HC Deb 16 January 2003 vol 397 cc844-9 1.49 pm
Second Church Estates Commissioner (Mr. Stuart Bell)

I beg to move, That the Synodical Government (Amendment) 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. I shall be brief. The Church of England has a system of synodical government, which gives representatives of clergy and lay people a role, along with bishops, in the governance of the Church at all levels. Although the principles underlying the system are long standing, a modern form of synodical government came into existence with the passing of the Synodical Government Measure in 1969 and the inauguration of the General Synod the following year.

The main proposals in the Measure before the House provide for amendments to Church representation rules made under the 1969 Measure and make detailed provision for a range of matters relating to the synodical structures of the Church.

Several of the changes are intended to confer more flexibility or lighten Church organisational structures; examples include reducing the minimum size of diocesan synods from 150 to 120, new arrangements for calculating the number of lay representatives on a parochial church council, and a power for another cleric to chair a parochial church council in the absence of the minister if the minister and the parochial church council agree and the bishop consents.

Other changes affecting parochial church councils include a new requirement that lay people aged 18 or over should have had their name on the electoral roll of a parish for at least six months before being eligible for election to its parochial church council or the deanery synod. This requirement is seen as a desirable protection against a sudden influx of new members with little previous involvement in parish life.

In addition, to make changes to Church representation rules, the Measure also make a number of miscellaneous changes to legislation on Church life at diocesan level.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud)

Is my hon. Friend aware that there is a problem with the Church electoral roll? The problem concerns who is on the roll and how its contents are made known. I raise a tangential but important point: without people's names appearing on the Church's electoral roll, there will be no democracy in the Church, and if their names do not appear on the other electoral roll, or if the Church does not have access to it, the problem will worsen.

Mr. Bell

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who again shows the importance of having these debates on the Floor of the House. Curiously, the Ecclesiastical Committee did not challenge the most contentious proposal in the Measure—the requirement that a lay person should have been on the electoral roll of the parish for at least six months before qualifying for election to the PCC or deanery synod. The purpose of the change, which does not apply to anyone under 18, is to require that commitment be demonstrated to a parish before seeking election to its PCC or the deanery synod. One may feel that six months is a long time; before one can stand as a parliamentary candidate for the Labour party, one has to be a member for two years.

The measure and the changes include the lightening of certain committee structures and an amendment to the functions of diocesan synods to enable them to approve the annual budget and accounts of the diocesan board of finance. This last change reflects an increasing desire to enhance strategic management by bringing the policy making and financial management of a diocese closer together.

The changes to synodical government effected by the Measure may at first sight seem both amorphous and modest. Taken together, they none the less represent a valuable and uncontentious first step in the process of synodical reform and development to which the Church stands committed. I therefore commend the Measure to the House.

1.56 pm
Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury)

As the Member of Parliament for Salisbury, better known to some as Barchester, I warmly welcome this very sensible amendment to the small print of the rules of the Church of England. It is of considerable consequence; anyone who is not familiar with the politics of the Church would be surprised at the games of entryism that go on and the carpetbagging that occurs from time to time. These rules, which are designed to get around those problems, are very welcome and relevant.

Mr. Chris Bryant (Rhondda)

The hon. Gentleman refers to carpetbagging. One reason that many people join the electoral roll of a church is so that they can qualify to get married in that church. Does he think that that rule should change?

Mr. Key

No, I think that that is fair enough, because, entirely appropriately, residence qualifications are still required to get on the church's electoral roll. I also have no objection in this case to the positive discrimination in favour of young people to whom, under schedule 2, this rule will not apply.

The Measure is entirely sensible and once again illustrates the importance and relevance of the relationship between the established Church of England and Parliament.

1.57 pm
Mr. David Drew (Stroud)

I will not delay the House long, but I should like to add to the point that I made when I intervened on my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell). Unless people are registered on their church's electoral roll, the basic democracy of the Church becomes sadly weakened. For that to happen, however, they must be registered on the wider electoral role, which is becoming increasingly difficult because of data protection.

We do not need further barriers in the way of getting people on to the electoral roll, and I hope that the Church Commissioners will deal with the problems that have been brought to my attention in my constituency. More than one parochial church council representative has asked me to give them details of who is on the electoral roll as well as the numbers, because of budgetary considerations. The Church must be much more active in ensuring that it includes people on the electoral roll. Those of us who are active in the Church are worried that numbers are ridiculously low, given the importance of the Church in the community.

