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Church Commissioners

Volume 447: debated on Monday 5 June 2006

The hon. Member for Middlesbrough, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—

Historic Churches

21. What initiatives the commissioners are developing to co-ordinate applications for aid from the EU to restore historic churches and cathedrals; and if he will make a statement. (74908)

There are no European Union funds principally for the restoration of historic churches and cathedrals. The best thing that the European Union can do for us is to reduce VAT on church repairs. The church heritage forum is developing close partnerships with funding and fundraising bodies and disseminating information to church and cathedral authorities to assist in the upkeep of historic churches and cathedrals by way of a stitch in time.

As the hon. Gentleman said that there are no funds available, I am inclined to ask, why not? Churches in the United Kingdom provide heritage that is of great European importance. Will the commissioners go to the other Commission and say that money is required, not only for great cathedrals such as Lichfield but for churches all over the country, as that heritage makes Europe so very different?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. [Interruption.] The House is in an hilarious mood. Compared with other parts of Europe, United Kingdom churches and places of worship are poorly funded. We recommend that some public funding should be available in recognition of both the contribution that they make to the community and of the cost of their upkeep.

I support the views of the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) but, I visited Notre Dame and Sacré Coeur last week—[Laughter.] As well as going to Leicester. Those are not just places of worship but places of great tourism. It is important to see whether European initiatives can be co-ordinated to support not just churches but places of worship for people of other faiths that have been turned into great tourism centres.

That was more a statement than a question, but I will take it as a question from my hon. Friend. As the Bishop of London said in another place,

“In other European countries, a more realistic contribution to the maintenance of the historic fabric seems to be possible, in view of the considerable social benefits that church buildings offer to the whole community.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 25 October 2004; Vol. 665, c. 1146.]

That may explain why our European Union partners see little need for central European restoration funds.

That is fine, but, recognising that charity begins at home, what support are the Church Commissioners giving to English Heritage in its splendid “Inspired!” campaign?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for referring to that campaign. English Heritage recently announced grants of £17.5 million to listed buildings, but that should be set against £328 million of repairs outstanding in Anglican churches alone in 2003, and the £101 million actually spent on repairs in that year. The English Heritage “Inspired!” campaign to which he refers has also called for more state funding.

Ecclesiastical Appointments (Women)

22. What progress is being made towards enabling the appointment of women bishops in the Church of England. (74909)

In July, the General Synod will debate whether it wishes to proceed to legislation and, if so, on what basis. The Church will need to decide at each stage the speed at which it wishes to proceed, but it would in any event be at least four years before the final approval stage is reached.

As my hon. Friend knows, meetings are taking place this week with the bishops to try to find a way forward on the matter. Does he recognise the strong body of opinion that exists in the Church in support of women bishops, and will he do everything in his power to ensure that proposals are brought forward quickly, including to this place? Everybody would want them to be made well within four years.

My hon. Friend’s concern reflects the frustration felt by many right hon. and hon. Members. The Church, however, needs to give the matter careful consideration. Not everyone in the House, I would surmise, agrees with my hon. Friend. Synod needs to recognise and respect the integrity of differing beliefs and positions, and to weigh issues of theology and unity with arguments of justice. Even the Synod, when it comes to a conclusion, must vote by a majority of at least two thirds in all three of its sections.

May I put it to the hon. Gentleman that the short answer to the question posed by the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) can be summarised in three words: “Far too little”?

It would be more apt if the hon. Gentleman said, “A little too late”, since we have had women priests for some years. However, there is a dilemma within the Church that must be resolved in its own time and at its own pace. Although the messages that we give from the House are reflected in decisions in the Synod, we will continue to press on the issue to reflect the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) and by the hon. Gentleman.