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House of Commons Hansard
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Sex Discrimination (Religious Organisations)
11 November 2009
Volume 499

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr. John Heppell.)

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It is a pleasure to sit under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr. O’Hara. For the avoidance of doubt, I had better start by declaring my interests as a man, a Christian, a member of the Ecclesiastical Committee, an elected member of the General Synod of the Church of England who represents Salisbury diocese, a lay canon of Salisbury cathedral and a member of the council of Salisbury cathedral. My late father was a bishop who sat in the other place.

What are the facts about women in the Church of England today? About a quarter of priests—about 2,000—are women. Nearly half the people coming forward for ordination and training for the Church of England ministry are women. An NOP poll showed that more than 80 per cent. of the clergy and more than 90 per cent. of the laity support women priests. Only 2 per cent. of Church of England parishes have asked for a flying bishop. Almost 70 per cent. of the clergy and more than 75 per cent. of the laity support women bishops, according to a Sheffield university study. Two English cathedrals have women deans, and there are 15 women archdeacons. The worldwide Anglican communion has 38 provinces, 25 of which have women priests and 16 of which have legislated for women bishops. Nearly 30 women have been Anglican bishops in the past 20 years. So the Church of England is behind the curve, and we do not want it to be.

The fact is that most members of the Church of England who go to church want women to be ordained as bishops. What we need from Parliament and the Government is clarity on the terms that would be acceptable—first, of course, to the Ecclesiastical Committee and then to both Houses of Parliament. I remind those Members of Parliament who say that Church of England decisions are nothing to do with them that all Members of both Houses—regardless of their faith, or, indeed, of whether they have a faith—have a duty to exercise their judgment on any Measure that the established Church brings to us. Under the terms of the Church of England Assembly (Powers) Act 1919, the Ecclesiastical Committee, on behalf of both Houses, is required to report on

“the nature and legal effect of”

any Measures and to set out

“its views as to the expediency thereof, especially with relation to the constitutional rights of all His Majesty’s subjects.”

Every Member is invited to vote on the Committee’s recommendations.

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I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate and I declare an interest as a member of the Ecclesiastical Committee. Is he aware that one of the human resources objectives on the Church of England website refers to the

“development of a diverse workforce and a fair and just workplace”?

How can the workplace be fair and just when, as that estimable organisation Women and the Church constantly reminds us, so many talented women are not being given the chance to work in the Church of England at an appropriate level? That cannot carry on for ever, can it?

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I suppose that it is another case of one rule for the Indians and another for the chiefs. I suspect that the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right and I look forward to the day when a distinction no longer exists, because it is discrimination.

The Sex Discrimination Act 1975 had its Second Reading in the House on 26 March 1975. Introducing it, the Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins, said that it would apply

“not only to intentional discrimination but also to a practice which, regardless of motive, is discriminatory in its effect on persons of one sex and cannot be shown to be justifiable.”—[Official Report, 26 March 1975; Vol. 889, c. 513.]

The exemptions set out in clause 19 included employment for the purposes of an organised religion, which applied where a person’s

“sex is a genuine occupational qualification”

for a particular job.

On Second Reading in the other place, on 1 July 1975, the then Bishop of Leicester, speaking

“more or less officially for the Church of England”

welcomed the exemption. He said:

“We hope that this Clause will stand and remain acceptable, although it is extremely probable that some Members of your Lordships’ House may live to see a change in practice in this matter.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 1 July 1975; Vol. 362, c. 134-35.]

The bishop was speaking on behalf of the Church by law established in England in 1603, largely as a result of the genius of Queen Elizabeth I. Our own Queen, the defender of the faith, has seen the Church of England abandon its objections in principle to women priests and women bishops.

Most Christians believe that God is above gender. The disciples with whom Jesus surrounded himself were both women and men. It is not true that He thought that women were not up to it; on the contrary, it is striking that Jesus treated people the same, whether they were male or female.

It took a long time, but in 1975, the General Synod declared that there were no fundamental objections to ordaining women as priests. Thirty-one years ago, in 1978, the Synod voted on ordaining women to all three orders—bishops, priests and deacons. The necessary two-thirds majority was achieved in the House of Bishops and the House of Laity, but the House of Clergy recorded only a simple majority, so the motion fell. Seventeen years ago today, on 11 November 1992, the Synod voted in favour of women priests. In 2005, it decided that there was no fundamental objection to women bishops.

