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Simon Hughes: Like Parliament.
Sir Patrick Cormack: No, the General Synod is elected in a rather peculiar way—
Simon Hughes: Like Parliament.
Sir Patrick Cormack: The hon. Gentleman persists in interjecting, but if he listens, he might understand.
In my parish, for example, where I happen to be church warden, only two people have the vote for the General Synod, because they represent us on the deanery synod. To my mind, the General Synod will never be properly representative of the Church of England unless every member, on every electoral roll, which every church has throughout the Church of England, has the vote. Although the hon. Gentleman and I no doubt disagree on electoral reform, I hope that we can agree that that particular reform—if all those who worship regularly in our churches and who are on the respective electoral rolls had the vote for Synod representatives—would make the Church of England far more democratic and the Synod far more representative.
Simon Hughes indicated assent.
Sir Patrick Cormack: I am glad that I have the hon. Gentleman’s assent.
Throughout the Church of England, there is concern about the Measure. The Church’s bedrock down the ages has been the freehold. The parson’s freehold has been tremendously important in giving the individual clergymen within his parish—or her parish, to take the point that the right hon. Member for Croydon, North made in his intervention—an autonomy and independence that are extremely precious. We all know of stories about clergymen falling out with congregations, and there are problems from time to time, but over the centuries—I use that word deliberately—the freehold system has served the Church of England in particular, and the country in general, very well indeed.
Every one of us living in a parish of the Church of England, regardless of our belief or lack of it, has the right to the ministration of the parish priest and all that that entails. That is an important right. The fact that that right should be supervised by a priest who has absolute local autonomy—while of course owing canonical obedience to the bishop—is very precious and important indeed. The Measure abolishes the freehold. That is why the English Clergy Association, of which I have the honour to be a lay vice-president, is unanimously opposed to the Measure. The association comprises a large number of clergymen within the Church of England who rate the freehold very highly.
I quoted to the Ecclesiastical Committee the wise words of Margaret Laird, which are in our report. Margaret Laird, the wife of a respected clergyman, was in her own right a highly respected Church Commissioner for many years, and she has published on the subject. If I may, Mr. Gale, I will quote what I quoted in the Ecclesiastical Committee. Mrs. Laird wrote:
“This Measure which intends to abolish the parson’s freehold is, like others put forward recently, going to undermine even further the checks and balances and distributed authority on which the Church of England has always been able to pride itself. In 400 years that balance between Church and State, bishops and patrons, bishops and clergy, clergy and people has been maintained with the rights of each and the duties of each being recognised.”
That is an important and wise statement, and I commend it to the Committee. I do so not because I am against extending rights to other people who do not have the freehold, but because I do not believe that it is necessary to abolish one right in order to confer another. I am entirely comfortable with the extra rights to non-freehold clergy encapsulated in the Measure, but I see no reason to sacrifice the freehold.
The real reason why the freehold is being abolished—one must say this—is that many bishops in recent years have found it extremely inconvenient, and they have found it convenient to suspend the freehold when appointing a new parish priest. In some dioceses in this country—the hon. Member for Middlesbrough will have the facts and figures more readily at his fingertips than I—very few parsons, and in some cases none, have been appointed to the freehold in recent years. They have instead been given contracts of five years, seven years and various other terms. There has also, of course, been an amalgamation of parishes: sometimes that has been necessary, but sometimes, again, it has been for the convenience of the bishop.
To refer to Mrs. Laird’s point about checks and balances, the Measure distorts the balance between the bishop and a clergyman in his or her parish. That is disturbing. Parliament has responsibility for the Church of England. We in the House have the ultimate responsibility, which rests with us as long as the Church is established by law. Some colleagues, such as the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey, would like, for perfectly honourable reasons, to disestablish the Church. I understand and completely respect that point of view, although I profoundly disagree with it; I hope that the hon. Gentleman also respects my point of view. However, we have an established Church and a system in which every man, woman and child in this country has the right, irrespective of belief, to the ministrations of the priest of the parish in which he or she resides. As long as that system pertains, for just as long could the freehold be of value in enabling a priest, if necessary, to stand up against a bishop.
I do not want to make a meal of it, but it is important to get those points on the record. I believe that they are entirely valid and reasonable. It is a pity that Synod reacted as it did, with almost no dissent, taking little notice of bodies such as the English Clergy Association or the evidence and submissions made by people such as Margaret Laird. I urge the Committee to consider my submissions carefully and to bear in mind that once something like the freehold is abolished, it can never, never be recreated. This is an historic moment in the history and administration of the Church of England.
