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Pastoral Measure 1968

Volume 81: debated on Monday 17 June 1985

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asked the hon. Member for Wokingham, as representing the Church Commissioners, how many new churches have been opened and how many churches have been closed for worship since the Pastoral Measure 1968 came into operation.

A total of 1,078 churches have been declared redundant, but I am glad to say that 335 churches have been opened.

Although those statistics may seem somewhat depressing on first reading, is it not a fact that the Church is responding to the shift in patterns of population and the increased mobility of its members? Is the construction of 335 churches over the past 15 years a sign of the significant and substantial contribution which the commissioners have helped to make towards the needs of the Church's members?

I am glad to bring out the point that my answer had to be limited to 1969, which was the first year in which the commissioners had statutory powers to start to deal with many churches which had been redundant for many hundreds of years because of population movements. There is a senior diocesan who has often said that, in a mixed and large diocese, he has in his long episcopate opened far more churches than he has closed.

To enable us to evaluate the many reasons for the closure of churches, would it be possible for the hon. Gentleman to arrange for the distribution of what seems to be a valuable document on the rural problems of the Church of England, which was published recently?

I do not think that my help is necessary, as it is a published document. I shall investigate whether a copy can be placed in the Library. The right hon. Gentleman, who is used to weighing evidence, will want to remember that the document is based upon an examination of one rural diocese only. There are some who question how solid the inquiry really is.

Can my hon. Friend tell me in a letter, if not now, how many of the churches to which he has referred were in rural areas as distinct from urban areas? Will he and his fellow commissioners give some little thought to the fact that to employ a priest full-time, even an elderly priest, in a rural community is often a better way of serving that community than having team ministries and closing churches?

I shall inquire whether I can properly give an answer to the first part of my hon. Friend's question. Definition may be a problem, but I shall do my best. The second part of his question raises a matter that is not directly for the commissioners. However, I know that my hon. Friend, who follows these matters closely, will have observed that the Church itself has been undertaking a close inquiry. If he has not seen the report on how the system is working, I shall happily send him a copy.

The Church moves quickly to close uneconomic churches. Why does it not put up the same resistance to closures as it did to the closure of uneconomic pits?

That is because it is not directly concerned, for obvious reasons, with the law passed by the House on the coal mining industry.

Bearing in mind that there are now 10,000 clergy compared with 20,000 100 years ago, when the population was half what it is now, is it not clear that much more vigorous recruitment is needed of high-quality clergy if rural areas are to be served as well as urban areas?

I make it clear that I am not answerable for the training of the clergy. I can only try to assist. I hope that I may make that distinction. The Church has always maintained a very high training standard and has refused to lower standards merely because it would be tempted to increase the numbers.

Order. I am not certain that I should have allowed the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) to ask that question. I hope that it will not be asked again.

With respect, Mr. Speaker, it was a supplementary question to which the hon. Member for Wokingham (Sir W. van Straubenzee) gave his usual evasive and platitudinous reply—

Order. To be fair, the hon. Member for Wokingham (Sir W. van Straubenzee) does not have responsibility for coal mining.