The Synod’s legislative procedure works much like that of both Houses of Parliament. The Synod has the equivalent of a Second Reading, followed by a Committee or revision stage, Report and a final Reading. In 2008, the Synod told the revision committee to work on a draft Measure—a Church law—to legalise women as bishops as well as priests. However, it also told the committee, in the spirit of tolerance, to produce a statutory code of practice under which priests and members of the Church would be treated fairly if they were not willing to accept women as bishops. The committee was told not to propose a Measure that created a two-tier system of bishops; it was to be all or nothing—not some proper, male bishops and some improper, women bishops with less authority than men.

The revision committee did exactly what it was told not to do. Why did it do that? On 8 October, it issued a press release saying that it had voted to abandon the code-of-practice approach and that it would instead recommend the imposition by statute of flying male bishops, who could land in a diocese with a woman bishop and deprive her—automatically—of her authority and religious functions.

Before voting, the members of the revision committee were told, as we all were in paragraph 16 of the further report from the legislating drafting group, that such an approach would not breach the terms of the Sex Discrimination Act because, where there are conflicting rights in English law, the exercise of one right may sometimes need to be restricted to protect the exercise of another. In such a case, the restriction of the first right should be proportionate. As paragraph 17 puts it,

“The exercise of women’s priestly and episcopal ministry in certain places can properly be restricted by law, but this should only be to an extent that is ‘proportionate’ in order to respect the theological convictions of others in relation to that ministry.”

I have no doubt that the members of the revision committee had lots of additional advice, but we do not know what it was, because it is secret. Based on what I know, however, I have three questions for the Minister. First, the Sexual Discrimination Act 1975 exemption is principally directed at circumstances in which a religious office is reserved for men only. Does that exemption apply now that the Church of England has decided that women can be priests and bishops?

Secondly, will the Minister confirm whether, in UK sex discrimination law, the principle of proportionality may only ever justify indirect sex discrimination and that restricting the rights of women bishops to protect the beliefs of men or women is direct sex discrimination and cannot be justified in terms of proportionality or, indeed, under European law?

Thirdly, the further report, which was used to inform the votes of the revision committee, failed to mention that the principle of proportionality requires that the means adopted to achieve the desired aim should be both appropriate and necessary. Does the Minister agree that the report failed to address those conditions or to assert that they would be met by the course of action suggested, thus breaching sexual discrimination legislation?

Why does any of this matter? It matters because if the recommendation of the revision committee is approved by the General Synod, meeting in Westminster next February, the draft Measure will be sent to the Ecclesiastical Committee of Parliament before it is presented to both Houses for approval. After that, the Measure will have the full force of statute law. When it comes before the House of Commons, the Government will have to decide how Ministers will vote, and recommend how other Members of Parliament should vote. I know how I will vote. How will the Minister vote?

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I congratulate the hon. Member for Salisbury (Robert Key) on securing the debate, particularly on the anniversary of the vote for women’s ordination. Unlike him, I am not an expert on the issues, nor a member of the General Synod. Like my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) I am a member of the Ecclesiastical Committee, which deems Church law to be expedient or otherwise before it is considered by both Houses of Parliament, and before Royal Assent. However, I am not speaking for the Ecclesiastical Committee; I am merely expressing a view.

In matters of religion, Parliament has two separate roles. One affects all Churches and other religious organisations. The other affects solely the Church of England as the established Church. Ever since the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, which has already been mentioned, the general law has recognised that religious organisations need some exemptions, given the dictates of theological belief and conscience. The Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church, the orthodox strand of the Jewish faith, Islam and many others impose gender rules about who can be priests, rabbis, imams and so on. Might not it be wise, in the present circumstances, for Parliament to go on enabling the various Churches and faiths to come to their own views on those matters? The Equality Bill, if I understand it rightly, sensibly does just that.

I should take some persuading that the Church of England should be fundamentally in a different position from other Churches and faiths in relation to sex discrimination legislation. I do not, of course, see why it should have a unique exemption just because it is the established Church; equally, however, I do not see why it should not have the same freedom that Parliament is prepared to extend to Churches and religious organisations more generally. All denominations and faiths must resolve those matters in the light of their own doctrinal frameworks and convictions. The difficulty, as I see it, is that the Church of England has been trying to do something quite ambitious and unusual since it first ordained women as priests in 1994. The legislation that Synod and Parliament agreed at the time enabled the Church to maintain what I might call a mixed economy. The Church of England concluded that women should be priests—and quite right too. At the same time it found a way of enabling those with theological difficulties to remain within the Church and be ministered to in a way consistent with their own convictions.

