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Church Representation and Ministers Measure

Volume 662: debated on Tuesday 18 June 2019

[Relevant document: 238th Report of the Ecclesiastical Committee, HC 2166.]

I beg to move,

That the Church Representation and Ministers Measure (HC 2167), passed by the General Synod of the Church of England, be presented to Her Majesty for her Royal Assent in the form in which it was laid before Parliament.

The Measure and the new rules it contains emerged from the work of a simplification task group established by the Archbishops’ Council. The task group’s role was to bring forward proposals to remove constraints on the mission and growth of the Church of England resulting from existing legislation and processes. It recommended three major ways in which that could be achieved. First, those processes needed to be made less burdensome to the clergy and laity. Secondly, parishes should be given much greater flexibility over their constitutional arrangements, so that they can operate in the way that is most effective for the mission, life and work of the local church. Thirdly, the administrative burdens for those involved in running multi-parish benefices, especially in a rural context where the number of parishes in a benefice can be considerable, needed to be radically reduced.

The new rules have been completely redrafted and are a great deal easier to understand. They will make it possible for a parish to make governance arrangements that are best suited to the mission and life of the church in that parish. There are some significant safeguards and a small number of the provisions will be mandatory. A scheme for making rules for a parish will have to be approved by the Bishop’s Council, which must be satisfied that the schemes make due provision for the representation of the laity and ensure the effective governance of the parish, among other things.

Another major reform is the provision for joint councils. Under the new rules, joint councils can replace individual parochial church councils. Where that happens, the number of local bodies and, most importantly, the number of meetings, will be reduced—in some cases, very significantly.

Rules that were thought to be unnecessary and unduly burdensome have been pruned away. Anomalies have been addressed and doubts about the meanings have been removed.

I declare an interest as the son of a late vicar who looked after several churches. Will my right hon. Friend give me some assurances? I very much like the sound of less bureaucracy and greater flexibility for the parishes, but will she assure me that this is not a device that will be used to hasten the closure of churches as they are merged within super-parishes, or, as happened in my father’s old parish, to sell off old rectories that were owned by the parish rather than the diocese, with the funds going elsewhere rather than to the parish, in which funds were first invested?

The answer to both those questions is emphatically no. I am sure my hon. Friend’s late father would have appreciated not having to dash around 12 individual parish council meetings on damp Thursday evenings through the winter and would have found that there was some sensible rationalisation in bringing some of the benefices together. Indeed, clergy who find trying to cope with multiple parishes onerous might then not be tempted to give up before they necessarily need to, and it would generally improve their quality of life.

The rules are intended to be compliant with recent data protection legislation. Church rules need to be updated in accordance with those provisions. They provide for electronic communication and for better representation of mission initiatives in the Church’s structure, and they enable parochial church councils to do business by correspondence. They provide that lay people must form a majority of a parochial church council. That might address some of the concern just raised by my hon. Friend.

Clause 2 provides the statutory basis for the General Synod to make provision by canon to extend the range of situations in which a newly ordained deacon or priest can serve his or her title. That is very important for the mission of the Church—to reach out into new environments where there is demand for a place of worship. For example, we are seeing the appointment of curates and ordained clergy to new housing estates where no provision has been made in the original plan for a place of worship. This is about the Church moving to meet the demands and needs of people in new communities.

As there are not many other people here to intervene, I thought I might keep this going a little more. Madam Deputy Speaker, you may rule this out of order, but I ask because we have the Second Church Estates Commissioner here. Will my right hon. Friend comment on whether, within all the new measures, the disposal of bureaucracy will enable Church of England churches to bring forward the measures in my Civil Partnerships, Marriages and Deaths (Registration etc) Act 2019 to enable the names of mothers to be placed on marriage certificates, for which the systems have not yet been completed? Almost daily, mothers contact me saying, “Can we put our names on the forthcoming marriage certificates?” Perhaps she would like to comment on that and whether it is included anywhere in the regulations we are now looking at.

That is a little tangential to this Measure, but it allows me to make it clear before the House that we are all waiting for the regulations that go hand in hand with that change in legislation. I had an absolutely heartrending email this morning from a woman whose mother passed away just a matter of days after the change in the law. One would have wished the regulations and the law to be coterminous to have made it possible for her late mother to be on the marriage certificate. Since my daughter has just announced her engagement, I sincerely hope that by this time next year the regulations will be in place.

To get back to the substance of the Measure, I should tell the House that it was carried by very substantial majorities in all three houses of the General Synod, and that the Ecclesiastical Committee of Parliament has reported that it is of the opinion that the Measure is expedient.

When I was first elected to Parliament, the then Government Chief Whip said to me, “What would you like to do?” and I said, “I would like to be on the Ecclesiastical Committee.” She thought that was so eccentric that it was made absolutely clear that, in that Parliament, I certainly would not be a member of the Ecclesiastical Committee. I did not achieve those dizzy heights until 2010.

For anybody who wants a crash course in Tudor history, the Ecclesiastical Committee is the place to come. It is the absolute quintessence of the British establishment. It is the linchpin of the establishment; it is the very definition of the establishment. If any Member wants to be reminded about glebe lands or the Court of Arches, they too can come to the Ecclesiastical Committee. I think the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), who made so many interventions, has been making his own application for the next time there is a vacancy.

The reason I referred to the Tudor pieces of canon law, which have weighed down the Church of England, is that they have become quite burdensome to parish priests. There has been far too much bureaucracy. The Measure is one of a number that have been driven through by the current Archbishop of Canterbury with the support and help of Synod and working groups throughout the Church.

The object is to modernise and simplify the rules of the Church so that it has more time and energy to do the things that it ought to be doing: running social projects, evangelising, preaching the gospel, comforting the sick, helping people who are grieving and celebrating marriages. Those are all things that we really want priests and the Church to be doing, but too much time has been taken up with ticking boxes and filling out forms.

The church representation part of the Measure gives people flexibility on the way they organise their meetings; the Ministers part enables people to be ordained but not tied to a particular parish. That is going to give the Church a lot more flexibility. The Second Church Estates Commissioner, the right hon. Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman), set the case out fully and clearly. I do not wish to say any more, except that we are happy to support the Measure this afternoon.

Question put and agreed to.