HL Deb 20 January 1971 vol 314 cc485-501

2.41 p.m.

LORD GRANTCHESTER rose to move that, in the opinion of this House, the time has come to consider whether the Church of England should continue to be established, and that a reasonable way of terminating establishment would me—

  1. (a) for the Crown to relinquish its power to appoint bishops and dignitaries;
  2. (b) for the General Synod set up by the Measure of 1969 to be the governing body of the Church, and to have power to make appointments and to give directions on Church finances and management;
  3. (c) for Church law to be no longer the law of the land but to have private status, and for the General Synod to have power to modify such law;
  4. (d) for all Church property to be taken over by the Church Commissioners;
  5. 486
  6. (e) for existing positions in the Church (including seats in the House of Lords) to be preserved for their present holders; and
  7. (f) for compensation to be paid, subject to arbitration, to anyone damnified by the end of establishment if he wishes to claim it;
that a Bill should be introduced on these lines without undue delay, so that Parliamentary and public opinion may be tested; and that accordingly an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying for Her consent to the introduction of such a Bill.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, although the Motion which I have the honour to move to-day is in no sense a Party issue, my noble friends have been good enough to give up a day which would have been allocated to a Liberal Motion, and I should like to express my thanks to them for so doing. As any Bill affecting the Establishment of the Church of England must involve Her Majesty's Royal Prerogative, I am following the courteous tradition of your Lordships' House in praying for Her Majesty's consent to the introduction of such a Bill. This is, no doubt, more a question of form and timing than of substance to-day, but that is of the essence of courtesy.

In my opinion these matters can only be properly discussed in the context of proposals set out in a Bill. Only so, if we are not to prejudge the issues, can the actual provisions be considered, modified or rejected, as your Lordships may wish, in due course. It seemed to me unreasonable to ask for consent for the introduction of a Bill without indicating at least that no attack, either upon the Church or upon its endowments, was in my mind. I hope no noble Lord will feel it necessary to divide the House to-day, which at this stage would appear as but a rebuff to courtesy. While on reasons for this Motion, may I offer a personal explanation in the nature of an apology for the inadequacies there must be in my presentation of so difficult and complex a subject? In mitigation, may I say that I have felt myself impelled to this course by a curious sequence of approaches, starting some ten years ago when a friend of mine, a distinguished Frenchman with whom I had often talked economics, urged me to give thought to new concepts of the role of the Church, the importance and urgency of which had been emphasised to him personally by Pope John XXIII. It seemed to me proper to await the conclusions reached by the Council that was being summoned by Pope John, but by 1968 I could find no more excuses for ignoring the reminders which came to me.

When I first mentioned to the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury my desire to introduce a Bill on this subject, which after many discussions I felt was necessary, he said he would feel it impossible to take part in a Second Reading debate until he had been able to study the Report of the Commission on the relations between Church and State, appointed in 1965, which he expected would be available in 1971. I understood the importance of what he said. I also readily agreed to the postponement of this Motion because the most reverend Primate considered your Lordships would wish to have had the opportunity of reading this Commission's Report. Although the Report of the Commission was published last month, I understand that there has as yet been no opportunity for full discussion on it in the General Synod. Perhaps it is not inappropriate that the first preliminary discussion on the matters raised should take place in Parliament, where responsibility still rests. There will be the opportunity for a full discussion next month in the General Synod before a Second Reading debate could take place on the Bill I should like to introduce for your Lordships' consideration. I think the wish of the most reverend Primate has been fully met.

My Lords, I am sure it will be said by some, as one of my noble friends was told recently, that a subject of this importance and complexity involving, it may be suggested, a constitutional issue, cannot be dealt with satisfactorily in a Bill presented by a Back Bench Member of this House. Yet on many occasions, Governments have shown that they welcome initiatives from the Back Benches when they do not consider that an important Party issue arises. We know they often provide the help and facilities which are necessary to make such a Bill satisfactory, and I hope that I may be given such assistance in due course. May I here suggest, with respect, that the constitutional issue, if there was one, distinct from the provisions of the Act of Supremacy, was quietly disposed of in 1914 when the Royal Assent was given to the Welsh Disestablishment Act.