It is easy to make fun of that sort of compromise, but there are quite a lot of people in this country—churchgoers and others—who value the fact that our established Church is the original broad Church. If we want it to stay that way, it needs, within limits, to continue to be genuinely inclusive. The Church of England may, for its own reasons, decide to draw its own lines more sharply, but I wonder whether Parliament should be trying to lean on it to achieve a narrower settlement than was reached in the 1990s. The question now is whether some new version of that mixed economy can be constructed in the legislation that is needed for women to become bishops, as well as priests, in the Church of England. I strongly supported women becoming priests and I obviously support their becoming bishops. In my judgment, the sooner that happens, the better.

I wish the General Synod well in grappling with its own legislative challenges. I can see that the task may be more difficult now than it was last time, and I do not want to say or do anything to make it even more difficult. If I have understood the position correctly, much of the argument within the Church of England is not about whether there should still be that mixed economy, but about how best to achieve that. Clearly, there are some important judgments to be made about what to put in legislation, what to leave to codes of practice, what to make mandatory and what to leave to discretion, but they are matters, in the first instance, for the hon. Member for Salisbury and the other members of the General Synod to wrestle with. Those of us on the outside of the debate may need to be a little cautious in expressing a view. Parliament, as we have said, will have its own opportunity to consider the matter when it comes before Parliament.

We must acknowledge that the Archbishops of Canterbury and York have on their hands a difficult job, which is perhaps not made easier by noises off from the Vatican. We should welcome the fact that they are both strong supporters of removing the last barrier to women’s ministry in the Church.

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I agree with every word that my hon. Friend has said so far. I am not sure that I necessarily see the tectonic plates of the Catholic Church as running against what he and I would like to happen. Is not it possible to interpret the Holy See’s overtures to Anglican married ministers to come into the Catholic Church as a sign that even that Church is changing in that regard?

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I certainly hope that it is.

I strongly hope that the legislation going through Synod will make good progress and not get bogged down, especially as I have come to learn that the Church’s processes are sometimes slow, sometimes cumbersome and always complicated. We should be cautious about appearing to criticise the efforts of the archbishops and all those who are trying to preserve the Church of England as the broad Church that can continue to hold together as many people as possible who hold a variety of Christian views. There is nothing between me and the hon. Member for Salisbury as to the outcome of the debate. It is just that—I am sure he would agree with me—I do not necessarily see the route between points as always a straight line. It is sometimes a bit more complicated than that.

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It is a pleasure to rise, somewhat earlier than I had anticipated, to participate in the debate, which was expertly introduced by the hon. Member for Salisbury (Robert Key). It is a pleasure to hear him speak with so much authority on these matters—as he does on matters of science, as I know from my experience—even as a lay person, to use the term in its non-scientific sense.

It is a bit curious that I have been selected by my party to speak in the debate, because the fact that I am not religious is, I think, well known—perhaps better known than the fact that I am not a woman. However, on reflection, it is not so curious, because the Liberal Democrats take a slightly different view from the other parties, owing to our views on establishment. Not surprisingly, our party does not have a corporate view on whether there should be women bishops in the Church of England. Anything that I say on that matter is, therefore, a personal view. However, we have a view on whether it should be a matter for us in Parliament, as I accept it is at present.

We believe in disestablishment, because we think that establishment is wrong in principle. There should be appropriate separation between the state and any religion. Also, because all religions choose to discriminate in certain ways—or certainly the Church of England does, as it is legally entitled to—establishment seems somehow to associate the state with that discrimination. For those of us who want as little discrimination as possible that cannot be justified on objective grounds in public authorities—the state—it is difficult to see the Church of England as part of the state and to see it discriminate.

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We are where we are. We have an established Church and there may be good arguments against that, but as long as we are where we are, that is surely a good reason for us to set an example to other parts of the Christian faith and other religions—particularly to people in my constituency who are Muslims and who do not let women into their mosques—by allowing women to become bishops. That would set an example far beyond our Church and religion.

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I understand the hon. Lady’s position, and I am glad that she has had the opportunity to state it. I was just explaining why, in the first instance, we believe that disestablishment is the way forward.

