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Standing Committee

1. The Bill shall be committed to a Standing Committee.

2. The Standing Committee shall have leave to sit twice on the first day it meets.
3. Proceedings in the Standing Committee shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion on Thursday 5th April.

Consideration and Third Reading

4. Proceedings on consideration shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at Nine o'clock on the day on which those proceedings are commenced or, if that day is a Thursday, at Six o'clock on that day.

5. Proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at Ten o'clock on the day on which those proceedings are commenced or, if that day is a Thursday, at Seven o'clock on that day.
6. Sessional Order B (Programming Committees) made by the House on 7th November 2000 shall not apply to proceedings on consideration and Third Reading.

Lords messages

7. Paragraphs (6) and (7) of Sessional Order A (varying and supplementing programme motions) made by the House on 7th November 2000 shall not apply to proceedings on any motion to vary or supplement this order for the purpose of allocating time to proceedings on consideration of any messages from the Lords, and the question on any such motion shall be put forthwith.

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Queen's recommendation having been signified--

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 52 (Money resolutions and ways and means resolutions in connection with bills),

Question agreed to.

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Church of England (General Synod) (Measure)

11.10 pm

Mr. Stuart Bell (Second Church Estates Commissioner, representing the Church Commissioners): I beg to move,

Although the Measure is important for the life of the Church, I hope to introduce it fairly briefly. I should like to do so partly because of the lateness of the hour, and partly because I can assure the House that although concerns were expressed about a provision that was previously included in the Measure--I shall say more about that in a moment--it has now been deleted and the Ecclesiastical Committee has reported that the Measure is expedient in its present form.

The Measure contains a comprehensive set of rules about the appointment of churchwardens and their tenure of office. The office of churchwarden is an ancient and honourable one. I understand that it dates back to the early 12th century, but it is still very much alive. Churchwardens play a vital part in the life of the Church of England in parishes throughout the country. That is why the General Synod decided to remove some of the problems that had arisen in relation to the existing law, which was set out in a 1964 Measure. For example, the procedure in cases involving contested election for the office was not as clear as it should have been, and was therefore capable of causing a great deal of hurt and division among loyal church members.

The new Measure seeks to rectify that problem by providing a carefully thought-out and much clearer procedure. However, the choice of the churchwardens of the parish has never been a matter solely for the parish priest, minister or regular churchgoers. Everyone who is resident in a parish and whose name is on the register of local government electors is a parishioner and is entitled to take part. That principle is part of the unique relationship between Church and state in this country, and it is preserved by the Measure.

That provision, and almost all the others contained in the Measure--hon. Members will see that there are 16 clauses--cause no controversy. The one matter that caused particular concern when the Measure came before the General Synod was the principle that a churchwarden should serve without a break for only six years. That was included in the Measure because parishes and dioceses had asked for it. In some cases, however excellent the churchwardens, parishioners feel that it is time to give someone else an opportunity to serve, but find it difficult to say so tactfully and without hurting any feelings.

Other parishes have pointed out, however, that the office of churchwarden is onerous. In rural and inner-city parishes, often only a very limited number of people are willing and able to carry out the duties involved. There may be other reasons why a churchwarden should serve for more than six years. For example, the parish could be in a position in which experienced churchwardens are essential to keeping the show on the road. That is why the Synod decided that, although the rule about six-years' service should be the norm, it should be possible for the

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parishioners of any parish to decide for any reason that that rule should not apply to them, with the freedom to change their minds later if they want to do so. Thus, the parish will remain in control, which is how the Synod agreed it should be. In any case, the six years would not start to run until the Measure came into force, so there would be ample time for every parish to make up its mind.

The issue that caused the Ecclesiastical Committee a great deal of concern was different--namely, the power that the original Measure would have given to the bishops to suspend a churchwarden from exercising his or her duties. I know that many right hon. and hon. Members have received correspondence about that, and the Ecclesiastical Committee and the Synod have spent a great deal of time considering the matter.

All I need say tonight is that, first, the power was not included in the Measure at the request of the bishops. The bishops and everyone else in the Synod always anticipated that it would be used only on rare occasions. Secondly, there was a great deal of anxiety, which was strongly expressed in the Ecclesiastical Committee, that the power could be used in a way that would override the rights of the parishioners and be unfair to the churchwarden.

In the light of the Ecclesiastical Committee's concerns, the Synod finally decided to delete the power from the Measure in the hope that it would proceed without further controversy. I can therefore assure right hon. and hon. Members who have received anxious letters about the power of suspension that there is no trace of it in the Measure before the House.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley): Is it not true that, had the power not been withdrawn, the Ecclesiastical Committee would almost certainly not have found the Measure expedient and would not have approved its coming before the House and the other place?

Mr. Bell: I am grateful for my hon. Friend's intervention. He knows that the role of the Ecclesiastical Committee in the established Church and the relationship between Church and state were amply discussed at the time. The Ecclesiastical Committee, representing the House in the other place, rendered a signal service on behalf of parishioners.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West): May I say, with all humility, that the Ecclesiastical Committee may have been wrong? The Committee and the House ought to say to the Synod, "We are very grateful for your tolerance of the fact that we took a view that may or may not have been right."

Mr. Bell: The hon. Gentleman put that view forcefully in the Ecclesiastical Committee, and I was grateful that he did so. It might have been useful in particular circumstances for the bishop to have power over a churchwarden, but the overwhelming feeling in the Committee and among parishioners was that giving an unelected bishop power over an elected churchwarden would not be successful. The consequence was that the matter returned to the Synod, which gracefully yielded on that particular point, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out. Therefore, the Measure is before the House.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): I was one of those who lobbied long and hard, partly on behalf of my wife,

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who is a churchwarden and is worried about the Measure. I am concerned to read clause 10(1)(e), which states that the bishop shall have power

Can the hon. Gentleman advise us what that difficulty might be and what the bishop might have to do to remove it should it arise?

Mr. Bell: The hon. Gentleman draws my attention to a particular clause, and I thank him for being so alert so late in the evening. I cannot give him the answer he requires, so I shall write to him. If my response is of sufficient importance, I shall put a copy in the Library so that those Members who are not here tonight can rush to the Library to read it in due course. I assure right hon. and hon. Members who received letters on the power of suspension that there is no trace of that in the Measure before the House.

I hope that the House will pass this Measure, and that the other place will be content, so that it can pass into law in the near future. However, Church authorities are well aware that parishes are about to hold their annual election of churchwardens. Indeed, a few have already done so. It would not be right to introduce the new rules at short notice in the middle of that process without giving parishes time to absorb them. Because of that, those who are responsible for advising the archbishops on when to exercise their power under clause 16(2) to bring the measure into force do not propose to do so until after the present annual round of meetings to choose churchwardens is over. It is equally important that those who will draw up guidance on the new rules for the parishes should be able to begin work as soon as possible. I urge the House to approve the Measure and to support the motion.

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