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Miss Widdecombe: Indeed. The Minister may recall that during our last debate I called out, from a sedentary position, "Once a priest, always a priest".

It is already possible for members of the Church of England who have been ordained and have forsaken the priesthood to be elected to sit and to serve. That is not possible if they are currently serving members. There is a distinction between those who have left the priesthood and those who are currently serving. The candidate on whose behalf all this shemozzle is taking place no longer practises--although I agree that "once a priest, always a priest" is one of the more confusing issues.

What I am trying to ascertain is whether, when we gave the Bill a Second Reading--unwisely, in my view--we should have explored in more detail the issue of allowing someone who is currently practising to sit, and allowing someone who no longer practises to sit, regardless of whether his Church has released him from the title or order of the priesthood.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): Is not the point that my right hon. Friend has introduced to the debate more properly a matter for the Church or religious denomination or institution itself and its adherents than for the law? The issue on which she is now touching--whether we need the law to rescue religious beliefs and believers from themselves--is very important.

Miss Widdecombe: We are already using the law for that purpose. That is why we are having this debate. If we had always taken the view that the matter was nothing to do with Parliament, there would not be a law prescribing who can and who cannot sit in our midst. There is already such a law. No religious denomination really has the power to prevent its ex-priests from doing anything that they like. Therefore, one cannot sensibly argue that we

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can leave it to the Pope or to the Archbishop of Canterbury when his people have forsaken the priesthood, renounced their vows and decided that they are not going to be bound by the strictures of whoever it was to whom they previously pledged obedience. I think that my right hon. Friend will acknowledge that there is some difficulty in just passing the whole matter over to others.

Mr. Mackinlay: I am struggling to understand why the right hon. Lady--who objects to the legislation because she thinks that a pastor has too great a work load--makes a distinction between those who are episcopally ordained and other ministers of religion.

Miss Widdecombe: The law does.

Mr. Mackinlay: If the right hon. Lady were to pursue her argument to its logical conclusion, she would be seeking to amend the Bill to exclude ministers of other religions. I am a walking witness to the fact that the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) is, according to his lights, an extremely good and diligent pastor; I have been to Martyrs Memorial church, which is extremely good value in terms of preaching and in every other term. He also demonstrably fulfils his role as a very diligent, albeit controversial, hon. Member. Why is there a distinction between those who are episcopally ordained and those who are ministers of religion but not ordained?

Miss Widdecombe: As I made very clear to the hon. Gentleman on Second Reading, the issue is being debated from the point of view of conscience. He will be aware that some of us regard the priesthood as something that is consecrated and flows from recognising the orders of those who do the ordination in the first place. There are other denominations, to which neither he nor I belong, that do not take that line in their recognition of ministers. I have always held that view. However, it is not only a matter of where I might be coming from; in this case, the law itself makes the distinction. Therefore, operating on the basis of the distinction that the law already makes, I am trying to examine whether, on that same basis, we should be proceeding as was decided on Second Reading.

Siobhain McDonagh (Mitcham and Morden): The Bill says that we should not make a distinction between those who are episcopally ordained and those who are not, whether they are Baptists, Methodists or any of the other great faiths. Surely we are saying that it is up to Churches themselves to decide what their ministers or priests can and cannot do and that it is not up to the state to do that. Our job is to extend as far as we possibly can the boundaries of those who can stand.

Some of us share and practise the same religion. In a way, the fact that Catholicism is at the centre of this particular case might obstruct us from seeing the overall illogical nature of the debate. However, if we want to go ahead and attempt to define in law what an ex-priest is, we really will have the wrath of the Catholic Church on us.

The Chairman: Order. The hon. Lady is catching a bad habit from the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) in making an intervention into a speech. An intervention must remain an intervention, even in Committee.

Mr. Mackinlay: I anointed her.

Miss Widdecombe: Whether the hon. Lady made an intervention or a speech, it did not take us much further.

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With all due respect, she was raising exactly the same point as that raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), and I answered it. I do not see much point in repeating the answer. It is worth while debating whether it is proper for people who have been episcopally ordained--I know that the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) will complain that I confine myself to that, but so does the law--and are full-time serving priests to sit in this House.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde): Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Miss Widdecombe: I hope that the intervention is sensible.

Dr. Godman: The right hon. Lady speaks with characteristic courtesy and all the fervour of a recent convert--[Interruption.] To someone born into the Church, she is a recent convert. Would not proposed section (1A) in amendment No. 15 harm the interests of former priests?

Miss Widdecombe: No, I do not believe that it would. On the other hand, my position is straightforward, as I have always said that once one is a priest, one is always a priest. By tabling the amendment, I was endeavouring to debate a distinction that was not made on Second Reading, when we debated matters in the round. What do we accept in the case of ex-priests? If somebody enters holy orders, subsequently leaves and then wants to pursue some other avenue in life, why should not they be allowed to do so in law? There is a quite serious case to be made on that basis. There is a distinction, however, between whether such people should be able to sit in this place and whether somebody who is consecrated, practising and has a flock should be able to do so, which is worthy of debate.

The House will know, because I said it on Second Reading, that I do not believe that the two go together. I believe also, however, that there are other big issues concerning bishops, which may be debated under later amendments. If the Bill were enacted, a bishop would be able to sit in this place. I see a distinction between a fully serving diocesan bishop not being allowed to sit in this place, because he could be called to the House of Lords, and a suffragan bishop, who is not--I was about to say in danger--likely to be called to the other place. We have gone into this rather too quickly because of the Labour candidate in question, and we have not properly considered a host of refinements that raise further questions.

I shall endeavour to press the amendment to a Division because it would at least be appropriate if those of us who do not believe that consecrated priests should be involved in this place had the opportunity to put that on record.

Dr. Godman: I promise to be brief.

The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) has said a couple of times that once a priest, always a priest. It would be fair to say that that complies with paragraph 3 of canon 285 of the Roman Catholic code of canon law 1983, which states:

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I know a goodly number of fine, decent and honourable men who have given up the priesthood. A man whom I am honoured to say is a very close friend of mine gave up the priesthood after 25 years of selfless and remarkable service to his parishioners in Glasgow. He decided that he could no longer accept the canon law on celibacy and that he wanted to lead an ordinary life, as many others throughout the Catholic Church have decided to do. That man now leads a happily married life in the south of Glasgow.

There is no chance of the right hon. Lady's amendment being accepted because it does not make sense and it is harmful to those who have left the priesthood. [Interruption.] Yes it is, in my view.

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