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Vacancies in Suffragan Sees and Other Ecclesiastical Offices Measure

Volume 716: debated on Wednesday 13 January 2010

Motion to Present for Royal Assent

That this House do direct that, in accordance with the Church of England Assembly (Powers) Act 1919, the Vacancies in Suffragan Sees and Other Ecclesiastical Offices Measure be presented to Her Majesty for the Royal Assent.

My Lords, I have it in command from Her Majesty the Queen to acquaint the House that Her Majesty, having been informed of the purport of the Vacancies in Suffragan Sees and Other Ecclesiastical Offices Measure, has consented to place her prerogative and interest, so far as they are affected by the Measure, at the disposal of Parliament for the purposes of the Measure.

My Lords, I beg to move that this House do direct that, in accordance with the Church of England Assembly (Powers) Act 1919, the Vacancies in Suffragan Sees and Other Ecclesiastical Offices Measure be presented to Her Majesty for the Royal Assent. This Measure, like the next I shall be moving, is concerned with certain appointments in the Church of England made by the Crown and, as we have heard, the Crown’s consent has been given for us to consider this matter. Neither this Measure nor the next was contentious in the General Synod and both have been found expedient by the Ecclesiastical Committee, as its report shows.

Both Measures touch on the relationship between church and state, but are deliberately limited in the effect that they have on that relationship. This is very much a matter of evolution, not revolution. The wider context of this legislation is the long-term trend of allowing the church to have the decisive voice in the full range of its appointments, rather than decision-making being managed from Downing Street by those who support the Prime Minister in his role of advising the Crown. The more immediate context is a church initiative—the Pilling report on senior church appointments—and Her Majesty’s Government’s initiative, set out in a Green Paper in July 2007, to reduce the role of the royal prerogative not just in church appointments but more generally.

The most significant change to come from the Government’s Green Paper was the Prime Minister’s decision that he would not take an active part in choosing diocesan bishops and that he would simply recommend to Her Majesty the candidate identified by the church. That change did not require legislation, and in any case this Measure is not concerned with the appointment of diocesan bishops but suffragans. That change did, however, create a new context in which these smaller reforms, which do require legislation, seemed desirable.

Section 1 of the Vacancies in Suffragan Sees and Other Ecclesiastical Offices Measure concerns the procedure for the appointment of suffragan bishops; that is, bishops who assist the diocesan bishop in exercising ministry in a diocese. Their appointment is governed by the Suffragan Bishops Act 1534. A number of suffragan bishops were appointed in the 16th and early 17th centuries, but after that no further appointments were made until the revival of the Act under Gladstone in 1870. Since then, and much more so recently, suffragan bishops have played increasingly important parts in the provision of episcopal care in England.

The 1534 Act requires the names of two candidates to be presented to the Crown, leaving the choice between the two to the sovereign. Almost from the moment of the revival of suffragan bishoprics at the end of the 19th century, in other words for over a century now, it has been the convention that the Prime Minister advises the sovereign to appoint the first of the two names that are submitted. There have not been exceptions to that convention. The present Measure simply gives statutory recognition to that convention and removes the need to identify a second candidate who, in reality, is never appointed and usually has not even known that his name was on the list.

Change is all the more important in the context of the more transparent procedures for the selection of suffragan bishops that have been developing in recent years. The selection process now involves much wider consultation and accountability. In some cases, attention is drawn to vacancies with the invitation of comments and suggestions by way of announcements in the press. Candidates are interviewed, feedback is sought and a greater degree of openness characterises the whole process.

It has therefore become increasingly artificial to have to forward two names, one of whom it is not intended to appoint, to the Prime Minister. Having fairly recently been through this process myself, there is also something invidious and pastorally insensitive about a practice that encourages telling somebody that they will be the makeweight number two on a list, but that they will not be appointed. Think of the pastoral effects of trying to do that.

Sections 2 and 3 address a different matter. The Pilling report also made recommendations concerning the legal position whereby the Crown in certain circumstances exercises patronage not normally in its gift. One such situation is during a vacancy in a diocesan see following the translation, death or retirement of the bishop. As guardian of the temporalities of the vacant see, the Crown exercises the parochial and other patronage that normally belongs to the diocesan bishop. For some time now, however, the Crown’s involvement has in most cases of this sort been largely formal, in that the suffragan or assistant bishop looking after the diocese has been treated as if he were the diocesan bishop, and has been asked by the Crown to identify the person who should be appointed to a particular parish.

Once the candidate for appointment has been identified, the Cabinet Office and the Crown Office produce the necessary paperwork, but the Crown’s role does not in reality go beyond that. Section 2 will thus make that paper exercise unnecessary. The suffragan or assistant bishop caring for the diocese during the vacancy in see will be able to act directly—under statutory delegated authority from the Crown—to make appointments that are ordinarily made by the diocesan bishop or that would have been, were there one. This will not touch the Crown’s position as guardian of the temporalities, but administrative time and expense will be saved and vacancies should take less time to fill. The change will also make it more apparent where decisions of this sort are actually made.

Section 3 deals with a situation which is not always very well understood: the position that arises when the holder of an office—or the holder of the office to whom patronage belongs—has been appointed as a diocesan bishop. Typically, this would be a parish priest or an archdeacon. Sometimes characterised as,

“the Crown taketh away, the Crown giveth”,

it means that the Crown itself has the right to fill the ensuing vacancy regardless of who normally holds the patronage of it. This section abolishes the Crown’s right to exercise patronage in these circumstances. The change was in fact recommended as long ago as 1964, so it can hardly be described as a rushed process. It is, as we have heard, a change with which the Crown as well as the church is content. Indeed, all of the changes in the Measure were worked out in consultation with the Crown and with those who support the Prime Minister in relation to Crown appointments. I commend the Measure to your Lordships’ House.

