HL Deb 18 February 1964 vol 255 cc763-7

2.58 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move the third and last Motion standing in my name. This Measure arises due to the revision of Canon Law which has been occupying the attention of the Convocations and the House of Laity for some considerable time. The law relating to the appointment and resignation of church- wardens is in part contained in the Canons of 1603, and in part in the Common Law. It is in many places by no means clear, and it was therefore thought desirable to attempt to remove the obscurities before proceeding further with new Canons to replace those of 1603. The Measure lays down the number and qualifications of churchwardens, but provides that its provisions cannot over-ride a Private Act, Statutory Scheme, or custom to the contrary.

At present, churchwardens need not be members of the Church of England. The Measure now provides that they must be actual communicant members of the Church of England, except where the Bishop shall otherwise permit. Under the present law, in the absence of a custom to the contrary, the churchwardens are chosen jointly by the minister and a meeting of the parishioners or, if they fail to agree, one by the minister and the other by the meeting. Where there is no minister the meeting chooses both. In practice, there is often no attempt at a joint choice, but it was thought desirable in this Measure to make the law clear. I think your Lordships will be aware that in a very large number of parishes the two churchwardens are, in fact, chosen respectively by the incumbent and by the people respectively. Although that is not provided for in the Act except as a kind of emergency procedure, I have no doubt at all that in a very large number of cases custom will continue to do things in that way.

This Measure also gives the churchwarden the right to resign, provided that the minister and any other churchwarden consent and the Bishop accepts his resignation. That would be a considerable convenience, because even when churchwardens have left the district it has been impossible for them to vacate their office until the next annual church meeting. The Measure also makes it clear that the office is vacated if the churchwarden ceases to reside in the parish or to have his name on the electoral roll. The Measure also provides for appeals in the case of arguments or disputes for which there is at present no provision. The Measure was never regarded as a controversial one. At no time during its passage through the Assembly was there a division, and it has been favourably reported upon by the Ecclesiastical Committee. I hope therefore, that your Lordships will be willing to pass the necessary Resolution. I beg to move.

Moved, That in accordance with the Church of England Assembly (Powers) Act, 1919, this House do direct that the Churchwardens (Appointment and Resignation) Measure, 1964, be presented to Her Majesty for the Royal Assent.—(The Lord Bishop of Leicester.)


My Lords I am much obliged for the explanation. I sometimes think that the ways of Ecclesiastical Law are beyond the understanding of most; they do not seem to fit in. We had a very hurried and disjointed debate recently, last May or June, upon a Church Measure, and there we were dealing with a State Church setting up an entirely new legal system under which all the appeal members to be put upon ecclesiastical courts, in particular, were to be communicants of the Church of England. Now, apparently, in this much more minor Measure there is to be a provision that churchwardens must be, of course, communicants of the Church of England, and, I should think, in most cases must reside in the parish, but so far as I can see, it is to be left to the Bishop to approve anybody else he likes. What inconsistencies these are! It is a pity these matters are not considered much more deeply before they are brought to the House. Now, by the Bill passed last year, we have lost the eight of the ordinary citizen to go to the Privy Council about matters in which he is interested regarding State Church Law, but in this case it is to be left to the Bishop to decide what is to be done about a particular churchwarden.


My Lords, may I, following up the question asked by my noble Leader, ask the right reverend Prelate in what circumstances it is thought that a Bishop would approve the appointment as a churchwarden of a person who is not a member of the Church of England? In relation to what my noble Leader has said, I ask this question as a former churchwarden and as a former member of the Ecclesiastical Committee.


My Lords, I must not be drawn into a discussion of the Measure that was previously debated and decided, although I can well understand that the noble Earl might have anxious thoughts about some part of that particular Measure. But I can only commend this Measure to your Lordships. I think the gravamen of the noble Earl's question, or criticism, was that there was something inconsistent or superficial in this provision for a Bishop to allow someone who is not a member of the Church of England to be a churchwarden. I think that really was also the point behind the question of the noble Lord, Lord Stonham. If your Lordships really desire to know, the fact is that in some very small communities there are hardly any likely candidates for the responsibilities of churchwarden, and in some cases—one, at least, is known to me personally in my own diocese—a member of another Church, out of general concern for the building and the institution of a church to which he personally does not belong, has been willing to be churchwarden in it. That is what is intended in this Measure.


It seems difficult to understand this in the case of a church that apparently has almost no congregation. You close down in cases in which I have been interested, in dealing with appeals of churches which are in populous areas; yet, just to suit the kind of case you refer to, you can take a separate action and appoint as churchwardens people who are not members of the Church. As I say, the inconsistencies of Ecclesiastical Law pass my comprehension.


My Lords, I feel it only right and fair that a definite procedure should be laid down, not so much by the Church as by the law of the land, whereby churches can be considered for closure and eventually for being pulled down. That process goes on, and it is in fact being done from time to time. But all the while the church is there it has to be cared for, and because there is an insufficient number of people with the necessary qualifications to take on the responsibility of churchwarden it in no way follows that a Church is not being used. I do not know how far it is customary in your Lordships' House to debate these matters in any detail, but I feel that those brief replies at least are due to the Church on this occasion.

On Question, Motion agreed to, and ordered accordingly.