Lords approve Church of England (Miscellaneous Provisions) Measure

On 30th January 2020 the House of Lords considered the Church of England (Miscellaneous Provisions) Measure, a piece of church legislation that was introduced by the Bishop of Gloucester, Rt Revd Rachel Treweek. A short debate also took place on a motion to regret the Measure, tabled by Lord Trefgarne, which was subsequently withdrawn. The Measure was passed.

Moved by The Lord Bishop of Gloucester

That this House do direct that, in accordance with the Church of England Assembly (Powers) Act 1919, the Church of England (Miscellaneous Provisions) Measure be presented to Her Majesty for the Royal Assent.

The Lord Bishop of Gloucester: My Lords, although the provisions contained in this Measure are miscellaneous, some of them are nevertheless important. Rather than go through the Measure section by section, it might be helpful if I just mention some of the more significant provisions at this point.

Section 2 implements a recommendation from Dame Moira Gibb’s report following her review of the Church of England’s response to the abuse committed by Peter Ball. One of the report’s recommendations was for the introduction of a national register of clergy with permission to officiate. That recommendation has been further developed and Section 2 will now require there to be a national ministry register. Every clerk in holy orders who has authority to exercise ministry in the Church of England will have to be included in the register. There is also provision for the creation of a register of licensed lay people, and bishops will be required to provide details to the Archbishops’ Council on a regular basis so that the national registers are kept up to date. A form of the register that omits personal contact information will be published by the council and be accessible to the public free of charge.

Section 4 makes provision for cases in ecclesiastical courts where a party is unable to pay the court fees. Secular courts already have a statutory power to grant waivers of court fees to those who are of limited means. The ecclesiastical courts will be able to do the same.

Sections 5 and 6 are concerned with cathedrals. Section 5 makes it possible for the Cathedrals Fabric Commission or a fabric advisory committee to vary an approval for works that it had previously granted. That will avoid the need for a cathedral to restart the application process where proposals need to be revised. It also allows for approvals to be revoked and provides a right of appeal. Section 6 makes it easier to build on disused burial grounds belonging to cathedrals provided that there is no objection from a relative of anyone buried in the land during the past 50 years. It provides a definition of “relative” for this purpose and for the purpose of equivalent legislation relating to churchyards.

Section 7 amends the legislation relating to the inspection of churches to make it clear that the inspector appointed under the legislation is appointed by the parochial church council and is responsible to that body. Before appointing an inspector, a parochial church council will have to obtain and have regard to advice from the diocesan advisory committee, but diocesan advisory committees will no longer have approved lists of inspecting architects. Instead, the committee will advise whether a particular professional has the necessary qualifications and experience to inspect the church in question. There will be statutory guidance from the Church Buildings Council on the appointment and work of inspectors.

Sections 8 and 9 deal with parochial registers and records, taking account of registers of church services that are kept in electronic form and clarifying the meaning of “records” so that the right things, not the wrong things, are deposited in county record offices.

Other provisions in the Measure deal with a number of technical, legal issues and remove various obstacles to efficiency and effectiveness in existing church legislation. I hope noble Lords will agree that this miscellaneous collection includes useful provisions and will support the Motion that the Measure be presented for Royal Assent.

It may be helpful if I say something now about the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne. I am grateful to the noble Lord for the trouble he has taken to talk to me about his concerns, which I and others in the Church share. However, they do not relate to the Measure before us this evening.

I shall take this opportunity to say something about the point being made as it is of concern to the Church of England. As noble Lords will be aware, when a marriage takes place in church that marriage is also registered at the church in statutory marriage registers which are available for public inspection. The couple are also given a marriage certificate by the member of the clergy who marries them. Everything the couple need to do from the legal point of view is done before they leave the church.

The marriage registers currently in use have a column in which the father’s name is entered for each of the parties. There is no provision in the register for including mothers’ names. It is common ground between the Church and the Government that this needs to change and that it should be possible for couples to have their mothers’ names included in the marriage register. The question is how best to achieve this in practical terms.

