HL Deb 22 October 1968 vol 296 cc1457-63

3.0 p.m.

THE LORD BISHOP OF WORCESTER rose to move, That this House do direct that, in accordance with the Church of England Assembly (Powers) Act 1919, the Prayer Book (Further Provisions) (No.2) Measure be presented to Het Majesty for the Royal Assent. The right reverend Prelate said: My Lords, your Lordships will remember that this Motion was to have come before the House in July, but because of procedural difficulties in another place the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester did not move it. These difficulties have been overcome and the Measure and the Report of the Ecclesiastical Committee upon it have been re-laid. Although the Measure is designated "No/", it is, in fact, exactly the same Measure as was laid in July.

This Measure marks the last stage of the long and, for many of us, tedious process of Canon Law revision. At the last group of Sessions a fortnight ago, the Convocations petitioned the Crown for the Royal Writ to make and promulgate the last blocks of the new canons. Before Her Majesty's Assent cast be given to these canons it is necessary to ensure that six of them conform with the law. The object of this Measure is to do this by making certain amendments to the rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer and the Act of Uniformity of 1662. The nature and the effect of these amendments are fully set out in the Report of the Ecclesiastical Committee to which is attached comments and explanations of the Legislative Committee of the Church Assembly, and I am sure I need not take up your Lordships' time by going into them in any great detail.

The amendments fall under four headings. The first is the relaxation of the present law in order to permit authorised laymen and women to take the services of Morning and Evening Prayer and to read the Lessons; and to distribute the Sacrament and read the Epistle and the Gospel at the Holy Communion. The second covers amendments to the introductory rubrics of the three Baptism Services in the Prayer Book, the principal ones being, first, that due notice, Normally at least a week, is required secondly, that a Minister is permitted to delay baptism for the purpose of instructing the parents or guardians or godparents; thirdly, that one godfather and one godmother are to be sufficient where it is not convenient to have a second godfather or godmother according to the sex of the child; fourthly, a change in the qualification of godparents; fifthly, that the minister must satisfy himself that a child has not been baptised, but need not ask the specific question before the service of public baptism.

Of these, the change in the qualification of godparents was the one controversial issue in the Church Assembly. The amendment proposed represents a relaxation of the existing law, which is extremely rigorous. The rubric in the Book of Common Prayer does not lay down any qualification for those chosen to stand as godparents, but the latter part of Canon 29 of the Canons of 1603 requires that no one should be a godparent who has not received the Holy Communion.

There can be no doubt that at the time when the canon and rubric were drawn up it was intended that godparents must be communicant members of the Church of England and none other. The requirement still stands, but with the legal recognition of other denominations the practice has grown up of the minister exercising his discretion in particular cases, although it is usual to insist on at least one godparent being a communicant member of the Church of England. To meet this situation the present form of Canon B.23 has evolved under which godparents must be baptised and confirmed but the minister has power to dispense with the requirements of confirmation. Thus all godparents must be Christian but, at the discretion of the minister, they need not be members of the Church of England.

While the Measure was under discussion the House of Clergy accepted the present form of words in lines 26 to 33 on page 2, rejecting an amendment to replace "confirmed" by words requiring the person to be an actual communicant. The House of Laity, on the other hand, accepted an amendment widening the qualification to admit baptised and communicant members of any church. The House of Bishops, confronted with two different versions, chose baptism and confirmation coupled with the minister's power of dispensation as being the most workable in existing circumstances. The question of the admission to Communion of non-Anglicans who are communicants in their own churches is under discussion, and until this discussion has been concluded the Bishops felt it was wise to maintain the status quo and to leave the matter to the Standing Canon Law Commission to keep the situation under review. The Bishops' decision was challenged in the Assembly at the stage of final approval on the ground that it was unjustified in this œcumenical age, but on a division the motion for final approval was carried by 283 votes to 58.

In another place the Bishops' decision was criticised as discriminating in favour of Roman Catholics and the Orthodox Churches and against the Free Churches. This argument is based on the fact that, like the Church of England, the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches both practise episcopal confirmation. It is further argued that it is the custom in the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox Churches to confirm children at a very tender age. The whole question hinges on the meaning of the word "confirmed". Since Clause 3 of the Measure substitutes a new rubric for that appearing at the beginning of the Service of Baptism of Infants in the Book of Common Prayer, the word "confirmed" would have the meaning normally ascribed to it in that Book. There has been no case in the courts on this particular point, but I am advised that the generally accepted opinion is that it must mean confirmed according to the rites in this Book. Consequently, not only Free Churchmen but also Roman Catholics and members of the Orthodox Churches are excluded save in so far as the discretion of the minister permits and the Bishops, in acting as they did, did so in every confidence that the dispensing power of the minister would generally be exercised wisely and with charity.

