Anthony Kilmister sees the Churchwardens Measure sunk

WHEN THE GENERAL SYNOD meets at York early in July one burning topic to be discussed will be the fate of the Churchwardens Measure which was unanimously rejected by the Ecclesiastical Committee of Parliament on 24th May this year. The Measure met with all-party opposition. Stern but reasoned condemnation of the Measure came from both peers and MPs and from Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Independent quarters.

Readers will recall that the Measure was given Final Approval by the General Synod in July last year after a debate which had concentrated on the number of consecutive terms a warden could serve and seemed to overlook the draconian Suspension powers in a later clause. Indeed Synod members gave every appearance of having been oblivious to this and to have allowed the Measure through “on the nod”.

When the Measure passed to the Ecclesiastical Committee for vetting it was a very different story. The Measure received its first ‘rough ride’ in December – after which the Synodical promoters dreamt up ways in which the Measure might be amended to make it more ‘palatable’ and approached the next hearing with misplaced confidence.

This time (in May 1999) rather than insisting upon the Measure going forward to the floor of both the Lords and Commons – with a bruising report by parliamentarians declaring it not to be ‘expedient’ – Synod representatives withdrew the Measure, for the time being from further parliamentary consideration. The Measure was, effectively, ‘holed below the water line’. Why had the Synod’s leaders not sensed how the wind was blowing? Were they too stubborn and convinced of their own infallibility?

And yet between the meetings of the Ecclesiastical Committee on 15th December 1998 and 24th May 1999 the Synod’s Legislative Committee and its advisers sought to meet some of the worries expressed by parliamentarians.

Possible amendments to clause 9 were assembled and floated at the meeting held in a House of Lords Committee room on 24th May. This time an appeal mechanism of sorts – a new clause 9B – was proposed by which the Dean of the Arches (a Judge) could be asked to adjudicate. But this did not hold water as none could visualise the Dean of the Arches finding a bishop ‘unreasonable’. There were also a number of suggested amendments [(IA)(i) to (f)] designed to limit (but not eradicate) the bishop’s powers to suspend a Churchwarden who had ‘erred and strayed’.

Veteran peer Lord Glenamara (previously Edward Short MP), who has been a member of one House or other for 48 years, robustly attacked the Measure finding no justification whatever for clause 9. He thanked the Synod’s Legislative Committee for trying to improve matters but, even so, he was still absolutely opposed to (f) which he described as a catch-all. “If the bishop does not get the churchwarden in any of the other five”, Lord Glenamara said, “he gets him with (f). I would be absolutely opposed to that and I am very unhappy about C and (d) as well”.

One plank in the Synod case was that it was not envisaged that the proposed new powers would be exercised when it was a difference of view over doctrine that existed.

Sir Patrick Cormack MP was unconvinced and pointed out that many people, including himself, are worried about the pressure to suspend or annul the Act of Synod concerned with the ordination of women and thus to disband the two Integrities. He felt that it should be made explicit in this case that doctrinal grounds could neither be invoked nor used surreptitiously.

Martin Bell MP, the former BBC war correspondent, asked: “Can we think of any other example in the entire landscape of the history of our democracy in which someone elected by the opinion of many can be suspended on the opinion of one?”

Simon Hughes MP agreed and pointed out that parliament’s Ecclesiastical Committee were the backstoppers, the guardians of liberties – in a civil sense – if the Church was in danger of trespassing on them. Sharing a power to suspend between the bishop and the whole of the PCC would involve a wholesale breach of confidences. Mr Hughes wondered if some other bishop might be the appellate authority – a possibility pioneered by the ordination of women issue where there are different people with authority. Similarly Chief Constables, when they want an investigation, refer it to another force to investigate it.

An odd plea, coming as it did hard on the heels of an acrimonious dismissal at Westminster Abbey (though admittedly involving a musician rather than a warden), was made by the Revd Jonathan Young. He pleaded for ‘trust’. Lord Pilkington of Oxenford recalled his days as a Headmaster when his staff had the protection of the English law. If he suspended one of them he had to deal with the union and a lawyer and possibly an industrial tribunal. But here churchwardens were not being offered the protection that other citizens enjoy in other walks of life.

Peter Pike MP emphasised that the Guidelines (the Bishops’ Code of Practice) were not part of the Measure and could be changed the day after the Measure was passed. As Sir Patrick Cormack pointed out these guidelines say “may” and “normally” but there is no compulsion upon the bishop to follow these steps towards natural justice. All this he added was against the background of a rather bruised Church in which the parson’s freehold had often disappeared through the back door.

Two other MPs, John Gummer and Frank Field, exposed further huge holes in the Measure and clearly in its present form it was “dead in the water”.

So what next? Is there a compelling need for such a Measure or can it be dropped and forgotten? Either way, Synod members will now view the subject with eyes wide open and the alarm bells ringing.

Anthony Kilmister is the National Chairman of the Prayer Book Society and a former churchwarden