HL Deb 28 March 1972 vol 329 cc1013-20

6.11 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, I welcome the opportunity of saying a few words in support of this Bill. I am extremely grateful to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford, and to other noble Lords who have kindly indicated their intention to speak on this Bill. I am very much aware that the subject uppermost in the minds of many to-day is not this Bill but the situation in Northern Ireland and the Bill that is to be debated in this House to-morrow. Having heard very much—perhaps over-much—about religious conflict in Northern Ireland, I hope it is not inappropriate to turn our attention briefly to a Bill which endorses a small but quite important step towards Christian unity.

This Bill marks one of the final stages in the uniting of the Presbyterian Church of England and the Congregational Church in England and Wales. It is not a mandatory Bill and it does not compel anyone to join or to unite with a particular Church: it is an enabling Bill. An Act of Parliament is required to give legal effect to the alteration of trusts and other changes necessary to carry out the expressed wish of the large majority of Congregationalists and English Presbyterians. That is the object of this Bill.

Although I have been interested in the fortunes of the Bill from the outset I did not comment on it at Second Reading, but thought it would perhaps be more fitting to await the Third Reading. I knew that a Petition had been entered against certain parts of the Bill, which would be considered by a Select Committee, and I was quite content that this should be left to the Select Committee. The Bill has now been carefully examined and reported, with Amendments. I urge that it be supported in this House. The Bill is of some considerable historic importance. This is the first union of two Churches of different denominational traditions in these Islands since the time of the Reformation.

Perhaps I should say just a word about nomenclature. The Congregationalists were originally called "Independents", so that the word "Congregationalists" is a comparatively modern one. I do not think there is any great enthusiasm over the name of the new United Church, but one had to consider a name which was not too long, and the words chosen indicate a link with Churches on the Continent and also farther afield. In the seventeenth century attempts were made to bring together the Presbyterians and the Independents, but without success. New attempts were made early in this century, again without success; but in recent years there has been a marked change of climate, and the task was therefore easier. Nevertheless, I think that a tribute is due to those who have served on the Joint Committee and taken part in the joint conversations which have led to a successful conclusion. After all the talk about the need for greater unity, it is satisfactory to be able to refer to a case where something has actually happened—and the fact that it has happened is, I think, significant.

As I have already said, Parliament is being asked to give legal effect to decisions already arrived at. The Scheme of Union very properly required evidence of substantial support, which was forthcoming. All the 14 Presbyteries voted in favour of unity and only two Presbyterian congregations exercised their right to opt out. All the Congregational County Unions voted in favour; 73.7 per cent. of the individual Congregational Churches did so, and 82.2 per cent, of the membership of the Congregational Churches voted in favour. That represented more than the required majorities. Adequate provision is made in the Scheme for the non-united Churches and also for the division of funds. That will be overlooked and examined by the Charity Commission. Those Churches opting out will have the opportunity of joining later if they so wish.

It is perhaps important just to note that this Union is not regarded as an end in itself. If I may say so, the Scheme is open-ended and there is provision for other Churches to join and for further conversations to take place. It is not for me to comment on the Anglican/Methodist conversations and the voting which is taking place. But whatever the outcome of those discussions, representatives of this united Congregational/Presbyterian Church will be ready and willing at an appropriate time to enter into discussions with a view to a further move towards Church unity. To the on-looker, this must seem desperately slow, but of course the differences that have given rise to the creation of separate Churches are the result of views very strongly and sincerely held.

Before I sit down, I should like to make one comment of my own on this Bill. I believe that there is a distinction to be made between unity and uniformity. I cannot foresee the time when everyone will hold precisely the same beliefs or, for that matter, precisely the same non-beliefs. I cannot foresee the time when everyone will travel the same road in the search for Truth. There are hound to be differences, and I would much rather that were so than that no one cared one way or the other. But it seems to me that theological differences to-day cut right across denominational boundaries and that the real issues now have little or nothing to do with our present denominational dividing lines. In fact, denominational divisions are in many respects irrelevant. I say that as one whose independent forebears suffered many handicaps and hardships as a consequence of their unwillingness to accept the authority of an established Church. My Lords, I think I have said enough. I commend this Bill to your Lordships' House and I hope that it will have an easy passage through the other place.

