Previous Section Home Page

Column 181

Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North) : My hon. Friend would not, would he?

Mr. Field : My hon. Friend says that I would not, but given the size of my postbag, people could have written to say that they disagreed with me. Many people write to me saying that they disagree with my line. Why should this Measure be the exception?

Before we discuss the rights of the wife of a person who wishes to be ordained, I hope that the House will have some respect for the rights and status of the woman who has been deserted by that person. Let me take the argument a stage further. This was not the whole Measure that went before Synod. The whole Measure was to change the Church's teaching on marriage. It stated that members of the laity who were divorced could be remarried in church. The Church, mindful of the fact that it should not give the laity rights that it denied to the clergy, decided that in those circumstances it would be proper for those who have been divorced and remarried and wish to be ordained to be able to do so.

The major part of the Measure which failed to get through Synod and has not been presented to us was that people who had divorced and remarried could get married in church. But the tail end of the Measure, which we are discussing tonight, was presented to Synod again and is now before the House. Far from the Synod not wishing the clergy to be inferior to the laity, we are now being asked to approve a Measure whereby some clergy would be in a superior position to the laity.

Another argument presented to me in letters is that good men with a wealth of experience about broken marriages to bring to the Church are putting themselves forward and the Church is short of manpower. If the Church is so worried about a shortage of manpower, why does it not accept that a large number of women wish to be priests and are not divorced and remarried? That would not require the overthrow of any doctrine. Why can the Church not bring that measure before us, if its reasoning is that such people have a vocation? If the Church is short of vocations, we should change one part of the rules which have always existed.

The right hon. Member for Selby introduced the Measure with extraordinary skill and great charity. The intervention by the hon. Member for York demonstrated his torn feelings about the issue. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman's loyalty to the Church in presenting the Measure to us will not blind the House to the faults of the case that he presented. Should anyone say that if we do not pass the Measure tonight, we shall have a great constitutional crisis on our hands and the Church will call for disestablishment, I ask hon. Members to pause before they laugh. Would anyone really say that if we do not pass the Measure tonight the archbishops and bishops will go to the country on a programme that, because we were not mindful to pass a Measure to allow some divorced males who have remarried or married divorced women entry to the priesthood, we should allow disestablishment? The case would be laughed out of court.

We all know that no Government would find time for

disestablishment. It would make trying to abolish the Greater London council appear a mere tea party because with disestablishment would come disendowment and those great constitutional issues would be taken on the Floor of the House. No Government would give up a year of parliamentary time to get that measure through, and

Column 182

certainly not because we had decided early this morning that we were not happy, on balance, to pass a Measure that would allow some divorced people to become priests in the Church of England. I rest my case on a balance of arguments and I hope that the House will not approve the Measure.

2.45 am

Sir John Stanley (Tonbridge and Malling) : First, I wish to thank my right hon. Friend the Second Church Estates Commissioner for the sensitive and balanced way in which he moved this difficult motion. I found his opening remarks illuminating and helpful. I regard the Measure as modest and sensible, and a proper way to take account of the wide range of individual circumstances involved in considering whether individuals are appropriate for ordination.

The safeguards announced by the Archbishop of Canterbury are real and proper. There is no question but that this is an exceptional power which will be used in exceptional circumstances. As my right hon. Friend the Estates Commissioner has made clear, the safeguards are enshrined in the fact that the dispensation is in the hands only of one or the other of the two archbishops.

It is also a compassionate Measure. It is in the experience of every hon. Member that in issues of divorce there are often cases in which one party is wholly blameless for the breakdown of a marriage. It is wrong, unreasonable and unduly harsh that such blameless persons should for the rest of their lives, if they subsequently remarry, be denied the opportunity of presenting themselves for ordination.

I wish to cite one case in my own constituency. The hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) will be interested to know that it is the case of a woman who is currently undergoing training as a deacon but who, under the present rules, will not be eligible for ordination at the conclusion of her training. She asked for her name not to be disclosed, for understandable reasons, but she has given me permission to quote from her letter to me and it is instructive. She wrote :

"The reason for my not being ordained into Holy Orders, as I believe god has called me to be, is that I have re-married. In 1964, when I was nineteen I married, but the marriage lasted four months and was an horrific episode in my life. I was treated badly, beaten and left. A month later I discovered I was pregnant and nearly 7 months later gave birth to twins who did not survive the first day of their life. That marriage after many traumas was dissolved and I remarried my present husband in 1967. I am still married to him and have a lovely family. I have been a Christian since I was 8 and a church member apart for the few years in my late teens In 1990 I will be at present only allowed to be licensed to be a Lay Minister and not ordained Deacon because of that teenage marriage that lasted only four months."

