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Church Commissioners

Volume 554: debated on Thursday 6 December 2012

The hon. Member for Banbury, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—

Women Bishops

1. What recent representations the Church Commissioners have received on the ordination of women as bishops. (131756)

3. What recent progress has been made in finding a way forward on the issue of women bishops which maintains the unity of the Church. (131758)

6. If he will discuss with the Government bringing forward legislative proposals to enable women priests to be consecrated as bishops. (131762)

Following the statement I made on 22 November, the Archbishops Council has met and concluded that a legislative process to admit women to the episcopate needs to be restarted at the next meeting of the General Synod. It was also agreed that the Church of England needed to resolve this matter through its own process as a matter of urgency. The House of Bishops is meeting early next week and has been urged by the Archbishops Council to put in place a clear process for discussions in the new year to inform the decisions that will need to be taken on the shape of the new legislation.

It may be for the convenience of Members of this House to know that they and Members of another place will have the opportunity to discuss these matters further at the meeting that I have arranged with the next Archbishop of Canterbury, the current Bishop of Durham, next Thursday at 9.30 in the Moses Room in the House of Lords.

I am very grateful for that full answer. When I was in church on Sunday, of the 14 people sitting in front of me 13 were women. I think all Members of this House understand how urgent the question is. If fresh legislation is to be passed by the current Synod, it is very important that members of the Church can lobby Synod in a proper way. The Church has published how members of Synod voted but not indicated to which dioceses they belong. Could that also be put up on the website so that people can lobby intelligently?

I see absolutely no reason why that information should not be made available and I will ensure that it is. The process should be perfectly transparent and every member of Synod should be accountable for how they voted.

As we know, the Church has been skirting around the issue for many years. According to the timetable my hon. Friend has presented, when will the vote come back to Synod to be reconsidered?

I hope that, if we can crack on with fresh legislation being presented to the Synod in July, the matter can be eventually resolved by the finish of this Synod in 2015.

May I congratulate my hon. Friend on the work he is doing? I hope that the message will go out from the House today to the Synod that we are waiting for its members to make legislation or else we stand prepared to introduce legislation of our own within that time frame.

The clear message from Parliament and the country as a whole to the Church was that this issue cannot be parked. It has to be resolved as speedily as possible and I know that the next Archbishop of Canterbury fully and wholly endorses that approach. I am sure he will make that very clear when he meets colleagues next Thursday.

It is 46 years, almost to the day, since I raised in a debate the difficulties faced by those with colour in trying to get jobs—before the Race Relations Act 1976 was passed. I did not believe that nearly half a century later I would be on my feet protesting against discrimination against women. Is it not absolutely essential that there should be the utmost sustained parliamentary pressure to change a situation in which women are discriminated against in such a blatant manner in the Church?

I entirely agree. Everyone in the Church of England needs to understand that, so far as Parliament and the wider community are concerned, this issue is increasingly seen as the Church of England discriminating against women. That is fundamentally wrong and fundamentally bad for the image and work of the Church.

Does my hon. Friend agree that we must tread with extreme caution in trying to tell the Church of England how to run its own affairs? It is nearly 100 years since this Parliament has interfered with the Church’s affairs—

Although Members are entitled to hold very strong opinions, would my hon. Friend reflect that it is really up to the Church of England to sort this out?

I do not think that anyone is telling the Church of England what to do. I have a very privileged position in this House; I think I am the only person other than Ministers who has the right to answer questions—[Interruption.] Apart from my hon. Friend the Member for South West Devon (Mr Streeter), of course. I do apologise. Very few of us have the right to answer questions. There are 26 bishops—24 bishops and two archbishops—in the House of Lords as a benefit of Establishment. Those are privileges and this House is therefore entitled to give good advice to the Church of England on how the Church should be run if it is to continue to have those privileges.

I do not want to intrude on any discussion about the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for South West Devon (Mr Streeter), but I think we can all agree that the Second Church Estates Commissioner, the hon. Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry) is the representative of a rarefied breed.

General Synod (Reform)

2. What plans the Church of England has to make the House of Laity more representative of members of the Church. (131757)

4. What discussions the Church Commissioners have held on the issue of women bishops since the General Synod's vote of 20 November 2012; and what plans the Church has to make the House of Laity more representative of local opinion in dioceses and parishes. (131759)

8. What steps the Church Commissioners could take to allow the majority view of the General Synod to be enacted with regard to the appointment of women bishops. (131764)

The membership of deanery synods has constituted the electorate for the House of Laity since the General Synod was created in 1970. The review of synodical government chaired by Lord Bridge of Harwich recommended in 1977 that deanery synods should be abolished and that the lay members of diocesan synods and General Synods should be chosen by parish representatives, each parish to have one for every 50 people on the electoral roll. The General Synod decided, however, to retain deanery synods. In July 2011 the Synod decided to ask for alternatives to the present electoral system to be further explored. The review group’s report is due to come to the General Synod this coming year.