Simon Hughes: I am listening carefully and respectfully to what the hon. Gentleman says. As a matter of information, will he tell us how many members of the 13,600 clergy of the Church of England currently serving are members of the English Clergy Association? I ask because it would be useful to know what percentage of the clergy the association represents.
Sir Patrick Cormack: That is a fair question. I cannot give an exact answer, but the association’s membership is in the order of 1,000. It is a greater number than MORI would ever survey. Others, of course, who do not belong to the association also have a sense of unease.
I reiterate that this is an historic moment in the history of the Church of England, even if the Measure is being quietly passed in an upper room in the Palace of Westminster. Once the Measure is enacted, no more freehold appointments will be made. The hon. Member for Middlesbrough, made it quite plain that those who currently enjoy a freehold will be able to remain in possession of it for as long as they wish—in other words, until they retire, or die, or seek another appointment—but that no one else will enjoy the benefit. As I said earlier, I have no objection whatever to conferring very reasonable and desirable benefits upon others; but to do so we do not need to abolish something that has truly stood the test of time.
4.58 pm
Simon Hughes: I am happy to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Gale.
I shall deal first, and briefly, with the Church of England Pensions (Amendment) Measure, which is the shorter and more straightforward of the two. I support it, but I have some questions for the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, which I hope he will be able to answer in his winding-up speech.
The Measure gives the Church of England the capacity to borrow from capital for a period beyond the present permitted period for pensions, one of the key responsibilities of the Church Commissioners being to pay the pensions of those who have served the Church. The final sentence of paragraph 6 of the report before us states:
“The growth of the Commissioners’ assets means that their pensions liabilities, which represented 50.3 per cent. of total assets at the end of 1997 and 45.5 per cent. of total assets on the first renewal of the power in 2002 now represent only 28.7 per cent. of the total assets.”
Clearly, the pensions liability as a proportion of the total liability is much smaller than it was 10 or so years ago. I would be grateful if he stated for the record how many pensioners there are and what the expectation is should the number grow slightly, although I assume that it will stay the same or even diminish.
Secondly, what is the formula for pensions in the Church of England? Obviously, those who have served for a long time will receive a much greater amount, but I would be grateful to know the basic rate per annum, so that we know for the record what we are discussing when we make our decision. Clearly, there is no argument: the Church Commissioners have an absolute responsibility to ensure that pensions are paid, and people who have served the Church in a paid position need to know that their place of work, of all workplaces, will guarantee their future.
The other Measure is clearly more controversial. The hon. Member for South Staffordshire rightly explained the nature of the controversy. That was the question in the minds of those of us who sat on the Ecclesiastical Committee when it deliberated. I wish to confirm a couple of points relating to that deliberation.
Those who have read the record of our deliberations as a Committee on 12 November will see that a significant number of us were present for the deliberations, but a much smaller number, which did not include the hon. Member for South Staffordshire and me, were there to vote. That is not because we took no interest in being there till the end; it is simply because, as a result of bad management, we ended up having to start our deliberations at 11 o’clock on a Wednesday morning. Many Commons members could not stay because of duties in the Chamber, although we registered our protests and some of us tried to get the Committee adjourned, so that we would not have to resolve the matter that day. I am therefore one of those who is not recorded as having voted at all. I would have voted in favour—I guess that the hon. Member for South Staffordshire would have voted against—but I want to place it on record that it is not a satisfactory state of affairs when such important matters come before a statutory Committee consisting of Members of both Houses of Parliament, and we cannot complete our job and stay there for the full deliberations.
Sir Patrick Cormack: I thank the hon. Gentleman for what he just said and the manner in which he said it. That caused great anguish among the Commons members of the Committee, several of whom had to leave. I, for instance, had to speak on Northern Ireland legislation immediately after Prime Minister’s questions, and it was very difficult. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for putting that on record.
Simon Hughes: Ten Commons members of the Committee were present for the deliberation, but only three were still there by the time the vote took place. I hope that everybody realises that that was not because any of the seven of us did not wish to continue our work.
The result of that deliberation shows that those who were able to remain—11 Lords members and three Commons members of the Committee—all voted in favour, so the Committee’s decision was unanimous. However, to complete the point that I was making, had everybody been present, although my understanding of the debate is that there would have been a clear majority in favour, some would have voted against. The Committee therefore reflected a balanced view.
Secondly, I would like to put it on record that we were supplied, as the Ecclesiastical Committee always is, with the results of the deliberations in the Synod. The deliberations in the three Houses showed no opposition in the House of Bishops, with 20 in favour, none against and no abstentions. In the House of Clergy, 109 were in favour, five opposed and four abstained. In the House of Laity, 110 were in favour, 13 against and two abstained. It is not really fair, but the maths is easy, and gives the collective view at the date of the decision in July 2008. The totals were 239 in favour in the three Houses, 18 against and six abstentions.
