Tough on Synod, tough on Synod's cause

New Labour may provoke a constitutional crisis over the Church's money. Andrew Brown explains
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The Independent Online
The Rt Hon Michael Alison, PC, MP, has a record second to none as a battler for causes that were ultimately lost. He was one of Margaret Thatcher's closest and fiercest supporters; and as Second Church Estates Commissioner, he has been for many years the man whose job it is to ensure that the constitutional relationship between the Church of England and Parliament works.

Yesterday he managed to skirt round the word "disestablishment" for nearly 80 minutes when presenting the latest report of the House of Commons social security committee into the affairs of the Church Commissioners. But at last he broke down and used the word, and its companion "disendowment", when discussing what would happen if the Church of England's General Synod does not give way in the contest of wills it has now embarked on with Parliament.

Disestablishment would mean the removal of all links between church and state; disendowment the loss of most of the Church Commissioners' pounds 2.7bn of assets, a figure that dwarfs the resources available to all other English churches. It has happened before, to the Anglican churches of Wales and Ireland. In both cases, the bulk of the money was taken by the state for educational purposes, though the churches argued that it was theirs.

Now the Church seems determined to risk the same fate rather than allow Parliament, instead of the General Synod, to determine details of the legislation that will hand over control of the Church Commissioners' income to a committee headed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey, and consisting mostly of Synod members. This committee, to be known as the Archbishop's Council, would provide the Church of England with a central government for the first time since Parliament lost interest in the day- to-day running of the church in the 19th century; and a central part of its powers would be to determine how the income of the Church Commissioners should be spent.

That is where the quarrel with Parliament comes in. The Labour MP Frank Field is a devout Anglican who chairs the all-party Commons social security committee. Because the projected reform of the commissioners will affect clergy pensions, the committee has been holding hearings into it.

Their report, published yesterday, says that the Church of England may make whatever internal arrangements it likes. It may ordain women, amend its prayer book, even set up an archbishop's council. But it cannot divert the income of the Church Commissioners without detailed scrutiny. The assets of the Church Commissioners derive, at least in part, from the state, which cannot simply hand them over to an outside body on the strength of a law that Parliament cannot debate.

The General Synod can make laws - it is the only body outside Parliament with that power - and these "measures", as they are known, must be accepted by Parliament as they stand, or else rejected completely. They cannot be amended. This system was introduced in 1919. Both then and since, Parliament has reserved the right to bring in Bills to regulate the Church of England in the ordinary way. But it has never made use of the right; and the General Synod had come to believe that it had fallen into disuse, and all Church legislation would be conducted by measure.

Yesterday, Michael Alison told them differently. "The Church Commissioners are a parliamentary charity. Parliament cannot and will not say that the whole disposal of them is in the hands of the Church of England's General Synod by measure. If that were presented as a measure, it would be rejected."

Backing up his view was not just the unanimous report of the all-party social security committee, but a letter from Jack Straw, another devout Anglican, who will probably be Home Secretary in a year's time and thus responsible for bringing any Bills about the Church Commissioners before the House. "I very much agree with you that there must be a full Bill as far as any changes to the Church Commissioners' control over the historic assets of the Church of England are concerned," he wrote.

To this, Philip Mawer, the Secretary General of the General Synod, replied: "The report ... fails to understand the Church of England's proper constitutional relations with Parliament. I must make clear that the Church of England's General Synod could not accept the committee's conclusion that Parliament should legislate by Bill on matter concerning the Church Commissioners."

In this, he had the backing of the Synod as clearly as Michael Alison had the backing of Parliament. Neither side can now back down. The crisis may be postponed for a while. The committee is perfectly willing to allow through a measure making temporary arrangements for future clergy pensions. Beyond that, though, the two sides have adopted positions from which neither can back down without loss of face, and perhaps more than face. It will be extraordinary if it is the devout Anglicans of the new Labour Party who finally expel the Church of England from its privilege, wealth, and influence.