HL Deb 30 January 1969 vol 298 cc1279-87

3.17 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. It is, I think, a rare occurrence for an Archbishop of Canterbury to introduce a Bill into your Lordships' House, and it must be a good many years since this has happened. This is because, since the enabling Act of 1919, the bulk of Church of England legislation comes before Parliament not by Bill, but by Measure, and Measures passed by the Church Assembly receive the Royal Assent after no more than a single Resolution in each House of Parliament.

The present Bill, which I am happy to be introducing, concerns not only the Church of England, but the Free Churches, the Roman Catholic Church, the Church in Wales and, indeed, all the Churches which are represented in the British Council of Churches; and I think the fact of the introduction of this Bill, with the keen support of all these Churches, is a significant indication of the growing desire of the Christian Churches in this country to be working together.

The need for this Bill arose out of actual cases in which the Church of England and other Churches tried to make satisfactory arrangements for sharing their church buildings and found the existing legal difficulties too great. As a result, we in the Church of England set up a Commission, under the chairmanship of the Bishop of Leicester, which studied the difficulties, in consultation with the six Churches mentioned in Schedule 2 to the Bill. It was not practicable to have wider consultations, and these six Churches had already shown a practical interest in the problem.

On the basis of the Commission's Report, a draft Bill was prepared, and it went through various stages of consideration by all the Churches concerned and their advisers. Provisions substantially similar to those contained in the Bill now before the House were approved by the Church Assembly last July. The appropriate bodies of the other Churches have also given their approval either to the provisions themselves or to the principles embodied in them. Throughout it has been a partnership effort, and I am hopeful that some noble Lords who are members of the other Churches concerned will join me later this afternoon in commending the Bill to your Lordships' House.

The Bill enables sharing agreements to be made by two or more Churches for the sharing of church buildings as defined in Clause 12. These buildings include churches, church halls, youth clubs and hostels and residences for ministers and lay workers; in fact, all the categories of buildings used by Churches in their own work, except church schools. Sharing agreements may be made in respect of existing buildings owned by one of the Churches concerned or new buildings, and the agreement may provide for single ownership by one Church or for joint ownership. In the former case the primary responsibility for management will rest with the owning Church, subject to consultation with the other Church or Churches on all matters of common concern. In the case of joint ownership, the building will be managed by trustees representing all the Churches which share it.

Speaking for the Church of England, I think that if an existing consecrated church is shared, especially a parish church, the usual thing will be for the church to remain in the single ownership of the Church of England. In the case of new buildings, and perhaps existing church halls and other buildings used for social purposes, it may be that joint ownership will prove to be the right basis for sharing. We are likely to learn from experience, and the Bill is, I hope, sufficiently wide and flexible to enable us to find the best solutions for different circumstances.

I believe that there are certain situations in which the Bill will confer great benefits. First, there is the new town or large housing estate where the sense of community, and even of identity, may be lacking, and where the Churches have an opportunity and a vital role to play in the building up of community life. The Bill will enable the Churches to pool their resources in these circumstances and to build the right kind of buildings for the mission of all of them in these new areas. Furthermore, the fact that they will be in partnership, and will be seen to be so, rather than competing with one another, will surely make their endeavours in these localities more fruitful. I believe, too, that in the older communities the Bill will give an opportunity to cut down the crippling expense of maintaining large churches in areas from which a large part of the population has moved away. And here, too, it may sometimes be found that a fresh start can be made by pulling down old buildings and selling the sites, and building a new kind of centre for the work of the several church bodies together.

I must, however, be careful not to exaggerate the probable immediate effects of the Bill So far, the number of instances in which we know of definite projects to share church buildings is limited—partly, no doubt, because of the present legal difficulties—and this Bill is an enabling Bill which we hope will be of some immediate benefit and will grow in usefulness as a result of the experiences of its operation.

I ought also to make one other thing clear: that this Bill is in no way a dramatic ecumenical project. The Churches which agree to share a place of worship will not in the normal way worship together; they will worship separately at different times, in accordance with their respective forms of worship. Clause 4 of the Bill enables joint services to be held on special occasions, and also enables ministers of one sharing Church to take part by indication in the services of another sharing Church. But otherwise the participation of the different communities in each other's worship within the building is to be governed by the practices and disciplines of their own Churches; and, of course, at this time the practices and disciplines of the different Churches are undergoing modification. I cannot suppose, however, that the rules proposed by the Bill will prevent the two communities which share a building from getting to know each other far better and from going together in Christian fellowship.