It is in such cases that it is reasonable and proper for individuals to be able to offer themselves for ordination. I believe that it is right that in individual cases account should be taken of the circumstances which precipated the divorce and that the positive factors about individuals presenting themselves for ordination should also be taken into account, regardless of whether they have been divorced and subsequently remarried. For those reasons, I support the measure.

Column 183

2.49 am

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey) : When this matter came before the Ecclesiastical Committee of which I was a member, I started from the premise that I would oppose it for two reasons--first, because I had understood that remarriage after divorce was not countenanced in New Testament theology and should therefore clearly be proscribed for those who wished to be leaders of the Church, and secondly because of my experience as a member of a family in which this had been the theological issue which had most affected our view of family life. My parents were not allowed to marry in church because my father had been married before, and I had watched the only brother of mine who had been married go through a divorce. It troubled me greatly that this was a subject where theology had ultimately to win the argument against some of the arguments for compassion, but the principle had been held.

So I listened and, when it came to our conference with the Archbishops of York and Canterbury, I questioned the archbishops with some vigour about how they could justify, theologically, the case that they were asking us to adopt. They and their colleagues led me to believe that in theology the case is at least arguably justifiable. I say that not as a theologian or somebody who can be certain of what the Christian teaching would be, but as somebody who was driven for guidance to read the text in the New Testament, in the Gospels and in the Epistle to Timothy in particular, which deal with those matters. Although there is clear teaching about the responsibilities of leaders in the Church and about marriage, it would appear from those who interpret these matters and who are far more adept and able to do so than I am, that there can be a proper interpretation of the scriptures which suggests that permission both to remarry after divorce and to do so even if one is ordained as a minister of the Church, is theologically acceptable.

Mr. Gummer : If what the hon. Gentleman says is true--and, indeed, it is a position that some theologians uphold--would not the natural result be for the Church of England to seek to change its rules on marriage, not just for clergymen but for lay people? Is not the problem with this Measure that when the Church tried to do that, it had to have a two-thirds majority, and as it did not get a two-thirds majority it therefore withdrew the part dealing with the laity and left this tag-end? It then said that it did not need a two-thirds majority for that. When the Church--members of the Synod--appealed, they found that the group which was to decide whether the two-thirds majority was necessary or not was the very group presenting this Measure.

Surely the real issue facing us all is that in the sad case quoted to us by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir J. Stanley), we are looking for a proper change in the Church's view and, in my view, for a better system of nullity--but not for this Measure, which must be damaging because it asks people to be allowed to be ordained but says that when they teach the Church's doctrine on marriage they have to teach that their own marriage is simply living in sin.

Mr. Hughes : I was intending to deal with that point later, but I will do so now. I believe that it would have been far preferable for the Church to bring before Parliament the question of the remarriage of divorced people in

Column 184

Church before bringing this Measure. That is one of the unsatisfactory elements of the Measure. It will permit a more liberal regime to appear to apply to priests than to lay people in the Church. Divorced people who ask a priest if they can be married and are told that they cannot will find it somewhat odd, to say the least, if they discover that the priest who told them that they were not allowed to be married became a priest after having been divorced and having remarried. I accept that that is not satisfactory. Having weighed that argument with others that I will relate briefly in a moment, I still believe that the balance of view that we should reach in justice and in charity as politicians, and as people concerned with the standards of the Church, should persuade us to support the Measure.

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent) : The hon. Gentleman is in danger of being led down a cul-de-sac by my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer). This not a question of where clergymen remarry. Many people--myself included--have remarried after a divorce. I was blessed in a church in a service that left it abundantly clear to the entire congregation that my wife and I had failed before and were asking God's blessing to succeed in future. That is far more germane to the question of whether the clergy or the laity can remarry in church.

Mr. Hughes : I will deal with that point in a moment as it is also an appropriate point.