1.59 pm
Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

I am grateful for the very clear way in which the Second Church Estates Commissioner, the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell), put the case for the Measure. Indeed, I am delighted to follow the hon. Members for Salisbury (Mr. Key) and for Stroud (Mr. Drew). The hon. Member for Salisbury and I go back some time, as he will recall from school days. I recall the very distinguished role that his father and brother both played in the Church of England, as have some members of my family.

Unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb), I have no pecuniary interest in the Measure, although I am a communicant member of the Church of England, I have been a member of a parochial church council and my brother is a parish priest. My grandfather was a parish priest in Cornwall at the time of the 1928 prayer book, and had been all his life. That was some 75 years ago and he decided then that it was time for disestablishment. He thought it absurd that the House should debate such issues and saw its role as an absurd intrusion into the work of the Church.

It is an irony that this interesting Measure, which the hon. Member for Middlesbrough introduced so elegantly, is all about democracy in the Church of England, yet out of the 659 people who in theory could vote on it in a few minutes' time it is unlikely that a majority would be members of the Church of England. In talking about democracy, we are negating democracy, which is a curious situation.

I hope that we will pass the Measure, which has been thoroughly thought through. It is important that we recognise, however, that it is only the first phase of more contentious proposals that are being considered. It is my ambition that when the second Measure is introduced it will not have to come before the House of Commons.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham)

Will the hon. Gentleman explain his new doctrine that we can vote only on things in which we are actively involved? The House normally votes on crime, but I am sure that no hon. Members are criminals. Would that debar them from voting on crime measures?

Mr. Tyler

I am tempted to say, "Speak for yourself."

In the debate and vote in the Synod, the votes were 24 to nil among the bishops, 160 to four among the clergy, and 175 to 14 among the laity. As has been said, that is a pretty clear majority compared with even the Government's majorities.

The hon. Member for Stroud made an interesting point about the church electoral roll. I hope that the hon. Member for Middlesbrough responds to that. It is critical to the Measure that the church electoral roll is full of integrity and credibility and that it has the respect of parishioners; otherwise, the hierarchy of Church democracy is at risk.

The notes and minutes provided by the Ecclesiastical Committee, which is a Joint Committee of both Houses, are a model of their kind. I am not a member of the Committee and pay tribute to it for the way in which it has guided us on the issue. The documents explain that there was a sharp division on a number of Measures that form part of the 40 recommendations in the Bridge report. As far as I can establish, it is only those that have not caused controversy that are before us today. That is helpful, but I hope that the hon. Member for Middlesbrough agrees that we should have a full explanation of where opinion is divided if and when the next stage takes place.

The Committee discussed at length whether someone should be on the PCC electoral roll for 12 or six months and recommended a six-month rule, which is helpful. It will affect not just those who suddenly decide that they want to be involved in church work, but those who have moved from another parish where they were extremely active. In my part of the world. Cornwall, we want the expertise of retired people who have given good service to their parish and church in, for example, London. I have not come across any parochial church council that is worried about entryism. They are much more worried about departure, especially the call to their maker.

Mr. Bryant

I hesitate to correct the hon. Gentleman, but there is significant concern in the Church of England about many cases in which groups of people have tried to take over the local church. That is a worry in many parishes and the Measure is important.

Mr. Tyler

I would not for a moment suggest that the Measure is not important. I accept the six-month requirement. It is perfectly right and proper, although the same entryism could happen in six months and a day. In the end, however, that is democracy, as the hon. Gentleman's party knows only too well. Entryism was a major feature of the Labour party in the 1980s and he is right to be worried.

It is important that we recognise that the recommendation by the Ecclesiastical Committee is sensible. It is a useful compromise and, as I understand it, accepted by the entire Synod. I accept that the hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Bryant) has particular expertise in the Church and direct personal knowledge of it, but we are more likely to look for more recruits for parochial church councils rather than to worry about too many suddenly arriving. I was nominated to a PCC, but we held the first election to it in recent memory, which ensured that better candidates were selected than me. So I am well aware of the ways in which the electoral system works.

The proposals are intended to improve the flexibility of democracy in the Church of England. Paragraph 4 of the report recommends a more realistic approach than that set out in the present arrangements, especially for smaller parishes. My parish in Cornwall is relatively small and we want to ensure that democracy is as healthy as it is in more populous parishes.

