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Lord Morgan: My Lords, it was entirely due to the First World War. There was no other consideration. That was a major interval.

The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, although we have the noble Lord's authority for that proposition, it would not necessarily be generally accepted.

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My noble friend Lord Williams went on to say that Parliament would have to abrogate its powers over the rules governing the Church. That, I think, is true. The role of the Ecclesiastical Committee would become redundant, and it would probably go; and it would become necessary to re-think the process under which the Church made binding rules for its members. I am less sure about my noble friend's assertion that Parliament would,

    "have to hand over existing legislation to the Church of England Synod",

and that,

    "in turn, the Synod would have to re-enact that legislation if it so wished".

I suppose it might be desirable to ensure that existing ecclesiastical law contained in Acts of Parliament or General Synod measures did not continue to have the full force of an Act of Parliament, binding the whole nation as opposed to the Church of England. However, the existing law could and probably should continue to bind the Church. The solution adopted in Section 3(1) of the Welsh Church Act 1914 was to provide that,

    "as from the date of disestablishment . . . the ecclesiastical law of the Church in Wales shall cease to exist as law".

But, at the same time, it was provided that:

    "As from the same date the then ecclesiastical law and the then existing articles, doctrines, rites, rules, discipline, and ordinances of the Church of England shall . . . be binding on the members for the time being of the Church in Wales in the same manner as if they had mutually agreed to be so bound."

Much more fundamentally, my noble friend contended that,

    "the whole matter of the Crown would have to be redefined, both as supreme governor of the Church of England and ... as the residuary author of Crown appointments".

That, I believe, is correct. If the Church in England were to be disestablished, it would be argued that the monarch could not remain as supreme governor of the Church. This might give rise to questions being raised about the monarch's role as head of state. Responsibility for the appointment of senior clerics would have to be reconsidered. A body similar to the Crown Appointments Commission could presumably take full responsibility, or some form of election might be called for.

Lastly, my noble friend said that,

    "Transfer of assets would certainly be another problem".

He is undoubtedly right. Some consideration would have to be given to the transfer of assets. The Church has considerable property holdings—although it does not receive financial support from the state. For example, the Church Commissioners administer the funds of Queen Anne's Bounty, which was established in 1704 for,

    "the Augmentation of the Maintenance of Poor Clergy",

and comprised the revenues from "first fruits and tenths" payable to the Crown following the Reformation, and hold the assets of dean and chapter cathedrals and bishops' assets, such as episcopal palaces.

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The disestablishment of the Church in Wales involved its disendowment—the provisions for which took up two thirds of the Act. The disestablishment of the Church of England need not necessarily be linked with its disendowment, but consideration would have to be given to property issues. It would be necessary to ensure that the Church retained sufficient assets to continue maintaining cathedrals and other historic churches unless anyone were to suggest that they be taken over by the state. Thus, my noble friend, in his well-judged speech, summarises some of the major complexities with which we should have to grapple if any question of disestablishment were to arise.

I must not pass over a further matter raised by my noble friend; namely, the important point that the Archbishop of Canterbury is a spiritual leader who, because of his position, has the ear of government when he needs it, and therefore has a special authority. That authority does equip the most reverend Primate for his missions to reconcile communities, whether in Africa or in relation to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

The noble Lord, Lord Maclennan of Rogart was good enough to acknowledge the scale and ambition of this Government's constitutional reforms. Some, however, complain—of course, I would not agree with them—that we are already suffering from "constitutional overload"—devolution, with a Scottish Parliament and Assemblies in Wales and Northern Ireland; human rights legislation; freedom of information legislation; Lords reform; and the possibility of regional assemblies in England. So a very strong case has to be made out for further legislation of a major constitutional character now.

The question is, therefore, whether the effort involved would be justified, or whether it could be better spent on other issues. With great respect to noble Lords who have argued for disestablishment, it is not at all evident that a majority or even a significant minority of people would want us to go down that road. The issue goes much wider than the Church's own wishes, but I shall consider first the position of the Church, and the attitude governments have taken in response to it.

Previous governments made clear—particularly following the Chadwick report in 1970—that they did not propose to consider disestablishment unless and until the Church itself asked for it. It has not asked for it, and indeed, although there are obviously variances of view within the Church, I believe that the Church as a whole continues to value its established status. The most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury gave a strong lead to the Church in his speech at Lambeth Palace on 23rd April. He urged that no steps should be taken that would weaken the links between the Church and the state without the very closest examination both of their historic significance and of their wider impact on the community as a whole. This was emphasised by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham.

The Church does review aspects of its status and procedures from time to time, as is only right. As my noble friend Lord Faulkner of Worcester mentioned,

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in July the General Synod is due to consider a motion to change the procedure by which diocesan bishops are appointed. If changes are proposed, the Government will certainly consider them. But I do not think that either this or any government would devote the considerable time and trouble that would be required for legislation to disestablish the Church unless it were clear that the Church itself indisputably favoured such a move. That is intended to be an unequivocal answer to the question that the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Conwy, invited me to answer.

I acknowledge that this debate leaves me in cautious mode. As the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Habgood, put it on another occasion,

    "As a country without a written constitution we depend more than most on symbolism, on historical precedent and on subtle linkages between Crown and Parliament and Church. None of these is unalterable"—

Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor for giving way. Would anything he has said preclude two actions—amendment of the Act of Settlement, which is now something of an anachronism, or allowing the choice of Archbishop of Canterbury to be made by the Church without the intervention of the Prime Minister of the day?

The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, the noble Baroness not merely interrupts me, which I am entirely relaxed about, but interrupts the excellent quotation from the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Habgood, about which I was reminding your Lordships. We could have a three-hour debate on the issues surrounding the Act of Settlement or on the choice of archbishops and bishops in its own right. If your Lordships will forgive me, I shall return to my quotation of the noble and right reverend Lord. He said that,

    "As a country without a written constitution we depend more than most on symbolism, on historical precedent and on subtle linkages between Crown and Parliament and Church. None of these is unalterable, but we need to get out of our minds the idea that it is possible to make a few simple changes without the risk of triggering off a whole series of other changes which might be far from what we want".

Today, the noble and right reverend Lord was wise to caution us to see the need for the state to be based on a transcending moral authority requiring symbols to uphold it.

Opponents of establishment tend to see that status as conferring special advantages upon the established Church. Some of the supposed advantages are questionable, but they certainly should not, as has been mentioned, blind us to the special opportunities to serve which establishment gives to the Church. I conclude as unequivocally as I may. As matters stand now, in the Church and in the nation, the Government believe that our collective time can be better spent in pursuing other priorities.

5.55 p.m.

Lord Maclennan of Rogart: My Lords, in thanking all who have participated in this wide-ranging if—to use the word of the noble Lord,

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Lord Morgan—somewhat "traditional" debate, I should like to express my genuine appreciation to those on all sides of the argument who have spoken. As a result of what we have heard, those of us who are constitutional reformers and seek to base our modern constitution on the concept of a free and equal citizenship know the cases that we have to answer. That these arguments have been around for some time does not necessarily diminish their effectiveness in this House.

I conclude by adding my particular felicitations to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Birmingham, to whom I owe a special debt of gratitude—not only for making an eloquent plea today for an evolutionary approach to the issue of disestablishment, but also for having confirmed my daughter in his church. I beg leave to withdraw my Motion for Papers.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.

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