We must decide whether the proposal is right according to theology, morals or ethics. We must also consider whether Members of Parliament have a right to intervene in this matter.

For as long as Parliament has the responsibility to approve matters that are put to us, we can, if we wish, disagree with the Church. I take that view even though I believe that the Church should be self-governing and should not have to come to Parliament. However, Church matters such as this come to Parliament under the present rules, constitution and practice. Clearly we have the right to say no to the proposal from the Church even though it is an internal Church matter.

What is the balance? I believe that the persuasive arguments against the proposal are theological arguments. But the Church and the theologians who advised us did not believe that they were determinative. I do not believe that those of us who have considered the matter would regard the theology as determinative either. There is an argument that the Church should set clear standards and signals. However, I believe that that argument to oppose the Measure is impossible to sustain. If the present position continues, we say that someone who has been married and divorced and then remarries cannot become a priest, but someone who has lived with someone, or two people, three people or seven people can become a priest. Someone who has murdered can become a priest. Yet we reserve a bar to ordination uniquely for those people who have married, divorced and remarried. We do that irrespective of whether their previous marriage was a Christian marriage and irrespective of whether either or both parties were Christians when they were married or divorced. We consider the previous marriage to be an absolute barrier to ordination even though it may have been a mistake, as in the example given by the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir J. Stanley). Even if the marriage was clearly wrong and had failed, and even if

Column 185

someone found a vocation calling him to the priesthood in a blessed second marriage, the bar to ordination would apply. It is anomalous to preserve this unique bar and not to apply to ordained clergy the principles that we apply to people hoping to be ordained. A priest can be divorced and then remarry without any automatic threat to his role as a priest.

The most persuasive argument of all is that, if the theology is not persuasive and clear, and if justice is abundantly in favour of the Measure and strongly against preserving the anomaly of denying a group of people the fulfilment of their vocation, one other matter becomes abundantly clear. That matter relates to the mission of the Church and I hope that it is also the duty of the House. It is to realise that the Church must be able to forgive as well as to teach, that it has a duty, even to those in authority or who seek authority, to say that they are capable of error and capable of forgiveness and grace.

That is the fundamental issue which determines for me and for many others that justice and theology must come down in favour of the overriding principle that the Church should be capable--if it is thought right at the highest level and on the best advice--of saying that it can put aside and forgive a mistaken marriage. It should be able to say that it regards that as no absolute bar to someone who wishes to become an ordained member of the Church.

I hope that people will realise that this is a sensitive matter which does not easily allow the conclusion that it must be wrong to allow people who have been divorced and have remarried to become priests. It is not so simple as that, and I hope that we shall give to those people and to the Church the benefit of our necessary doubt.

3.1 am

Sir John Stokes (Halesowen and Stourbridge) : This is obviously a difficult matter for the House, but having listened to the debate, I have to say that the House has distinguished itself. On such non-partisan matters we express the wisdom of a great many lay people in England.

I should like to add a few general points to those that have been made. England, unfortunately, has an immensely high divorce rate. About one third of marriages end in that way and that is the background against which we are discussing the Measure. There is also the question of the standards that the nation expects of its clergy. It is possible that hon. Members, who are more down to earth than some other people, expect a somewhat higher standard from our clergy than does the Synod. I have been a member of the Synod for four years, and I think that hon. Members represent the man and woman in the pew rather more accurately than does the Synod.

What worries me about the Measure is that if it is passed it will send out from the House a wrong or at least a confusing signal to people in England who look to the Church and the clergy to set high standards at this difficult time in our social life. I am also troubled by another matter which has not so far been discussed. I refer to the Measures that have come to the House from the Synod in recent years. They are all extremist, liberal Measures, and in time they may utterly destroy the fabric of the Church of England. First, as many hon. Members may remember, we had the virtual destruction of the Book of Common Prayer on which the Church is based and its replacement by the alternative service book. That was done by the Church of

Column 186

England (Worship and Doctrine) Measure 1974. We were assured then that the prayer book would not disappear, but it is disappearing very fast. Then we had the revolutionary proposal to ordain women as priests and because of that the Church is in danger of splitting in two.

Now we have this Measure. Later, this Measure may be followed by one to introduce so-called non-sexist language in the alternative service book and other books of the Church which would upset the vast majority of Church people and only please a fanatical minority of feminists. In the turbid debate about those depressed women, I ask what the Cabinet feels about them --but there we are.

