HL Deb 22 May 1968 vol 292 cc686-99

3.8 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a third time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 3a.—(The Earl of Listowel.)


My Lords, the connection with the subject matter of this Bill is very tenuous, but I think I should declare that I am the Treasurer of the Church Pastoral Aid Society, which is named in a scheme for the Church Commissioners as one of the joint patrons of the united parishes of St. John, St. James and St. Paul, Plumstead, and is also a joint patron of St. John and St. James at present. The point to which I wish to draw the attention of your Lordships relates to St. Paul's Church. Under Clause 4 of the Bill, the Rochester and Southwark Diocesan Church Trust will have the right to sell, inter alie, St. Paul's Church, and it is indicated in the evidence given to the Select Committee that it is their intention to sell this church to the Roman Catholic community, though this is not specifically stated in the Bill. It is generally agreed that these churches are not required for the purposes of the parish, and therefore it is sensible and right that they should be sold. The point to which I wish to draw attention is that this creates a precedent, in that it is the first time that a standing Church of England church has been sold to the Roman Catholics.

I say at once that I am not opposing the Bill in any way, nor am I opposing the intended action following the Bill. But I believe it is right for Parliament to appreciate that this is setting a precedent: indeed, I believe one of the reasons for proceeding with this matter by a Bill and not by some other means was that it was felt that this was the right way to do it because of the precedent that was being set. I would emphasise again that I am not opposing the Bill in any way, or the action which is likely to follow. There is now a new outlook between the Christian Churches. Certainly thirty years ago this might have been a cause célèbre; but there is a new outlook now, and it is generally agreed, I think, among Christian Churches that it is more important to promote the spread of the Christian Gospel than to argue about different parts of the Christian Church. Nevertheless, I believe it is right for Parliament to be aware of the precedent being set, and I hope the House will not feel that I have wasted its time in drawing attention to this point.

3.10 p.m.


My Lords, as this Bill is now being debated on Third Reading your Lordships may wish me, as the Chairman of the Select Committee to which this Bill was committed, to give some account of our consideration of it. We are concerned here with two parishes in Plumstead in the Diocese of South-wark; namely, the united parish of St. James with St. John the Baptist, and the parish of St. Paul. We are also concerned with three churches; that is to say, St. James, St. John, and St. Paul. Of these three churches, only one, the Church of St. John, is now used for public worship. The prevailing conditions in this situation are sparsity of congregations and heavy cost of upkeep of churches.

The Bill is promoted by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark and others from the Anglican Church; and I am glad to see that the right reverend Prelate is to speak later in this debate. There are three points to which I wish to draw attention. First, the Bill states that it is proposed that these two parishes should be united, and that the Church of St. John should become the parish church of the new united parish. Both these changes would be made in virtue of existing Church Measures by way of pastoral reorganisation schemes which are now being promoted. Neither of these proposals, therefore, came before the Select Committee at all for decision, but they were both brought up during our proceedings and discussed. They have, we are told, been in operation de facto for the past two years.

Secondly, the Bill proposes that the authorities of the Church of England should have power to sell, lease or otherwise dispose of the redundant churches of St. James and St. Paul; and that they should have power, in addition, to devote the proceeds of such sale et cetera to parochial and diocesan purposes in the manner laid down in the Bill. These would be enabling powers. They would not be exercisable until after the pastoral reorganisation schemes, which I have mentioned, had been duly confirmed. The provisions in regard to these powers are the essential clauses of the Bill. It was in order to secure these powers that the Church authorities decided to proceed by Private Bill. These were the two chief matters that came before the Select Committee for decision.

Thirdly, the Promoters stated in evidence that they proposed to sell the redundant church of St. Paul, which has not been used for public worship for the past two years, to the authorities of the Roman Catholic Church, who had made them an offer, and with whom they had concluded a conditional contract. This intention to sell to the Roman Catholics, of course, forms no part of the Bill. It was, however, the main burden of the strong representations made in evidence by the Petitioners against the Bill, and it was much in the minds of the Committee when they came to their conclusion on the Bill. The Promoters of the Bill, for their part, held that the Church of England should have the right to sell its property freely, and that it was contrary to the present climate of opinion in ecclesiastical affairs to maintain that, failing another sale, a redundant Anglican church should have to be demolished and the site disposed of, rather than that the church should be sold as it stood to the Roman Catholics, who had an existing use for it. The right reverend Prelate will no doubt have something to say about that when he speaks.