Does not the complete failure of the House of Laity in the General Synod to reflect the overwhelming support in the diocesan synods for women bishops show that there is something deeply wrong with the system? We cannot wait for a new synod in 2015 for this to be resolved. I have to tell my hon. Friend that it must be resolved in months, not years, and if that means a single clause Measure and facing down the conservative evangelicals, as we in the Labour party faced down the militants in the 1980s, so be it.

On the women bishop’s Measure, the Church of England has to get on with it. I am sure that the Archbishop of Canterbury-designate will be able to reassure colleagues next week that it is getting on with it. So far as the format of General Synod is concerned, as I have said to the House on a number of occasions, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to explain how 42 out of 44 dioceses voted for women bishops, yet the motion failed in General Synod. I think that the next Archbishop of Canterbury will want to focus on growth in the Church, and if one wants to focus on growth, one needs to make sure that everyone feels involved. I hope, personally, that in due course we will be able to move to a system in which every member of the Church who is on an electoral roll has a vote for those who go to General Synod. That seems to be a straightforward system.

If an emergency arises that the country has to deal with, the House of Commons and the other place have the power to expedite legislation and deal with it quickly. Is there no power within the structures of the Church of England to expedite matters when there is an emergency? I think the issue is an emergency for the Church of England.

I hope the hon. Lady will be able to be present next Thursday for the meeting with the Archbishop of Canterbury-designate. He, I am sure, will explain to her that the Church of England will expedite the issue as speedily as possible. At the start of his ministry I think that he will be very conscious that it will not be possible for the Church of England to get on to other matters such as growth and mission until we have resolved the issue of consecrating women to the episcopate.

In the more than 40 years since the General Synod became the governing body of the Church of England, whether one looks at the number of churches, the number of clergy or the number in the congregation, by any measure it has presided over a period of decline. Does my hon. Friend agree that however difficult the process might be, there is now a very urgent need for reform?

I agree with my hon. Friend. I am sure that Justin Welby, as the Archbishop of Canterbury-designate, will make it clear that he sees it as his ministry as Archbishop of Canterbury to rebuild the Church. We have a once in a generation opportunity to start to grow the Church again. One in three parishes is growing. We need to work out how they are growing, and try to ensure that other parishes can grow similarly, if we are to have a Church of England which is truly a national Church speaking for the whole nation.

I agree with everything the previous three questioners said and think that my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry) gave comprehensive answers, so I have nothing to add.

I, however, have something to add. The Second Church Estates Commissioner’s last point was absolutely right: this is not a sect we are dealing with. I say that to the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone), whose assessment of our role in relation to the Church is completely and utterly wrong. The Church of England is established by law. We can turn down any changes to liturgy that it wants to make, for example. Is it not time we changed by law the system whereby people are elected to the Synod so that it is more representative and looks more like a national Church?

I am quite sure that the review that is taking place into the way people are elected to General Synod will try to ensure the greatest opportunity for people in the Church to have a vote and feel that they are represented. Parliament, for example, decided long ago that all of us—everyone in every parish—have a vote in elections for church wardens. One would think that at the very least in elections to General Synod everyone on a church electoral roll should have a vote.

I stand as someone who failed twice to get elected to Synod—for Southwark—for being too right wing, and I could not do it in London for being too left wing. Should we not recognise that most of the members of Laity at Synod voted for women bishops, and should we not let women be ordained as bishops and trust the bishops to make arrangements in their diocese that are suitable?

That was a loss for both the diocese of Southwark and General Synod, because my hon. Friend would have made a great addition. He makes a really important point: the Church of England is an episcopal-led Church. The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Archbishop of Canterbury-designate and a number of bishops made powerful speeches in General Synod on why it was appropriate and right for there to be women bishops, and I hope that the broader Church will now listen to what the bishops are saying.

Parish Weddings

Church of England marriages increased by 4% in 2010. The increase coincided with a national project by the Church to promote and encourage church weddings and communicate new rights to be married in church where people and their families have a qualifying connection.

I am delighted to hear about the increase in 2010, but I wonder whether my hon. Friend is aware that the number of marriages in 2009 was the lowest since records began in 1900. In fact, the number of weddings has decreased in England and Wales from 426,000 in 1972 to 232,000. Some clergy do terribly well in increasing the number of marriages, only to see it fall back under their successors. Does my hon. Friend think that bishops could take a slightly closer interest in that, to try to encourage the good work done by some clergy?

We should all take an interest in that. Everyone in the Church of England wants to attract more weddings in church. Weddings are an important part of Church life. We want to build awareness of the Church’s enthusiasm for marriage. Every member of the clergy would want to care for couples and support them once they have been married in church, and hopefully those couples will want to stick with the church afterwards.