In view of the disruptive Measures, which I believe will be put before us, we must study each one carefully. All of us have sympathy for clergy and others with marital troubles. The difficulty is that, once one starts to relax standards, there is no knowing where one will end up. I believe that in this country there is a mood against the permissiveness of the 1960s and 1970s and, in my experience, young people especially are looking to the Church for a lead. What sort of a lead does this Measure provide? If the Synod does not feel able to give a better lead than this, hon. Members, with all modesty, should decide not to pass the Measure and to maintain Christian standards in their entirety.

3.5 am

Ms. Jo Richardson (Barking) : I have listened with the utmost care to the debate and have been impressed by what has been said by hon. Members on both sides of the House, although I am supporting the Measure. I have been impressed because I am not a member of the General Synod or of the Ecclesiastical Committee--I do not suppose that I ever will be--and I am sometimes confused by the language that is used. I shall therefore make my contribution in the simplest possible lay language.

I want to make two points. First, as has been said, the General Synod of the Church of England has deliberated and--as the right hon. Member for Selby, (Mr. Alison) said--agonised for a long time about this and many other matters. I understand the point that was made--that it is part of a package but it is before us, and we must make a decision.

The General Synod is the parliament of the Church of England. Its members are experienced, dedicated and distinguished theologians, which I and many right hon. and hon. Members in the House are not. The Synod came to its conclusion and supported the Measure, albeit, I accept, not by a two-thirds majority. It had a two-thirds majority in the House of Bishops and in the House of Clergy, but a majority of only 59 per cent. in the House of Laity, which has been a cause of some concern. It is to me, however, a substantial majority by any standards.

I do not believe that it should be the role of this Parliament--the Parliament of the people--however deeply some individuals may feel about the issue, to overturn the expressed view of the parliament of the Church of England. It is true that we are not disestablished, and I am not in any sense arguing for disestablishment, but our role is to consider the Measure. However, I believe that, once the Synod has come to a conclusion, both Houses of Parliament--the House of Lords and the House of Commons-- should acquiesce in that decision and let it pass. We would be wrong to use our

Column 187

superior powers--superior in the sense that we have the power to destroy this Measure--and to use our heavy hand to frustrate the Measure.

My second point relates to the principle of the Measure, which I believe enacts a basic social justice. I have read the ecclesiastical report and I have read the Lords Hansard as well as some other documents that I have been able to find. I understand that the objection of many right hon. and hon. Members is based on the idea that marriage is something that cannot be dissolved, and that therefore remarriage is a sin. Those who have been divorced or are now married to a partner who has been divorced are considered to have committed a sin by remarrying.

My hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) has said that that argument does not apply to priests. As I understand it, a priest is not barred from marrying or remarrying a divorced person and then sanctifying the marriage of other people. Tonight, however, we are deliberating on whether people who are not priests but who wish to be ordained should have that same privilege.

The Measure specifically relates to giving a few mature people who have valuable and much-needed skills and wisdom to offer, but who have been divorced and whose partner is still alive, or who is now married to a divorcee, to be ordained. Such people can be ordained only after each case has been considered by the diocesan bishop and reported to the archbishop. The person who wants to be ordained does not have an easy passage. To allow that person to be ordained would not mean that the floodgates would be opened. It would mean that there would be a tiny chink in the dyke through which might flow some good people with wisdom. The Church would benefit if it allowed that chink to be opened.

I do not believe that the Measure threatens the sanctity of marriage. Many people have a break in their marriage because of the death of their spouse. We do not say that they should not be allowed to remarry. We accept that that death is a sad occasion and often we are pleased when friends or relatives remarry some years later and find happiness with a second partner.

Many others suffer a break in marriage because, after trying hard, they find that it is not a marriage. They have to seek a divorce for the sake of their life and that of their partner, and the happiness of their children.

The House may know that I take a close interest in domestic violence and the problems associated with it. Over the years, I have been in contact with women who have been the subject of violence. Hon. Members may speak about the ease with which one can seek a divorce, but I beg them to believe that it is not easy. Women who sue for divorce after a violent marriage and who have fled the home do not do so lightly. Many return to the marital home after they have been beaten up because they want to keep the family together. If they seek a divorce, then make a clean break and remarry and their new partner wants to be ordained, should that person be prevented from doing so? That is what would happen.

