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Incumbents (Vacation Of Benefices) Measure

Volume 934: debated on Wednesday 29 June 1977

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7.4 p.m.

I beg to move,

That the Incumbents (Vacation of Benefices) Measure, passed by the General Synod of the Church of England, be presented to Her Majesty for Her Royal Assent in the form in which the said Measure was laid before Parliament.
This measure has two main purposes. First, it deals with the cases in which a clergyman is no longer able, through old age or infirmity, to minister as he should to the people of his parish. It provides that after due inquiry he can be required to leave his benefice, but, if he has to go, there is provision for financial compensation. This part of the measure re-enacts provisions that have been on the statute book for more than 30 years.

The second purpose of the measure is to carry the same principle a stage further and to provide for cases in which a clergyman is no longer able to minister to the people of his benefice because there has been a total breakdown in the relationship between him and them. Here again, after due inquiry, the clergyman can be required to leave his benefice, and again there is provision for financial compensation for the loss which the clergyman suffers if he has to give up his living.

Hon. Members will recall that some 20 months ago, on 15th October 1975, I brought a similar measure before the House which was rejected. At that time the hon. and learned Member for Royal Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Mayhew) put his finger on a flaw in the measure. It was a flaw which had not been seen by the General Synod or the Ecclesiastical Committee and which had escaped the attention of another place. The hon. Member's point was that according to the measure, as it then was, a clergyman who became involved in an inquiry under the pastoral breakdown provisions could not demand as of right to be heard by the committee or tribunal looking into his case.

On that occasion I was pressed to withdraw the measure. Hon. Members said—and I particularly remember the words of the right hon. and learned Member for Wimbledon (Sir M. Havers) and the right hon. Member for Bridlington (Mr. Wood)—that they understood the need for the measure but could not support it as it stood. Rightly or wrongly, I pressed the matter to a Division and the motion was defeated.

However, I am sure that tonight I bring to the House a much better measure. It is much better because the General Synod has rectified not only the main matter raised by the hon. and learned Member for Royal Tunbridge Wells but has dealt fully—as I am sure the hon. and learned Member will recognise—with various subsidiary points that he also raised on that occasion. I should like to record on behalf of the General Synod, that it is grateful to the hon. and learned Member for the vigilance that he showed on that occasion, and I pay tribute to him.

I do not think that on the second hearing the House will want me to go through the measure clause by clause so I shall make just a few points that need to be made. First, this measure, if it is approved, will rarely be invoked. In the 32 years since the measure dealing with old age and infirmity cases was enacted, its provisions have been implemented only rarely. The fact that the measure was there, available for use if need be, was sufficient. That has always been enough. The General Synod expects, similarly, that if the new measure is approved tonight the pastoral breakdown provisions will rarely need to be used and that a clergyman will be ready to accept other work or, if no other work as a priest is to be found, to accept financial compensation rather than go through the process of inquiry.

The problem with which the measure deals is undoubtedly a small one, in relation to age and infirmity and to cases of pastoral breakdown. However, though the numbers may be small, the effects are serious for those who suffer them. It means that in a parish there can be a clergyman holding freehold office as rector or vicar, and providing the statutory church services, but having effectively ceased to minister to the people whom he was sent to care for spiritually and to serve. In such a case, the diocesan bishop will try—as soon as he senses that there is difficulty—to heal the differences and to reconcile the parties. Often he will succeed. However, there remains in every diocese the odd case where all efforts at reconciliation fail. Sometimes the fault will lie not with the clergyman but with the people. The measure protects the clergyman in such cases.

In a real sense the relationship of parson and parish is like a marriage. There are usually faults on both sides—as hon. Members will know well from their own experiences. There are tiffs, and they blow over. However, in some cases the relationship deteriorates and breaks down, and in the end it is in everyone's interest for the couple to part.

The power for which the Church of England is seeking in the measure is one that, in one way or another, every other Church in this country and in the Anglican Communion already has. The Church of England, in seeking this power, is ready and willing, as the measure shows, to see it hedged about with safeguards and to provide generously for the clergyman who must give up his living. I am sure that there will be in the minds of some hon. Members tonight—wherever they sit in the House—the fear that the measure may be used against clergymen whose political and social opinions are unpopular. I am sure that we all know of cases where parsons and people are at odds over politics. But the protection for the clergyman lies in the fact that, whether he opts for a hearing by a diocesan committee or by a provincial legal tribunal, his case will be heard by his peers.