People of all religions and of no religion in our party hold that view. My hon. Friends the Members for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) and for Northavon (Steve Webb) and for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) are all actively involved in the Church of England. As practising members, they all share the view that disestablishment would be a good idea, and I agree with them. None the less, I accept—I must say to the hon. Lady that I had written this down—that while the Church is established and it comes to us for a decision, it is right that we should make a decision, and that is the context in which those of us in our party make our decision.

I tend to argue—albeit from the outside—that there should not be discrimination. However, I accept that it is a matter for that organisation. My interest comes about only because I am interested in the establishment, which I oppose, and because the matter needs to come to Parliament to decide. I am torn between not getting involved, because the Church of England should decide the matter on its own, and, as the hon. Lady says, coming down one way or another—in my case against discrimination—even though we are coming at it from the outside. However, I would feel awkward if the Church of England started to decide what political parties should do. That is why the position of those of us who believe that it is a matter for the Church is a difficult one.

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The problem is that it would not matter whether the Church of England were established or disestablished. The whole point is it would be coming to Parliament as the established Church, inviting us to endorse something that is illegal; or, through its own rules if it were disestablished, saying, “We are going to do something illegal”—that is, if it was being discriminatory. That is the problem that we face.

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I disagree. Furthermore, I was puzzled by what the hon. Gentleman said in his speech. Let us say that a religious organisation that is not established came to us and said, “We are thinking of changing the way in which we discriminate. We are not going to discriminate as much, but we will still have a two-tier system because some bishops or priests will have their authority limited on the basis of their gender by the fact that other people will come in.” The Church will still be able to use the exemption that has been granted to it to do that. The exemption therefore does not have to be got rid of for the Church of England, whether established or not, to end discrimination. It is available to it to say, “We are using this exemption in order to discriminate.” However, unless it had no discrimination whatsoever and no arrangements to help those parishes that will not accept the authority of a woman bishop, it would be better for it to keep the exemption so that it could use it in a more limited way.

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The problem is the Church of England has decoupled itself from the exemption by saying, “No, it is not a prerequisite of the job that you be a man,” so it is now saying, “We are decoupled, but we are now heading back towards the buffers. We are now going to go back on what we said by reintroducing discrimination.”

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No, that is wrong. I am not a lawyer, and I spent far too long on the Equality Bill to want to return to it on an Adjournment debate on a Wednesday afternoon. Discrimination is not just about a priori criteria. If we treat someone differently in their job on the basis of their gender—in other words, make them a different type of bishop because of their gender or because someone else is coming in, as the hon. Gentleman said—that would still be discrimination, even if it is said at the outset, “It does not matter what your gender is.” It is less favourable treatment, or different treatment that may be considered by the “victim” to be less favourable. That is direct discrimination.

As the hon. Gentleman rightly said, an organisation needs to have an exemption from the law in order to discriminate directly, because it cannot run a proportionality argument on direct discrimination. That is why the exemption exists. This debate about the Church, whether established or not, is not about the existence of that exemption, because if it ever wanted to go back to or to create a system where there was still some difference in treatment, which may be seen to be putting one gender at a disadvantage, it would require that exemption. None the less, that exemption should be narrow, as it is, for organised religion where gender is a genuine occupational requirement. I have consistently argued that the limited exemption for discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation should be as tightly drawn as possible for organised religions that deal with roles that are essentially proselytizing, such as those for priests and so forth.

By allowing exemptions for religious organisations to seek to discriminate, we have the balance broadly right. We do not allow it on racial grounds. There have been religions across the world that have sought to have racial discrimination in their outlook, and they would run into difficulties here. There would be a clear clash of their right to believe with the right to non-discrimination set out in our equality law. However, they are not around here at the moment, so it has not been an issue, and we would not want to see it be so either. There are clear orthodox bases for sex discrimination, whether or not we agree with it or whether or not we are religious, and that has to be recognised.

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Is it not the case that the thrust of what the hon. Gentleman is saying is very substantially weakened by what the hon. Member for Salisbury (Robert Key) said in his opening remarks? The great majority of the ministers of the Church of England, of its congregations and of the General Synod have expressed support for the concept of women bishops. How can what the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) is saying be sustained in the face of such figures?

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In so far as I have a view on the way in which any religion organises itself, I think that there should not be any discrimination. When my constituents write to me and ask me what I think, I reply, “If it comes to me and I have to make a decision, I will vote on the least discriminatory basis.” However, I will do so conscious of the fact that I am, in a sense, interfering in a club of which I am not a member. That would apply to anyone here who is not a member of the Church of England.