Mr. Frank Field : The House is with my hon. Friend, but what of the person who does the beating?

Ms. Richardson : Good question. I always wonder, "What of the person who does the beating?"

Column 188

Mr. Field : I intervened because there were two sides to the marriage that was being described--the person who was being beaten and the person who was doing the beating. My hon. Friend followed the line of the person who finally leaves that intolerable situation, and asked whether the person she marries should be disqualified from being a priest. I am suggesting that we know from divorced clergy wives who are given assurances that their husbands will not be given livings again that they are given more than one living. How can we be sure that it is not the beater, rather than the person who has been beaten, who is presented for ordination?

Ms. Richardson : I would have thought that my hon. Friend would trust the wisdom of the people who consider who is to be ordained. I do. As I said earlier, ordination for such people is not automatic.

Mr. Simon Hughes : The hon. Lady has said that the rigour with which the Church considers these applications is even greater than the rigour with which it considers people who remain priests but who have failed in their priesthood. The matter has to go to the bishop and then to the archbishop. Only when the application has been personally sanctioned will it be approved. Presumably a beater will not get through that system.

Ms. Richardson : That is the obvious point. I am a little surprised that my hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) should rest his case so heavily on a letter that he may have had from a person who feels disadvantaged in the way he has described, because I do not think that such a person would get through such a complicated procedure.

Most ordinary people do not divorce lightly. It is a difficult and traumatic experience. We are not talking about the small fraction of the population, whom we read of in highly publicised stories, who marry, divorce and marry again, apparently on a whim. That is not what it is like for most people. Nor are we talking about all divorced people. It is worth quoting what the Archbishop of Canterbury said in one of his speeches to the joint conference of the Ecclesiastical Committee and the Legislative Committe :

"On the number of candidates coming up, I have made inquiries diocese by diocese about this position. There are about 16 deaconesses who cannot become deacons because they married a divorced partner. Apart from this I am reliably informed that the total numbers--mark that--the total numbers known to bishops and their Directors of Ordinands, of people offering themselves who are caught by the present rules, are 183 men and 57 women, a total of 240. This amounts to just over four men per diocese and one woman." I thought, when I first heard about the Measure, that umpteen people were waiting to be ordained. I now find that there are very few. It would be reprehensible if the House decided not to pass this very modest Measure.

I have always thought that the Church is about forgiveness and love, not about taking it out on people. It seems that, in some cases, people have had it taken out of them because they have been divorced or because they are married to a divorcee. I hope that Parliament will not frustrate what that other parliament, the General Synod of the Church of England, wants to pass. I hope that my hon. Friends and other hon. Members will join me in the Lobby in support of it.

Column 189

3.19 am

Mr. Michael Latham (Rutland and Melton) : It is an honour to follow the hon. Member for Barking (Ms. Richardson) and to take part briefly in this debate. The fact that the Benches are so full at this time of night shows the importance that hon. Members attach to the issue and the strength of feeling about it. That is all the more reason why it should have been debated at a reasonable time.

The subject has perplexed and attracted the attention of the House for well over a century. If hon. Members read the speeches made in 1857 on the Divorce and Matrimonial Causes Bill, they will see that similar arguments were offered then about the sanctity of marriage. Mr. Gladstone, for example, whose speech covered 32 columns in Hansard --the second speech that he had made in a week on the subject--said :

"Sir, I shall enter into the theological argument under protest. It is impossible to conduct it in this House as it should be conducted That is a matter for the assembly of divines or a synod of theologians ; it is not a discussion which can be entered into by a popular assembly."--[ Official Report 31 July 1857 ; Vol. 147, c. 836.]

Being Mr. Gladstone, he then went on at considerable length to deal with the arguments for and against divorce, with what the Greek word "porneia" meant, and so on.

