HL Deb 16 July 1986 vol 478 cc960-4

7.7 p.m.

Lord Denham

My Lords, I have it in command from Her Majesty the Queen to acquaint the House that Her Majesty, having been informed of the purport of the Patronage (Benefices) Measure, has consented to place her prerogative and interest, so far as they are affected by the Measure, at the disposal of Parliament for the purposes of the Measure.

The Lord Bishop of Gloucester

rose to move, That this House do direct that, in accordance with the Church of England Assembly (Powers) Act 1919, the Measure be presented to Her Majesty for the Royal Assent.

The right reverend Prelate said: My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper. I hope it may be helpful to your Lordships if I explain briefly the background to this Measure and the main changes in the existing law which it proposes. May I say at the outset that it has no relevance or application to the appointment of bishops or other dignitaries in the Church but only to the appointment of incumbents; that is to say, the vicars or rectors of parishes.

It is a fairly long Measure. It contains 42 Clauses and 5 schedules, but a good deal of it is in fact tidying up the existing law and gathering into one place the accumulated legislation to do with patronage. It repeals 10 Acts or Measures and amends 25 others. One hopes that that in itself is advantageous to all concerned, and not least to private patrons and their solicitors who face the responsibility of making the appointment of a new incumbent to a parish. At the moment the existing law is scattered in many places. If this Measure is passed it should provide one compendium in which most of the existing law on patronage can be found and there will be a code of practice to help those who have to administer the Measure.

The Church has been divided for a long time over the principle of private patronage. Dr. Johnson declared in 1772: It should be settled one way or the other.". However, since then very little progress has been made, with the possible exception of a Measure in 1923 which forbade the sale of advowsons; that is to say, the right of patronage for money.

The Measure before us first appeared at the General Synod of 1978. In its original form it attempted to accommodate the divisions between those who wanted to retain private patronage and those who wanted to abolish it by giving to every parish the right to decide either to retain its patron or to opt for a quite different system of appointing a new incumbent. In that form of dual system the Measure was sent to the dioceses for their reactions. In the light of these the Synod decided that there was not sufficient support for proceeding even with the selective abolition of private patronage. So the present Measure retains private patronage in every case. No patron will be deprived of his patronage by the Measure and advowsons can still be freely transferred from one person to another.

The measure contains three innovations. The first provides for the creation and maintenance in each diocese of a central register of the patrons of the livings in that diocese. It may perhaps be a surprise to your Lordships that no such register exists at the present time, but it is so. Part I of the Measure lays down the regulations determining how the register shall be established, and once this has been done entry in the register will be effective proof of title to any patronage.

The second innovation is that although anyone can be a patron under the Measure, only an actual communicant member of the Church of England or of a church in communion with it can present a priest to the bishop for institution. The implication of this is that when a vacancy occurs in a parish the registered patron will be invited to make a declaration that he is a communicant member of the Church. If he (or she) is unable to make the declaration, he is to nominate someone of his own choosing to act for him in the vacancy who can so declare. It follows from this that the particular disabilities which up to now have been imposed only on Roman Catholics and Jews in this matter will disappear if the Measure is enacted.

I hope I shall not be wasting your Lordships' time by pointing out that a patron who cannot make the declaration does not thereby lose his status or rights as a patron. He merely renders himself unable to present the candidate for this particular vacancy in the parish for which he is responsible. If he becomes able at a later date to make the declaration, he can then act independently of any nominee. If he decided to give or bequeath his rights as a patron to some other member of his family or transfer them elsewhere where the declaration can be made, no nominee would be required. I believe it is right to say that in the General Synod there was widespread satisfaction that the peculiar disabilities which Roman Catholics and Jews have suffered in this matter in the past would be done away with by this new Measure. There was also a broad recognition that it is appropriate that the person who actually presents a new incumbent to the bishop and to the parish should himself or herself be a member of the Church of England.

The third innovation is that a patron under the new Measure is required to obtain the agreement of the churchwardens or some other representatives of the parish, as well as the agreement of the bishop, to his nomination before proceeding to offer the incumbency to the priest of his choice. Existing law gives the bishop little or no power in the matter and gives to the churchwardens only a limited right to make represent-ations against the patron's nominee if they so desire. It is, thankfully, now increasingly the practice for patrons to obtain the goodwill and agreement of both churchwardens and the bishop before proceeding to make an appointment, so that in most cases this new Measure will simply legalise existing practice.

Finally, I should perhaps report that at the final approval stage of this Measure in the General Synod in February last year the voting figures were 270 votes in favour and four against. Earlier this year the Ecclesiastical Committee of Parliament considered the Measure and found it to be expedient. I have pleasure, therefore, in commending it to your Lordships' House. I beg to move.

Moved, That this House do direct that, in accordance with the Church of England Assembly (Powers) Act 1919, the Measure be presented to Her Majesty for the Royal Assent.—(The Lord Bishop of Gloucester.)