In parenthesis, I said to the hon. Member for South Staffordshire that although we disagree on what is or is not a good system for electing people to this place—hence my interventions—I share his view that it would be good for the Church of England if everybody had a vote, as it would democratise the process and engage people in the elections. That is not a criticism of current members of Synod. I was a member briefly; he was a member for longer. A good friend of mine is a member now and does his job assiduously. None the less, I am clear that the proposed system would be better.
The hon. Member for South Staffordshire was kind enough to represent my position accurately, as I would expect. To lay my cards on the table, I was baptised into the Church of England and confirmed into the Church in Wales. That was probably accidental, given that I was living in Wales, but also convenient, because I am a believer in disestablishment. Wales and Ireland did it a long time ago and entirely satisfactorily, as far as I can see, and I hope that sooner or later it happens in England, too. Were that to be the case, we would not need this debate, because Parliament would not have such a power of scrutiny.
I have never thought that disestablishment would require the Church of England to give up what it sees as its responsibility to minister to everybody. In the Church in Wales, which I know very well, every parish priest may minister to everybody in the Church in Wales, as I am sure that the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire will confirm. My family and I have been the happy beneficiaries of that pastoral care from the parish clergy of the Church in Wales.
Sir Patrick Cormack: But it is not as a right.
Simon Hughes: It is not a right, but it is a policy, so nowhere in Wales is one outside the Church. It welcomes everyone both to its altar, if they are a Christian of any denomination, and to its services.
I notice that in the Committee are three Members for Scottish constituencies, and one Member for a Welsh constituency, which evidences the slightly strange nature of our constitutional position. Of the English constituency Members, I guess that many are not members of the Church of England either, and others may have no religious faith. Such is the current status, but until it is changed and the wishes of people such as me are achieved we will do our job, which I have always believed that we should do properly.
I am a supporter of the Measures, as I indicated to the hon. Member for Middlesbrough. If I have an interest to declare, it is that periodically my ear is bent—perfectly properly—on such matters by my sister-in-law, who is a parish priest in the Church of England. She has been an incumbent and a curate; she has been on the staff of a cathedral and is currently chaplain to a hospice and prison, all of which jobs she has enjoyed. In a way, she reflects many people in the modern Church who move from a parish ministry, where they have what has been a freehold, to another sort of ministry. She did so to fit in with changes in her and my brother’s family life—the birth of their son—which was convenient while he has been growing up, going to school and so forth.
My sister-in-law is a good example of somebody who could rightfully expect her terms and conditions of employment to be similar and protected throughout periods of different work. She thoroughly enjoyed being a parish priest and looking after two parish churches in Essex, but obviously when the time came and she moved to another job, she wanted her security of tenure and her holiday and other employment rights to be continued.
After much deliberation, the Synod has tried to get the best of the freehold system without other disadvantages. The freehold was entirely right for the middle ages, when it was created, because it gave clergy a local right to stay in one place and stand up for what they believed in, no matter what the bishop thought—a bit like Members of Parliament vis- -vis the Government. Many priests are in their parish because of the patronage of the parish’s patron. Some are chosen by the parish parochial church council, some by somebody living locally, some by a college of Cambridge or Oxford universities and some by other people. As a result, they are independent, which is very important. I agree with the hon. Member for South Staffordshire about that.
It is very important that the bishop of the day should not be able to come into office, take over a diocese and decide, “I don’t like what they’re doing, and I don’t like what they’re saying, and I’m going to clear out those sorts of people, starting with people who do not believe in having women priests and bishops, because personally I, the bishop, do”. As far as I understand, that could not happen. That protection is important. My understanding is that the reasons for an annual review of performance, which is important, and the reasons that would allow action to be taken under the Measure that might terminate employment may not relate to doctrine or discipline. Therefore, it would be impossible for a bishop to say, “Because you don’t believe in the ordination of women or the ordination of women to the episcopate, you must go, and I’m going to find a way of getting you out and making your life uncomfortable.” Nor would it be possible for a bishop to say, “I think your behaviour was inappropriate, and I’m going to remove you,” because there are proper procedures in both the established and disestablished Churches in the UK for dealing with inappropriate behaviour.
Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con): On the specific issue to which the hon. Gentleman has already adverted—the obligations of the Church of England to minister to all residents in the parish—does he agree that if the incumbent becomes unfit, which I think is the remit of the Measure, the obligation would not be discharged unless and until that incumbent could be removed?
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