My general rule is that organisations work better when there is no discrimination, but I believe in freedom of religious belief. If something or someone who is closely tied to that religion, such as in a proselytizing role or a key leadership role based on promoting doctrine, feels that they have to discriminate, I am not going to campaign for that to end. I do not campaign for the end to discrimination in priesthoods in any religion. What I feel strongly about is religious organisations seeking to discriminate against ordinary people in the way in which some adoption agencies and schools have sought to do. That is when I get going, although I do not want to go down that path now.

I was seeking to explain why, in the context of believing in disestablishment, my party is reticent about getting involved in telling the Church of England what it should do. If all my colleagues were asked for their personal views, I suspect that the majority of them, whether or not they are members of the Church of England, would be in favour of non-discrimination. I recognise, both in my constituency and across the country, the valuable pastoral role that women priests have played since they have entered the Church of England. That cannot be denied. The sky has not fallen in, as some thought it would. I hope that the Church will be able to reach an accommodation and be at peace with itself and with its decision, and I hope that that decision will be to end discrimination. If it comes to Parliament, that is what I shall support, on a personal basis.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. O’Hara. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Robert Key) on securing this important debate. It is not a debate about what instructions we should give to the Church of England, but a spirit of inquiry from my hon. Friend, who represents a part of the Church, just to test the matter and have the Minister be clear about what the law says so that it can guide the Church in its deliberations. Just as my hon. Friend declared his interest, I can declare my interest as a man and as a Christian, albeit a member of the Catholic Church rather than the Church of England. However, I am afraid that I do not come to this debate with such an impressive list of theological or Church qualifications. Like the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris), I would normally hesitate to discuss the tenets of another religion, but, as my hon. Friend accurately said, whatever faith we have, and whatever view we take about the establishment of the Church of England, it is the established Church and we in Parliament are asked to take a view of it. In a sense, even not taking a view is taking a view, in that not participating in the debate or not taking a particular view may affect the outcome of that debate.

I had thought that, coming to this debate as a Catholic, I should do a little research myself to see what current Catholic thinking is. I dug out the Ordinatio Sacredotalis, the apostolic letter of the late John Paul II to the bishops of the Catholic Church on reserving the priestly ordination to men alone. Unlike the Church of England, the Catholic Church takes a definite position on this issue. Indeed, according to the late Pope, the Catholic Church does not really have any authority on this matter at all, in the sense that it has said that it is not the deciding factor on whether women can be ordained as priests in the Catholic Church. In his letter, the late John Paul II made his position clear:

“Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren…I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.”

That does not leave a lot of room for doubt. However, the Church of England, of course, does things in a somewhat different way.

My hon. Friend raised some important issues and they are important for two reasons: first, because of the draft Measure that, as he said, is being debated in the Church of England. He said that he seeks guidance from the Minister here today on exactly how the current law will apply to that Measure, so that he can give the Church some guidance about how it should draft it and decide on it.

The second reason why my hon. Friend’s points are important concerns the Equality Bill; I apologise if referring to that Bill upsets the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon, but I will refer to it only briefly. I understand that schedule 9 to the Bill just converts existing legislation relating to the requirement to be of a particular sex to a new framework. However, I want to ask the Minister whether anything in that schedule would affect what the current law says. Given that the Equality Bill will come back to this House for Report and Third Reading, if he says anything now about the application of current discrimination law, we might need to look again at those aspects on Report.

If I have got the nub of my hon. Friend’s argument right, this may be where the hon. Gentleman, and I disagree. I quoted the Catholic teaching on this matter because the exemption on direct discrimination in the current law only applies, as I understand it—I think this is what my hon. Friend said—if the religion itself says that there is a specific legitimate theological reason why a post may only be held by a certain person: in this case, by a man. The Church of which I am a member still holds that to be the case, so it would trigger that exemption in the law and would be able to discriminate against women and say that only men can be priests.

However, my hon. Friend made the point that because the Church of England has decided in principle that women are able to be priests and bishops, that exemption does not apply and regular law therefore applies, and the Church of England would have to treat women bishops in the same way that it treats male bishops. Consequently, it should not undermine the authority of women bishops and it should have sensible procedures in place so that they are not undermined. That directly relates to the decisions that the Church of England will have to make ahead of February 2010, when it passes its Measure on this subject. I think that is the nub of what my hon. Friend said.