Under the Bill, the uses to which the proceeds of any sale would be devoted would include expenditure on the fabric of the new parish church of St. John, on the church hall and parsonage, and for charitable purposes in the parish and in the diocese. The sale of the church, if it took place, would bring in about £30,000, whereas the cleared site, after demolition, would yield only about £4,000.

Counsel for the Petitioners submitted that the pastoral reorganisation in the area had been ill-considered and had given offence to parishioners, and that St. Paul's church should have been saved and chosen instead of St. John's as the parish church of the new united parish. It was further maintained in the strongest terms by the witness for the Protestant interest that the Church of England would be betraying a sacred trust to uphold the Protestant faith if it allowed its churches to pass into the hands of Roman Catholics.

My Lords, having heard the evidence of witnesses and the submissions of counsel for two full days, the Select Committee came to the opinion in all the circumstances that the Bill should be allowed to proceed. When announcing this opinion they added that they were considering whether it might be desirable to make a special report to the House on the Bill; but, on reflection, they have since decided not to do so. Perhaps I might here offer a word of explanation. What we had in mind in considering a possible special report was that it might be well to draw the attention of the House to the fact that, so far as we could discover, this would probably be the first occasion on which the Church of England would be given power to sell one of their redundant churches as a standing structure, and it would certainly be the first occasion of a sale to the Roman Catholic Church, if such a sale were to be concluded.

Our grounds for not making a special report were as follows. Special reports by Select Committees are infrequent. They are most likely to be made on the rare occasions when the House gives an Instruction to a Select Committee, which the Committee will wish to show that it has fulfilled. This was done, as the noble. Lord, Lord Grenfell, will remember, in the cases of the Tees Valley and Cleveland Water Bill and the Brighton Marina Bill. This was not the case here. In any event, there did not seem to be any real need to alert the House. The Promoters had in fact courted publicity, which they duly received, and this was one of the reasons for their coming to Parliament. The transcript of the proceedings was available, and it was open to any noble Lord who was especially interested to intervene on Third Reading. If this occurred, any necessary explanation could then be given. This is in fact what is now happening, thanks to the initiative of the noble Viscount, Lord Caldecote.

There was also a further consideration. This was that, whereas in the past the sale of a redundant church as a standing structure has required a Private Bill, this would not be necessary when the Pastoral Measure which was then about to come before your Lordships' House came into operation. What up to now had been an exceptional case would be expected to become less exceptional in the near future when it would be possible to proceed by way of schemes under this new Pastoral Measure, without the need to come to the House, to Parliament, at all. To this extent, therefore, my Lords, it seemed to us that there was less occasion to draw special attention to the Bill. And, indeed, the Pastoral Measure of which I have spoken has since been approved by your Lordships' House. I trust that your Lordships will now give this Bill a Third Reading.

3.20 p.m.


My Lords, later this year I, assisted by the Bishop of Chicago, shall be dedicating a new church, a very fine building costing in the neighbourhood of £150,000, in the area of Catford. It will be done with the traditional splendour and pageantry of the Established Church. At the climax of the service I shall say, "I dedicate this church". Because I say those words, if, later on, people decide that they want to move it or sell it, or to say, "Look here, we ought to put it in a better place", the matter will be decided locally and by the Bishop of the diocese, without any reference to Parliament or to law. On the other hand, if, instead of this long service which will go on for as much as an hour and a half, and if instead of saying "I dedicate this church" I were to say "I consecrate this church", then my successors could not do anything about it in the future without having endless legal hurdles to overcome and passing measures through the House of Commons or the House of Lords.

That is the position in which we now find ourselves in regard to this particular building in Plumstead. I apologise that this has had to be brought before your Lordships' House just because one of my predecessors chose to use the word "consecrate" instead of "dedicate". Because of that one word we have to spend literally hundreds of pounds in legal fees and in bringing this Bill to this House and perhaps to another place. I sometimes wonder whether the Carpenter of Nazareth, if He had thought such things would have been the outcome of His mission, would ever have contemplated starting a Church.

