HC Deb 25 January 1999 vol 324 cc17-8
36. Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

If he will make an assessment of the financial consequences of disestablishment of the Church of England. [65560]

Mr. Stuart Bell (Second Church Estates Commissioner, representing the Church Commissioners)

I have already, on another occasion, answered my hon. Friend on this question.

It would not be feasible for the Church of England or the Church Commissioners to enter into a calculation of the costs of disestablishment, since we have no instruction from the Church that the matter is being considered.

Mr. Corbyn

Many people in this country think that it is wrong to have an established Church and that it would be helpful if England followed the example of Scotland and Wales and disestablished its Church, recognising that we are a multicultural, multi-faith society and that no religion or Church should be given pre-eminence over others. Would it not be prudent for the Church Commissioners to do their sums now so that when that democratic day dawns, it will not be such a shock for them?

Mr. Bell

I have always looked on my hon. Friend as a traditionalist rather than a moderniser and I am sure that he agrees that it is incumbent on the Church to modernise itself. We may quote the Bible from time to time, and the Bible tells us, "Physician, heal thyself." The Church of England has, through its parliament, passed a national institutions measure that created an Archbishops Council. That council met on 21 January against a background of fresh figures showing a 10 per cent. rise in new ordinands in the previous year. The Church does not need to be disestablished to be modem and vibrant and to play a full role in the nation's affairs.

My hon. Friend said that this is a multi-faith, multicultural society, and that point is accepted not only by the Church of England but by the multiple faiths to which he refers.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that many people think that the greatest feature of the established Church is that its services and ministrations are available to everybody, regardless of his or her belief, even the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) and his constituents? Will the hon. Gentleman assure the House that he and those in the hierarchy of the Church of England are not at all attracted by the idea of disestablishment?

Mr. Bell

I can confirm to the hon. Gentleman that it is not the intention of the Church of England, through the General Synod or another means, to initiate proceedings to bring about a disestablished Church. I have it in writing from the Prime Minister—I have often referred to this correspondence—that it is not the Government's intention to take the Church in that direction.

For the hon. Gentleman's benefit, I add that discussions have taken place at the request of Churches in England about establishment in the context of the search for visible unity among the Churches, but by no means all those present were pressing for loosening the Church of England's ties with the Crown and state. We do not for a moment believe that the established Church is outmoded in the multicultural, multi-faith Britain to which I have referred.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)

I urge the hon. Gentleman to be less conservative. There is no better time to think of disestablishing the Church than when we are devolving power to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and considering the reform of the second Chamber. Even if the Church is not yet persuaded of the merits of disestablishment, will the hon. Gentleman ask the Church Commissioners at least to give us the information to allow the House to debate whether disestablishment would be good not only for the Church, as I believe it would, but for people of all faiths and of none throughout the United Kingdom?

Mr. Bell

That may be a party political broadcast for a future leader of the Liberal party. It is interesting that the Liberal Democrats feel that disestablishment is in our interests. In a future joint Labour-Liberal manifesto, those who believe in an established Church will have to take that into account. Whether we have a debate on the subject is a matter for the usual channels. I invite the hon. Gentleman to take that route, and would be very happy to participate in such a debate.

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