HL Deb 11 July 1949 vol 163 cc1047-58

2.48 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 Pastoral Reorganisation Measure, 1949, be presented to His Majesty for the Royal Assent. The right reverend Prelate said: My Lords, this is the first occasion on which I have had the temerity to address you, and I trust that I may be treated with the leniency with which, both here and elsewhere, first offenders are always treated. I very much doubt whether I should have screwed up my courage sufficiently to-day had it not been that the most reverend Primate instructed me to move this Resolution. Your Lordships may perhaps regard this as an unfortunate result of the system known as direction of labour! The Measure is described in the Report of the Ecclesiastical Committee as one of great importance. It is, in point of fact, one of the most important Measures ever passed by the Church Assembly. The provisions of the Measure and its objects are set out briefly, but I hope clearly, in the Report of the Legislative Committee. All I wish to do is to say a little about the general background against which the provisions and the purposes of the Measure must be viewed.

I am well aware that amalgamation of benefices, whether by way of unions or pluralities, always meets with disfavour; but in the position in which we now find ourselves this is a matter of inevitable, inescapable necessity. The Bishops, in arranging the staffing of the parishes in their dioceses, are in sorry plight: we have neither the men nor the money to go round. In 1939 there were 6,000 fewer clergy than in 1909. To-day, of course, as a result of the war, the deficiency is very much greater, although I am glad to say that a large number of ordination candidates—ex-Service men, excellent candidates—are now in training. I doubt, however, whether in the near future we shall again reach the level of 1939. This much smaller number of clergy are now required to minister to a much greater number of people and to a much larger number of parishes, including all the new housing areas with their vast populations, which came into being between the two wars and others which are now being created. I know that most of your Lordships would say that the ideal is one parson for every parish, but I would venture to say that that is altogether outside the range of practical politics.

Not only is there a shortage of manpower, but it is plain that the Church to-day is not making the best use of the men that it has. There are large parishes with populations of 15,000 to 20,000 people where two clergymen are the most that we can provide; in some cases we can provide only one. On the other hand, there are a large number of parishes with small populations—400, 300 or even 200—parishes so small that they do not provide an adequate sphere of work for the full-time services of a clergyman. The result is that while in the large parishes the clergy cannot do the job and are hopelessly overworked, in the small parishes a man has not enough to do. In the latter case there often comes about a deterioration of character, energy and efficiency, which we so much deplore but which constantly sets in. Small parishes with tiny populations are found not only in the country districts. Many of them are in the centres of towns from which the whole population have been moved to the new housing areas. In my own diocese I have 172 parishes each with fewer than 400 people; and there is one parish in which there are only 96 people, with an incumbent firmly embedded there. It seems to me a scandal that the full-time services of one man should be used for such a small parish. We have neither the men nor have we the money.

A very large number of parishes have an endowment income of less than £400, which is not a living wage. In my diocese there are 149 parishes where the endowment income is less than £400, and of these there are 74 parishes where it is less than £350. In my diocese, as in every other diocese, we have utilised every means to try to secure from the parishioners increased contributions towards the stipend of their clergy, but even so in my diocese it is costing £8,000 a year in augmentation grants to bring stipends up to a minimum of £450 a year. In the diocese of Bath and Wells to make up incomes to £500 a year it would cost, I am told, £26,000 a year; in Oxford, £20,000 a year. In my own diocese we could go on making these augmentation grants till about 1953, because at the moment we have at our disposal a fairly large sum of money given to us by the Church Commissioners, together with money which we have raised by special appeals. All that money will be spent by 1953 in these augmentation grants and from that date each diocese will be left to its own resources. I shall have to pay £8,000 a year out of a total income of only £13,000. Therefore, I should hope that your Lordships would see that it is imperative that between now and then there must be a reorganisation in every diocese of what are termed "parochial spheres of work," grouping together two or mote parishes under an incumbent, in some cases, perhaps, also with the assistance of an assistant curate, and also a woman worker. By this means we should save manpower and money.

The first necessity is that in every diocese there should be a planning committee which would make a survey of the whole diocese, area by area, and try to map out the way in which we can best use our resources of money and manpower to make the best possible provision for all the parishes. I would point out that this Measure requires that to be done, and that that is the only mandatory clause in the Measure. More important is the fact that the Measure provides machinery by which this survey, when made, can be carried out. At present, in regard to the union perennities we are acting under the restrictions of the Union of Benefices and the Pluralities Measures. But this procedure is slew and cumbersome. It may well work out that it will take three or four years to carry through a single union scheme. If we attempted to deal with our problems under that legislation, we should none of us be alive by the time that the survey's schemes were carried out. The Measure provides simpler, more effective and very flexible machinery. If your Lordships will look through its provisions you will see that at every stage in the proceedings there is to be consultation between the Bishop and the planning committee, on the one side, and the parochial church councils and patrons on the other. There is to be careful consultation at every stage. The Measure is really of great importance and I want to explain the position to your Lordships. In this way, we hope to save not only men but also our money.