Having made that point, I feel—and I am sure your Lordships do—with some conviction, that it is fairly tragic that we should be spending our time discussing such matters. Nevertheless we have to do so. As the noble Viscount, Lord Caldecote, rightly says—and I have every respect for the point that he has made—it is the first time we are selling a consecrated church to the Roman Catholics, and I agree with the noble Lord that therefore it is something which we must take seriously. There are just two matters for us to consider. There is the question of the Church of Saint Paul: should it be closed or should it not?; and the second question is, does it matter to whom we sell it? In this case we have decided to sell it to the Roman Catholics.

As your Lordships have to come to an opinion, it is my duty to give you the facts, so let me do that as briefly as possible. First, the closing of Saint Paul's Church. In Plumstead there are nine Anglican parish churches; there are 17 Nonconformist churches and there are two Roman Catholic churches, all for a population of 70,000 people. Now the Anglican Church, through its appropriate committees, has decided that nine parish churches are too many and that we can best order our affairs if we have fewer; and although I am in no way responsible for the Nonconformist churches I may say that they have been led to similar conclusions. The Presbyterian Church has surrendered its building and, I am proud to say, has found a home in our Anglican Church of St. Mary, Woolwich. We, together, the Presbyterian Church and the Anglicans, share that one building. Three Methodist churches are pooling their resources to become one congregation. Then there are two Baptist churches. They are joining forces and are in the process of appointing the first minister of a united congregation.

The Church of England, like the Free Churches, has embarked upon a programme of reorganisation. Within these nine parishes there are two groups: first, St. Margaret and St. Mark and, secondly, St. James, St. John and St. Paul—to which we are now referring—and we are concerned this afternoon only with the second group of St. James, St. John and St. Paul. All three were small, struggling congregations, and in 1953–15 years ago—St. James and St. John were united. In 1965, when the incumbent of St. Paul resigned, the Pastoral Reorganisation Committee advised me that St. Paul's should be included in the union with St. John's as the parish church. There were many reasons for this but I need trouble your Lordships with only two: first, St. John's was geographically the most suitable and, second, all three churches were of the same type of churchmanship, Evangelical or, as your Lordships prefer to say, "Low Church". This means that the congregations of St. James's and St. Paul's would find in St. John's the same pattern of churchmanship to which they were accustomed, namely, Low Church.

Let me admit straight away that when the recommendation was made by the Pastoral Reorganisation Committee in April, 1965, a mistake was made: the recommendations were sent to the rural dean and not to the vicar. That ought not to have happened. However, as soon as the mistake was discovered and in less than a month, my Suffragan Bishop, the Bishop of Woolwich, met the church council and explained the position. In the following months the proposals were discussed by the church council and it was eventually decided by a majority vote that St. James's and St. Paul's should be closed and just St. John's left. In fact, on March 25, 1966, the parochial church council of St. Paul's—and we are concerned to-day with St. Paul's alone—by six votes to one, requested the Bishop of Southwark to close St. Paul's as soon as possible. This concludes the first part of the story—the three parishes of their own free will decided to amalgamate. St. John's was to be the parish church, St. James's and St. Paul's were to be closed.

We now pass to the second part of the story. What was to happen to these unwanted churches, St. James's and St. Paul's? This afternoon we can ignore St. James's; although I would say in passing that if a Protestant denomination were to make an offer for the building we should be pleased to consider it, or, if any of your Lordships know of any body which might like this unwanted building, I shall be only too pleased to hear about it. But St. James's is not my concern this afternoon; our concern is with St. Paul's. The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Southwark, Dr. Cowderoy, informed me that one of his churches in Plumstead was inadequate and he would like to transfer his congregation to another and larger building, and that is why he has bought St. Paul's. I want to make the point that the Established Church is not encouraging the Roman Catholic Church to start a new church. That is quite untrue. There are two Roman Catholic churches in Plumstead, one of which, for various reasons, is inadequate, and the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Southwark wishes to have a bigger building. We do not want St. Paul's, so he has said, "May we have it from you?".

Here I was up against a difficulty. I find it difficult to believe that your Lordships will appreciate this, but as the law stands I can sell the site to the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Southwark but not the building. Let me explain what that means. I can say to the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Southwark, "Yes, I want to help you, but, as the law now stands, before I let you have this building I must pull it down. I can then sell you the site and you can put up that building exactly as it was before". That is the law as it now stands. That struck me as being bad economics and not particularly good Christianity, and for that reason my diocese promoted the Bill that is before your Lordships, to sell St. Paul's as it stood to the Roman Catholics, so that we might avoid the absurd procedure of the Church of England demolishing the building and then the Roman Catholics having to build it up again. You may now understand why I said a little earlier that I wondered what this Bill had to do with the teaching of the Carpenter of Nazareth.