Thirdly, Clause 4 deals with certain difficulties which arise when two Holy Days coincide and when, for instance, there are more than 25 Sundays after Trinity. The present Tables in the Book of Common Prayer make no provision for meeting them, and Clause 4 of the Measure gives rower to the Convocations and the Church Assembly to approve new Tables.

Finally, Clause 5 deals with the use of the Burial Service in the case of those who commit suicide. The Burial Laws Amendment Act 1880 relaxed what was, in effect, a prohibition in the rubric at the beginning of the Burial Service against Christian burial in cases where the coroner's verdict was felo-de-se. The Act provides that while the Burial Service may not be used, a service consisting of prayers taken from the Book of Common Prayer and portions from Holy Scripture could be used. A new Burial Service containing prayers not now in the Book of Common Prayer is under consideration, under the procedure laid down in the Prayer Book (Alternative and Other Services) Measure, and it is necessary to remove the limiting words in the Burial Laws Amendment Act. My Lords, I hope that I have said enough to commend this Measure for your Lordships' approval. I beg to move.

Moved, That this House do direct that, in accordance with the Church of England Assembly (Powers) Act 1919, the Prayer Book (Further Provisions) (No. 2) Measure be presented to Her Majesty for the Royal Assent. (The Lord Bishop of Worcester.)


My Lords, may I ask the right reverend Prelate a question? Am I now to understand from what he has said that the proposal means that in future a woman will be able to take prayers without being ordained; and am I to understand that she would do this without remuneration?


My Lords, I think that it is to make perfectly legal what is already done by many of your Lordships in this House, namely, to read Lessons and to take prayers in Church. It also applies to women, and, of course, no fee will be paid to them.

3.12 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure that we are all grateful to the right reverend Prelate for that comprehensive statement about this Measure, and we welcome the changes which it makes in the law, not the least because it draws to a close what must have been for the Church Assembly the extremely tedious business of Canon Law revision. I think there is a special welcome for the Measures relating to baptism. I am sure that both sides of the House would agree that the important thing these days is to secure at baptism that the child who is being baptised is brought up in the Christian faith and practice, and that compared to that the particular denominational brand of the Christian faith is of much less importance. I should think, too, that it is a great relief to those of your Lordships who, unlike me, are laymen, that you no longer stand in peril of prosecution whenever you read the Lessons at Matins and at Evening Prayer. The only question I have for the right reverend Prelate—a theological one, perhaps—is whether we can assume that this Measure expunges all past offences in this matter.

3.14 p.m.


My Lords, I hope that your Lordships' House will not regard my speaking on this matter as an impertinence on the part of a Methodist; but if at the moment I take but an academic interest in these affairs, it may be that in the not too distant future I shall be taking a more practical part in them, if indeed the conversations between the Methodists and the Anglicans come to fruition. I am not particularly interested in some of these provisions. Indeed, it is perhaps a somewhat paradoxical reflection that this must be a Christian House if we are to take any cognisance of them. I am not concerned particularly with the question of godparents. It has always seemed to me that a godparent can fulfil his obligations only by ignoring a great many of them; otherwise he is involved in an intrusion into the family circle to which he is not entitled.

But it is, to me, a matter of great satisfaction that the first provision in, this Measure opens wide opportunities to laymen at a time when the recognised cloth is under some sort of suspicion in certain quarters. There is a need, as we have found in the Methodist Church by the appointment of our local preachers, for this widening of the opportunity of the communication of the Gospel and of the Christian truths in terms which are acceptable to those who might be resistant to the ecclesiastical approach. This can be overdone and it can be overstated; yet if this is a call to laymen within the Church of England—and laywomen, too—to take this opportunity to fulfil the obligaticns of a ministry of all the talents, then], for one, regard it as a very great Measure offering great hope in the days to come. Therefore I support it with great enthusiasm.


My Lords, I should be interested to mow whether I have grievously sinned, because, as an elder of the Church of Scotland, I have on several occatiions taken on the post of godfather to a Church of England child.


My Lords, may I reply that if this Measure is passed it will now make Jour Lordships' past offences perfectly logal. It will be a great relief to me, because my own godfather was a Methodist and died a Methodist, and in my old age I should like to feel that I had a legal godfather.

On Question, Motion agreed to, and ordered accordingly.