I reinforce the questions that my hon. Friend put. They are pertinent and important because they may affect what the Church of England decides to do, and, therefore, the nature of the Measure that is brought before this House for approval.

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That is an interesting clarification. I must confess that I have not studied the detail of the law in this area. However, if the hon. Gentleman is right, the question is whether the Church of England should seek a different exemption that would give it the flexibility to decide whatever it wants, or whether it will be satisfied to be straitjacketed into an either/or situation. That is a matter for the Church itself, but it is curious that the strict nature of the exemption as described would not allow the Church any flexibility as soon as it decides to open up the bishopric to women.

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I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I think that really is the nub of what my hon. Friend is saying—that because the Church of England has said that there is not a specific requirement to be a man in order to become a priest or bishop, the specific exemption in equality law, current sex discrimination law and the Equality Bill is not triggered. For that exemption to be triggered, there must be an occupational requirement to discriminate on the basis of sex.

The other important issue is how the application of the requirement to be a particular sex can be brought in, which may be the point the hon. Gentleman is getting at. The non-conflict principle can be brought in, relating to whether or not a decision affects a significant number of the religion’s followers. That is why the statistics that my hon. Friend gave at the beginning, showing that a significant but not overwhelming number of the Church of England’s supporters support women bishops, are important. The numbers he quoted were very significant: more than 80 per cent. of the clergy, and an even higher proportion of the laity, support women priests, and almost 70 per cent. of the clergy and more than 75 per cent. of the laity support women bishops. Nevertheless, that still leaves a minority—a small but significant minority—of both laity and clergy who do not support women priests or women bishops. It may be that, if those people have strongly held religious convictions, the non-conflict principle in both the present law and the law the Minister’s Department is bringing before the House is a proportionate way of dealing with that conflict.

I think that one of the questions my hon. Friend asked is this: is what is being proposed—or at least thought about—by the Church of England a proportionate way of dealing with that potential conflict? If it is, that may be a road that members of the Synod choose to go down. If it is not, however, that factor will clearly be very important in their deliberations.

My hon. Friend has asked questions that are very important not just to the Church of England but to us as Members of Parliament, because we will be asked at some point in the next few months to make a decision on them. Furthermore, they are of general importance because this debate informs how equality law, both current and future, applies to all religions. That is important to every one of us, whether we have a faith or no faith at all.

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I join other speakers in offering my congratulations to the hon. Member for Salisbury (Robert Key) on securing this timely debate, the contributions to which we have all listened to with great interest. The Government will be carefully following the progress of the Synod’s draft Measure.

I am grateful for the clear way that the hon. Gentleman set out the issues. I am also grateful for the contributions from the hon. Members for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) and for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris), and from my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South (Ben Chapman).

As it is a time for confession, I guess that I ought to say that I am also a man. Furthermore, I am a Christian, although I happen to be a Methodist. I do not know whether that makes us sufficiently ecumenical to determine the issues we are debating today, but certainly we all come from quite different backgrounds. Of course, my role today is to say what the Government believe.

In discussing these issues, we touch on the particular relationship between the Church of England and Parliament, and on the historic place of the Church of England in the political and social life of this country. As a Minister, I am hesitant to intervene in the internal debates of the Church of England, especially on a matter which is so hotly debated within the Church itself. Furthermore, as the hon. Member for Salisbury rightly said, we may need to determine our position on those debates at a later date. Nevertheless, I have been asked some specific questions and I will do my best to make the Government’s position, as I see it, as clear as I can.

The Government’s general position is certainly clear: we wish to prevent unlawful discrimination because of sex, or because of other protected characteristics. We recognise that there are specific circumstances where exceptions are warranted, and where that is the case, we provide them in a way that balances appropriately the rights of all the relevant parties.

The Sex Discrimination Act 1975 is the main legislation in Britain that prohibits discrimination between men and women, both in the workplace and beyond. Let me say briefly how that Act applies to religious organisations. In its capacity as an employer, the Church of England is bound by the provisions of that Act like every other employer. Like all organisations, it can require either a man or a woman when recruiting to a job or selecting, promoting, transferring or training an employee in relation to that job, but only in narrow and tightly defined circumstances where it is a genuine occupational qualification for a particular job. The 1975 Act exhaustively lists a very narrow set of such circumstances.

