact, the fun began after the election. I remember the day as though it were yesterday.

The hon. Member for South Staffordshire spoke pertinently and eloquently, and I congratulate him on his speech about the relationship between Church and state. He said that I am at the Dispatch Box not because it is a convenient place to rest my notes but because there is a firm, strong, definable relationship between Church and state. He mentioned the established Church, and said that I was firmly in favour of it, and that the Prime Minister had made it known clearly that it is not his or the Government's intention to take any step in any other direction. It is appropriate to put that on the record tonight, and for it to appear in Hansard.

The Measure is the Church's response to the need for change and modernisation. That important point was touched on by the hon. Member for Worthing, West (Mr. Bottomley), who also made an interesting contribution, on which I congratulate him. He talked about Churches coming together and the ecumenical and inclusive nature of the Church. The Measure shows the Church coming to terms with the modern age. It is implementing the modernisation and change that the Government welcome and want to bring about. The Church is doing that for itself, so there is no need for any move towards disestablishment to introduce modernisation or change, because the Measure represents the change in the direction of the millennium to which the hon. Member for South Staffordshire referred.

We read a lot in the newspapers about negative elements of the Church. The controversial elements appear day in and day out, but the Church is a confident Church, with a confident message that has stood the test of 2000 years. The hon. Member for Worthing, West mentioned Archbishop Temple's views in the 1930s, and the values of that time are as pertinent today as they were then. In this confident Church of ours in 1997, ordinations were up for the third year running, covenanted giving went up to more than £6 a person, and, while 24 churches were made redundant, 23 opened, excluding the new informal congregations.

Mr. Peter Bottomley

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Church is strong enough to take on the chin headlines claiming that training budgets are overstretched, which is merely another way of saying that more people than expected have come forward for ordination? I hope that he will also convey the House's good wishes to the Lambeth conference—perhaps it should be called the Canterbury conference—when bishops from all over the world will come together for their 10-yearly gathering.

Mr. Bell

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's intervention. I am sure that his remarks will be noted by the Lambeth conference, which will, as he says, open in Canterbury. The fact that the Lambeth conference takes place in Canterbury is in the nature of our business.

The Measure represents a new opportunity to go forward with confidence and focus. As the hon. Gentleman said, the Church has broad shoulders, as do the Church Commissioners who have to respond to the weekend press. I said, almost frivolously, that they had to do so day in and day out, but although that is not so, we must live with controversy, constant attacks and constant carping. We should remember the facts that I have given the House, which record the way in which the Church is moving forward towards the millennium, as the hon. Member for South Staffordshire said.

I welcome the consensus that we have heard tonight, which will be of great encouragement to the Church, and to the Synod when it meets in July. Our unanimous view, as the hon. Gentleman said, is that the Measure has a good wind behind it. Godspeed to it. I hope that this day will begin a new era in relationships for the Church, and new structures in which the dioceses, the Synod, the laity and all those who believe in the Church's doctrines and teachings can come together with a sense of confidence.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the National Institutions Measure, passed by the General Synod of the Church of England, be presented to Her Majesty for Royal Assent in the form in which the said Measure was laid before Parliament.