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16 Jan 2003 : Column 844—continued

Synodical Government (Amendment) Measure

1.49 pm

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

I shall be brief. The Church of England has a system of synodical government, which gives representatives of clergy and lay people a role, along with bishops, in the governance of the Church at all levels. Although the principles underlying the system are long standing, a modern form of synodical government came into existence with the passing of the Synodical Government Measure in 1969 and the inauguration of the General Synod the following year.

The main proposals in the Measure before the House provide for amendments to Church representation rules made under the 1969 Measure and make detailed provision for a range of matters relating to the synodical structures of the Church.

Several of the changes are intended to confer more flexibility or lighten Church organisational structures; examples include reducing the minimum size of diocesan synods from 150 to 120, new arrangements for calculating the number of lay representatives on a parochial church council, and a power for another cleric to chair a parochial church council in the absence of the minister if the minister and the parochial church council agree and the bishop consents.

Other changes affecting parochial church councils include a new requirement that lay people aged 18 or over should have had their name on the electoral roll of a parish for at least six months before being eligible for election to its parochial church council or the deanery synod. This requirement is seen as a desirable protection against a sudden influx of new members with little previous involvement in parish life.

In addition, to make changes to Church representation rules, the Measure also make a number of miscellaneous changes to legislation on Church life at diocesan level.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud): Is my hon. Friend aware that there is a problem with the Church electoral roll? The problem concerns who is on the roll and how its contents are made known. I raise a tangential but important point: without people's names appearing on the Church's electoral roll, there will be no democracy in the Church, and if their names do not appear on the other electoral roll, or if the Church does not have access to it, the problem will worsen.

Mr. Bell: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who again shows the importance of having these debates on the Floor of the House. Curiously, the Ecclesiastical Committee did not challenge the most contentious proposal in the Measure—the requirement that a lay person should have been on the electoral roll of the parish for at least six months before qualifying for election to the PCC or deanery synod. The purpose of the change, which does not apply to anyone under 18, is to require that commitment be demonstrated to a

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parish before seeking election to its PCC or the deanery synod. One may feel that six months is a long time; before one can stand as a parliamentary candidate for the Labour party, one has to be a member for two years.

The measure and the changes include the lightening of certain committee structures and an amendment to the functions of diocesan synods to enable them to approve the annual budget and accounts of the diocesan board of finance. This last change reflects an increasing desire to enhance strategic management by bringing the policy making and financial management of a diocese closer together.

The changes to synodical government effected by the Measure may at first sight seem both amorphous and modest. Taken together, they none the less represent a valuable and uncontentious first step in the process of synodical reform and development to which the Church stands committed. I therefore commend the Measure to the House.

1.56 pm

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury): As the Member of Parliament for Salisbury, better known to some as Barchester, I warmly welcome this very sensible amendment to the small print of the rules of the Church of England. It is of considerable consequence; anyone who is not familiar with the politics of the Church would be surprised at the games of entryism that go on and the carpetbagging that occurs from time to time. These rules, which are designed to get around those problems, are very welcome and relevant.

Mr. Chris Bryant (Rhondda): The hon. Gentleman refers to carpetbagging. One reason that many people join the electoral roll of a church is so that they can qualify to get married in that church. Does he think that that rule should change?

Mr. Key: No, I think that that is fair enough, because, entirely appropriately, residence qualifications are still required to get on the church's electoral roll. I also have no objection in this case to the positive discrimination in favour of young people to whom, under schedule 2, this rule will not apply.

The Measure is entirely sensible and once again illustrates the importance and relevance of the relationship between the established Church of England and Parliament.

1.57 pm

Mr. David Drew (Stroud): I will not delay the House long, but I should like to add to the point that I made when I intervened on my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell). Unless people are registered on their church's electoral roll, the basic democracy of the Church becomes sadly weakened. For that to happen, however, they must be registered on the wider electoral role, which is becoming increasingly difficult because of data protection.

We do not need further barriers in the way of getting people on to the electoral roll, and I hope that the Church Commissioners will deal with the problems that have been brought to my attention in my constituency.

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More than one parochial church council representative has asked me to give them details of who is on the electoral roll as well as the numbers, because of budgetary considerations. The Church must be much more active in ensuring that it includes people on the electoral roll. Those of us who are active in the Church are worried that numbers are ridiculously low, given the importance of the Church in the community.

1.59 pm

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): I am grateful for the very clear way in which the Second Church Estates Commissioner, the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell), put the case for the Measure. Indeed, I am delighted to follow the hon. Members for Salisbury (Mr. Key) and for Stroud (Mr. Drew). The hon. Member for Salisbury and I go back some time, as he will recall from school days. I recall the very distinguished role that his father and brother both played in the Church of England, as have some members of my family.

Unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb), I have no pecuniary interest in the Measure, although I am a communicant member of the Church of England, I have been a member of a parochial church council and my brother is a parish priest. My grandfather was a parish priest in Cornwall at the time of the 1928 prayer book, and had been all his life. That was some 75 years ago and he decided then that it was time for disestablishment. He thought it absurd that the House should debate such issues and saw its role as an absurd intrusion into the work of the Church.

It is an irony that this interesting Measure, which the hon. Member for Middlesbrough introduced so elegantly, is all about democracy in the Church of England, yet out of the 659 people who in theory could vote on it in a few minutes' time it is unlikely that a majority would be members of the Church of England. In talking about democracy, we are negating democracy, which is a curious situation.

I hope that we will pass the Measure, which has been thoroughly thought through. It is important that we recognise, however, that it is only the first phase of more contentious proposals that are being considered. It is my ambition that when the second Measure is introduced it will not have to come before the House of Commons.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham): Will the hon. Gentleman explain his new doctrine that we can vote only on things in which we are actively involved? The House normally votes on crime, but I am sure that no hon. Members are criminals. Would that debar them from voting on crime measures?

Mr. Tyler: I am tempted to say, XSpeak for yourself."

In the debate and vote in the Synod, the votes were 24 to nil among the bishops, 160 to four among the clergy, and 175 to 14 among the laity. As has been said, that is a pretty clear majority compared with even the Government's majorities.

The hon. Member for Stroud made an interesting point about the church electoral roll. I hope that the hon. Member for Middlesbrough responds to that. It is critical to the Measure that the church electoral roll is

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full of integrity and credibility and that it has the respect of parishioners; otherwise, the hierarchy of Church democracy is at risk.

The notes and minutes provided by the Ecclesiastical Committee, which is a Joint Committee of both Houses, are a model of their kind. I am not a member of the Committee and pay tribute to it for the way in which it has guided us on the issue. The documents explain that there was a sharp division on a number of Measures that form part of the 40 recommendations in the Bridge report. As far as I can establish, it is only those that have not caused controversy that are before us today. That is helpful, but I hope that the hon. Member for Middlesbrough agrees that we should have a full explanation of where opinion is divided if and when the next stage takes place.

The Committee discussed at length whether someone should be on the PCC electoral roll for 12 or six months and recommended a six-month rule, which is helpful. It will affect not just those who suddenly decide that they want to be involved in church work, but those who have moved from another parish where they were extremely active. In my part of the world, Cornwall, we want the expertise of retired people who have given good service to their parish and church in, for example, London. I have not come across any parochial church council that is worried about entryism. They are much more worried about departure, especially the call to their maker.

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