Suppose we should put together four benefices, each with an income of £350. That makes a total of £1,400. You could give £550 to the incumbent, £350 to a curate and £300 to a woman worker. That would take £1,200. There would still be left £200 surplus. Under the terms of this Measure that £200 could go to the diocesan stipends fund and would be available for the augmentation of the stipends of incumbents and assistant curates elsewhere. There is nothing new or revolutionary in this method of pooling incomes and diverting surplus income from one benefice to another. If your Lordships will read the Report of the Legislative Committee, you will see that this is permitted under the Ecclesiastical Leasing Acts, the present Union of Benefices Measures and, more recently, under the Diocesan Areas Reorganisation Measure. All we are doing is to extend it and use it in a more flexible way. It is obvious that if we are to proceed along these lines, certain problems will arise in regard to patrons. If you wish to group together four benefices of which there are four separate patrons some arrangement will have to be made to secure equitable treatment for all. We have done our best in this Measure to secure that equitable treatment. The real truth of the matter is that the rights of patrons to-day are being very seriously threatened not so much by this Measure as by the circumstances of to-day. After all, the right to present a benefice the income of which is only £350, which is not enough for a man to live on, is no very great asset: no candidate is likely to be forthcoming. The circumstances of to-day have changed the whole situation.

If time permitted, I would have liked to say a little about Clause 12. I think it is sufficiently explained in the Report of the Legislative Committee. If any of your Lordships wishes to ask any questions on that clause, I am quite ready to reply, if I am allowed to do so. I would add this, emphatically: that the rights of all existing incumbents have been absolutely safeguarded. Further, I would add that this Measure has been most carefully prepared. Behind it is the work of many committees, extending over several years. It was must fully discussed in the Church Assembly. We gave more than six whole days to this discussion in four sessions. In twenty years' experience, I have not seen so many members giving such careful consideration to a piece of complicated legislation as they did on these occasions. Ultimately, final approval was given by an overwhelming majority and in three Houses, there were 340 in favour and 41 against. In my judgment, unless this or some other similar Measure is approved we shall not be able to carry on after 1954. If we can set to work now with our planning committees, having available the machinery which this Measure provides, we shall not only be able to carry on; we shall, I believe, be able to strengthen and develop the work of the Church in all our parishes and we shall be able to go a long way towards providing for all our clergy not only an adequate sphere of work (which seems to me very important) but also a reasonably adequate income. We shall have the satisfaction of knowing that we are making the best possible use of our resources in men and money. The Ecclesiastical Committee report that this Measure is urgently needed and ought to proceed. I beg to move.

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

3.0 p.m.


My Lords, in rising to support this Measure I am sure that I shall have the unanimous approval of all your Lordships in congratulating the right reverend Prelate on a very clear maiden effort in this House. At the beginning of his speech he asked to be treated in the way that first offenders are usually treated, but I am certain that if we put him on probation the only term of the recognisance on which we should all insist would be that he should be less shy and modest in addressing the House on future occasions—because we hope to hear more of him.

After his full and comprehensive account of this Measure little remains to be said. For the last eighteen months or so I happen to have been a member of one of these planning committees. The right reverend Prelate, who was all too short a time with us in the diocese of Salisbury and made such a tremendous impression there in the time he was spared to be with us, asked me to be a member of the committee which he set up. Going through the counties of Wiltshire and Dorset one finds even more parishes than in the right reverend Prelate's diocese with tiny populations. I know there are some with as few as forty or fifty people, and yet they have a vicarage and the services of a whole-time parson. There are other areas of the country where there have been huge expansions in population, and in those places the clergymen are overpressed with the amount of work they have to do. I think there can be no doubt in the mind of anybody who has studied these problems, that some Measure like this is very necessary at the present time. In regard to the question of amalgamating these parishes, I am in favour of having a plurality, first of all, and not a union. When the plurality has been seen to work, then the permanent union almost automatically follows. It is a good thing to see in this Measure the provisions for taking into early consultation parochial church councils and patrons. One basic principle of the committee upon which I had the honour to serve has always been to consult the parochial church councils from the very outset when anything is suggested in regard to that parish.

