HL Deb 04 November 1986 vol 481 cc1046-57

4.37 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Rochester 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 have the honour to move that this Measure be presented for the Royal Assent on Friday next. If, as I hope, your Lordships pass this Motion you will be doing what 42 out of the 43 mainland dioceses of England desire, what 80 per cent. of the General Synod have voted for, what the House of Bishops has passed unanimously—and that is a notable event in itself—and what was passed last week in another place by 303 votes to 25, the Ecclesiastical Committee of Parliament having found the Measure to be expedient.

The purpose of this Measure is to enable the Synod to provide for the ordination of women as deacons and for existing deaconesses to enter the Holy Order of Deacons. In the Church there are three Holy Orders: bishops, priests and deacons. The Measure would allow women to be admitted to the third of these orders only. I should like to remind your Lordships that in the early Church the diaconate was open to both women and men. It was an order whose members combined a service of caring within the community with a share in the leadership of the worship of the Church.

In the Church of England the Order of Deacons has long been thought of as little more than an apprenticeship to the male priesthood although there have recently been moves here, as there have long been in other parts of the world, towards a distinctive or permanent diaconate. Side by side with male deacons, there has grown up during the last 100 years an Order of Deaconesses not recognised as being within the third of the Holy Orders but whose service has been truly diaconal.

In times past the main focus of a deaconess's work was with women and children, but gradually deaconesses have come to have a substantial share both in the conduct of public worship and in the general life of the Church. I am proud to have 24 of them in my diocese, most of whom have been trained alongside men in theological colleges or in the nonresidential courses. For several years now, like many of my brother bishops, I have regularly ordained men as deacons and women as deaconesses at the same ordination service in my cathedral. Thus the difference of role and function has largely disappeared and a distinction in status is now really entirely without warrant.

It is against this background that the Lambeth Conferences of Bishops in 1968 and again in 1978 recommended to all the Churches of the Anglican Communion throughout the world that the Order of Deacons should be opened to women as well as to men. The Church in Wales and the Episcopal Church of Scotland are among the provinces which have already acted on this recommendation, and I understand the Church of Ireland has the matter well in hand.

It was in 1981, over five years ago, that the General Synod called for legislation to make it possible for the Church of England to do the same, and the present Measure before your Lordships today is the result. It has been endorsed, as I have indicated, by all but two of the diocesan synods, and when it was given final approval in the General Synod in July 1985 the voting was 320 to 81, with more than the necessary two-thirds majority in each of the three Houses of Bishops, Clergy and Laity.

The Measure is a quite short and simple one. Clause 1 confers the necessary powers on the General Synod to make provision by canon for the ordination of women as deacons. Clause 2 confers a like power to bring to an end women being admitted as deaconesses, but preserves the rights of those deaconesses who decide not be made deacon. Clause 3 makes the necessary consequential pension provisions on women becoming clerks in Holy Orders.

I am sure that your Lordships will have noted the categorical statement in Clause 1(4), that Nothing in this Measure shall make it lawful for a woman to be ordained to the office of priest. That is a quite separate issue, which is not before this House today. It could well be that it will be our successors in office who will have to consider that issue on its merits, if and when the time comes.

I should like to tell your Lordships that we have no evidence that the admission of women to the Holy Order of deacon will create any serious problem for our relationships either with the Orthodox Church or with the Roman Catholic Church. Indeed, we know that some of their members, and particularly those in their religious orders, have been watching the long, slow progress of this Measure with considerable interest.

I should like to mention that the Measure makes no change in the Marriage Act 1949, in which Parliament provided that marriages of the Church of England should be solemnised by a clergyman. This expression is defined in the Act as: a clerk in holy Orders of the Church of England". In practice therefore, so far as the secular law is concerned, as a member of the Third Order of Deacons, a female deacon would be a clerk in Holy Orders and thus would be able to officiate at marriages under the 1949 Act.