Continuity is also important. The way in which elections are held has been dealt with intelligently and sensibly and we have managed to avoid a problem. I understand the argument for a minimum size for the diocesan synod, but how many are in the band under consideration? The proposal is that the minimum size should be reduced from 150 to 120. I do not know how many diocesan synods would fall into that category. There was a suggestion to reduce it to 100, which might be more practical and effective in some circumstances.

The schedule is the critical consideration. The Synod team has been considering it for, I think, nine years, which is a long time.

Mr. Bell

Since 1997.

Mr. Tyler

But much work was done before that. The gestation period has been long. There is always a worry with any Measure that the road to hell may be paved with good intentions, but the detail should fulfil the aspirations of those who want to make the reforms. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will reassure us that the changes have the unanimous support of those in the Synod who proposed them, so that the Measure fulfils their expectations and aspirations.

I end as I began by saying that I am not only a loyal and supportive member of the Church of England, but a dedicated supporter of disestablishment. I hope that when we reach the second phase of the measures on democracy, we are able to let the Church of England be a democratic institution for the first time in its life since its creation by Henry VIII.

2.9 pm

Mr. Bell

With the leave of the House, I will respond to some points. The electoral roll has preoccupied many Members. The Measure makes a change to eligibility. Parishes are experiencing difficulties in being able to inspect the civil electoral civil roll, which they used to do for the purposes of electing church wardens, and we are looking into that matter.

A lay person is entitled to have his name entered if he is baptised, 16 or over, has signed an application form and declares himself to be either a member of the Church of England or of a church in communion with it and resident in the parish or to be such a member not being resident in the parish habitually having attended public worship in it during a period of six months prior to enrolment. The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) was absolutely right. The original period was one year but, following debate, was reduced to six months.

The third condition is to be a member in good standing of a church that subscribes to the doctrine of the holy trinity although it is not a church in communion with the Church of England. The person must also be prepared to declare himself a member of the Church of England, having habitually attended public worship in a parish during the six months prior to enrolment. The hon. Member for North Cornwall was perfectly right to remind me that although the Bridge report on synodical government was produced in 1997, discussion and research took place over several years beforehand. We heard that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, but the mills of God grind slowly and exceeding small. They certainly ground exceeding small in respect of that Measure.

When the report was published, response to it was divided. There were a number of controversial proposals, chiefly with regard to the size and composition of the General Synod. The hon. Gentleman made an important point about the reduction in the number of members from 150 to 120 and specifically asked for the context. I will be glad to give him a reply in writing. I said earlier that the Ecclesiastical Committee did not challenge the Measure, but that does not mean that the Committee did not debate it in depth. It was a contentious proposal but it went unchallenged. I refer to the requirement that a lay person should be on the electoral roll of the parish for at least six months before qualifying for election to the parochial church council or deanery synod.

The hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) made a pertinent comment about the Measure's relevance and answered a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Mr. Bryant), obviating the need for me to intervene. He referred also to the Church-state relationship that brings us to the Floor of the House, to which reference was made by the hon. Member for North Cornwall and, in a sedentary intervention, by my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda.

I hear a lot of propositions—I am propositioned all the time—about disestablishment but no one makes any specific proposals. We have had a lot of time since the days of Henry VIII. It has taken 100 years to get around to reforming the House of Lords, so I dread to think how long it will take to get around to disestablishment. However, I shall be happy to hear from anyone with proposals to make. My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) referred to the various problems that have arisen and spoke about a more proactive Church. I think that we would all say amen to that.

My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House said earlier that we should not believe everything that we read in the newspapers and that sometimes stories are invented. However, I was sorry to read that the hon. Member for North Cornwall will be retiring at the next election. The hon. Gentleman also gave his age away. I will not divulge it on the Floor of the House. In one conversation with him, I mentioned that I had been to 25 Labour party conferences and felt proud of that achievement. He replied that he had attended 40 Liberal party conferences. Anyone who can attend 40 Liberal party conferences in his lifetime merits great congratulations from Labour Members.

The hon. Gentleman described my speech as elegant, and I hope that he also found it eloquent. I shall not go into detail about his speech. However, he referred to the work of the Ecclesiastical Committee and wanted to he advised of the next planning stage. We shall certainly take him up on that. On the issue of 150 or 120 members, he said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and referred to the need for detail. Of course, the devil, who is never far away, is in the detail. He also mentioned total unanimity in the Synod, which, like this Parliament, is never likely to achieve unanimity.

I am grateful that our short debate on synodical government has received the approval of the House and has been wide ranging in the best traditions of the House. I commend the motion to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

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