My Lords, as a member of the Ecclesiastical Committee I am delighted to be standing at the Dispatch Box tonight, and I am happy indeed to be here with two other members of that committee, my noble friend Lord Elton and the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, who will speak next. I shall say a few words about our consideration of the two remaining Measures before the House. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chichester has well described the Motions thus far and, as he has said, the committee found that both Measures were expedient. We also found expedient the Measure on miscellaneous provisions that the House has just approved.

The Vacancies in Suffragan Sees and Other Ecclesiastical Offices Measure gave rise to some discussion between the committee and the representatives of the General Synod. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark told the committee, the Measure amends an Act of Parliament of 1534. It regularises a practice which has been current for some time—indeed, since the 19th century. When a suffragan bishop is appointed a shortlist of two candidates must, as we have heard, be forwarded to the Prime Minister, who makes a recommendation to the Crown. Yet in practice, as the right reverend Prelate has said, for more than a century the first candidate has invariably been appointed. The Government indicated in 2007 that they wished only one name to be submitted for appointments to archbishoprics and other diocesan sees. It therefore seemed to the Ecclesiastical Committee that the proposed amendment of the law relating to suffragan bishops is logical and desirable, not to say possibly slightly overdue.

The final Measure, on Crown benefices, gave rise to almost no discussion. It seemed to the committee to be an uncontroversial improvement to existing arrangements for appointment to the Crown benefices. It provides for the appointment of lay representatives to approve the selection of incumbents. The Synod provided a full explanation of the background to this Measure, and the committee found the Measure to be expedient. Finally, I speak this evening for these Conservative Benches, and confirm that we, too, find the Measures to be expedient and wish them well.

My Lords, it is unusual to have the opportunity to speak on a proposed amendment to a law of 1534. It is therefore irresistible and I am sorry that the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, has disappointed me. I recall last July speaking from these Benches on a proposal which had passed through both Houses in 1873 to move the Law Lords across the road, which the Conservatives reversed the following year. The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, from the Conservative Benches then suggested that was a little too early to move. I had rather hoped the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, would say perhaps it is a little too early to amend this Measure.

However, the clear consensus in the Ecclesiastical Committee was of course that we should accept it. I do however want to mention the controversy which we had in the Ecclesiastical Committee about the question of the Crown prerogative and ecclesiastical appointments. I remember as a boy meeting a number of ecclesiastics who had been appointed by the Labour Government in the 1930s. Canon Donaldson in Westminster Abbey was known as the “red” canon having been appointed by Ramsay MacDonald before 1931 when he was still considered a left-winger. There was indeed a bishop of Birmingham appointed in the same way and there have been some more recent occasions when diocesan or indeed arch-diocesan appointments have been areas in which the Prime Minister has wished to be involved. I went back to look at the 2008 White Paper Governance of Britain in which it clearly states that after full consultations, it was decided that the Prime Minister, who for these purposes, exercises the royal prerogative, will in future,

“ask for only one name which he will then forward to Her Majesty The Queen”.

It goes on to say at paragraph 256, and in this I think we were slightly misled in the evidence we were given at the Ecclesiastical Committee, that:

“The changes to the appointments processes for Diocesan Bishops and Cathedral Deans are internal Church procedures and require no legislation.”

The reason why we are discussing this here is that for suffragan bishops, it does require legislation.

So the suggestions which were made by two members of the Ecclesiastical Committee that this was not necessarily an accepted change, and that a future Government might wish to reinstate political appointment for diocesan and arch-diocesan appointments, would, I think, be rather controversial and should not pass without mention. I would not wish the Church of England to become again in any way the Tory party of prayer, or to be the representation of the Christian Socialist Fellowship, or any other body. While I support the continuation of the established church, I think it is highly desirable that the church should be outside and above party politics. I therefore entirely accept and strongly agree with the statements in the 2008 White Paper, as did indeed the clear and overwhelming majority of the members of the Ecclesiastical Committee present at our last meeting. I just wish to mark this occasion that this is not entirely without a degree of controversy and I very much welcome the acceptance by the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, of the proposals.

Your Lordships should not have an exaggerated idea of the ferocity of the controversy which took place in the Ecclesiastical Committee. I rise merely to support this Measure with enthusiasm, particularly as regards the discarding of the most unfortunate practice of appointing people to lose a race, which seems to be what we were doing over the last few centuries.

As a member of the Ecclesiastical Committee as well, I would like warmly to support what is being recommended and simply say, as an Anglican, that I found it quite reprehensible that we were going through a charade in which two names were being put forward with no intention that the second should be considered. It seemed to me an utterly humiliating exercise for the second person concerned and I am very glad that we are being asked to put things right.

My Lords, perhaps I can reassure the noble Lord, Lord Judd. Although the law and practice has been as described, there was a hint in the description given by my noble friend the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chichester that, while a minority of bishops have followed the directions to the letter in this particular matter—of going through a selection process for a second name who knows nothing about it—there are other diocesan bishops who thought that was frankly too silly for words and who have not done so. So we are not as reprehensible as the noble Lord behind me has been suggesting, though we are presumably in another way, because we have not been following the precise letter of the law.

Perhaps I may apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Judd. I said that there were three members of the Ecclesiastical Committee present, and of course there are indeed four. I would ask that Hansard corrects the mistake that I made.

Motion agreed.