Your Lordships may like to he reassured that no alteration to the text of the Book of Common Prayer is proposed. All the 1662 forms of service will continue to be availabe for use; but to meet a point that was made in the Ecclesiastical Committee of Parliament an alternative rubric has been added to the ordinal to ensure that when a woman deacon is ordained the congregation will not be invited to pray that she may go on to the higher ministries of the Church. That was raised in the committee by the honourable Member for Staffordshire South, Mr. Patrick Cormack, who has since expressed his complete satisfaction with what has been done to meet this point.

This modest Measure has had a long, slow journey to reach this last important stage of its enactment. It can be said with complete confidence that it has been accorded a consensus of support in the Church of unusually high proportion, and that the vote last Tuesday in another place was without a doubt the largest vote of confidence in the General Synod and its present leaders since the inauguration of synodical government. As one who looks forward immensely to ordaining some fine women to the Holy Order of deacon, as my partners in ministry, I have no hesitation in asking all the Members of your Lordships' House to agree that the same opportunities of service which are accorded to Her Majesty's citizens in Scotland and Wales should now be granted to those who live and serve in England. My Lords, I beg to move.

The Earl of Lauderdale

My Lords, before the right reverend Prelate sits down, could he just clarify one point which may not have been raised in the other place? Is it the case that women deacons, becoming now clergy, will therefore be eligible for membership of the House of Clergy? Is it also the case that the size of the House of Clergy will not be enlarged particularly on that account?

The Lord Bishop of Rochester

My Lords, the answer to the question is that they will become clergy. Whether there will have to be an adjustment in the membership of the two Houses I would not know at this stage, but it would not be a very large adjustment in any case to keep the numbers more or less even.

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 Rochester.)

4.48 p.m.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, I shall not detain your Lordships' House very long, as the case for this Measure has been put in such detail and so adequately by the right reverend Prelate and it has already gone through another place with an overwhelming majority. However, I should just like to make two points and restrain myself from saying what I should wish to say about the very limited nature of the advance which is embodied in this measure.

It does at least given recognition to the work that women are already doing in the Church as deaconesses and, by giving them the status of deacons, recognising the work and qualifications which they have had for so long and the work which they have been doing for so long. So from the point of view of the improvement of the position of women, both in the Church and in society in general, this is undoubtedly a step forward which I am sure your Lordships will welcome.

I also wish to welcome it, and to recommend it very strongly to your Lordships' House, because of the support that it will give to the clergy. The clergy in this country are very hard-pressed. Those of us who are familiar with the work of the clergy in the parishes up and down the country know that many of them are keeping the work going—I was about to say that they are keeping the show on the road, but that is not perhaps the right way of putting it—against very heavy odds indeed. They are unable in many cases to do the kind of work which they would wish to do, because they are overwhelmed by the routine duties which they have to perform. This is extremely unfair to the very devoted young men who are filling these positions.

It is all the more unfair because it is so unnecessary and if, by making women deaconesses into women deacons, they are then able to help the clergy in the field, this is surely very much to be welcomed. It is to be welcomed because it will relieve that burden, but also because it will be a much greater encouragement to many very able women who would wish to serve in the Church but who, if they are to serve, need to have their work expanded and its value recognised.

I have no doubt that this Measure, small though in many ways it is, will be an encouragement to women, who were previously discouraged, to come forward. It will therefore be a much belated step in the right direction of giving women the opportunity to play a much fuller part in the Church, as they wish to do, and to relieve the burden on very hard-pressed clergy. I very much hope that there will be no dissent whatsoever from this Measure.

May I also say that, because of the arrangement of business in other parts of the House, it will not be possible for me to be here throughout the whole of this debate. I make my apologies to the House for that.

4.52 p.m.

Lord Milverton

My Lords, it is with pleasure that I rise to support the Measure before us. We are acknowledging the fact that the order of deaconesses has for a long time been exercising the ministry of the order of the diocanate in its fullest sense. The days of deaconesses having a limited role within the Church of England of a ministry just to women and children are over. Their ministry has extended to the fuller field of pastoral work; for example, visiting the sick, helping those in any need or adversity or assisting in public worship.

