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There is a difference of tradition. There is a tradition in Northern Ireland that does not apply here. As the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) correctly identified, those Members would not regard themselves as members of an ordained ministry in the terms that we are discussing. I am sure that the hon. Member for South Antrim would be appalled at the notion that he had been ordained for any sort of sacramental ministry.
Mr. Mackinlay: It is recorded in the Register of Members' Interests that the hon. Gentleman is a serving officer in the Territorial Army. I think that that is compatible with being a Member. However, if we accept the argument of the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald, that is not so. The right hon. Lady says that a Member does not have enough time to do other things of that sort. Apparently a Catholic priest would not have enough time to serve as a Member, but apparently a serving officer in the TA would. We must think the matter through.
Mr. Swayne: It is not so much a question of time, which is important, but of role. My duties as a TA officer take up about one weekend a month. In the past, they took a great deal more time. To suggest that a clergyman--a practising priest--could continue with that commitment while serving as a Member would not say very much for the nature of his ministry.
Mr. Hogg: My hon. Friend says that it is the role that makes it inappropriate. I am not sure whether my hon. Friend is telling the Committee that the congregation would be unduly beholden to the candidate or that the candidate would be unduly beholden to the congregation. Perhaps he will make that plain.
I do not want to be distracted any further from what I regard as questions involving the principle of the Bill. I have found it odd that my remarks have been taken as controversial. I am speaking for the status quo, and in favour of amendment No. 15.
Amendment No. 15 would spare us the argument that so many Members are seeking to have. It would remove the discrimination to which the hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman) referred, which penalises the Roman Catholic priest because he is not able to divest himself of his orders in quite the same way that would be open to a member of the priesthood of the established Church. The amendment would deliver the remedy that is sought through the Bill. At the same time,
The hon. Member for Thurrock was on better ground when he complained about the distinction of episcopal orders. As he did so, I was reminded of "Decline and Fall". The Committee will recall that the central character found himself having hands laid upon him by an episcopi vagante--a wandering bishop, who bestowed valid holy orders upon him. That blights the rest of his life in so far as it is recounted in the book.
That is not quite as fictional as it may first appear. Wandering bishops exist, and they bestow orders. I clearly recall attending a patronal festival at St. John's church, Holland road. A number of priests, or those purporting to be priests, having been so ordained, presented themselves and asked whether they could sit with the clergy during the festival.
The amendment does not deal with the possibility of those who find themselves ordained in other traditions, such as the orthodox, and those who might have been ordained in another fashion. They would be captured by the amendment. However, as long as they do not practise, the problem does not arise. The amendment deals with that. We might have widened the catchment of those who might be disqualified by the Bill, but by accepting the amendment we will have a safeguard. As I see it the principal problem comes with those who practise.
We have been told that the candidate for whom the Bill is the remedy no longer practises and has no intention to do so. However, there is nothing to say that in future he might start saying mass. If he does not start practising priestly functions, the amendment would provide a proper safeguard.
Siobhain McDonagh: I am not sure of the religious background of the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne), but I imagine that he is not a Catholic. If he were, he would understand that his suggestion that Mr. Cairns might suddenly decide to say mass is an unlikely proposition.
I find it strange to argue from the Government Benches that the state has no right, or should have fewer rights, to determine which religious priests should be able to stand for membership of this place, and which should not. I found the hon. Gentleman's contribution disturbing. We would be putting ourselves in the way of individual churches. We would be putting ourselves up as a counter-force to canon law. In my view, it is for any Church, Christian or any other great faith, to decide what its ministers do, whether they can stand for Parliament and what other work they can take up. It is not a question for Parliament.
Mr. Bercow: I do not want to cavil at the way in which the hon. Lady is developing her argument. However, I put it to her that there is a further and obvious lacuna in the argument of those who oppose the Bill and support the argument of my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), the Shadow Home Secretary, and it relates to the issue of taking one's seat. Will the hon. Lady rephrase the advocacy of her argument and accept that part of the problem is that it is perfectly in order for someone in
Siobhain McDonagh: I was aware of that. I am sorry about the way in which I phrased my argument. The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to a further anomaly. An ex-Catholic priest or an ex-orthodox priest, for example, can stand for Parliament. The problem is taking up his seat.
My argument with the amendment of the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) is not that it suggests that it is difficult for someone to be a full and proper Member and have another job, but that it does not solve the discrimination that we are discussing. If the amendment is agreed, a serving Methodist minister could be a Member, but not a serving Greek Orthodox minister. What logical reason can there be to exclude orthodox priests, but not Methodist ministers? The Bill would still be disturbing and confusing. Some aspects of the argument are being obscured because we are concentrating on the Catholic element, although I well understand why.
The legislation is obscure. Currently, some religious officials are disqualified, but others are not. Some priests can relinquish their ministry to become a Member of Parliament, but others are unable to do so. Some Christian priests are disqualified, whereas ministers of all other religious faiths, such as Judaism, Islam and Buddhism, are eligible. All Catholic priests are disqualified. Ex-clergy are entitled to stand for election and to be elected, as we have said, but they cannot take up their seats. Non-conformist clergy are not disqualified, except for the Church of Scotland. As has been mentioned, several Protestant clerics have served and continue to serve with distinction. Finally, all episcopally ordained priests of the Anglican Church are disqualified, but not in Wales.
It is surely not up to us to determine which clerics can stand and which cannot. It is up to us to widen as far as possible people's ability to stand and to be elected, and to allow the voters to decide. If we attempt to define who is and who is not a Catholic priest, we will get into areas that are not within the scope of the business of the House, but which remain the pure preserve of canon law.
Anglican clergymen are excluded from membership of the House of Commons because they were seen to have an office of profit under the Crown. The established Church was seen as being influenced by the Crown to such an extent that were an Anglican clergyman to stand for Parliament and be elected, he would not be a free agent because he would rely for his living on a Church that was subject to the Crown. That is a perfectly reasonable position; I will say later why I think that it has changed.
The two kinds of exclusion happened to come together, and the proposed change in the law happens to touch them both, but we should not ignore the reasons why they came about. They are different, and we should argue the case differently.