I should now like to deal a little more fully with certain features of the Bill. Let me mention first the legal difficulties which the Bill seeks to overcome. The main difficulty is that church buildings can be used only for the purposes of the Church to which they belong. In the case of churches belonging to the Church of England, this limitation arises from the form of the consecration of the church, which is limited to worship according to the rites and ceremonies of the Church of England and the Ecclesiastical Law governing consecrated buildings. These churches, and indeed other buildings belonging to a benefice, are held by the incumbent for the time being as a spiritual corporation, and the incumbent cannot give legal or permanent share in them to other persons. In the case of other church buildings, including those belonging to other Churches, the trust deeds on which the buildings are held limit their use to the purposes and practices of the owning Church. For example, I believe that the model deed on which Methodist churches are held permits religious worship only in accordance with the Methodist doctrinal standards.

Another present difficulty is that the bodies who hold property or funds on behalf of the Church concerned are limited in the same way and would not have the power to hold or manage a shared church building or contribute to the provisional maintenance of such a building. In the case of the Church of England, the main bodies concerned are the diocesan boards of finance, the parochial church councils and the Church Commissioners, whose powers are defined by Measures and Statutes. These legal difficulties, which at present enter the sharing of church buildings, are dealt with in the first three clauses of the Bill. Clause 1 also deals with the important question of who are to be the parties to a sharing agreement and whose consent is to be required.

Here I think it is necessary to strike a balance between the wishes of the local community and the need for supervision and co-ordination by a wider Church authority. In the case of the Church of England, subsections (3) and (5) of Clause 1 set out the parties of authorities concerned, which equally represent the parish and the diocese. In the case of the other Churches the parties are to be determined by the appropriate authorities of those Churches, and these are set out in Schedule 2 to the Bill. A sharing agreement is to be binding on the successors to the original parties. This is provided in Clause 1(8). This provision meets a difficulty that arose when recently we were trying to share in Woolwich an Anglican church with the Presbyterian Church of England. The incumbent was willing to allow the church to be used by the Presbyterian Church, but he could not bind his successors, and so could not give the other Church which wanted to share any adequate security about tenure.

I have already mentioned Clause 4, which concerns the sharing of buildings for the purposes of worship. This clause removes two impediments arising from the Acts of Uniformity. The first is that Anglican clergymen have to conduct Morning and Evening Prayer according to the Church of England rites in every parish church on Sunday, and this might not be compatible with a fair sharing of time on that day. The last few lines of subsection (1) provide for dispensing, so far as is necessary, with that requirement. The second difficulty is that Anglican clergymen are not allowed by existing Acts to take part in the services of other denominations, and this is overriden by subsection (2).

We have thought it right to propose under Clause 5 certain safeguards in respect of the sharing of existing consecrated churches in the Church of England, particularly parish churches. Either they must remain in the sole ownership of the Church of England or the agreement must be authorised by a scheme under the Pastoral Measure 1968, subject to appeal to the Privy Council. Only in the former case can the church remain the parish church, although it can in any case be designated what the Pastoral Measure calls a "parish centre of worship" and so have, for practical purposes, the status of a parish church.

This same clause assumes that a Church Assembly Measure will be passed making the necessary amendment to the Pastoral Measure. The amending Measure, which also makes some amendments arising on Clauses 3 and 7 of the Bill, has received general approval by the Assembly and will be ready for approval by Parliament, we hope, by the time this Bill has passed. It seemed to us appropriate that these amendments of Church Assembly Measures, which of course concern only the Church of England, should be made by Measure, although their effect will be to provide a necessary supplement to the provisions of this Bill.

I come now to an important clause of the Bill, Clause 6, which enables a shared church building to be used for the solemnising of marriages, both by Anglican and by non-Anglican clergymen. At present an Anglican church cannot be registered under Part III of the Marriage Act 1949 for non-Anglican marriages, and buildings so registered cannot be used for Anglican marriages. This is the last of the legal difficulties with which the Bill is concerned, and although the clause and Schedule 1 are fairly complicated the principle is quite simple. Let me at this point express warm thanks to the Registrar General and his office for the help that they have so readily given us in preparing these provisions concerning the use of church buildings for marriages. Let me also add that this Clause 6 covers, in subsection (4), certain chapels, such as university or college chapels, which are used by different denominations but which do not come within the sharing provisions of this Bill.

I do not think that I need say much about the remaining clauses. On Clauses 8 and 9, and indeed on other parts of the Bill, we have had the benefit of advice and help from the Charity Commissioners, and we hope that the arrangements for terminating sharing agreements under Clause 9 are fair and practicable.