I am sure that the clergyman will have confidence in the fair-mindedness of his fellow clergy, who will naturally and readily wish to defend a brother's right to speak his mind as his conscience dictates. Fair-mindedness is not a quality exclusive to the clergy. There is the further protection that he can be required to give up his living only if at least four of the five members of inquiry or the tribunal support this course.

In presenting this measure, I can tell the House that the General Synod has met every criticism voiced in the House 20 months ago. I see that the hon. and learned Member for Royal Tunbridge Wells has now entered the Chamber. I wish to thank him for the improvements in the measure for which he is responsible. I hope that he will agree that we have met all the objections that he made in the last debate, and I paid tribute to him earlier when he was not in the Chamber.

I must draw attention to a difference between my case today and the case that I presented in 1975. Last time, I was able to say that at the various stages of consideration by the Synod there had at no point been a division. This time, at the final stage before the Synod, there was a division. It was a division by Houses so that we know not only the overall majority but how bishops, clergy and laity voted separately. The overall result was 250 votes in favour and 136 against, but in the House of Clergy, the voting was 93 in favour and 87 against—a majority of only six.

It is difficult for me, a mere layman, to explain why there was so small a majority for a measure that was originally called for by the clergy themselves and that they had previously seemed so ready to accept. I can offer only these pointers. There were some persuasive speeches suggesting that the measure is a major inroad upon the parson's freehold. I believe that it is nothing of the kind. It will protect the principle of the freehold by providing a solution in the few cases that discredit an otherwise excellent principle.

Secondly, the changes that the Synod was called upon to make by the House have played some part. What emerges from the new measure is unquestionably more respectable from a lawyer's standpoint, but for some clergy the additional protections—well meant as they are—give the whole business a disagreeable flavour of a court room trial, and that may have had some bearing in the minds of some clergy.

I believe that the misgivings are mistaken and that the changes that the House insisted upon are improvements. I am sure that the safeguards built into the measure secure the parson against frivolous complaints or attacks simply because he holds opinions that influential parishioners do not like.

The measure deals generously with a clergyman, no matter how perversely he may have behaved. However, if it appears, in the last resort, that a clergyman can no longer minister effectively to his people, if there is a distress and unhappiness among them and if all attempts at reconciliation have been tried and have failed, it is not unreasonable for the clergyman to be asked to withdraw from a situation where he can do no more good.

However, it is right that in such a case he should be provided for financially in a generous way, and that is what the measure does. We have a duty to the clergy to see that this measure gives them adequate protection legally and financially—and I believe it does—but we have a duty in the last instance to the ordinary Church people, men, women and children, to see that they are not denied the pastoral care to which they are entitled. The measure fairly meets both these needs.

7.16 p.m.

I apologise to the Second Church Estates Commissioner for not being here for the first few minutes of his speech. The debate started a little earlier than I had expected. I thank the hon. Gentleman most warmly for his generous observations towards myself, the more so because it must have been tiresome for him and the Synod, who had worked very hard on the measure for a long time, to have it rejected by the House. The hon. Gentleman has demonstrated in a generous way that he understands the reasons that motivated the House on that occasion.

I am glad to repeat what I said in our last debate—that I am wholly in favour of the principle behind the measure. It is right that there should be power to secure the vacation of a benefice where the pastoral relationship between the clergyman and the parish has broken down, whether because, or without any suggestion of misconduct by the clergyman.

However, it is equally important to bear in mind that if a clergyman is relieved of a benefice in these circumstances, he loses not only his livelihood but, in many cases, his home. That is why it seemed essential that there should be an opportunity for a fair hearing. The measure seemed defective to me in that respect and also because there was no provision for proceedings to be held in public.

I understand the reluctance of any parson to become involved in what might seem to be court hearings or to have anything of the nature of a court hearing. I understand why many people recoil from that, but the procedures of our courts have been designed, however imperfectly, to secure fairness, and it was only in order to secure fairness for the clergymen who might be involved in these proceedings that the House rejected the measure in October 1975.

I am entirely satisfied that the new measure meets the points that were put in the last debate and remedies the defects that concerned us then. I am grateful that the General Synod has remedied the defects. I remain entirely in favour of the principle of the measure and entirely satisfied that the defects of the original measure have been put right.

Question put and agreed to.


That the Incumbents (Vacation of Benefices) Measure, passed by the General Synod of the Church of England, be presented to Her Majesty for Her Royal Assent in the form in which the said Measure was laid before Parliament.