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Church Commissioners

Volume 450: debated on Monday 9 October 2006

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

Access to Churches

22. What assessment the commissioners have made of the insurance implications of keeping churches open to the public. (92603)

That is a matter for individual churches and their insurers and it depends largely on local circumstances. However, we know that the major insurer encourages churches to remain open during the day.

That is the problem, is it not? We have 16,000 Church of England churches, more and more of which are closing their doors to the public outside service times because they fear vandalism and theft. Why is it not possible for churches to get a better deal by pooling their insurance premiums?

As my hon. Friend says, it is unfortunate that many churches feel the need to close their doors to protect themselves. The major insurer—Ecclesiastical Insurance—has suggested that an active, well-visited church should deter arson, theft and vandalism. Advice on extra security measures is available and the insurance company provides a security marking system free of charge to all churches. However, my hon. Friend’s suggestion is worth taking up with Ecclesiastical Insurance, and I will do so.

A benefice in my constituency consisting of eight churches, with a church roll of 2,500 people, has to find a diocesan contribution of £63,000 a year—and that is before it has started paying for insurance premiums and the maintenance and repair of buildings. Will the hon. Gentleman convey to the church authorities the funding crisis in rural parishes in constituencies such as mine that cannot afford the contributions that they have to make to the diocese as well as to the maintenance and insurance of these buildings?

I am grateful for, and would be happy to make, the hon. Gentleman’s point. However, I could not make it better than he has done and I congratulate him on that. He is right that there is a huge problem with church funding, which is reflected in the questions that I am asked in the House, between what the state and what the Church can provide. We have seen many articles in the newspapers about cathedrals and churches that are in difficulty. The question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) is about that. We need to deal with the matter and, to do so, the state must take a much more proactive role.

There is a growing problem with insurance, whether the churches are open or closed during the day, arising from the increased ingress of bats. If only they would stay in the belfry, but they do not. In several churches—especially in Norfolk, I am told—bat excrement is causing serious damage to the interior fabric of churches, at the cost of thousands of pounds and the great inconvenience of those who wish to worship.

Before the recess, I saw a bat in the House of Commons corridor. I do not know whether it had come from the Chamber. However, the hon. Gentleman’s point is valid. The problems add to those that the Church already has with repairs, security and those to which my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle referred.

Bishops

About 57. In parenthesis, and with your permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to convey the best wishes of the House of Commons to Archbishop Tutu on the occasion of his 75th birthday.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that bishops should be appointed on their spiritual and administrative attributes and skills, not time served? If so, what is the Church doing to recognise such skills earlier in those clergymen who have not served 20 or 30 years? [Interruption.]

My right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) made the sedentary comment, “Answer that if you can.”

The criteria for appointing bishops are in line with the hon. Gentleman’s question. The criteria that he mentioned are in place. We are considering the average age of bishops, which is 57, and doing our best to bring forward those who are younger and can invigorate the Church, as those who are in their posts do.

I do not wish to sound critical but are not the bishops a bit on the young side? Will bishops be protected by the new laws on age discrimination? Surely it is right and proper that they too should be covered.

The Ecclesiastical Offices (Age Limit) Measure 1975 makes compulsory retirement under 70 unlawful. I surmise that the same rule applies to the House.

Church of England Calendar

25. What plans the commissioners have to restore to the Church of England calendar the date of the accession of Her Majesty the Queen on 6 February as a day on which churches should fly the Union or St. George’s flag. (92606)

There is nothing to stop churches flying flags on that date and some already do. If a flag is flown from churches in England, it should be the cross of St. George, preferably bearing the diocesan arms.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the rule was changed in 2000 in the lectionary, which is the Church of England calendar for vicars and priests. Does he have any information about how the rule came to be applied, given that prayers are still an obligation every 6 February as the date of Her Majesty the Queen’s accession both to the throne and as Supreme Head of the Church of England? Would it be possible to publish the minutes to ensure that there was no political correctness or political interference in the decision?

I am happy to refer the first part of the hon. Gentleman’s question back and give him a written response. The anniversary of the sovereign’s accession is observed annually by the Church, but it does not form part of the ecclesiastical calendar. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman believes that it might, as his question suggests. I shall pass that view to the Liturgical Commission, which is responsible for such matters. I shall come back to the hon. Gentleman about the publication of minutes.

Church of England Estate

26. How much was received in 2005-06 by the Church of England from the sale of land and property for residential and other development purposes; and how much of this was spent on new buildings and modernising buildings for church and associated purposes. (92607)

A wide range of Church of England bodies, including the commissioners, own land and property and it is not possible to give a single figure covering receipts for the whole Church. However, the Church Commissioners’ total property sales in 2005 were worth £242 million.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree, as a point of principle, that, if land in a parish is sold for housing while in the same parish the church is raising a public appeal to modernise its church hall, the least that could be done would be to pay for those improvements from the proceeds of the sale of any land that had been owned by the parish?

The two sets of circumstances to which the hon. Gentleman refers are not mutually exclusive. In relation to property sales and to the Church’s expenditure in 2005, the commissioners spent about £100 million on pensions, £31.5 million on parish mission and ministry support, £21 million on bishops and £6.6 million on cathedrals. The parish land to which the hon. Gentleman refers might not be within the domain of the Church Commissioners.