Moreover and let me be frank—the money from the sale of the building was inevitably much greater than would have resulted from the sale of the mere site, and we needed the extra money as part of it was to be used for the development of the new parish church of St. John, I apologise for wearying your Lordships with these details, but I hope I have made clear the situation. The selling of St. Paul's, which was already determined to be redundant, would benefit the Anglicans by enriching St. John's and would also benefit the Roman Catholics who required an alternative building. On July 2, 1967, in my capacity as Bishop of the diocese I explained the position to the parochial church council of St. Paul's. No vote was taken, as I thought it would be wiser to give the members of the council plenty of time to consider what I had said. Four months later, when I was not present, the parochial church council of St. Paul's unanimously decided, and here I quote: We agree in principle to the sale of St. Paul's church to the Roman Catholic authorities. There are the facts and I am happy to leave them with your Lordships for your consideration. After two years' careful consideration the parish and diocese decided by the customary democratic process to close St. Paul's, Plum-stead, and sell the building to the Roman Catholics. Since that date, people, most of whom do not belong to the parish or to the Church of England and who are not necessarily resident in this country, have tried to prevent this sale. It would serve no useful purpose to comment on their motives or their activities. Instead, I prefer to commend the scheme to your Lordships on the grounds that, first, the Church of England is tackling its problems of reorganisation in Plum-stead in a sensible and businesslike way. and, secondly, the Church of England instead of pulling down its unwanted building and perhaps selling the site for secular purposes is helping another Christian denomination. Finally, in these ecumenical days what could be more straightforward than that when we, the Church of England, do not want a building, instead of pulling that building down and selling the site we turn to another Christian denomination and say, "If you want it, we will do all that we can, as brother Christians, to help you".

3.33 p.m.


My Lords, I rise to support the Third Reading of this Bill. Your Lordships may recall that it is seven years ago this month that we had a debate in your Lordships' House on Christian unity, and although at that time we had taking part people of such widely varying ecclesiastical views as the most reverend Primate, the present Archbishop of Canterbury, and, leading for the then Opposition, the late Lord Alexander of Hillsborough, whose views differed considerably on a number of points, there was at that time, seven years ago, general agreement throughout your Lordships' House that we had reached the end of that scandalous period in the history of the Church when each Christian denomination went out of their way to hinder the work of their fellow Christians in other denominations. Now, we have reached the stage—and my noble friend Lord Caldecote began his remarks by drawing our attention to this—of positively seeking to reduce the differences that remain among us and endeavouring to extend further the growing area of co-operation.

When I say "We", I cannot, alas! include at the moment the Reverend Ian Paisley and his extreme Protestant colleagues from Northern Ireland, who have been so prominent among those opposing this Bill before our Select Committee. But here, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark has pointed out, we have a case in Plumstead of Christians in one place trying to share more effectively their combined resources. This is a significant development, as the noble Viscount, Lord Caldecote, has pointed out. It is probably the first time since the Reformation that a church of the Church of England has been sold as it stood to the Roman Catholics. But it is not a dramatic change in the local situation, because, as the right reverend Prelate pointed out, there are still eight Anglican churches left in Plumstead and there are already two Roman Catholic Churches there. So it is not a question of ending Anglican work or of starting Roman Catholic work. But both congregations, Roman Catholic and Anglican, will be much the better for these changes; and, more important, in my view, both will be much better placed to do what they are there to do—that is to say, to worship God and to serve the community where they are centred. And I think all your Lordships would agree that those are more important aims than the maintenance of buildings, necessary as that is.

As I have said, in the last debate, seven years ago, on Christian unity, there was a welcome from all sides of the House for the more promising climate of unity between the Churches, and there was a wish widely expressed by your Lordships that it should be further encouraged. Here we have an opportunity for your Lordships to give practical expression to that wish by agreeing to the Third Reading of this Bill in your Lordships' House and helping its passage into law.

3.36 p.m.


