Anthony Kilmister witnesses the battle over Churchwardens

AS I MADE MY WAY to the large but somewhat dreary Moses Room at the House of Lords on 15th December 1 could not help comparing two depictions of the same scene. Above the Chairman’s chair at the centre of a horse-shoe table is a huge mural of Moses bringing down the tablets of the law to the Israelites. My mind was recalling the bewigged Charlton Heston throwing down those same tablets in Cecil B. De Mille’s The Ten Commandments. And the hot news of the moment is DreamWorks SKG’s The Prince of Egypt, an animated epic which will make Moses big at the box office.

I had gone to the House of Lords to witness the Ecclesiastical Committee of parliament considering the Churchwardens Measure which the General Synod hoped would be declared ‘expedient’. Even the Legal Opinion obtained for the Synod from an ‘in-house’ barrister (Timothy Briden) gave me a movie-going bout of nostalgia for much of it hinged on an obscure court case Associated Provincial Picture Houses versus Wednesbury Corporation (1948 IK.B. 223). This, those advancing the Synod case were advised, would make it possible for a Churchwarden to seek redress over suspension.

So who could blame a Cinema Veteran like me expecting something like Carry on up the Khyber to unfold before me? lan Cundy – the bishop with the smoking gun – and a pink-cheeked Christina Baxter, with Ingrid Slaughter’s support, withstanding a hail of questions from the encircling parliamentarians. Stephen Trott, the ‘goodie’ on the inside, salami-slicing the Synod case like a cavalry-man on a rescue mission.

Let me stay with the movie comparison for only a while longer. Can I rewind the film in the projector and remind you that in July the General Synod gave Final Approval to the Churchwardens Measure? Some would say it went through almost ‘on the nod’. Synod members are sent huge bundles of papers before each group of sessions, cannot digest them all and tend to follow the lead of ‘the platform’.

Bishops clearly ought to be able to exclude from office those who are disqualified from being charity trustees under the Charities Act or have been convicted of an offence under the Children and Young Persons Act. But an amendment to the existing Churchwardens Measure of 1964 could have included these exclusions without resorting to a draconian new Measure. And when it comes to child abuse why should a Churchwarden be more of a risk than, say, an organist, a choirmaster or a Scoutmaster?

The proposed new Measure would allow a bishop to suspend a Churchwarden from duty for any reason whatsoever that seems to him, the bishop, to be ‘good and reasonable’ and to substitute a person of his own choosing. Churchwardens of ABC parishes beware!

The battle on 15th December was to hinge around clause 9 of the new Churchwardens Measure – the one giving powers of ‘suspension’. No right of appeal is spelt out in the Measure, a point that peers and MPs were quick to pounce upon. The Bishop of Peterborough claimed that the powers of suspension would only be used on the rarest of occasions – to avoid scandals – but Ben Bradshaw (Labour), an avowed homosexual, pointed out that one person’s idea of ‘scandal’ differed from another’s. Simon Hughes (Lib Dem) said he was more worried about clergy scandals than those involving churchwardens. Peter Pike (Labour) said that this Measure had produced the second highest number of letters of concern received by the Committee – eclipsed only by the postbag that the Ordination of Women issue had inspired.

Lord Templeman, the Committee Chairman (a 78 year old former Lord of Appeal in Ordinary) and one of the Synod witnesses referred to Judicial Review in the High Court as being an available option for an aggrieved Churchwarden. Sir Patrick Cormack (Conservative) said Rolls Royces were also ‘available’ to everyone provided they could afford to buy and drive them. An Army Officer known to him had spent half his life’s savings to take a case to the High Court. Lord Pilkington of Oxenford (a Conservative in Holy Orders) knew that, in the past, bishops have erred and thought a High Court writ could cost a churchwarden £20,000. A good man could be destroyed by this.

Lord Robertson of Oakridge (a Cross Bencher)) said ‘the rights of the common man are being infringed’ and Gordon Marsden (Labour) could envisage a war between parishes and their bishop. He recalled that John Wilkes was four times returned to parliament in the 18th century without taking his seat. The Measure would provide a feast for lawyers,

The Bishop of Peterborough could not envisage the Measure being invoked to deal with a point of doctrine. His assurances were not well-received.

And so the sparring went on. Among the representatives of the General Synod called in was Fr Stephen Trott (also a member of the Legislative Committee) an opponent of the Measure. Allowed to intervene at every stage he successfully pulled many rugs out from under the feet of Synodical Mandarins and any observer could see that Peter Bottomley MP was a lonely man defending the Measure when the overwhelming all-party feeling was against it.

So what next? The Ecclesiastical Committee is now expected to meet – probably in January – with the Synod’s Legislative Committee. It will then have to decide if the Measure is ‘expedient’, or not. If they find it is not it will be sent back to the Synod. If it is found ‘expedient’ then it will be debated on the floor of both Houses of parliament. Doubtless parliamentarians would then be flooded with letters from New Directions readers. Already between fifty and sixty MPs have tabled an Early Day Motion condemning the Measure.

The storm clouds gather!

Anthony Kilmister is Chairman of the Prayer Book Society and a former Churchwarden.