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Clergy Discipline (Amendment) Measure

Volume 744: debated on Thursday 14 March 2013

Motion to Present for Royal Assent

Moved by

That this House do direct that, in accordance with the Church of England Assembly (Powers) Act 1919, the Clergy Discipline (Amendment) Measure be presented to Her Majesty for the Royal Assent.

My Lords, disciplinary proceedings for misconduct by Church of England clergy are governed by the Clergy Discipline Measure 2003, which has been in force since l January 2006. The 2003 Measure enables diocesan bishops to deal with formal complaints against the clergy. Where appropriate, and subject to the procedures provided in the Clergy Discipline Measure, the bishop can impose penalties on a cleric who has committed misconduct. That can include, in the most serious of cases, removal from office and prohibition from ministry. For the few cases that cannot be resolved by the bishop, the 2003 Measure has established a modern tribunal system that is compliant with human rights legislation.

This Clergy Discipline (Amendment) Measure amends the 2003 Measure in four main respects. First, the amending Measure in Section 1 will provide an exception to the principle that no proceedings for unbecoming conduct can be taken in respect of the lawful political opinions or activities of Church of England clergy. The new exception relates to racial equality, because under this amending Measure it will be misconduct for Church of England clergy to be members of or actively support a party or other organisation that has been declared to be incompatible with the teachings of the church in relation to racial equality. Because the bishops are the guardians of the doctrine of the church, it will be the House of Bishops that will decide which organisations are incompatible with the church’s teachings. However, any declaration would not come into force if the General Synod disagreed with the declaration.

Although this provision will affect the rights of clergy under the European Convention on Human Rights, especially in relation to Articles 10 and 11—on freedom of expression and freedom of association—it will do so only in a way that is compatible with the convention and solely with regard to the fundamental area of racial equality. The church itself has rights under the convention, in particular under Article 9—on freedom of thought, conscience and religion—and is entitled to ensure that its clergy adhere to its teachings, and to discipline those that do not.

The second main area of reform is in respect of appeals from the findings of disciplinary tribunals. Under the 2003 Measure, there is an absolute right of appeal to an appellate court, and pending any appeal a stay is imposed on the implementation of the penalty. This means that a priest who has no prospect of success can launch an appeal against a finding of misconduct, hold on to office meanwhile, and frustrate and delay the final resolution of the complaint, which is unjust for the complainant, for the parish concerned and for the wider church. Clause 3 of the amending Measure will require a prospective appellant to obtain leave to appeal before making the appeal. That will not remove the cleric’s right to appeal; it merely puts in place a kind of sieve procedure so that hopeless appeals are stopped and dealt with swiftly and fairly. The church, in introducing this amendment, is taking account of the practice in secular courts where leave to appeal is usually required before an appeal can be pursued.

The third main area where the amending Measure makes change is with regard to the powers of the bishop. At the moment, a bishop can remove from office and prohibit from ministry without further proceedings a priest or deacon who has been convicted of a criminal offence if a prison sentence has been imposed by the criminal court. But there have been cases where a serious crime has been committed and the priest has been given a non-custodial sentence and, in those circumstances, the bishop currently has no power to act unless and until a formal complaint is made, and then only if the priest consents to the penalty imposed by the bishop. The amending Measure will enable a bishop to remove from office and prohibit from ministry a cleric who is convicted of certain criminal offences regardless of whether a prison sentence has been imposed. The amending Measure will also enable the bishop to remove from office a cleric who has been adjudged by the Disclosure and Barring Service to be a risk to children or vulnerable adults and who has accordingly been entered on either of the barred lists under the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006. This is surely a desirable improvement.

In addition to these three important areas of reform, the amending Measure makes a number of modest amendments to the 2003 Measure which are essentially of a technical nature. For example, paragraph 5 of the schedule makes amendments with regard to the appointment of members of a disciplinary tribunal and of the two provincial appellate courts.

I hope that this necessarily brief outline of the amending Measure will show that, beneath the rather technical complexity of it all, it will improve the church’s disciplinary procedures, which are indeed already regarded as working well. The Measure rightly received overwhelming support in the General Synod—212 votes in favour, with just two votes against and one recorded abstention—and I commend it to the House.

Again, my Lords, there is very little that I wish to add to what the right reverend Prelate has said, although there is of course more meat in this Measure than in the other. Its purpose is to amend the existing Measure of 2003. I draw attention in this case to the care with which these Measures have been prepared by the legislative committee of the Synod and presented to the Ecclesiastical Committee of Parliament. That was especially so in this case, where the comments and explanations submitted to the Ecclesiastical Committee extend from page 15 to page 35 of its report on the Measure and are exceptionally thorough. I suspect that the committee and the House generally should be very grateful to the legislative committee for taking so much trouble.