I should like to add a word more about Clause 11, to which I have already referred briefly. Clause 11 defines the Churches to which the Bill is to apply. The application of the Bill need not be limited to the Church of England and the six Churches set out in Schedule 2. Any other Church represented on the British Council of Churches can apply to come within the operation of the Bill by applying under subsection (3) of the clause, and if a Church wants so to apply, all it needs to do is to decide who shall be its "appropriate authorities" for the purposes of the Bill and to give notice to the General Secretary of the Council. Let me add that while the Bill as it now stands applies only to the Churches named and the Churches which belong to the British Council of Churches, it would be perfectly possible in the Committee stage to amend the Bill to name other Churches as coming within its operation. I believe an Amendment is to be moved for this purpose on behalf of the Churches of Christ, and I welcome most warmly any such Amendment for the inclusion of a Church not hitherto named.

My Lords, this brings me to the end of my account of the Bill. I believe it will be a valuable piece of legislation which will enable the Christian Churches to enter into practical partnerships with each other in new ways, to share the difficulties and problems of a practical kind and, of course, to make economies in the provision and upkeep of buildings. I believe also that the practical partnership that this Bill will enable and encourage will be one of the many things which will lead to a better understanding between the Christian Churches in this country and greater co-operation between them, especially in the new areas of population.

These things will not happen all at once, or necessarily on a large scale, as a result of this Bill passing, but I believe the Bill will provide the means and the opportunity, and experience will lead to a growing and considerable use of what the Bill allows and encourages. It is therefore my happiness to commend the Bill to your Lordships for a Second Reading. From time to time in the course of history your Lordships' House has been the scene of intense religious controversy. I believe that in contrast noble Lords to-day will welcome a Bill which represents the ardent desire of different Churches in this country to co-operate more closely in ways which the law as it at present stands makes difficult. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(The Lord Archbishop of Canterbury.)

3.39 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure we shall all wish to thank the most reverend Primate the Lord Archbishop of Canterbury for his lucid and cogent explanation of this Bill. It may, as he said, be rare for an Archbishop to introduce a Bill in this way, but I do not think he could have chosen a Bill which, so far as I am concerned, more truly represents practical practising Christianity. But more than this, I am sure we shall wish to congratulate the most reverend Primate—as representative of the Church of England—and all the Churches of other denominations equally concerned, on working together to solve their common problems in this sphere, and on arriving at this practicable and enlightened measure. Listening to the Archbishop's exposition of the Bill one was conscious of the very large number of legal as well as ecclesiastical problems which had to be overcome, which I am sure could not have been overcome unless there had been the best of leadership, a complete absence of bigotry and the utmost good will and patience.

The most reverend Primate did not claim for this Bill any major advance towards ecumenism. But whatever it may contribute towards that movement it surely marks the progress that has already been made, because a Bill of this kind would, I feel sure, have been impossible even two or three years ago; that it should have become possible now must be a matter of particular satisfaction to Christian opinion in this country which has that movement at heart.

But, my Lords, it is less, as it were, from the spiritual than from the strictly practical standpoint that the Bill has been commended to us and is to be welcomed. Provided the opportunities for sharing are taken up by the various denominations it will mean that in our new towns and areas of redevelopment, where land is at a premium, overlapping and duplication of buildings will be avoided, and economies, not only in land but in money, material and labour, will be effected. And, more than that, as the most reverend Primate suggested, a sense of united community purpose will be inculcated. I would hope that church buildings commonly used will provide a focal meeting point in the new housine areas, which is so necessary where families are moved to a new and therefore unfamiliar environment.

My Lords, the Government themselves have certain responsibilities in the sphere which this Bill covers. For example, in our prisons, where, of course, everyone is free to worship as he pleases, it has hitherto been the practice to provide in a prison two or more separate chapels. In our new prisons, however, we are providing a single church building capable of being used, either wholly or in part, by different denominations and we are doing this by providing within the single church building separate chapels and altars. The intentions of the Bill are therefore already being reflected in the Government's own practice in an area for which they are responsible.

I appreciate that there are difficulties, and perhaps in future there will be difficulties in carrying out the underlying purpose of the Bill. But I believe that, with good will on the part of all those concerned, this measure will ultimately be of great benefit to the Christian faith in this country, and for that reason I as an individual unreservedly welcome it. It is not for the Government to pronounce in any way on the spiritual purposes of the Churches; but what is proposed here accords closely with the social and economic objects we are pursuing. Therefore, in adding my own commendation of this Bill to that of the most reverend Primate, I should like to make it clear that this is a measure which the Government, as such, welcomes and will support.