They do this with great care and sensitivity. They have shown in the exercise of their ministry a quality and a calibre which deserve honour and respect, and this Measure recognises that their work is far more than a useful extra or second-hand assistance to the Church. It is work that is fully valued, not just taken for granted or used as is most convenient. There are those women within the Church who have shown the highest ability and calibre and, if I may say so, we in this House are well placed to endorse the invaluable leadership which women can give, for we are privileged to know of the wisdom and expertise of the noble Peeresses on all sides of this House.

In the days of the early church, the Order of Deacons—the diocanate—included women. This Measure attributes to deaconesses their rightful place within the life of the Church. We hope that this will give pleasure to many women as a right step forward. Like the right reverend Prelate, I, too, will welcome working with a woman who has been made deacon. I hope that this will give great encouragement to many women and that they will realise that their unproclaimed work has been acknowledged.

4.54 p.m.

Lord Soper

My Lords, in commending this Measure to your Lordships' House, I think I am in a position to say that that measure of approval will receive enthusiastic support within the Free Churches. Such evidence as comes to mind asserts that fact and would confirm that the more we know about it, the more likely we are to think of it as a very good thing indeed.

But it is a domestic Measure and I am bound to refer to the quite widespread opinion, not necessarily considered, that this is the business of the Church and is no business of a House such as this. It might have been in the days when the state and the Church were the obverse and reverse of the same medal of practical christianity, but it no longer operates. Were this the occasion, I should try to say something about the necessity of disestablishment, if indeed we were to preserve the integrity of the faith and avoid the danger of hypocrisy in associating the Church with a political institution or indeed a Parliament.

At the same time, I am well aware that being a domestic Measure it is no business of mine as a Free Churchman. But I would declare an interest in that as a Methodist I could claim to have a rather more intimate relationship with this Measure than some other members of the Free Churches. Had the reverend John Wesley been more concerned with speed and less concerned with haste, and had the Bench of Bishops of his day understood what the word "enthusiasm" meant, I might at this moment be a member of a preaching order within the Church of England. That would be my earnest hope, though they will have to be a bit spry, at my time of life, if it is to be fulfilled before I get to the end of this earthly pilgrimage.

Nevertheless, this measure seems to me to be a very important contribution to that increasing awareness, both in the Free Churches and outside the Churches, to say nothing of the Church of England, that it is a piece of heresy bordering on blasphemy to assume that in the higher reaches of divine grace the only appropriate channels are those masculine. This is a piece of nonsense and it is a piece of great hurtful malice, or at least a failure to appreciate that both man and woman have an equal place in the ideas that go with humanity, and are entitled to recognition that one cannot be regarded as superior or inferior to the other in the means and opportunities of grace.

It is in that regard that I welcome this Measure. In particular, I welcome it because of the practical effects, one of which has been very clearly enunciated by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester. It is the facility which is now offered to the deacon, as a woman, to counsel those for whom and with whom she will later perhaps be celebrating holy matrimony.

I sometimes think that young celibate parsons, who talk about the difficulties of marriage and who officiate at marriage ceremonies, know very little about marriage. In any case, the problem of marriage, in my experience over a very long time, is much more a problem to face the woman than the man, in the initial stages at least. What an incomparable opportunity it would be for those knowledgeable women who are deacons to counsel those who are about to engage upon this most solemn and complex issue of married life today, especially against the background of the prevailing break-up of the home and the increasing cynicism about marriage itself.

I shall not go into that in detail, except to say that I was much amused and edified, if I may use that word, by hearing the other day in Hyde Park somebody saying that home was the place where you hung around when somebody else had got the car. The more you think about it, the more prescient it is as one of the malaises, probably more dangerous than anything else in the permissive society as we now experience it, and indeed in the affairs which originate for evil over and over again in the broken home. It is for that pragmatic reason that I also welcome with enthusiasm this Measure.

But I shall append a caution. I do not believe that this can be in any way a substitute for a much larger Measure, which is not included in but is contradicted by or is deliberately omitted from this Measure, of the ordination of women to the full ministry of the Church. This I believe to be the ultimate purpose which lies behind those who are now endeavouring to provide a greater opportunity for the means of grace to be mediated through women as well as through men.