There would be one other possible way of raising this question in your Lordship's House; that is, in a Bill sponsored by the most reverend Primate. He might hesitate, out of a sense of modesty, to include some of the provisions indicated in this Motion, which he was good enough to term very generous. Nor do I think the Report, or rather the three Reports, of the Commission to which I have referred can be of any great encouragement to him. I cannot believe he really thinks that the recommendation of the eight members or of the five would contribute to the dignity either of the State or of the Church. The plan of the eight members is for freedom for worship and doctrine while neutralising the influence of the Prime Minister on Church appointments and with complex restrictions through the continued intermingling of Church and State law, to which Chapter V and Appendix A of the Report are devoted. The plan of the five includes a naïve constitutional novelty to by-pass the Prime Minister in making Church appointments. Perhaps we can assume from the silence of the most reverend Primate to-day that he does not wish to defend either of these plans. My Lords, there was really, in my opinion, no other way of ensuring that this matter was brought urgently to the attention of your Lordships as one of pressing importance.

I do not think I need take up much time elaborating on the points set out in the Motion. The purpose of my proposals would be to transfer the government of the Church of England to representatives of that Church as a whole, meeting as the General Synod set up by the Measure of 1969. As your Lordships know, that consists of three Houses, Bishops, Clergy and Laity, and contains a big element of elected representatives. If there is a field where Her Majesty's Government should put into practice its desire for "less government" and "for withdrawal" surely this is one of the most appropriate. If there is one group of people who should be encouraged to accept responsibility for the conduct of their own affairs, it is the Anglican Church. The thinking behind my proposals is very similar to the plan of the third Report of the Archbishop's Commission. They would do no more than is necessary to clear the decks, if I may use this expression. The General Synod, and indeed every member of the Church of England, would be entrusted with a great and art enthralling task; to formulate its rules, regulations and procedures understandable in the language of to-day; to modernise its organisation and its institutions.

It is most important in this context for the Synod to look at, settle and keep under constant review the priorities on its funds in the light of changing habits and current needs; for example, it may be more important for a parish priest to spend time to-day talking with an individual or a group than in preparing Of delivering a fine sermon in an empty church. If the people are not coming to the Church, surely the Church has to go out to the people. The Synod will have to review and revise its liturgy in modern English to express the faith for which it stands and the mystery which is enshrined within the Church as a whole of which it is part. I know there are people who do not much like the idea of modern English in church, but I think the Revised Standard Version of the Bible has shown that modern English can be as beautiful as the Authorised Version to which we have become so accustomed.

The Synod can, I believe, take courage from the achievements of Vatican II, and the achievements of the group of Bishops in the Netherlands who, following the work of Vatican II, prepared the new Dutch Catechism and agreed to its annex. It may not be without interest to the right reverend Prelates present that, when confronted by the doubts and difficulties many serious students feel to-day, this is the book to which I have found it most helpful to refer them. I noticed the advice given in an article written for The Times by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark, that there is so much work for the Church to do that it would be wasting valuable time to occupy our thoughts with our own internal problems. They are, I suggest, with respect, more than that and cannot be wished away. I myself do not believe that the problems facing the Church of England will be tackled with any vigour or enthusiasm until Parliament places this responsibility firmly upon the representatives of the Church.

I have said sufficient, I think, to show that I am hoping for a more revolutionary overhaul than the Commission envisages, with the exception of Miss Valerie Pitt who makes a refreshing contribution in dissent from her more complacent colleagues. With her, I do not believe that this can come under the aegis of establishment and it was made very clear by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Stepney in a recent broadcast that this was his view. The only sense of interest or of care for the innovations of some of the more thoughtful of the younger generation appears in the appeal of Miss Valerie Pitt that the Church should help to build local and limited allegiances into the catholic order of the whole Body of Christ". I used the word "innovations" for that is the way they are seen through the eyes of the Establishment. In reality they are examples of the continuous search for truth and love in the simplicity of their gospel origins. The Church is dependent for its renewal upon such movements. Over the years, and I will not go too far back, the Anglican Church has rather a dismal record of failure to stretch out a sympathetic or helping hand in time—and I emphasise "in time"—to dissidents, whether it be to a John Wesley, to a Newman or to a J. N. Darby. Vatican II has set a pattern of more forward thinking in the Roman Church.

