HL Deb 06 December 1949 vol 165 cc1242-6

4.38 p.m.

THE LORD BISHOP OF ST. EDMUNDSBURY AND IPSWICH rose to move to resolve, That in accordance with the Church of England Assembly (Powers) Act, 1919, this House do direct that the Benefices (Suspension of Presentation) Measure, 1946, (Amendment) Measure, 1949, be presented to His Majesty for the Royal Assent. The right reverend Prelate said: My Lords, this Measure is a modest but not an unimportant one, and I think I may describe it as uncontroversial. It was fully and carefully discussed in the Church Assembly and passed through all its stages without division. The Ecclesiastical Committee are of the opinion that it ought to proceed. It purports to amend the Benefices (Suspension of Presentation) Measure, which was passed in 1946 and which is being somewhat extensively used. It makes it possible to keep a benefice vacant for a period of five or seven years, and it is useful, for instance, in parishes where the church was damaged by war action and has not yet been rebuilt. If there is no church, perhaps there is no need for a parson.

The Measure is also used in other cases—for instance, it was used in one parish in my diocese from which the whole population were removed, lock, stock and barrel, in order to make provision for a battle-training school during the war. Though it is now four years since the war ended, the land has not yet been restored to us, and the people have not yet come back. Obviously, there is no need there for a parson. It is also useful where it is desired to deal with a parish under a reorganisation scheme. We do not want to prejudice the future by creating a new vested interest through the appointment of a new incumbent. So it is a useful little Measure. On the other hand, experience has shown that it needs amendment. The proposed Amendments are set out in the appendix to the Report of the Ecclesiastical Committee.

Since the Measure is uncontroversial, and comes forward well sponsored by the Church Assembly and the Ecclesiastical Committee, I might safely leave it at this, and trust that without more ado your Lordships will give approval to my Motion. But I do quite sincerely feel that when Measures from the Church Assembly come before your Lordships it is the duty of the Bishop who presents them within a reasonable time limit to try and explain their purpose. In regard to this or any other Measure which comes before your Lordships, our concern is not simply that the Measure shall proceed; we are genuinely anxious that your Lordships should know something of the difficulties and problems with which we are confronted, and of the way in which we are trying to deal with them by legislative action. May I, therefore, be allowed to say a word or two about three matters of importance in the Measure which I trust will not be wholly without interest to your Lordships?

First, in Clause 1 we are dealing with the problem of the letting of the parsonage house during the vacancy. Normally, as I have no doubt your Lordships are aware, under Section 59 of the Pluralities Act of 1938, a parsonage house can be let to a tenant only on the condition that the tenancy must be vacated if or when the house is required for an incumbent or a curate-in-charge. Thus, when we are letting a parsonage house it is impossible to give a firm lease for a definite number of years. The tenancy thus being insecure, we do not obtain as high a rent as we might otherwise have received. In the principal Measure, sequestrators were given authority to let the parsonage house for a definite period, to give a firm lease for a definite period, and the relevant section of the Pluralities Act was not to apply. Thus we were able to charge a higher rent. But on reflection it was thought not desirable that the sequestrators should be given such wide powers. It is not fair to the parish that they should be able to let the house on conditions which would render it unavailable if it were needed for a curate-in-charge. Therefore, this Amendment Measure directs that the house shall be let only for such period as it is not required for a curate-in-charge. That means, of course, that the rent we can charge is much reduced. On the other hand, what we have lost on the swings we have gained on the roundabouts, because by the Local Government Act, 1948, certain types of property were recognised as requiring special and favourable treatment for rating purposes. Among these were included parsonage houses, because they were subject to the restriction of the Pluralities Act. That was a very valuable concession, the benefit of which we did not wish to lose. Therefore, in this Amendment Measure that power to go outside the restriction of the Pluralities Act is withdrawn.

Clause 2 determines how we are to use such surplus of income as there may be in the sequestration account after all expenses for the care of the parish, and such other expenses as sequestrators will normally undertake, have been met. It is not often, when I am speaking in regard to Church matters, that I use the phrase "surplus of income," because it is rarely there. But if a vacancy lasts for any considerable period in a benefice it is quite possible that there may be a fairly large sum of surplus income in the sequestration account. When I introduced this Measure to the Assembly there was one benefice in which there was £700 surplus income in the sequestration fund, and in another six parishes taken together there was surplus income of £1,840. That was eighteen months ago, and I have no doubt that a still larger sum of surplus income is now available in those seven benefices.

The principal Measure directs that when a new incumbent is ultimately appointed he shall receive £100 out of this surplus income, but that the remainder of it shall go to the capital endowment of the benefice. In these days when we are so harried by appeals to save, it might appear that there is a good deal to be said for this requirement whereby surplus income should be capitalised. But in these days, also, when so many of our clergy are underpaid, and a very heavy cost is imposed upon the diocese in trying to provide augmentation grants for their diminutive incomes, the Assembly felt that this saving—very desirable though it may be on other grounds—was a luxury which the Church could not afford. Therefore, this amending Measure says that in such cases the surplus shall go to what we call the Stipends Fund, a sort of pool out of which augmentations are made to underpaid clergy. On the other hand, as the incoming incumbent will suffer some reduction of income as the money has not been put to the capital endowment of the benefice, we decided that the incoming incumbent should have £200 instead of £100. I wish myself that the Assembly had seen fit to leave the figure at £100, because I should have thought that that was adequate. However, they decided that it should be £200, and that only goes to show that Bishops are not quite the dictators they are sometimes supposed to be and that they must often bow to the will of the inferior clergy, and even of the laity!

The principal Measure lays down that before suspension can be applied to a parish the Bishop must consult the parochial church council. I was not quite clear what that meant. I had always taken the view that I had complied with this requirement if I asked the archdeacon or the rural dean to go to the parochial church council. But a number of persons said: "No, that will not do. What the Measure requires is that the Bishop himself shall go and visit the parochial church council." That would have been a somewhat laborious business. In a diocese such as mine it would have involved motor journeys of forty to fifty miles out and forty to fifty miles back. Parochial church councils can meet only in the evenings, and I can assure your Lordships that on foggy November evenings or icy February evenings, motoring over a hundred miles to meet parochial church councils has been a matter of no small expenditure of time and energy. What we have now suggested—and I am sure it makes for better consultation—is that it is not necessary for the Bishop to go and meet the whole parochial church council, but that the consultation may take place between the Bishop and two members elected by the parochial church council to discuss it with him, unless the parochial church council send him a written request that he shall meet the council. That, of course, can conveniently be arranged. The council will doubtless elect its two wardens or two persons who are able to discuss the whole matter, and the consultation will be much more effective than otherwise.

That is all I need say. I hope that I have said sufficient to secure your Lordships' approval of my Motion, and I trust that your Lordships will not think that what I have said is more than sufficient. I have spoken at relative length, not because I like making speeches but because wished—and I think it is important—to avoid the discourtesy of appearing to take your Lordships' approval for granted, and because I desired to explain as clearly as I could the purpose of this Measure and perhaps enlist your interest as well as your support for it. If any of your Lordships wishes to ask any questions I will do the best I can within my limits to answer them. I beg to move.

Moved to resolve, That in accordance with the Church of England Assembly (Powers) Act, 1919, this House do direct that the Benefices (Suspension of Presentation) Measure, 1946, (Amendment) Measure, 1949, be presented to His Majesty for the Royal Assent.—(The Lord Bishop of St. Edmundsbury and Ipswich.)

On Question, Motion agreed to, and ordered accordingly.