As the right reverend Prelate has pointed out, the Measure deals with four areas which are set out on page 15 of the report. Of these, the one which was potentially the most controversial was Clause 1, which has already been touched on by the noble Lord, Lord Judd, relating to misconduct. There were a number of questions on that, at page 83 of the report, starting with a question from Sir Peter Bottomley—question 10—and then a question from the noble Lord, Lord Judd, and finally a question from the noble Lord, Lord Laming. I hope that the noble Lord will agree that all those questions were adequately answered by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Guildford.

The other area of importance was the abolition of the automatic right of appeal; now there needs to be leave to appeal which would come before a court of two. That question was dealt with by Charles George QC, the Dean of the Arches, who made the interesting point that the number of appeals has been extremely small; but he also said that, if minded to refuse leave to appeal, he would always give reasons. Once again, the Ecclesiastical Committee had little difficulty in finding this Measure expedient, so I support the Motion.

My Lords, I apologise to the House for having jumped the gun. I talked about the expeditious way in which our chairman of the Ecclesiastical Committee had enabled us to get through the business very effectively, and perhaps I was hoping that we could expedite the discussion here—but the House, I hope, will forgive me for having jumped the gun on this Measure.

I support strongly what the noble and learned Lord has just said. The Measure was extremely well put forward. The witnesses from the church who appeared before us were extremely helpful and the right reverend Prelate has in his masterful way put very clearly to us the essence of what it is all about.

I think that the House will find it reassuring that some things are being tightened up, and that applies particularly to some of the social issues which preoccupy us a great deal today regarding child abuse and the rest. I am sure that we welcome the stronger provisions which will now be in place.

In the operation of the law, I always hope that there will be a certain amount of space for interpretation, because I do not see the law as being absolutely rigid. Very firm principles are established in the law and the job of those responsible for administering it is to take those principles extremely seriously and apply them, but there is always room for judgment.

One thing about which the church is deeply concerned is racism. The provision to which I am referring makes particular reference to this. It is clear that the church does not wish anyone speaking in its name to endorse the existence of a political party which is regarded by the church as incompatible in its manifesto and policies with its teachings. The provision goes into the very difficult area of distinguishing between what a party stands for, and what its policies and manifesto are, and any particular policy that may come from that background with which it might be quite possible in isolation, taken away from that party’s expression of it, to be strongly in favour. The provision tries to deal with whether a clergy man or woman who was speaking in favour of a policy—it might be to do with housing, for example—would be allowed to speak about their attitude towards that particular proposal as long as they were not endorsing the party.

I am not a lawyer, but it strikes me that there is a good deal of ambiguity about that. I do not see how you can have an absolute dividing line. If a political party was getting a great deal of publicity for a particular aspect of its policy and a clergy person was then, understandably, to say, “This policy is absolutely in line with Christian teaching and something that we should take very seriously”, that will be interpreted by an awful lot of people as an endorsement of the political party. I do not for a moment suggest that we need to sort that out further at this stage, but it is important to draw attention to the fact that there will be ambiguity there which will need a great deal of firm interpretation by the church. I see the possibility of disturbing events in future.

My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd, and the noble Lord, Lord Judd, for their comments. I pick up the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Judd, that the amended Measure declares that it will be misconduct for Church of England clergy to be members of or actively to support a party or other organisation which has been declared to be incompatible with the teachings of the Church of England in relation to racial equality.

As the noble Lord, Lord Judd, said, and as I acknowledge, this is a new area for bishops, especially, to go into, because it is the bishops who will bear responsibility, along with the members of the General Synod. There may be the areas of ambiguity that the noble Lord, Lord Judd, outlined, but I hope, nevertheless, that the Measure will gain the support of the House, because it is clearly incompatible with the teachings of the Church of England—let us remember that clergy are public officers of the Church of England—for clergy to be members of or actively to support racist parties in this country. That is what is behind that part of the amended Measure.

I am very grateful to the right reverend Prelate for giving way, but my point was slightly different. My point is that the Measure concentrates on membership and direct support for a party. I suggest that there might be circumstances in which the clergy person concerned was neither a member nor, hopefully, a supporter, but that things they were saying about a particular policy could be interpreted as support for the party. I just say that that is an area of ambiguity which I think will need a great deal of care in future—firm care, if that is not a contradiction in terms.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Judd; I accept that point.

With that, I commend the amended Measure to the House and ask it to support and approve the Motion.

Motion agreed.