HL Deb 12 March 1998 vol 587 cc301-4

3.12 p.m.

Lord Waddington asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they have any plans to introduce legislation to disestablish the Church of England.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Williams of Mostyn)

My Lords, the Government have no plans to introduce legislation to disestablish the Church of England. We would not contemplate disestablishment unless the Church wished it, and it has not told us that it does.

Lord Waddington

My Lords, I thank the Minister warmly for his reply, which is entirely to my liking. I can assure him that nothing in what I am about to say in the form of a question implies any disrespect whatever to the right reverend Prelate or indeed to any Member of the Bench of Bishops. However, does it not amount to this? The Church of England is not just a sect which can change its forms of worship at the drop of a hat in the vain hope that a bigger congregation will come in through its doors. It is, in a real sense, trustee for the whole nation of a precious cultural heritage.

Does the Minister agree that those responsible for the Church's forms of worship should not lightly tinker with the language of prayers which millions have learnt in childhood and from which they still find comfort at times of distress and grief? The Church should not substitute the trite, the banal and the ugly for the beautiful. It should not continue to try to force into disuse the Book of Common Prayer, with all its dignity, gracefulness and beauty.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords. I must declare an interest as a baptised and confirmed member of the Church in Wales and also a lapsed member of the "Band of Hope". We do not have problems of decaying language in the Church in Wales because we still have the great glory of Bishop Morgan's translation of the Bible, to which we stick. It is not for me to express any view about the cultural heritage of the Church of England, save to point out that richness of history, culture, tradition and language are of fundamental importance.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, does the Minister appreciate that the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, cannot speak for the whole nation? Not only can he not speak for all Christians who belong to various denominations, as my noble friend pointed out, but he cannot speak for people of different religions or of no religion.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I do not believe that the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, was claiming to speak for all religions. He was saying that culture and tradition are important in the life of any nation. There are many different cultures and traditions in our country, and one of them is the important one that he identified.

The Earl of Lauderdale

My Lords, is the Minister aware that there are many loyal Anglicans who are anxious about the doctrinal and other pretensions of the Synod and who therefore believe that the 1919 Act, which set up the National Assembly and Convocation, should be looked at afresh?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, the constitutional arrangements between Church and state as presently existing work with reasonable satisfaction. As I originally said, if the Church of England has any proposals to put forward, we shall consider them with the utmost care and scruple.

Lord Dean of Harptree

My Lords, I welcome the original reply of the Minister. However, does he recognise that many of us feel that establishment is a good thing for both the Church and the state and that it should not be tampered with?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I understand that that is a widely held view among many adherents to the Church of England. I made it plain that we do not contemplate any changed arrangements except at the initiative of the Church of England.

The Lord Bishop of Southwell

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the latest test of opinion by the General Synod of the Church of England indicates that a large majority have shown their desire to continue with the establishment? Furthermore, does he accept that the Church is aware that it has no divine right to an established status, but that that depends on the acceptance of the people whom it serves and the sense of value that they place upon it? Is the Minister also aware that in the resolution of the General Synod it rejected the proposal that there should be any changes with regard to the appointment of bishops and also with regard to Parliament's responsibility for approval of the Synod's decisions? Will he therefore confirm the Church's desire to continue to act in a way that is appropriate within the life of the nation?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I was aware of the large majority. I utterly endorse the proposition that an established Church can continue to exist only if it receives a substantial degree of support from the public, which I believe it does. We recognise the peculiar position of the Church. We have done that expressly, as the Lord Chancellor took pains to point out, in the Human Rights Bill where we introduced specific arrangements for legislative change if any were to he sought in the context of Church of England affairs.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, the Minister says that any change in the relationship between Church and state can be undertaken only on the initiative of the Church. Does that extend to the Church's position in your Lordships' House.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I said that we would not contemplate disestablishment until the Church wished it. The Church's position in your Lordships' House is a matter which, as they say, is presently under review.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford

My Lords, I thank the Minister for avoiding the morass of disestablishment and turn to a more practical level. In any thoughts on the future of the Church will attention be paid to the fact that one-third of Grade I listed buildings in England are in the charge of the Church of England and are largely paid for by the Church of England? Any thoughts therefore on the Church's future should give consideration to the national heritage which it sustains.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I do not regard disestablishment as a "morass". The Welsh Church was successfully disestablished in 1914—effectively in 1920 after the First World War—and it is a thriving organisation within the life of Wales. I agree with what the noble Lord said in relation to the Church. The fabric of the Church in the material sense is extremely important, just as the fabric of the Church in the spiritual sense is important in the life of the nation.

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