HL Deb 24 March 1964 vol 256 cc1131-6

2.52 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move the Motion in my name on the Order Paper:

"That this House do direct that, in accordance with the Church of England Assembly (Powers) Act 1919, the Holy Table Measure 1964 be presented to Her Majesty for the Royal Assent."

The Holy Table Measure is the first of a number of Measures which will be coming before your Lordships' House as a consequence of the revision of the Canon Law of the Church of England, a process that has been going on for some twenty years. I would, therefore, ask your Lordships' indulgence if, before coming to the Measure itself, I say a word or two in general terms about the need for Canon Law revision and the reason for the Measures which are related to it.

The Canon Law is the domestic law of the Church—the code of faith, morals and discipline. In this country the canon-making bodies are the Convocations of Canterbury and York, acting under Royal Licence. They can, however, make canons only so long as they do not conflict with the existing Statute Law of the land. If there is any such conflict, then the Statute Law must first be altered so that a canon may subsequently be promulged.

The Canon Law of the Church of England was last revised in 1604, and the greater part of its provisions are out of date and unrelated to the needs and circumstances of the present time. The Church of England is as anxious as are its critics to restore a proper measure of discipline to its life, but it is impossible to do so when, as is the case at the moment, there is so wide a gap between the Canon Law and the normal practice of loyal churchmen. So we have been engaged upon the massive and often wearisome task of a complete revision of the code.

In the far greater number of instances there is no difficulty, since we shall recast some existing canons in terms applicable to the modern day, and we shall repeal the canons which no longer hear any relevance. But there are a certain number of matters with which we must deal and which are now established practice of the Church of England, but which are technically illegal. We desire to make canons which will reflect current thought and action. So first we must change the law, so that consequently we may make the canon. Thus there will be, in the coming months, a number of Measures, some dealing with matters which are quite trivial and others with matters of moment, before your Lordships' House, the effect of which will be to enable the Church of England to legislate for its life in the way that its constitutional assemblies desire.

The process is, as I have remarked, a long one; but at least your Lordships may rest assured that each matter which will in this way be brought before you will have been debated with a thoroughness seldom accorded to legislative enactments. Each one has first passed through all the stages of a draft canon in the Convocations and the House of Laity of Church Assembly. Having been approved as a draft canon, it is then redrafted as a Measure for the Church Assembly, and it is debated all over again in the Church Assembly. It must then be subjected to the scrutiny of the Ecclesiastical Committee of Parliament. So your Lordships may rest assured that these Measures have received prolonged and meticulous examination.

The first of these Measures, the Holy Table Measure, is concerned with the character of the Holy Table upon which the Holy Communion is celebrated. The existing law is contained in Canon 82 of the 1604 Code and in the rubric of The Book of Common Prayer. The canon requires that Convenient and decent tables shall be provided and covered with a carpet of silk or other decent stuff". The rubric in the Prayer Book orders that the Holy Table shall stand in the body of the church or in the chancel. There is in these enactments nothing about the material of which the table is to be made nor what it is to be like, but, as a result of a judgment in 1845 in the case of Faulkner v. Litchfield and Stern, the law has been interpreted as requiring that the Holy Table must be made of wood and must be movable.

This judgment was a reflection of the controversies at the time of the Reformation, when the medieval stone altars were in large measure destroyed because they represented superstitious beliefs connected with the sacrifice of the Mass. It is difficult to discover, in fact, how much doctrinal significance was attached to the material of which the Table was made. We know, for instance, that there was a pre-Reformation wooden Table in Canterbury Cathedral. In any event, a number of stone Holy Tables were erected between 1559 and 1845, both in England and Ireland. But in a judgment delivered in 1938, Mr. Justice Stable, who was then the Deputy Dean of Arches, held that the ecclesiastical courts are bound by the 1845 judgment and are precluded from granting faculties for the principal Holy Table unless it is made of wood and movable.

However, my Lords, the situation is anomalous and uncertain. Many churches, from Westminster Abbey downwards, have stone Holy Tables, and some of them are churches of an evangelical tradition. Those erected between 1559 and 1845 were undoubtedly the main Holy Table of the Church. Some chancellors have granted faculties for stone tables. There is, further, no question at all but that so long as the main Table is of wood, any other Table, in a side chapel, for instance, may be made of stone and need not necessarily be movable. In short, the law raises no objection to stone Holy Tables as such, but only when they are the main Holy Table, and for many centuries, since the Reformation up to 1845, there seems to have been no question raised about the propriety of stone Holy Tables as the main Table in the church.