6.20 p.m.


My Lords, I am very glad indeed to be able to follow the noble Lord, Lord Wade, who has given us such valuable information about the Bill now before your Lordships. All I would like to do is to add my voice as representing the Prelates of the Established Church of England, in congratulating the united bodies on the happy conclusion of their legislation in this Bill. It has been quite a long and, I believe, happy courtship. If you have read your background material about this Bill you may know that the Churches started "walking out" in 1933, and they became "engaged"—I think I am right in saying—in 1951, so you cannot say that this legislation of the union of the two Churches is a hasty marriage.

On February 17 I was present in your Lordships' House when the Bill was read for a second time, and the right reverend Prelate, the Lord Bishop of Coventry, then said how glad he was that there was going to be a great service in Westminster Abbey. May I, if it is not out of order, say that we should like to congratulate the new United Church on its first President-elect, the Reverend John Huxtable, who for so long has been distinguished in ecumenical circles far beyond the two uniting Churches. It has been said that every scheme of reunion of Churches that is successfully carried through advances the hope of reunion of the whole of Christendom. We therefore may be grateful to the Congregational Church in England and Wales and the Presbyterian Church of England for the lead that they are giving. I am sure that your Lordships will approve the Bill before us and wish the uniting Churches well.

6.22 p.m.


My Lords, I must ask the indulgence of your Lordships' House. This is Holy Week and I suppose that is a very suitable time for doing a good thing, and I am quite satisfied that it is a very good thing that this Bill invites your Lordships to do. But Holy Week carries with it the obligations on such as myself of conducting devotional services, one of which I have to attend immediately, and I hope that your Lordships will understand. As the representative of the Methodist Church I want to add my congratulations and good wishes, and my commendation of this Bill, to the words which have already been said so eloquently and movingly by the two previous speakers. We in Methodism are not unaware of the ecumenical movement and, as the noble Lord, Lord Wade, said, we are in ecclesiastical cahoots with our friends of the Establishment and we very much hope that in a very short time from now there will be such a substantial vote that we shall be able to copy and follow in the steps of this most excellent coming together of two Churches with both of which Methodism has much in common and very great respect.

There are those outside who would think that this is a prudential measure in days of great stress. Well, perhaps it is. There are others who will think that this is a pis-aller and probably a last dying gesture on the part of a declining nonconformity. I will not enter into that question, although I am satisfied that the City of God remaineth. In any case I am in "sales" rather than "management". One of the things which I am sure will flow from this particular coming together will be an enlargement of our "Common Market". I hope very much that as Methodists we shall be the beneficiaries also of this enlargement and reunification of the evangelical message, at a time when I, for one, am satisfied that it is desperately needed. We wish well to those who have already shown the way to some of us laggards in the recovery of the unbroken body of Christ. It is with that in mind, and with that in heart, that I commend most heartily this Bill to your Lordships, and say how eagerly we shall seek to follow in the steps of our denominational friends in the independency and in the Presbyterian framework of denominationalism, and how much we hope that this will be the bellwether and forerunner of even greater and more comprehensive attempts to bring together those who believe in the Christian faith that they may more adequately present its unbroken message to a broken world.

6.25 p.m.