I should not like to see any Government take advantage of the ending of Establishment to diminish the financial resources of the Church. If it finds its comparative affluence a hindrance to its spiritual influence—as some do—it can consult Her Majesty's Treasury or the Charity Commissioners. But as I have already indicated, it is desirable that the Synod, possibly through a strong committee, should exercise a much more detailed supervision over its substantial resources and ensure that these are used to rekindle a missionary zeal in its work. Nor would I like to see, on the passing of a Bill to end the Establishment, the most reverend Primate and his Bishops leave your Lordships' House abruptly feeling rejected. I am suggesting to your Lordships that no newly appointed Bishops should have a right by virtue of the holding of any office to sit in your Lordships' House.

In future, any special relationship by law established having been discarded, it would be for Her Majesty, on the advice of the Prime Minister of the day, to summon to this House as Life Peers, individuals of any Communion who might be considered able by virtue of their calling to advise your Lordships upon matters on which they could speak with some special knowledge. At a time when the values which are part of our heritage are under challenge, it is important, in my view, that what is relevant in these values should be defended on the broadest scale, and this is where a greater measure of unity in presenting the Church's message would be welcome. A similar recommendation is made by the Archbishops' Commission, but the maintenance of any special relationship with one Communion would make it impossible for the representatives of any other Communion to co-operate on an equal basis.

If such fundamental changes involving the devolution from the State to the Church of all matters affecting the worship and doctrine of the Church are generally acceptable, and indeed considered essential, what is left of the Establishment? The Commission itself poses this question as have several commentators upon its Report. The answer, I think, is two things. There is the divisive element of the special relationship of the State to the Church of England and the law with all the complexities to which I have already referred. Failure by the Commission to agree on the range of the change necessary in the relationship between Church and State prevented agreement on a method of selecting those suitable for high appointments in the Church. The Commission for the same reason had to ignore the second part of its terms of reference which was, to take account of steps to promote greater unity between the Churches". Half the members pointed out on page 43 that the proposals of the other half would make, "reunion with anyone impossible".

Knowing that the scandal (and that is not my word) of division among Christians is probably the greatest stumbling block to the young of to-day, as also to many not so young, I can but express surprise that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester—and I have told the right reverend Prelate that I would ask him about this—could sign a Report which five of his colleagues on the Commission said rendered "re-union with anyone impossible". The reason would appear to be the fears of the timid, who believe that the Church of England must continue to be propped up by the State in order to mean something culturally, if not religiously, to those who are not attracted to its support. My Lords, relying not on the State but on its mission and a vision which is not expressed entirely in terms of this world, there is a field for work on the Church's doorstep.

May I be permitted to say at this point that had I not been convinced that a Bill on the lines indicated in the Motion before us was a necessary prerequisite to the search for greater unity among all Christians, I would not have asked for your Lordships' assistance to-day. In 1962, Pope John XXIII, in addressing the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, stressed that one of its principal aims should be to promote the restoration of unity among all Christians. The most reverend Primate has used similar words. No one should underrate the difficulties, but no one can deny the importance of this task to which we are all called.

My Lords, I believe that one consideration is chiefly responsible for the hesitation shown in some quarters in England, including part of the membership of the Archbishop's Commission, and I should like before I finish to face this question. It is a question raised in many letters of support which I have received. In the event of the repeal of the Act of Supremacy, which I feel sure the most reverend Primate would not wish to defend on theological grounds, what role could the Sovereign play in the Church without impeding progress towards the greater unity desired?—and these are words which were actually written to me by one leading women's organisation in the country. My answer to these inquiries has been that this will become a personal matter for consideration between Her Majesty and the Churches and that I was sure Her Majesty would wish to continue to associate herself with the life and work of the Church in England (and I stress, "in England") as I would prefer to refer to something bigger and more significant than any one Communion.

Her Majesty carries the title of "Defender of the Faith", which goes back to the days of a less divided Church, and perhaps this still expresses best the duty which Her Majesty owes to her Christian subjects and the gratitude and loyalty they feel to Her Majesty. It is true that we are conscious that we are divided by differences of emphasis on aspects of that faith as well as by wide differences in our understanding of its full meaning, the resolution of which we cannot at the moment foresee. We may hope, however, that in humility we may come to learn from each other.

