George Austin queries who has the last word

For many years – thirty to be exact – I have been labouring under the misapprehension that the Worship and Doctrine Measure of 1974 freed the Church of England from interference by the State in matters of worship and doctrine.

Not so if Professor David McClean is correct. And he ought to be, as a QC, a DCL, a Chancellor of two dioceses, and a Professor of Law at Sheffield University from 1973. He knows the Synod and its doings from the inside, was chairman of the House of Laity for ten years and vice-chairman before that, and is currently chairman of the Legal Advisory Committee.

Addressing a recent meeting of the Ecclesiastical Law Society, McClean stated, unequivocally and unambiguously, that ‘the Church of England (Worship and Doctrine) Measure of 1974) did not, as many seem to assume, deal with the Church’s doctrine in terms of content, but only in terms of forms of assent to doctrine (my italics).’

The Lightman judgement in 1994 stated that ‘an established religion is subject to state control as regards doctrine, government and discipline, but an unestablished religion is not.’ This was echoed in the Morritt judgement two years later where the judge stated that ‘the Church of England is and at all material times has been the established church. As such its doctrines and government were and are susceptible to change by the due processes of law.’

I had always thought that the reason why these judgements were unchallenged was because they were made in answer to cases brought against the Archbishop of Canterbury and others by the Revd Paul Williamson, and that it was not in the interests of the hierarchy to challenge them. If McLean is right, then I was mistaken. But is he right? It is not for me, as one not at all learned in the law, to say whether he is right or wrong, but certainly one Chancellor present for his address was as surprised as I was.

It was on Tuesday afternoon, 7th November 1972, that the Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, introduced the Standing Committee report on Worship and Doctrine to the General Synod. It contained, he said, proposals of the utmost importance. ‘It seems certain that there is a general wish within the Church that the Church as represented in the General Synod should be the body which controls the Church’s doctrine and worship.’ Pretty clear, I should have thought.

On the Thursday of the same week, the Bishop of Chester, Gerald Ellison, introduced the General Approval stage of the Measure, describing it as one requesting Parliament ‘to grant to the Church of England that freedom to control its worship and doctrine which many believe it ought as a matter of principle to possess.’

He reiterated this when in summing up the debate he said, ‘I think it will be generally agreed that the least qualified body to decide the doctrine of the Church of England is Parliament.’ The recent Church and State Commission had itself concluded ‘that the body that ought to decide any issue as to whether something is in accordance with the doctrine of the Church of England or not is the General Synod, and that it should be advised by the bishops.’

It was on Wednesday morning, 20th February 1974, that the Measure came to the Synod for Final Approval, again introduced by Gerald Ellison, who by this time had been translated to become Bishop of London. In his speech he set out the three purposes of the Measure.

‘What we are doing in this Measure’, he said, ‘is to go to Parliament and to ask that the Church of England, though its constitutional assemblies, should be given permanently the right to order its own worship, to decide what is or is not in accordance with the doctrine of the Church of England, and to direct what form those in authority in the Church shall declare their assent and obedience.’ So there it is: the right to order its worship; decisions about doctrine; directions about declarations of assent and obedience.

That seems to be quite contrary to McClean’s claim that the Measure did not ‘deal with the Church’s doctrine in terms of content, but only in terms of assent to doctrine’, since he appears to take no note of Ellison’s second stated purpose – ‘to decide what is or is not in accordance with the doctrine of the Church of England’.

The Bishop of London went on to mention safeguards: ‘Before granting this freedom, Parliament is entitled to guarantees that the Church of England will not depart from its traditional doctrine and position.’ These guarantees included the safeguarding of the Book of Common Prayer, the protection of the sources of the doctrine of the Church of England, and special requirements for the conduct of debates on worship and doctrine.

There would be no time-limit on speeches and such issues would be Article 7 business ‘whereby they have to be referred specifically to the House of Bishops and can only be submitted for Final Approval in terms proposed by that House.’

Much of the debate at every stage had been about the continued place of the Book of Common Prayer, and this was secured – not only in a pastoral manner for those for whom it would remain (and continues to be) the basis of their worshipping life, but also as one of the sources, alongside holy Scripture, the creeds and the Ordinal, of the fundamental doctrine of the Church of England.

The Bishop of London suggested that few Synod members ‘would consider that such a secular body (as Parliament) should ultimately decide the Church’s doctrine.’ He ended with these words, ‘It is for many of us a matter of principle that the Church is the guardian of the purity of the faith and its voice through its synods should be decisive.’ Could there be anything clearer than that?

The General Synod gave the Measure massive support, the House of Bishops voting 34 for with none against, the Clergy 170 to 2 and the Laity 140 to 8 – in total 344 for with only 10 against.

Such is its fundamental importance that I hope an ecclesiastical lawyer will take up the issue in a later article. If McClean is wrong, then his claim needs to be refuted lest it should (or even has) become an accepted legal interpretation; and if he is proved correct then the General Synod urgently needs bring in an amendment to the Measure.

In 1974, the Synod believed it was freeing the Church to determine its own doctrine without interference from a secular state. If it was not, then there was a monstrous deception.