My Lords, as a member of the other Established Church in this United Kingdom I should like to join with the right reverend Prelate in welcoming this Bill. I, as a Scot, support this Bill, fully conscious that in the past thousand years of Church history no country has been more addicted to seism than my native land. Perhaps that is why the negotiations for union between the Congregational Church of Scotland and the Church of Scotland are for the moment in abeyance. However, hope springs eternal in the ecumenical breast. We can detect certain slight breezes blowing over Scotland. There are hopeful signs in the multilateral conversations which are just about to produce a report—a long report, as you would expect from ecclesiastical Scotland. The remit has been to prepare a basis for a plan among the six major non-Catholic Churches. This union of the Congregational and Presbyterian Churches in England will undoubtedly provide a stimulus to these conversations and ultimately, we hope, to church unity in Scotland. Unfortunately in Britain the ecumenical movement has much less impact than in many other countries where Christian unity is far more evident; hence the step, as the noble Lord, Lord Wade, has said, is not merely historic as the material provision for the first union of two separate communions in these Islands, but it is also a real incentive to the other Christian Churches in this land to take courage and do likewise.

In conclusion, may I revert to a very Presbyterian point of view. Through the Moderator of the General Assembly, the Church of Scotland are making clear how much we welcome this initiative, and how we join in the prayers for its success in furthering the Christian message throughout the Kingdom of England.

6.27 p.m.


My Lords, I hope that it will not be thought impertinent for a Roman Catholic to join in the welcome that has been extended to this Bill. I was just now advised by a friend—not a Roman Catholic—that we may be actuated by an instinct of self-preservation; the thought might occur to us that unless we got moving we should be left on our own. Be that as it may, quite dispassionately, in a general desire to encourage Christianity in all its forms, any Roman Catholic must be very pleased to see this day. I can speak for no-one except myself and possibly my noble friend Lady Phillips. I am sure she will allow me to speak for her. At any rate, let us say that all Roman Catholics here and elsewhere will be pleased to see this Bill. I do not know whether my old and dear friend Dr. Micklem has had anything to do with this; he used to be a very tough negotiator in the old days. When I was a Labour candidate for Oxford he was president of the Oxford City Liberal Party and we used to have endless discussions with regard to some amalgamation or co-ordination between our forces. These negotiations never got anywhere because the war came and that swept us away. I like to think that this day will rejoice Dr. Micklem and other great Congregationalists and Presbyterians.

In this age when so many things are either going wrong, or appear to be going wrong, and certainly giving us great anxiety—not least in Northern Ireland—it is a fine, encouraging thought, and a fine reflection that everywhere, even in Northern Ireland, the Churches are coming together. If anybody said, "What is the best thing that has happened in this sinful world in the past 15 years?" I would have no doubt at all in saying that it is the development of the ecumenical movement, and this Bill and this day make their contribution. I offer my heartiest congratulations to all those concerned.

6.30 p.m.


My Lords, there is of course no Party line on this measure, but I hope that the speeches of my noble friends Lord Longford and Lord Soper have made perfectly clear that we on these Benches, of all denominations and probably of no denomination, welcome very much this ecumenical Bill which is before your Lordships' House. We welcome particularly the spirit which prompted it. The Preamble to the Bill, in paragraph 7, makes clear that the Churches themselves firmly believe that what they are proposing is the will of God. The noble Lord, Lord Wade, referred to Northern Ireland, and it recalled to me lines which I think many of your Lordships also will recall, the lines of Chesterton in Lepanto, where he wrote: The North is full of tangled things and texts and aching eyes And dead is all the innocence of anger and surprise, And Christian killeth Christian in a narrow dusty room …". To me, those are sad lines which epitomise the tragedy of the crimes which have been committed, and which are still threatened, in Northern Ireland in the name of religion.

The measure before us, on the other hand, providing for the merging of two Churches, each with so long a tradition of democratic practice and humane social service, is in marked contrast with the sectarianism which in the past has done so much harm and destroyed so much that was good. Therefore, my Lords, we on these Benches welcome the removal of one obstable to what the noble Lord, Lord Wade, called the Christian unity, and we extend to the members of the two Churches, and particularly to Dr. Huxtable, our appreciation of all that they have achieved in the past and our best wishes for the work which they have to do in the years that lie ahead.


My Lords. I am grateful to all the noble Lords who have spoken and to the right reverend Prelate for their comments on the Bill, which I am sure will be studied with great interest and satisfaction by the Promoters and those who are affected by its provisions.

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