Many of my hon. Friends are troubled by this Measure. One of the most recent books published on this subject was written in 1984 by two distinguished evangelical theologians. The bibliography--it is described as selective--on the subject of divorce alone runs to 19 pages. This is a matter on which our Lord said relatively little and on which biblical interpretations differ. For instance, in the Old Testament, there were circumstances in which divorce was mandatory. They are to be found in Deuteronomy and elsewhere. Distinguished theologians have arrived at many different perceptions of the issue. The Church of England holds the most rigorous position of all churches. After the Reformation, the Protestant churches tended to allow divorce and remarriage on the grounds of adultery, whereas the Catholic church forbade divorce, but permitted dispensations. Uniquely, the Church of England offered neither the Protestant concessions nor the Catholic dispensations. As a result, a large number of people who had the money promoted private Acts in the House for divorce. That was why the Act of 1857 was passed--to allow more general divorce. Exactly the same issues were anguished over at the time and all sorts of different perceptions were advanced. They are all to be found in Owen Chadwick's "The Victorian Church". The bishops in the House of Lords put forward all sorts of contradictory views on the rules and on the biblical teaching about divorce. There is no black and white in this matter. Theologians, bishops, divines and churches differ on it. In the eastern Orthodox Church, second marriages are permitted in church and there are specific services for them. These are complicated matters on which Christian people can and do honourably disagree. As several hon. Members have said, they also affect real people seeking the grace of ordination, who have written to and been to see their Members of Parliament about the problem. The House has absolute rights over the matter, but if we decide to turn down the Measure, those people will be lawfully denied the grace of ordination that they seek --the right to test their vocation

Column 190

against ordination, which could be extended to them only by the Archbishop of Canterbury or of York, and in no other circumstances. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Alison) was good enough to quote me, I should make my position clear. Of course the House has the legal right to reject any Measure of the General Synod of the Church of England, and on occasion it has done so. When the Conservative party was in opposition, my right hon. and learned Friend the present Attorney-General, whom I welcome to the debate, was largely instrumental in correctly persuading the House to reject a Measure on a basically secular matter wherein the Synod and the Ecclesiastical Committee had not noticed that the clergy were given inadequate rights of appeal. The House did its duty and rejected that Measure, and it was right to do so.

This matter, however, is entirely theological and, although our rights continue, I ask my hon. Friends the following question : is it personally right for us? Do we have the ability or the skill to set our theological judgment above that of the Archbishops of Canterbury and of York?

Mr. Hugo Summerson (Walthamstow) : Yes.

Mr. Latham : Many others of my hon. Friends may think in the same way and, if so, they will vote in that way. I am simply saying that, if the bishops and archbishops of the Church of England, and the clergy--both of whose houses were substantially in favour of this Measure, and by well over two thirds--have debated and prayed to know the mind of Christ as they see it, then I will not set my theological judgment against theirs.

3.25 am

Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North) : I came here tonight to fulfil an obligation to a constituent and had not planned to speak. However, after listening to the speeches, I felt that I had to make one or two points if I were to fulfil my obligation properly. On most issues, I share common ground with my hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), and I hold him in great affection, but I found his arguments tonight uncharacteristically confusing. He said that, as the Measure is not the whole loaf, rather than vote for half of it, we should let it fall by the wayside. Later, he argued in principle against the Measure.

We heard the authentic voice of 19th century England as it survives into the 20th century--that of the hon. Member for Halesowen and Stourbridge (Sir J. Stokes). His view typified the undercurrent of feeling among Tory Members which made me feel that it was necessary to intervene--that the Church of England is all about cream teas on the village green, and tut- tutting about goings on.

The Church of England has moved into the real world in recent years, and has addressed central issues. We are talking about real lives and real people and about those whose vocation may be tested by other means. They should not be tested purely on the basis of marital history. There are other more important tests. In many cases, real people have suffered anguish over the years while they have waited for the Measure to go through the procedures of the Church, and come to the House. It has now gone through those procedures, and it would be intolerable if Parliament were not to accept what the Church has considered carefully and decided was the right thing to do. The House should support the Measure.

Column 191

3.28 am

Mr. William Powell (Corby) : As the son of a clergyman who administered to congregations for 58 years, I know that he would find the suggestion that he has not existed in the real world extremely difficult to comprehend. The Church has administered to people of England for centuries, and not just in the past year or two. It is with considerable regret that I must disagree with the conclusions reached by my hon. Friend and my constituent, the Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Latham). For reasons that have been substantially argued by the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), I must ask the House to join us in the No Lobby tonight.