7.15 p.m.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, I apologise for my voice, but I am suffering from a cold. I think I have to declare an interest because I am a financial adviser to Christ Church, Oxford, which, as the right reverend Prelate will know, is a substantial holder of patronages. Having said that, I hope it will not deflect the comments that I should like to make on the Measure.

The register is obviously welcome. The restriction of the ability to present an incumbent to the bishop by communicants is also obviously welcome, as is what the right reverend Prelate said about lining up the legislation with that prevailing in the case of Roman Catholics and Jews.

With regard to the consultation with the parochial church council, I should like to ask the right reverend Prelate two questions concerning Clause 11 of the Measure. Clause 11 sets out the requirements as to meetings of the parochial church council. The parochial church council shall have a meeting to allow the, preparing [of] a statement describing the conditions, needs and traditions of the parish". That is subsection (1)(a). Subsection (1)(e) reads: deciding whether to request a statement in writing from the bishop describing in relation to the benefice the needs of the diocese and the wider interests of the Church". My question in respect of both these statements is this. What are the responsibilities? What responsibilities does the Church place on the parochial church council and on the bishop of the diocese to ensure that these statements are (if I may use prospectus-type language) "a true and fair view" of what is happening in the parish? It is not for me to go into the various arrange-ments that different political parties make about their selections, but I have known parties which from time to time in inviting candidates to apply have written reports about their own constituencies which bear little relationship to the truth of the matter.

I suspect that there may be in some unknown world—I am myself a member of a parochial church council and it is not in my world—a parochial church council which might prepare a statement, describing the conditions, needs and traditions of the parish". That bears little relationship to the reality of events. I hope that the right reverend Prelate can give us some assurance on that.

The second point is the question of what the bishop should say when he is requested to prepare a statement in writing describing in relation to the benefice, the needs of the diocese and the wider interests of the Church". It is well known in your Lordship's House that the wider interests of the Church range across a very considerable spectrum. How is the general public, and how are we as practising members of the Church of England, to determine that the bishop is writing a statement on the needs of the diocese and the wider interests on the Church that truly reflects not a sectarian point of view but the wider interests of the Church? I should be grateful if the right reverend Prelate can comment on that.

Having said all that, speaking as one of those communicants whom I hope in the course of time will be able to present an incumbent I wish the Measure well and should not stand in its way.

The Lord Bishop of Gloucester

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his comments. I shall do my best to answer at rather short notice the important points he raises about Clause 11. It may help to refer him to subsection (1) (d), which states that the parochial church council, as well as preparing its own statement of the conditions, needs and traditions of the parish and deciding whether to request a statement in writing from the bishop, is also to decide, whether to request a meeting under section 12". The meeting under Clause 12, if requested by any of the parties concerned, brings together in one place the representatives of the parish, the bishop and the faithful for some kind of discussion. One can only hope that by bringing what might be contrasting, if not conflicting, interpretations of the particular needs of this parish, and perhaps even the wider interests of the Church as well, some near approximation to the truth may emerge simply by coming together. It would in fact be a kind of synod because a synod is technically a coming together of different points of view. But there is no way in which—there is no final court of adjudication, I believe, by which—these statements of the perceived needs of the situation can be judged, as it were, objectively. Clearly, there will be a code of practice which will obviously guide a PCC in the kind of comments that they would be asked to make under 11 (a).

They will be encouraged to take a broader view, for example, than the very narrow needs which the individual members of that council may have. I fully recognise, as I think would most bishops, that it is unhappily possible for a parish to become almost in the grip of a small clique who may comprise the majority of the church council at that time. One can only hope that the patron, taking advice also from the bishop and others, may be guided not to give too much weight to such a narrow view. So although I am afraid that I cannot offer from the Measure any kind of final arbiter in these matters, one hopes that good sense and a bringing together of the parties would succeed.

As to whether the bishop can safely be relied upon to voice at the meeting the wider interests of the Church, something of the same subjectivity of course applies; but I suppose that it is part of the theological tradition of any episcopal church that bishops stand for and symbolise the wider Church—indeed, the whole catholic church—and it is at least their responsibility to bear in mind in all they do the needs of the whole Church rather than one segment of it.

What are partly involved here would be such factors as the ecumenical situation in that particular town or parish, the needs perhaps of priests returning from overseas who need to find appointments in the Church of England on their return. There are a number of ways in which a bishop inevitably sees a slightly wider scene than those whose jobs it is simply to represent the parish. I think that that is the underlying suggestion here. An episcopal church, unlike a congregational church, needs to have a slightly broader perspective in making appointments than simply: "Who would be the best man to serve our parish?" That in the end would be simply a congregationalist approach; and an episcopal church always, I think, will try to look a little wider than that. I hope that those are in some way suitable responses.

On Question, Motion agreed to.