My Lords, may I conclude my argument for the ending of the Establishment by law of the Church of England by quoting again from the broadcast interview by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Stepney, who said: It would mean that the Church would be free to be itself".

Only Parliament can give the Church of England this opportunity. We can do no more to help; we should do no less. So, my Lords, in the words of the Motion, I move to pray for Her Majesty's consent to the introduction of a Bill, which I should like to submit for your Lordships' consideration. I beg to move.

Moved, That, in the opinion of this House, the time has come to consider whether the Church of England should continue to be established, and that a reasonable way of terminating establishment would be—

  1. (a) for the Crown to relinquish its power to appoint bishops and dignitaries:
  2. (b) for the General Synod set up by the Measure of 1969 to be the governing body of the Church, and to have power to make appointments and to give directions on Church finances and management;
  3. (c) for Church law to be no longer the law of the land but to have private status, and for the General Synod to have power to modify such law;
  4. (d) for all Church property to be taken over by the Church Commissioners;
  5. 494
  6. (e) for existing positions in the Church (including seats in the House of Lords) to be preserved for their present holders; and
  7. (f) for compensation to be paid, subject to arbitration, to anyone damnified by the end of establishment if he wishes to claim it;
that a Bill should be introduced on these lines without undue delay, so that Parliamentary and public opinion may be tested; and that accordingly an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying for Her consent to the introduction of such a Bill.—(Lord Grantchester.)

3.18 p.m.


My Lords, when I served at the Commonwealth Office I came to know and to respect the quite impressive concern which the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, displayed on issues for which Parliament had responsibility but little fashionable interest. I therefore listened with especial care to what he had to say to-day. Here again he showed an unmistakably sincere concern, and again on an issue for which there is undoubtedly Parliamentary responsibility but no discernible passion. To the extent that by initiating this discussion the noble Lord helps to remedy a situation in which the community at large are, as the Report puts it, "uninterested and uninformed", the noble Lord is to be warmly thanked. To the extent, too, that he calls attention to the existence of the Report of the Commission, he will have rendered a great service. The document, in my view, is one of great clarity and integrity—clarity of language and thought, if not of clear unity of recommendation—and it deserves to have the widest possible readership.

My Lords, though I speak on behalf of my Party, the House will not be surprised to hear that I do not offer any Party policy with regard to Church and State. If and when this question comes before the House in any crucial form it will be a matter for all on this side, and I have no doubt on other sides, too, to decide on an individual basis. On the principles involved in the Motion before the House it will be for my colleagues to assess and to decide without guidance or advice from me. On the narrower question of the permission to present a Bill I shall have something to say later.

Meanwhile, on the wider issues it may be that I can offer, humbly I hope, a limited number of observations of my own.

First, I share the distaste of the Commission for the term "establishment". It is an emotive term. It does the Anglican Church no good at all. It is responsible for misunderstanding, if not for downright antagonism. Indeed, there was one member of my Party who last week said to me that he was against the establishment of the Church of England because he thought it involved financial support of the Church by the State through taxation. But although I believe the term "establishment" to be a liability, at the same time I think it would be wrong to speak of disestablishment as if it meant the State disowning the Church. I do not think that it would be good for the nation to give the impression that, as a deliberate act, the majority of people in the country wish to dissociate themselves from a Church, if not from a religion. At this point of time it would be a mistake for the State to cut adrift from organised Christianity when so many people, against the trend of events, are trying hard to hold on to things of genuine value. It would be misinterpreted, and it would give comfort to all those who apparently seek a complete free-for-all in matters of morality.

My inclination, therefore, is for a course of action which favours reform but not complete severance. What are the matters on which reform is needed? Here I must say that I find myself much more in sympathy with the majority recommendations of the Report than with the Bill which the noble Lord has outlined in his Motion. If I thought it almost inevitable, as Miss Pitt puts it in her Minority Memorandum, that an established Church must place too heavy an emphasis on structures and institutions rather than on the people in common life, I would take a different view. But I cannot see that the structural changes which she envisages or which the noble Lord envisages would necessarily create the new spirit needed.