In that regard I very much hope that this will not be the excuse for calling a halt to that which I believe to be an inevitable prospect of any efficient Christianity in the days that are to come, when we shall regard God not as a man or a woman but regard the Godhead as combining in an ineffable capacity what we cannot fully understand and only partially can even try to put into words: that ultimate reality which does not depend either on sex or on human form, but depends ultimately on the fulfilment of the purpose to which man provides and woman provides his own and her own particular contribution. If this Measure brings nearer that day, then it is all the more to be appreciated and welcomed, and I heartily endorse it.

Lord Beswick

My Lords, I too agree with the Motion and I do so because I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, that it is a step forward. I have on occasion in this House contested some of the arguments that have been advanced for so-called "steps forward". I have been against the modernity which thinks that we need to rewrite the prayer book. I have thought that they were steps backward. My views on that were strengthened the other day when I heard a reading said to be from the Bible. Reference was made to "looking through a glass with puzzling reflections". I wondered whether through the centuries, a phrase of that kind would have had the same effect as "looking through a glass darkly". I am against that kind of modernity, but I am in favour of this Motion. I should like to think, as was said by my noble friend Lord Soper, that it will help in the future those who hitherto have been reluctant to allow complete equality between all human beings, men and women, in the ordination work in the priesthood.

5.3 p.m.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, it would be almost impertinent for a church warden to venture to congratulate a bishop on his speech, but were it not for that inhibition I should like most sincerely to thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester for his extraordinarily clear and fair exposition of this Measure which I think all your Lordships very greatly appreciated. I was moved to speak though by the very moving and, as always, impressive speech of the noble Lord, Lord Soper, if only to say that with great respect, I differ from him on one point. I am glad that this Measure has to come forward because of the establishment of the Church of England, and I should regret quite enormously what the noble Lord, Lord Soper, appeared to welcome—any question of disestablishment.

I believe that it is fundamental to the quality of life in this country that we remain openly a Christian country recognising as our national Church the Church of England and asking it to accept in that character certain of the (sometimes for them) irritating technical and legal restrictions which that involves. To break up the establishment would somehow terminate in the minds of many people the identity and the identification of our country and of the biggest element in our country of the Christian Church. I hope that it may be a very long time indeed before that happens, and that therefore Measures of this kind will continue to come forward to your Lordships' House.

I hope that the reception which this Measure has had will not have given any encouragement to right reverend Prelates to wish to terminate the procedure. Indeed, I think they may well think that it is probably a wholesome thing that a House of laymen should be given the opportunity to express its views on a matter of this kind.

On its merits I welcome the Measure quite enormously. I realise, if only from my connection with a small country parish, what a burden is now placed on the clergy and what a load they carry. Anything that can help to alleviate that load and help them in the devoted work which most of them are doing throughout the country is enormously to be welcomed. This is to be welcomed too as a very proper recognition of the position of women in the Church. I shall not on this occasion wish to stir up controversy, save to say that this is probably only the first of Measures of this kind that in due course your Lordships' House will have to consider. I think that the noble Baroness on the Liberal Benches hinted at the same thing.

If I may venture one sentence, it seems to me a little odd that a Church whose head is a woman, whose bishops are appointed on the advice of another woman, should still jib at the idea of appointing a woman curate. I am perfectly certain that before too many years have passed that anomaly will be righted. But having studied the history of our Church, I recognise that it moves slowly its wonders to perform; it moves majestically but it moves rightly. On this occasion this is a Measure not of revolutionary significance, recognising rather the realities today, but is a good step in the right direction and, as the French say, "C'est le premier pas qui coûte".

Lord Fletcher

My Lords, I should like very briefly to add a few words and to say how very much I welcome this Measure and give it my wholehearted support. I was not entirely happy with one phrase that fell from my noble friend Lord Soper. He seemed to think that this was a domestic matter for the Church of England. I take a different view. I am inclined to agree with the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, that this is not entirely a purely domestic matter for the Church of England. I think it concerns the establishment; I think it concerns society; and I think it reinforces the cherished position which the Church of England enjoys in our national life.