It is clear that Chancellor Garth Moore's observation in the case of St. John the Divine Richmond in 1953, that No doctrinal significance should be attached to the name by which the article is called, whether table or altar, nor to its material, nor to its position in the Church expresses the mind of the Church of England to-day. The opposition to this Measure in the Church Assembly amounted to only one in ten of the votes cast. The desire for this Measure stems from the need first to clarify an unsatisfactory legal position and, secondly, to give freedom to those who on æsthetic grounds consider that the design of a church requires that the Holy Table should be made of some substance other than wood, and should possibly be immovable. This Measure gives that permissive freedom. I trust your Lordships will agree that the Measure is desirable, and should receive the Royal Assent. I beg to move.

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

3.2 p.m.


My Lords, once more I have to follow the right reverend Prelate, the Lord Bishop of Chester. Evidently he is at every stage going to be a kind of counsel for the introduction of Canon Law which is brought before Parliament by way of Church Measure. The speech which he has just made on the Holy Table is, of course, one full of historical research and knowledge as to what has actually happened. But there cannot be any doubt in the minds of any of those people who are connected with myself in the United Kingdom Council of Protestant Churches as to the general influence which is being used nowadays to alter the Canon Law of the Church of England.

I think it must first of all be remembered that these Laws are required to come to this House only because they relate to the State Church. It is ineradicably linked up under the law with the Crown. Her Majesty is the Head of the State Church. Her Majesty stood over there when the Lord Chancellor presented her, at the beginning of her first Parliament, with the Declaration she had to make: "I declare that I am a faithful Protestant."

The question as to how changes of this kind should take place has, of course, been discussed over and over again. But it is not so many years ago, when we think of all the depths of history that the right reverend Prelate has gone into this afternoon, that in 1906 there was a Royal Commission which inquired very carefully into all these matters, including, so far as I remember, the matters relating to the Holy Table. It certainly referred to the kind of decision that was made the other day, so far as the Church Assembly is concerned by a large vote of the clergy, with regard to legalising the use of the sacramental vestments.

Of course, there can be no possible doubt that these changes are being made, step by step, only in order that the Church may move further Rome-ward in its policy. The right reverend Prelate shakes his head, but he must remember, when you come to deal with, say, the kind of Holy Table that you have, that the only real idea behind a stone table is to turn it into an altar—which is not used according to the Prayer Book, so far as I remember—and an altar was built of stone because it was upon that kind of structure that, according to the Old Testament, sacrifices were made.

It is perfectly certain in my mind, too, that the whole objection to the use of sacramental vestments is that it raises once more the fact that many of the priests of the Church of England now believe as substantially as the Roman Catholics do—only the Roman Catholics are more courageous and belong to the Chuch in which it is the proper practice—that transsubstantiation is right for the Church of England; and that, in spite of great passages of scripture such as Hebrews, Chapter IX, verse 24 to the end, in which the sacrifice of the beloved Master was once and for all, and not to be offered often. Those things are there, and indisputably so.

Therefore, I very much regret that we are gradually being led, stage by stage, in the State Church to surrender to those who are going more and more back to the doctrine of Roman times, the Roman Catholic practice. That I very much deplore (I speak only for myself; my colleagues who sit on these Benches must all have their own opinions, and they are perfectly free to have what opinions they like; we all know that), but I personally will never consent to a Measure of this kind by voting for it—never.

I was brought up in the Church of England. I love so much of it, especially its Prayer Book, that when I begin to see these alterations in the Prayer Book, which set up the first true basis of civil and religious liberty in this country (it had not existed until then), and the example which, in religious and civil and political life, has had so much to do with the growing greatness of this country in the last 300 years; the setting up of its Commonwealth, as well as the examples that have been given over and over again by those who hold our belief in civil and religious liberty according to the reformed Church of England, I find it a sad sight to see Prelates hurrying to get through this kind of Measure which is upsetting the doctrine. I am equally shocked to find that some clergymen and some of the Prelates, whom we had regarded as well grounded in what we call the evangelical faith and practice, are beginning to vote for Measures of this kind. It will not lead to, shall I say, the strengthening of the State Church in this country. I believe that it will lead gradually to more and more controversy, and I very much regret having to speak to such a Measure this afternoon.

On Question, Motion agreed to, and ordered accordingly.