HL Deb 08 June 1995 vol 564 cc1467-70

3.41 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Norwich 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, perhaps I may explain briefly what the Measure does and does not set out to do. Apart from a minor provision relating to group ministries, the Measure consists of a series of amendments to the existing legislation concerning team ministries. A single incumbent with, in some cases, an assistant curate is the normal form of ministry in the Church of England. In a team ministry, a number of clergy, and possibly also lay ministers, work together as a legally constituted team, which may contain a single parish or several parishes, and one church or several. The members of the team are the team rector, who is the incumbent of the benefice and the leader of the team, together with one or more team vicars, who share the legal "cure of souls" with the team rector, with the possible addition of other clergy or lay ministers.

The Measure aims to ensure that such team ministries work as effectively as possible. Its intention is not in any way to promote team ministries as the normal form of ministry in the Church. There are some places where a team ministry is appropriate and others where it is not; nor does the Measure in any way change the legal procedure for establishing a team ministry, which is a careful and detailed process involving consultation with all those who are affected. Equally, the Measure does not affect the rights of private patrons.

To put the matter in perspective, there are about 450 team ministries in the whole of England, and the number of paid clergy who serve in them consist of about 10 per cent. of the total. That is a significant proportion, but not a large one. Each proposal for a new team ministry is scrutinised carefully by the diocese concerned. Most of the teams work well and make an important contribution to the life of the Church and the local community. However, some have been less successful.

In order to identify both good and bad practice, and to propose solutions to certain problems that are being encountered, the General Synod appointed two working parties in recent years to examine the subject and to make recommendations. The most recent recommended to the Synod in 1991 that the legislation relating to the structure and working of team ministries needed some improvement to help all team ministries to fulfil their potential, and this Measure sets out to make those improvements.

Nearly all the provisions of the Measure are non-controversial and were accepted without comment by the Ecclesiastical Committee. One provision, concerning the team rector's tenure of office, caused some comment and debate and I hope that I may be able to reassure noble Lords who might have some misgivings about it.

At present, team vicars hold office for a fixed period of years which can be renewed if the priest concerned wishes to continue in that particular ministry and the bishop or appointing body considers that it is right for the priest to do so. Pastoral schemes may also provide for the team rector to hold office for a fixed term of years, and the majority of team rectors hold office on that basis. However, a minority continue to hold the so-called "parson's freehold". After careful consideration and full debate, the Synod decided that in future all members of the team should be appointed on fixed terms, including the team rector.

The issue of the "parson's freehold" in general is under discussion within the Church as a whole, and has been for some time. I have no strong views on the matter and would like to stress that this Measure is not an attempt either to pre-empt that discussion or to influence it. The Synod recognised that team ministries are a special category where special provisions are needed to ensure that the members of the team can work together in a true partnership, without unnecessary issues of special status getting in the way.

Some concern has been expressed that that might leave the team rector with insufficient safeguards at the end of his fixed term of years. However, there is nothing to suggest that those team rectors who hold office for a fixed term at present have in fact experienced problems over this. In addition, a detailed code of practice will be issued before the Measure comes into force which, among other things, will make clear that when the time comes to consider the renewal of the team rector's term—or indeed the term of any other member of the team—there should be a fair, professional and sensitive review process, according to specific guidelines in the code itself, to enable the appointing body to reach the best possible decision. That already takes place in some cases; but the code of practice will aim to ensure that it happens in all cases.

I hope that what I have said will reassure your Lordships, as it reassured the majority of the members of the Ecclesiastical Committee. The General Synod gave final approval to the Measure by a very large majority (of 326 votes in favour to 25 against) on the basis that it would make a minor but important contribution to the ministry of the Church in some areas, and hence to the Church's ministry to the community at large. For the same reasons, I hope that your Lordships will be willing to support this Measure and the Motion in my name. I commend the Motion to the House.

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 Norwich.)

3.47 p.m.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

My Lords, my party as a whole has no views on this matter, as is the case on other similar matters, except to make sure that the rights of the individual as a citizen are not infringed. That is also the job of the Ecclesiastical Committee, and we have paid some attention to that in our meetings on this Measure. The right reverend Prelate has added to what was said then and we now have complete assurances that there is nothing in the Measure to which we object.

Perhaps I may expand on that a little because during the past few years I have worked within a team ministry and closely with team ministries. I believe that the Church of England is very much to be congratulated on their introduction. It is something that those of us who campaigned hard for reform 30 years ago thought might never happen. It has happened, and if it went further and wider and impinged on the parson's freehold, which this Measure does not, there would be some of us who would cheer quite hard. Those of your Lordships who have read The Times today will have noticed the remarks of a former Bishop of Durham, Hensley Henson, who wrote in 1943 that the, independence known as the Freehold of the benefice is more serviceable to the idleness than to the efficiency of the incumbents". There are few idle incumbents anywhere in the Church of England today. I cannot think of any case in the past 20 years where the parson's freehold has served as a barrier against a parson saying exactly what he wanted to say on matters within his jurisdiction. I hope that we shall proceed with such reforms. As for this Measure, I do not think that there can be any objection to it.

The Lord Bishop of Norwich

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his contribution. I do not wish to become involved in a discussion of the freehold in general. As I said earlier, this matter relates only to this Measure. It is a measure without guile. There is no sense of thin-edge-of-the-wedgemanship about it.

I shall add just one comment. Where problems occur in team ministries they are often focused on inappropriate leadership. Team leadership is a relatively new skill for the clergy, although I am glad to say that the younger generation is being trained in that way of working from the beginning. The team rector is primus inter pares. He is primus by virtue of his office as rector. The additional element of holding the freehold, while his fellow team members do not, tends to create the situation of primus inter impares.

Like the noble Lord, I too can speak from personal experience. I was a former team rector, and when a team ministry was formed in my benefice I surrendered the freehold and was appointed for the same term of years as the team vicars. I have no doubt that that was an important factor in the harmonious working of the team. I commend the Measure to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.