The only other point which I would like to make on this Measure is this. I see that in the Report of the Ecclesiastical Committee of your Lordships' House, on page 4, there occur these words: it is believed that with modern methods of rapid transport the holding of benefices in plurality will in many cases save manpower … One of the problems to which diocesan authorities will have to devote their attention when this Measure is approved, as it surely will be, is how the man who is now given two or three parishes is to find transport to go from one to the other. He cannot rely on buses in most outlying districts, because they probably do not fit in with his church services. One of the vexed problems that has to be tackled by diocesan finance committees is whether there is some method of buying cars for these men, even if the diocesan authorities act as a kind of hire purchase company in that regard. It is essential, if you are amalgamating two or three parishes, thereby saving man-power—and, in some cases, money—that the men should have facilities for getting round in order to serve all the churches of which they are composed, and also so that they should be able to visit people in other parishes. But in regard to the general provisions of this Measure, I am certain, from such experience as I have had over the last eighteen months, that it is absolutely right. I am glad that it has been introduced into this House to-day, and introduced in such a clear and comprehensive manner by the right reverend Primate.

3.6 p.m.


My Lords, there is very general agreement on the necessity—indeed, the urgent necessity—for some such Measure as the right reverend Prelate has introduced this afternoon. It is with great respect to him and to the most reverend Primate that I venture to make a few remarks on the Measure. The present difficulties under which the Church is working are well known and recognised by everybody, but there is considerable uneasiness about the very wide powers given to the Bishops and to the committees which can be set up under this Measure. The Measure gives to the committees and the Bishops wide powers of reorganisation which, no doubt, will all help towards the more effi- cient and economic organisation of the work of the Church and its affairs, but unless great care is taken in the administration of these powers there is a real danger that such reorganisation may hinder the work of the Church. May I very briefly give your Lordships a few examples of what I mean?

Under Clause 3 the committees are given power to reorganise the boundaries of parishes. In the past it has happened that proper consultation with the parochial church councils has not always taken place, and with the power given in this new Measure any such failure to consult will be a far more serious affair than it has been in the past. It is all too easy for a well-meaning committee whose members may have little personal knowledge of the local issues involved to sweep away ancient boundaries without realising the full consequences of their proposals. Again, the policy of declaring churches redundant in a crowded area where, if even a small proportion of the population came to church there would not be sufficient accommodation, is a defeatist policy, and assumes that there will he no return to church-going in the future. In the country, the joining of two parishes may be most unpopular and may result not in more but in less churchgoing; and the situation will be even worse if, as has often happened in the past, the two parishes have different traditions as to the type of service that is held.

Finally, my Lords, under Clauses 11 and l2 arrangements can be made to divert endowment income from the parish to which it was given to other purposes. I appreciate what the right reverend Prelate has said about the difficulties confronting the Church to-day but this proposal raises two questions—whether it is right to divert from one purpose to another money that has been given in trust, and also whether it is desirable from the point of view of encouraging people in the future to make bequests to local church funds. In the belief that the answer to both those questions is "No," I would express the sincere hope that these powers will be sparingly used. The fact is that, when this Measure becomes law, a Bishop with a passion for reorganisation could have a real "field day" and, in the course of it, with the best intentions in the world, could do untold harm. I am sure that that will not happen, but it is a possible danger.

Unfortunately, some such Measure as this is undoubtedly required, but many people hope most sincerely that its provisions will be administered with great care and after full consultation with the parochial church councils. We trust that those who administer it will not be guided entirely by present-day circumstances, which may well be completely altered by a spiritual revival in the future, and that reorganisation may not be based only on a counting of heads but may take account of the different shades of opinion which exist in the Church to-day. Our parochial system—I say this with very great respect, in the presence of the most reverend Primate—is far too precious a heritage to be lightly tampered with. Its greatness depends on the personal contact of the parson with his people in their homes, and any attempt to substitute for this a new system of huge parishes, with large staffs organised by some central body, would be a retrograde step which could only hinder the work of the Church, however excellent such a system might be from the administrative and economic point of view.

3.12 p.m.


My Lords, as one who has great sympathy with the point of view put forward by the noble Viscount who has just spoken, I would like to try to reassure him on one or two of the points which he has raised. In the first place, when we say that it is dangerous to give this or that power to a Bishop or to a diocesan committee, I think we must beware of drawing too close an analogy between power exercised by the church authorities and power exercised by the State. If we give a Minister of the Crown wide powers, there is no knowing what he may do with them. But in the case of the Church it is not so, for the simple reason that whereas the Minister of the Crown with his Parliamentary majority has the power to tax the King's subjects and to get all the money he requires, so long as Parliament will give it to him, no such power resides in the Church. Therefore, no Bishop and no diocesan committee can afford to pursue a policy which has not the general support of the laity. That is what it comes to. I would ask my noble friend to bear that point in mind. In regard to what the noble Viscount said about this being, in a sense, a defeatist Measure, I would remind him that anything that is done under this Measure can be reversed. There is no law of the Medes and Persians about this Measure. If a certain change were advisable in the year 1950, this Measure would enable it to be carried out, but if circumstances were different in the year 1960, the machinery of this Measure would enable the Church to go back to the old arrangement. One of the most valuable points about this Measure is that it retains initiative in the hands of the Church to deal with changing conditions.