I am less confident than the noble Lord about the appointment of Bishops. The differing arguments that are set out in the Report about the procedures of appointment seem to be almost equally valid. I can well see the illogicality of having the Prime Minister make unadvised recommendations to the Crown if the Prime Minister of the day happens to be a declared agnostic. On the other hand, the system of recommendations through "No. 10" has its merits. I am impressed by the point made in Paragraph 17 of the Report that ecclesiastical elections tend to produce safe men. Certainly it seems true that within my lifetime some of the most outstanding leaders in the Church of England would never have reached the eminence they did, and probably would not have made the impact they made, if appointments had been left entirely to the Church. On balance, therefore, illogical as it may seem, I think that there would be advantage in leaving the Prime Minister as the channel through whom names are tendered to the Crown.

I am more certain about the need to strengthen and extend the moves already made to vest responsibility for forms of worship and doctrine in the Church itself. I cannot see that the dignity of Church or State is served by having disputes among Members of Parliament, of all sects and creeds or of none, about the form of worship in an Anglican Church. I should have no difficulty, therefore, in accepting the implications of Recommendation No. 1 in the Report's Summary in Chapter 7. I must also say that I found myself much more in sympathy with the discreet treatment by the Report of the issue of seats for Bishops in this House than with the uncompromising terms of the noble Lord's Motion. I should have thought that if we were considering the termination of establishment, as the Motion says, we ought not to say quite so dogmatically that the conditions should include the preservation of seats in the House of Lords for all present occupants.

The Report refers to the White Paper on House of Lords Reform published by the previous Government. I think it is fairly safe to say that if, prior to the compilation of that White Paper, there had been a reconstitution of the Anglican Church, and particularly if there had been progress towards unity of different Churches, then the terms of the White Paper on this point would have been different. I can well conceive that we should have moved toward a position in which respected figures from all Churches would sit in this House on the same basis as other Life Peers, and not, if I may say so without any intended disrespect, as ex-officio representatives of a particular Church.

Following from that, I notice that the Motion permits reference to what the Report calls the "oddity" of the disqualification of Anglican clergymen as far as membership of the Lower House of Parliament is concerned. There are, in my view, arguments against, as well as for, the proposition that Ministers of religion should go out on the hustings and offer themselves for election as Members of Parliament, but there can surely be no argument for the legal position as at present it stands. One would hope that, as the Report recommends, if there are to be reforms, then the opportunity should be taken to lift the legal embargo on particular clergy of a particular Church from sitting in a particular House of Parliament.

My Lords, I have said earlier that it is not for me, speaking for my Party, to advise my noble friends as to how they should vote on the issue of the relationship of Church and State. What, however, we shall be voting upon this evening, if the noble Lord presses his Motion to a Division, is whether leave should be given to bring in a particular Bill. This, I think, is a separate matter to which we should give careful consideration. I do not think that we have as yet reached a stage where a Bill ought to be considered. There needs to be much more discussion outside. The Church itself at the various representative levels has not yet considered the Report of the Commissioners. Their discussions and opinions ought to be available to this House before any legislation is considered. I hope myself that, as well as the discussions intended in the various synods, it will be possible to stimulate interest among members of the congregations who normally do not play an active part in the administration of the Church.

I myself should wish to know much more about the reaction of the other Churches to these various proposals before I was asked to take any decision in a Division Lobby. I very much hope—and in this I share the feelings expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester— that nothing will be done with regard to the constitutional position of the Church of England which will set back in any way the possibility of union as between the Anglican Church and other Churches in the country. For all these reasons, therefore, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, having given us his most valued and valuable opinion, will see fit not to press his Motion to a Division. But if there is a Division, for my part I shall vote against his Motion.

3.30 p.m.


My Lords, I thought that it might be for the convenience of your Lordships if I were to intervene fairly early in this debate and give some indication of the attitude of the Government towards the Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester. The subject of the relations between the Established Church and the State is one of immense intricacy and difficulty. Some measure of its scope may be judged from the six headings listed in the noble Lord's Motion. He seeks the introduction of a Bill to give effect to those six proposals which, he suggests, would form a reasonable way of effecting the disestablishment of the Church. I suspect, and hope, that the noble Lord has brought this Motion before the House to-day less to urge the implementation of specific proposals than to test Parliamentary and public opinion. It is, however, the view of the Government that the present is not the right time for such a debate, and it is not my intention to-day to enter into any discussion of the merits of his proposals.