Last year, Parliament passed the Civil Partnerships, Marriages and Deaths (Registration etc) Act 2019. The Act confers powers on the Secretary of State and the Registrar-General to make regulations changing the way marriages are registered. The Government propose to digitise the registration of marriages, with the formal register of all marriages existing in electronic form. That seems a good idea. The electronic register could easily include a field for mothers’ names and I would support that. However, an electronic registration system has yet to be created. In the meantime, the Government propose that, when a marriage takes place in church, the clergy should fill out a paper marriage document with details of the marriage. After a marriage has been solemnised, the marriage document will be signed by the couple, their witnesses and the officiating member of the clergy. The couple—whose minds at this point are probably on other things—will then be obliged, under pain of criminal penalties, to take the marriage document to the register office within a fixed number of days. Only then will the marriage be legally registered, and only then will the couple be provided with a marriage certificate.

Until the electronic system is up and running, there must be some more practical, sensible way of including mothers’ names in marriage registers than this rather time-consuming, bureaucratic process, which is the last thing that newly married couples will want to deal with. Church officials have suggested some simple ways in which existing marriage registers could include mothers’ names, but so far these have met with opposition from government officials.

I hope that noble Lords will agree that the Government need to be more flexible and to agree arrangements that will enable couples to continue to leave church following their wedding with all the legal processes completed. Church officials stand ready to continue to work with the Government to achieve a sensible, practical outcome. However—I thank noble Lords for indulging me—it is important to say that all that does not relate to the Measure before us this evening. I beg to move.

Moved by Lord Trefgarne

At end insert “but that this House regrets that the Measure does not address the issue of marriages no longer being able to be registered at the church where the marriage takes place.”

Lord Trefgarne (Con):  My Lords, I am most grateful for what the right reverend Prelate has been able to say. It has been very helpful. I accept that the Measure before us does not directly relate to this matter and therefore we can only talk usefully rather than make effective changes. In that circumstance, it would be better if I did not say anything more and I will withdraw my amendment at the end of this debate.

Baroness Butler-Sloss (Crossbench):  My Lords, I agree entirely with what the right reverend Prelate has said. The Measure came before the Ecclesiastical Committee, of which I am the chairman, and I am happy to inform the House that the committee deemed it expedient—that has been the word we have used since 1912—that this Measure should come before Parliament. Consequently, I am happy to report that to the House.

The matter raised by the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, is an important issue that will need to be resolved at some stage. I agree entirely with what the right reverend Prelate has said about it. I hope that the Government will listen and that there will be some flexibility. I share her view that, when you are married, you look forward to all the good things and do not want to have to carry a piece of paper to the register office to get your marriage certificate. This is something that needs to be looked at, but in fact it has nothing whatever to do with the Measure currently before the House. I very much support the right reverend Prelate and hope that the Measure will be accepted.

Lord Griffiths of Burry Port (Lab):  My Lords, I am totally unsure about procedures at this point, but I hope that I am in order to address a word to this amendment. I approve of, entirely agree with, and understand perfectly—which is even more important—the explanation given by the right reverend Prelate. I also understand the concern that has been raised in the tabling of this amendment. Having heard both statements, I feel—a Methodist always likes to pontificate about Church of England affairs—that we on these Benches can take note of the fact that this has been raised as a genuine concern and look forward to those measures that will be taken subsequently to address it in a more appropriate context.

Lord Addington (Liberal Democrat):  My Lords, I will say a few words on this. The right reverend Prelate brought forward a series of orders and so on that I feel would be difficult to disagree with; they seem perfectly sensible.

However, the main meat of this discussion is on something else. I commend the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, on his ingenuity, perhaps, in trying to move this forward. The Measure starts with “Members of religious communities” and then we have talked about marriage; it is a lovely juxtaposition. In some of the better weddings I have been to, the last thing anybody involved in those receptions wanted was to have a very important piece of paper on them at the time. A system has been devised which, whatever else its faults, is very low on red tape. Making sure that that principle is preserved is something that we might embrace. I look forward to hearing how the Government propose to deal with this. It should not be beyond the wit of man to make sure that we do not end up with something less convenient than what we have now, even knowing that one or two changes will need to be made.

On the substantive matters before us, I have no objection.

Lord Trefgarne: My Lords, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment withdrawn.

Motion agreed.

House adjourned at 5.47 pm.

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