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Extracts from the debate on Church of England (General Synod) Measures 23rd June 1999

Church of England (General Synod) (Measures) Wednesday 23rd June 1999 7.21 pm

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I may not be the only Member who might be tempted to raise issues related to Christchurch, Oxford, to St. George's, Windsor, or to Westminster abbey, but we gather from the report from the Ecclesiastical Committee that the Measure does not apply to either St. George's or to Westminster abbey and only in small part to Christchurch. Could we have guidance on how far we able to refer to events at those three places of worship in the debate?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord): The answer is simply that it will be in order to refer to those institutions in general terms, as far as they relate to the matter we are debating, but it will not be in order to go into any detail about events that have happened in those establishments, which may be what the hon. Gentleman has in mind.

Mr Robert Key (Salisbury): I have discussed the Cathedrals Measure with my bishop and my dean, and I have read the Measure and the report of the Ecclesiastical Committee. Incidentally, I have met the Dean of Westminster to discuss the administration of the abbey and the issue of Royal Peculiars. I support the Measure, although I do so with some regrets. First, I regret very much the deeply damaging fiasco at Westminster abbey concerning its most distinguished former organist. That should simply never have occurred. Due process of law has now been followed, at substantial cost. To most people, the outcome remains unhappy and unsatisfactory.

Mr Frank Field (Birkenhead): My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that I do not think that we should ever, in any way, abuse our position or privilege in the House. During the debates that will follow from the Measure, I shall be happy to repeat outside the House what I say inside. I am sorry if that adds yet more to the administrative costs of our abbey across the road. I discussed how we should approach the debate with my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody). She too is worried about what has gone on in the abbey. When I talked to her about it yesterday, I said that I had two particular questions in mind. First, if this reform had been in place at the time, could the scandal at Lincoln have been prevented? Secondly, if it had been in place, could the scandal at Westminster abbey have been prevented? We know that there is to be a special inquiry into the Royal Peculiars, and I shall return to that shortly. However, while discussing the issue with my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich, I reflected that, because there is much to be said about the abbey, we ought to ask for a special debate on the subject. That would enable us to discuss not just that long-standing and sad saga, but much of the information that has come to light more recently. For example, at the weekend, we read in The Sunday Times that some members of the Chapter are being given loans, as though the abbey were some sort of merchant bank. We know from the accounts that have just been published that administrative costs have risen by nearly two thirds. I would guess that an increase of more than half a million pounds--is largely to do with the legal fees incurred. We also note that the abbey gives only 1 per cent. of its income to charitable causes, although Synod--which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough--has said that we should give 5 per cent. of our income to such causes. But it would be wrong to try to bring issues concerning the abbey into the debate--indeed, you would not allow me to do so, Mr. Deputy Speaker--and my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich and I will therefore seek time for a proper debate about what we think has been going on there. Nevertheless, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you would no doubt have protected the privileges of Back Benchers if they had wished to point out to my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing, West that one of the reasons why the Measure will have such a smooth run is that the Church has announced an inquiry into the Royal Peculiars. Tonight's debate might have been slightly different if that inquiry had not been announced. Let me end by issuing a plea to the inquiry. I beg it not to get things out of proportion, and not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. There is clearly an issue regarding what happens in an institution that is a Royal Peculiar when some person behaves badly, and may have to be sacked; and it is clearly immensely difficult if the head of the organisation involved is our monarch. I hope, therefore, that the inquiry will be limited in what it seeks to do. I hope that it will help to answer the question that I have raised, and will not rein back on the special privileges enjoyed by the abbey, St. George's chapel, Windsor and the other Royal Peculiars. I think it adds immensely to the quality of life in this country that people can do things differently in different places. It would be sad if, because of the serious problems that the abbey has experienced, we encouraged the inquiry to make the Royal Peculiars uniform with other cathedrals. I shall, in the normal way--along with my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich, and, no doubt, other hon. Members in other parties--seek time for a debate enabling us to look properly at what has happened at the abbey. I end, however, by saying again that I am more than happy to repeat outside what I say under privilege here.

Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal): The Ecclesiastical Committee had to consider why the Measure should not affect all institutions of a similar type. My hon. Friend the Member for Worthing, West (Mr. Bottomley) suggested that it would perhaps be better if we referred to none of those institutions. However, as the right hon. Member for Birkenhead said, the truth is that the Measure has taken so long to be considered by the House because, had it come to the House before the Church of England--finally, after all the pressure--decided that it would investigate and produce a report on the Royal Peculiars, the Measure probably would not have been passed. Hon. Members would have had to say: "Until there is proper provision for all similar institutions, it is not possible to pass this limited Measure." That was the very strong feeling of the Ecclesiastical Committee, and it would be odd not to refer to those situations and conditions, even if only in passing. I am sad about several aspects of the Measure. The first is that it is necessary, essentially because a small number of individuals failed to resign when they should have done. We have just seen a remarkable example of how St. George's, Windsor is able to contribute to national life, and we already knew the fascinating mixture that is Christchurch, which is both a college and the cathedral of the Oxford diocese. They demonstrate the curious differences between the types of institution that this type of legislation has to cover. Unfortunately, Westminster abbey has not been a good example of such flexibility. I endorse the request made by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead for a full-scale debate on the situation at the abbey, not least because of the revelations in relation to its accounts. The cathedrals now have rather more than they did, but often it is not enough. They also receive money from tourists. No cathedral or similar institution receives as much as Westminster abbey. It is proper for parliamentarians to ask how that largesse is used on behalf of all of us. In an odd way, the cathedrals are an example of stewardship. The general run of them were not built by the Church of England. They were seen as different institutions historically and they are under guardianship on behalf of many others in the Church of England. I hesitate to say this, but it is interesting to see how much larger a proportion of a much smaller income is used for charitable purposes by Westminster cathedral at one end of Victoria street compared with Westminster abbey. It is proper to ask why, and who makes such decisions. It is also proper for us to know more about the uses to which the money raised from tourists and others is put, but my last point is about the individuals involved. I was brought up in a cathedral city. I went to a cathedral school and my father was a member of a cathedral chapter, so I declare an interest over a considerable length of time. Cathedrals are able to operate because of the devoted work of large numbers of people, many of them lay people, as my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) said. We need to make sure that those people can play a full part in the mission of the cathedral. Cathedrals are not there to be historic monuments. They are there to provide a witness of the enduring power of the faith of Jesus Christ. We ought not to have a debate such as this without talking in those terms. If we fail to do that, we miss out the central issue. Perhaps in that context I can say what grieves me most about the need for this legislation and the legislation that we are likely to see very soon. There is something about the structure of cathedrals today that enables people to feel that they are theirs and that they have certain comfortable positions which it is almost improper to suggest ought to be very carefully thought through. I am not sure that every member of a cathedral chapter has a job description or proper targets for what they ought to be doing. That sounds very oddly modern, but if we are to have a bureaucratic Church let us have some of the advantages of modern bureaucratic practice. If the Dean of Westminster carefully considered what his job description ought to be, which I think him not to have, he might, indeed I think he would, agree with me that there comes a moment when it is best for the sake of everyone to go. Were that to have happened, I doubt whether this House would have had to have asked for another Measure to follow this one. If it had happened in two other cathedrals, I doubt whether we would have had to have had this Measure.

Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster): That is not a reference to the manner in which people have behaved in this matter, but I hope that a brief reference to events at Westminster abbey is in order--events to which allusion has been made by one or two other participants in the debate. I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) for not pressing the matter in the context of the debate, other than in the references that they have made, but it is fair to say that they have made certain animadversions. The dean and chapter have accepted Lord Jauncey's judgment. The only observation that I would make--I am touching on things that have been said before--is that the dean and chapter in the matter to which oblique reference has been made sought to work within the employment law of this country, not under any special jurisdiction or position that the Royal Peculiar afforded them.

Mr. Gummer: I wonder whether my right hon. Friend would accept the following: many of us feel that when Christians deal with other Christians, every effort must be made not to go to law. I believe that that is actually a gospel demand. The issue--it was the issue long before the employment rules were reached--is what was referred to in Lord Jauncey's judgment about the rules of natural justice. I want to go further and suggest to my right hon. Friend that perhaps the true concern is that people did not behave as brothers at the beginning, but allowed the situation to develop until lawyers got involved. I am sure that my right hon. Friend is absolutely right: once the lawyers get involved, it is very difficult to be charitable.

Mr. Brooke: I am reasonably sure, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that you would not allow me to follow my right hon. Friend down that-- Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. That is quite correct. I think that we are now in danger of having the debate that we must not have. Mr. Brooke: I anticipated your view, Mr. Deputy Speaker, so my right hon. Friend's words will be in the Official Report and no words that I might say in response will be--but then he is a much more shrewd and cunning parliamentarian than I am.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire): I hope, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that you and the House will forgive me if I say something that might technically be slightly out of order. My right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) mentioned Westminster cathedral. Until now there has been no opportunity in the House to pay tribute to the very great Christian who died last week and who will be buried tomorrow--Cardinal Basil Hume. I should like to do so now. If all those in positions of authority within all the Churches showed his degree of Christian charity and humility, not only would we not be having this debate tonight but we would not need to have many on Church affairs. It would be wrong not to refer briefly to what has been said about the abbey. I, too, welcome the fact that there is to be an inquiry into the Royal Peculiars although I deeply regret the necessity for it. I do not want to be accused of passing any judgment. Regardless of who has been right or wrong, what has happened over the past year has done enormous damage to the Church of England. If cathedrals are the beacons of our national Church, the abbey is the supreme lighthouse. It is perceived by many as the embodiment of the national Church. It is tragic--I use the word deliberately--that events should have happened there that have shaken people's confidence in the national Church. I hope that the inquiry will be thorough but not protracted and that when it is complete its findings will be able to be debated both in Synod and in the House. I hope that everyone who has been involved in the affairs of the abbey over the past year will recognise that there is a great deal of repair work to be done and many bridges to be built if confidence is to be restored. I am not seeking to apportion blame, but the abbey is not a very happy place at the moment for many people who have given a lifetime's service to it. I want that to be remedied at the earliest possible date.

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