My Lords, the subject goes very much deeper than the Motion of the noble Lord might suggest. State and Church are linked in an intricate body of law much of which is centuries old and some of which originated in pre-Reformation days. Disestablishment requires detailed study in depth and cannot be decided by a series of quick decisions on separate issues. It is a question which, clearly must be related to changing times and circumstances.

During the 19th century the question of disestablishment of the Church often came before Parliament. It was not perhaps disestablishment as we think of it to-day, for the main issues were concerned with Ireland and with Scotland, where the circumstances were very different from those which applied in England. Nevertheless, separation of the Church of England was not far from the thoughts of the Parliaments of those days. One of the noble Lord's distinguished Liberal predecessors, Mr. Gladstone, stoutly defended the principle of establishment in his book, The State in its Relations with the Church, the opening sentence of which reads as follows: Probably there never was a time in the history of our country when the connection between the Church and the State was threatened from quarters so manifold and various as at present. My Lords, that was in 1838. But Mr. Gladstone came increasingly to believe that his theories were not of universal application. He supported separation in both Ireland and Scotland, but was by no means decided that this was the right policy for England.

I should not wish to suggest that we should be guided to-day by what Mr. Gladstone thought about the established Church of the 19th century, nor by the reasoning behind his conclusions. Relations between Church and State have altered radically since those days, and any comparison would be misleading. My purpose in referring to the past was merely to illustrate how the views of those who have thought deeply on this subject can change, and that there are some matters which are best left to the process of organic evolution. To attempt to force the pace is to invite decisions which may at best be arbitrary, and at worst disastrous; and it is the Government's view that the question of disestablishment falls into this category.

We have not debated this subject in your Lordships' House for very many years. It may be that the steady progress of legislation by Church Assembly Measures since the passing of the Church of England Assembly Powers Act in 1919 has something to do with that. The time may well be near when Parliamentary opinion should again be tested. We are, however, convinced that this moment has not yet arrived. The Church itself is by no means certain of its own attitude and has not yet had the opportunity to examine and reach firm conclusions on the many issues involved. It is therefore premature to bring the matter before your Lordships at this stage.

I say this, my Lords, in the light of the publication last month of the Report mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, entitled Church and State, by a Commission of the Archbishops on which two Members of your Lordships' House served. The Commission was set up by the Archbishops, and it is to them that the Report is addressed. It is not a Report to Parliament, nor to the Government, and in the view of the Government it is imperative that the Church should have the time and the opportunity to take soundings and to form its own conclusions on the recommendations of the Commission, and for your Lordships' House to have the opportunity of hearing the outcome of those deliberations before any firm attitudes are struck.

The noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, had the courtesy to give me notice of the fact that he will later on be supporting one recommendation of the Commission: that no one should be excluded by reason of being a minister of any Church from his right to stand as a candidate for Parliament and to take his seat in the House of Commons. This was a matter which also was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Beswick. My Lords, I doubt whether this point arises strictly on the Motion that we are debating; nor indeed is it properly a matter for your Lordships' House at all. In the recent past, at least, questions of disqualification of individuals from election to another place have been dealt with by a Select Committee in that place. This was the case when similar questions were raised in 1953 and 1956, and so I think it would be wrong for me to agree here and now to consider changes of the kind the noble Lord has in mind.

The work of this Commission took four years to complete and even then the members were far from unanimous in their conclusions and recommendations. It is clear that consideration of their proposals will be a lengthy process. The recently established General Synod of the Church of England provides a most suitable platform for the sounding of both clerical and lay opinion, and also for full discussion of all the intricacies of the subject in the light of the Commission's Report. I feel certain that the Archbishops will look to the Synod as the main means of consolidating the attitude of the Church. My Lords, until this has been done it would, in the view of the Government, be both premature and also unproductive to take the matter further; and for these reasons I would urge the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, to withdraw his Motion. Should he decide to press it, I can only advise your Lordships not to support it.

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