It is also lawful, if the employment is for the purposes of an organised religion, for an organisation to restrict access to a job to a man or woman strictly to comply with the doctrines of that religion or to avoid conflicting with the strongly held convictions of a significant number of the religion’s followers. Authorisations or qualifications conferred by a qualifying body for the purposes of an organised religion may be similarly limited. It is that exception that is most likely to be engaged by restrictions on women filling posts as ministers of religion.

Turning to the first question I was asked by the hon. Gentleman, let me be clear that it is permissible in law not to allow women to be bishops provided that that is done to comply with the doctrines of religion or to avoid conflict with the strongly held religious convictions of a significant number of the religion’s followers. That is the case now under section 19 of the 1975 Act. To answer the hon. Member for Forest of Dean, we believe that it will remain the case under the Equality Bill. The law will not change.

Specifically, paragraph 2 of schedule 9 to the Equality Bill provides an exception for occupational requirements related to sex, sexual orientation, gender reassignment and marriage or civil partnership where employment is

“for the purposes of an organised religion”.

That is defined as employment consisting wholly or mainly of

“(a) leading or assisting in the observation of liturgical or ritualistic practices…or

(b) promoting or explaining the doctrine of the religion”.

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The measures the Minister has just read out would enable discrimination to be applied to those who assist in the observance of religion. Can he confirm that in theory, the drafting would allow a church to restrict organists based on sex, sexual orientation or the other grounds listed? The wording is “leading or assisting” in liturgy.

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Applying the requirements is permitted only where that is a proportionate means of complying with the doctrines of the religion or avoiding conflict with the strongly held religious convictions of a significant number of the religion’s followers. Of course, in the end, it would be a matter for the courts, but it seems unlikely that it would go as wide as to include an organist. That is certainly not the intention.

The Government’s agreed position on which posts should be covered by the exception remains the same as when Lord Sainsbury described it in the debate on the Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2003, which contain an exception analogous to section 19 of the 1975 Act. He said that it involved

“a very narrow range of employment: ministers of religion, plus a small number of posts outside the clergy, including those who exist to promote and represent religion.”—Official Report, House of Lords, 17 June 2003; Vol. 649, c. 779.]

It is unlikely that an organist would come within that qualification, but it would clearly cover bishops.

Whether or not the conditions I have set out are still met—that is, whether a requirement that bishops should be men was in place in order to comply with the doctrines of the religion or to avoid the kind of conflict described—is ultimately a matter for the courts. I am sure we will all have our own views on whether the Church of England could maintain that position after the debates it has had, but it is not—at this time, in any event—for Ministers to offer an opinion.

I have also been asked whether direct or indirect discrimination is at issue. It is right that as a general rule, only indirect discrimination can be justified using the principle of proportionality. A limitation placed on women because they are women would be a form of direct discrimination and so could not be justified in that way. Such a limitation would be unlawful unless allowed by a specific exception, although in that case the exception that would be claimed includes a requirement that a restriction be proportionate.

The hon. Member for Salisbury also asked about the work of the Church revision committee. It would not be appropriate for me to go into the rights and wrongs of the Church of England’s internal processes and discussions. As I understand it, the Synod has not yet been presented with the proposals under consideration by the revision committee, so to do so would be premature anyway.

What I hope is clear is that whatever proposals are brought forward for consideration by Parliament would need to comply with the law as it stands at the time. They should not, in any matter subject to discrimination law, result in direct sex discrimination unless there is a specific exception allowing it, nor should they result in indirect discrimination that is not a proportionate means of meeting a legitimate aim. In the Equality Bill, we have changed neither the range of religious posts to which the law applies nor how it applies to them, but we have maintained and clarified the position as it is now. Compliance with the current law will therefore be a good guide to future compliance in that respect, although the Bill is of course before Parliament and subject to debate.

As we have heard, the Church of England is exploring moving away from the current position and proposing to allow women to be bishops. That is, of course, a move that many of us welcome. At the same time, I understand that the Church needs to consider the feelings of those who disagree strongly with that move and cannot accept that change. The Church’s debate concerns how far it should be possible to go in that effort: not about whether in principle women should be bishops, but about how, and about what accommodation could or should be made for those in the Church who do not think that they should. It is a very difficult question, first of all for the Church of England itself, and it is obvious from what we have heard today that the Church is wrestling with it.

I recognise the difficult position faced by those in the Church of England tasked with finding a way through the issues. I hope that they can find a way through that provides comfort to those who feel strongly on both sides. I do not know how close such a solution is, but I hope that one can be found within the framework of applicable discrimination law.

Sitting suspended.