I am glad to think that this Measure has reached this stage, with very little opposition, either in the Synod or in Parliament. I must qualify that remark by adding that, in the Ecclesiastical Committee which had the occasion to consider this Measure at some considerable length before any recommendations were made to both Houses for approval, there was a good deal of discussion and some controversy. Part of that controversy led, as the right reverend Prelate has mentioned, to the introduction of a very small verbal change in the Book of Common Prayer inspired, as the right reverend Prelate said, by some observations of Mr. Patrick Cormack in another place. That slight modification in the liturgy should not occasion any concern to anybody who is predisposed to oppose this Measure.

The Measure was opposed in some quarters in the belief that if it were enacted into law it would be a prelude to proposals for the ordination of priests. It would be totally wrong to regard this Measure as any necessary prelude to that step. Steps may or may not be taken in that direction in the near future. If so, they will be considered on their merits. I prefer to think of this Measure—a very modest and limited Measure—as being in the sequence of steps which have been taken over the past century to recognise the important part that women play in our national life.

In all other fields of our national life over the past century increasing recognition has been given to the contributions made by women in various fields—notably in literature, the arts, politics, medicine and in various other branches of our national life. Therefore, I believe that this Measure brings into line the social recognition of the contributions that can be made by women in our national life. I am happy to think that the Church of England has come into line and by this Measure is affording to women an opportunity to play their part as ordained women; as deacons in Holy Orders in the contribution that the Church of England makes to our national life. I cordially support this Measure.

5.11 p.m.

The Earl of Lauderdale

My Lords, I did not intend to intervene in this debate, and I do so for only a moment. In view of one or two comments that have been made I think it only fair that another point of view should be put on record. My noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter referred to the Queen as the head of the Church. However, I believe the head of the Church is Christ and the most that the Queen can be is a protector of the Church.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, will my noble friend allow me to intervene? Whatever his theological views, which I greatly respect, as a matter of law he is wrong. The Queen's title is head of the Church.

The Earl of Lauderdale

My Lords, I disagree with that. Defender of the Faith is a title that derives from a book written by Henry VIII defending the faith before he got into trouble and while he was still in communion with Rome.

However, to proceed a stage further, I was very glad to hear the words of the right reverend Prelate in relation to the ordination of women as priests. He said that it is a matter to be decided later, on its merits. I was rather apprehensive lest in this debate an impression should go forward that there is already a certain prejudgment of this matter in the name of progress. I do not want to go into the depth of this argument, but it is only fair to say that whatever women deacons there may have been in the early Church, the fact is there were no women priests. Christ did not choose women to be priests or apostles; and that was in an age when the surrounding religions all had priestesses. I mention that for the record.

Having said that, I join with all that has been said in welcoming the ordination of women as deacons as a proper and right step. However, I do not regard that—and I hope it will not be regarded—as implying in any quarter any sort of commitment that the entirely different step of ordaining women as priests must be undertaken. I believe that would be a disaster. However, that is not the subject of tonight's debate, and I support this Measure in the terms in which it has been proposed.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, after all the speeches that have been made, all of which are in support of the Measure, there is very little more to be said. I echo the grateful thanks to the right reverend Prelate for the excellent way in which he outlined all the details of this Measure and its importance to the Church.

It would be wrong for me to give the impression that I am a regular participant in church activities, because for various reasons I am not. However, I acknowledge the position of the Church and the need for parliamentary approval of this Measure. It was in that spirit that I readily accepted the request of my colleagues to speak in support of this Measure. Small as it may seem, it is an important step forward.

I also echo—though not in the same words—the views of my noble friend Lord Soper, that we ought to take into account the views of the Church. We have heard from the right reverend Prelate that without any doubt all the authoritative bodies of the Church are overwhelmingly in support of this change. Nobody could fail to be impressed by the views that he expressed, echoed by others, on the work at present carried out by deaconesses and also the fact that they undergo the same training in the theological colleges.

Rules prevent me from quoting verbatim what has been said by a Back-Bencher in the other place. However, in the recent debate one Member said that this Measure will end a glaring injustice, that it will end an illogicality and that it will end a position which is indefensible. It is in that spirit and the fact that I know all the authoritative bodies of the Church support this Measure that I also commend it to your Lordships.