A point that has not been underlined as it should is that this is the worst piece of legislation that has been introduced in the six years that I have been a Member of Parliament. It is so loose and general that it is a legislative disgrace. Even the members of the Ecclesiastical Committee who voted with the majority were less than enthusiastic about the quality of the legislation. There was an almost universal view that it should be accompanied by a statutory code of conduct, or at the least a draft statutory code setting out how it would be administered should be made available to Parliament before it came to a decision. As the hon. Member for Birkenhead said, a wide discretion is laid down in the Measure, and initially one or two individuals will be let through. It is extremely likely that every one of the 244 individuals currently in the pipeline-- more are joining it all the time--will in due course be ordained.

The Church of England faces a crisis in the number of its ordained Ministers. A generation ago, there were about 20,000 beneficed clergymen. There are now about 10,000, and about 10 per cent. of ordained Mininsters, taking priests and deacons together, are women. That is how important the ordination of women has become in terms of the Church's ordained manpower. The Times predicted last week that within 15 or 20 years the number of ordained clergymen will decline to about 5,000. It has become of paramount importance to all the bishops of the Church of England to try to increase the number of candidates available for ordination. I suspect that the hon. Member for Birkenhead was spot on when he told us how the discretion was likely to operate in practice, on the basis of what has happened in the past. More than anything else, this is part of the numbers game that is played by increasingly desperate leaders of the Church of England as they trawl to try to find more and more people from a smaller and smaller pool to fill the vacancies that are appearing. We all know from our constituency experience that there are long vacancies between incumbencies in small parishes and in large. These vacancies cause considerable damage to the fabric of church life within the parishes.

I must say that I consider the quality of this legislation to be a disgrace. The House would be entirely right in rejecting it because there is no code of conduct setting out how the Measure will be administered in practice. Without a code of conduct, we should not agree to the proposed legislation.

3.33 am

Mr. Alison : Even at this late hour, the sands of time continue to run out. I hope that I shall be allowed to reply to the debate, which must end in three or four minutes, by

Column 192

making two quick points. First, I must tell my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Mr. Powell) that the details of how the archbishops propose to exercise their discretion and the instructions that they are proposing to issue in the diocese have been made available in the Vote Office and can be scrutinised. My hon. Friend may not have succeeded in procuring a copy of the relevant document.

Some right hon. and hon. Members, including my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government in an intervention, expressed continuing anxiety about whether the General Synod properly reached its majority conclusions without having recourse to the two-thirds majority voting procedure. I shall explain briefly the technicalities underlying the decision that a two-thirds decision was not applicable. Among other things, article 8 of the constitution of the General Synod applies

"to a Measure or Canon providing for permanent changes in the services of Baptism or Holy Communion or in the Ordinal"-- that is, measures relating to ordination.

"A special procedure applies"

where there are permanent changes, and in those circumstances an article 8 measure, so-called, must have a two-thirds majority in each house of the General Synod at final approval.

In June 1986, immediately before the so-called revision stage in the full General Synod, more than 25 members petitioned that the Measure be designated as article 8 business--that is, statutorily requiring a two- thirds majority vote.

As required by the constitution--article 8(2)--the matter was considered by the two archbishops, the so-called prolocutors together with the chairman and vice-chairman of the House of Laity. They ruled that the Measure was not article 8 business and that it did not require a two-thirds majority on the ground that, in their opinion, the Measure

"is not providing for a permanent change in the Ordinal." That decision was constitutionally properly reached and was accepted in the Synod. Lord Bridge, the chairman of the Ecclesiastical Committee, endorsed that decision. It was therefore right that the Church of England General Synod reached its conclusion without a two-thirds majority. I remind hon. Members that the voting in the House of Laity, the nearest group corresponding to us, was 125 in favour and 77 against.

It being one and a half hours after the commencement of proceedings on the motion Mr. Deputy Speaker-- put the Question, pursuant to Standing Order No. 14 (Exempted Business).

The House divided : Ayes 45, Noes 51.

Division No. 304] [3.36 am


Alison, Rt Hon Michael

Barnes, Harry (Derbyshire NE)

Beith, A. J.

Bennett, A. F. (D'nt'n & R'dish)

Blackburn, Dr John G.

Boswell, Tim

Bottomley, Peter

Bottomley, Mrs Virginia

Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich)

Next Section

  Home Page