In regard to what the noble Viscount said about alienating money which was bequeathed for one purpose to another, I do not really think that that applies in this case. These endowments were given for the cause of religion—religion in a particular parish if you like, but the parish is, after all, only a part of the diocese, and I would ask my noble friend how far he would carry his doctrine. The original testator is dead, and he cannot tell us what he would wish. We surely can give the best effect to his wishes by taking a broad view of his intentions. If we take too narrow a view of them, then changed circumstances may make a bequest altogether ridiculous, and, if he were here, it is reasonable to suppose that the testator himself would be the first to suggest that changed circumstances required some modification in the endowment.

I would like to add this on the subject of transferring endowments from one parish to another. I hope that none of your Lordships will think that that is going to solve the financial difficulties of the Church. The number of really rich parishes is very small indeed, while the number of parishes which are insufficiently endowed is very large. When the cost of living has gone up so much and the purchasing power of the pound has fallen so greatly, the amount of money which the Church requires to carry out its work can be produced only by the laity giving more. But those who are trying in their several dioceses to collect the very large sums which are required to meet the situation are frequently met with the criticism from the laity that the Church is not making the most economical use to-day of what endowments it has. To my mind, the real importance of the financial readjustments made possible by this Measure is to deprive those who make that criticism of a certain amount of justification for their argument. The financial part of the Measure, while it will not mean very much money to the Church, will, I think, as the right reverend Prelate remarked, remove certain anomalies. Finally, I would like to echo what the right reverend Prelate and the noble Viscount have said to the effect that this Measure is of the greatest importance, and that the Church really cannot meet the changing circumstances of the day unless something of this sort is done. I hope very much that your Lordships will agree to the Motion which has been moved by the right reverend Prelate.

3.20 p.m.


My Lords, you have shown much patience and have given evidence of such great interest in the Measure which we have brought before you that I do not wish to strain either quality, but there is one very brief appendix which I should like to contribute, if I may. But first may I say how I welcome the speech of the noble Viscount, Lord Caldecote, not only for what he said but because it continues an interest in the affairs of the Church of England long held by a family deeply respected in the Church. His plea was for caution. I think he can be abundantly satisfied that in this Measure there is every provision for wise and cautious action. One phrase that caught my ear was that the Measure provided the chance of a "Bishop's field day." May I assure your Lordships that that is the reverse of the truth? There may have been times when Bishops could do what they liked, but those times have long passed. Now, in all these administrative operations the Bishop will be pegged down by committees and can do only what the committee tell him to do. But I assure the noble Viscount that at present there is in fact almost a free hand, in this matter, with no controls at all.

Pluralities in the Church of England, by which parishes are brought together, can take place on the sole action of a signature by me, uncontrolled by anybody else. A Bishop can ask me to have several parishes put together and I, if I choose, can sign a piece of paper, and it happens. There is no inquiry beforehand—no public inquiry is required. It can be done by a Bishop and me—acting as a secret enclave. Under this Measure that cannot take place without an inquiry by a committee and consultation with the parochial church council; and in certain cases not without an appeal to the Church Commissioners. But more important still, not only must there be an inquiry but conditions can be attached to a plurality. At present when I sign a plurality, it takes place, but I cannot make any conditions, such as where the pluralist is to live and whether he shall have clerical or lay help to assist him to administer his plurality of livings. I give him the place, but I have no control. Under this Measure, the pluralist can be bound to live in a particular vicarage in the group of parishes, and he can be bound to have clerical or lay assistants and so on. I hope the noble Viscount will see that so far from the matter being worsened, it is very much improved.

The noble Viscount said one other thing to which I should like to refer. It is perfectly true that in some of these cases at present there are contiguous parishes where there are different traditions, but I think I can assure the noble Viscount that Bishops are always anxious to be tender, and not to interfere with such established traditions. The Measure says that pastoral reorganisation committees shall take into account and respect the traditions, needs and characteristics of individual parishes, and from my experience I can say without doubt that such committees as these, not detached from the areas they are dealing with but in close touch with them, will always act with caution, and not least with respect for such things as sacred traditions.

On Question, Motion agreed to, and ordered accordingly.