Lord Sefton of Garston

My Lords, I apologise if I now rise in the wrong place but I understand that it is convention, if one's name is not already on the list of speakers, to interpose between the last speaker and the reply to the debate. That is why I am speaking now.

I did not intend to speak in this debate but I am somewhat puzzled because the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, expressed his desire that this should remain a Christian country and that we certainly should not move towards the disestablishment of the Church of England. I see a contradiction there. Although I am an atheist I claim to have certain high moral values. Therefore, I do not believe that we would necessarily move towards being a country that is not Christian if the same privileges given to the Church of England were given to other Christian religions within our community.

On the other hand, if we persist in saying that in some way the Church of England is entitled to be more privileged than, say, the Roman Catholic religion, that will not help in removing the bitterness and the crimes committed in the name of Christianity in certain parts of the United Kingdom. Neither will it lead to a situation where Christians see the brotherhood of man as an immediate achievable object.

I say that arising from the debate. It is not important, because it is only an expression of view by an atheist who in my opinion has no right to be here determining the future of the Church of England. That is the way the law goes. That is what the Church accepts. Therefore, I am here. What a farcical situation it is when we talk about the one most important thing in life—that is, the whole of creation and the moral attitudes of people—and that kind of situation can be created.

Frankly, I am in favour of the disestablishment of the Church of England. Religion and moral values and spiritual values should spring from the individual himself. That brings me to what is, in my opinion, the only important reason why I am speaking now. Did I hear an intervention?

A Noble Lord

My Lords, someone coughed.

Lord Sefton of Garston

My Lords, I thought that a noble Lord had made a snide remark to which I should want to reply.

I should like to put one question to the right reverend Prelate who moved the Motion. What are the principles, values, rules or regulations that until now have prohibited women from being accepted into the Church in this high office? I do not know what they are and I am asking purely for information, because it is possible that I may intend to go through the Division Lobby, if there is a Division. Are those principles, values, rules, or what have you, being weakened by this present Measure? If they are not being weakened by this present Measure, in the name of commonsense why on earth can the Measure not be extended to priests and bishops?

5.20 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Rochester

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part in this brief debate, and in particular to those who have supplemented what I said in my opening speech. Many of them have touched on matters on which I was careful to be restrained or discreet but I was very glad to hear their contributions to the debate. I was glad also that the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, was the first speaker to follow me and I was delighted to hear that in this "small Measure", as she described it, she acknowledged that the work that is already being done by women in the Church was being given recognition. I am also grateful to the representative of the Opposition who spoke, and to the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, to whom I am always ready to listen when he speaks as a churchwarden.

I think that in his own inimitable way the noble Lord, Lord Soper, broadened the whole question into a matter of disestablishment, and other noble Lords followed his lead. I must confess that for me the strongest argument in favour of disestablishment is the prospect of having the noble Lord, Lord Soper, in some kind of Anglican order.

A noble Lord

A preaching order, my Lords!

The Lord Bishop of Rochester

However, my Lords, I do wonder whether the noble Lord, Lord Soper, and others perhaps really want to revive talk of disestablishment, which would mean a public disavowal of the Christian faith. Some of us on these Benches so much prefer to work toward a broadening of the establishment, and I believe that there are those in the Free Churches, who would be happy to recognise the sovereign as Supreme Governor, as we do.

The noble Lord who spoke last asked me what rules and regulations have restrained the Church from taking this step before. It has been a slow, evolutionary process. This Measure carries the process forward; certainly in no way does it put it back. As other noble Lords have indicated tonight, there are many people who wish to take it still further and expect to do so before long.

I am grateful to those who have recognised the pressure under which the clergy work in many places today. It is true to say that they are already being helped very considerably by those of their women colleagues who, as either deaconesses or licensed lay workers, assist them in the parochial ministry of our Church. I am also very grateful to all noble Lords who have contributed to this debate. I think that there will be people in some places who will be surprised that we have had such warm and unanimous support for this Measure during its presentation to this House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

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