My Lords, I rise to support this Bill, both in principle and in detail. I do so on the ground of belief in the rightness of the Bill, and also, if I may say so, on the grounds of sentiment, because my father was the Vicar of St. Paul's, Plumstead, and it was during his time there that the Church was finally completed. I was born in the vicarage of St. Paul's, Plumstead, and I was christened in St. Paul's, Plumstead, Church. I do not pretend that those two latter events are any argument for retaining the building or for putting up a commemoration plaque, but from a sentimental point of view I cannot but feel delighted at the prospect that a building which has very close association should not be sent to the breaker's yard, so to speak, but should be continued to be used by a Christian body. It has already been pointed out that in this case a precedent is being set. I am only too delighted, from a personal point of view, that that precedent should be focused in the Church of St. Paul's, Plumstead, and I very warmly support this Bill.

3.38 p.m.


My Lords, I am glad to congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth on his maiden speech. He has spoken to us with authority, with clarity and with wisdom, and his words have come home to us. I think I speak for all of your Lordships when I say that I hope we shall frequently hear him address us again, and I am sure we shall find him equally well informed.

I have only one observation and a couple of quick points to make about this Bill in supporting the Third Reading. The Bill was promoted because it is not yet possible to use the procedure which the Pastoral Measure will make possible when it comes into effect. This Measure, as your Lordships will remember, has now passed both Houses of Parliament, but the Archbishops have yet to name a date for the Measure to take effect, and it is doubtful whether this date can possibly be before January 1, 1969.

The noble Viscount, Lord Caldecote, in his irenic introductory speech referred to the new climate of opinion that there is up and down the country, and I thought it would perhaps be useful, in view of the wide publicity which this debate may receive, for a Prelate not in the Diocese of Southwark to make one or two observations. I can illustrate the position we are considering to-day if I take one or two facts from the Diocese of St. Albans. In that diocese a parochial church council voted nem. con. to rent a daughter church, which was a dedicated and not a consecrated building, to the Roman Catholics. Counsel's opinion was taken, and the Church was let furnished for seven years. Originally, this building was an independent chapel. The Church of England acquired it about eighty years ago. The shift of population now makes it surplus to our needs, and also results in the Church of Rome needing a church in this area.

The use of this building illustrates the new situation in which we live. It has changed hands to the advantage of the Christian community, and I am told that there have been no complaints. I have deliberately avoided mentioning where this church is situated, for if I were to do so people outside the town might come and stir up trouble. It is often outsiders who cause distress and misrepresent issues. I believe that the climate of opinion in the country as a whole, to which I have referred, should be borne in mind here to-day, and I believe that up and down the country many would support this Bill now before your Lordships' House. I beg to support the Third Reading.


My Lords, in the course of this debate a number of friendly and kindly things have been said about the denomination to which I have the honour to belong. I feel that it would be ungracious on my part of I did not express my real gratitude for the warmth of those sentiments and to give two assurances. The first is to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St. Albans; that if he should ever come and renew his baptismal vows in my church he will be a most welcome guest. The other assurance is that though St. Paul's, Plumstead, will no longer be a low church, it will, I trust, always remain very evangelical indeed.


My Lords, this ecclesiastical Bill has nothing to do with me, but as I am probably the only official residual legatee of the traditions of the late Lord Alexander of Hillsborough it might not be inappropriate if I said how certain I am that the climate of opinion has changed, and probably the opinions of the late Lord Alexander are now more fruitful in this field than they were. I want to say, as a Methodist, how heartily I agree with the general propositions behind this Bill, and how heartily all of us in your Lordships' House ought to agree that in these days, when so many people have forgotten even the name of the church they stay away from, to maintain a place of worship within the Christian tradition, is a principle to which we should give our ardent support. I for one, as a Nonconformist, desire to support this Bill.


My Lords, your Lordships will not expect me to say anything on the merits of this Bill, and I do not think it is necessary for me to draw your Lordships' attention to the procedure in connection with the Bill, because that is a matter that has been fully and adequately dealt with by the noble Lord, Lord Strang. I should, however, like to congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth, on behalf of his secular colleagues, on his maiden speech. I should also like to thank all noble Lords and right reverend Prelates who have spoken for drawing the attention of the House to matters of public policy arising on this Bill, before the House is asked to decide about the Third Reading. I hope that the Bill may be now given a Third Reading.

On Question, Bill read 3a, and passed, and sent to the Commons.