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Church Buildings

Volume 477: debated on Thursday 19 June 2008

1. What factors the Church Commissioners take into account in deciding on the preservation of church buildings. (212130)

Good morning, Mr. Speaker. May I, with your permission, congratulate the hon. Member for Gosport (Sir Peter Viggers) on his knighthood? Since this is Church Commissioners Question Time, I almost said, “priesthood”. He has been a colleague of mine in this House for many years. We have had adjacent offices, and from time to time, sparing the blushes of the Whips Office, we have paired together. His elevation is well deserved and worthy of him and this House. He has the singular distinction of having come into the House in February 1974 with my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George), so they share that particular election.

Where a suitable alternative use cannot be found for a church that has closed for worship, the commissioners determine its future having consulted the Church Buildings Council about its qualities. In considering the possibility of preservation by the Churches Conservation Trust, the commissioners take into account the trust’s ability to meet the repair and maintenance cost, other sources of funding, and competing claims for vesting in the trust.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South (Ben Chapman) takes a big interest in his own constituency affairs, I am sure that he will be interested to know that St. Mary’s, Thornton-le-Moors is a grade I listed church near Stanwell oil refinery that was declared redundant in 2002. Lengthy negotiations for a possible alternative use did not bear fruit, and I expect that the commissioners will consider preservation in the near future.

In considering the future use of redundant church buildings, what consultation takes place with local communities? In particular, what consideration is given to the building’s potential in the context of faith tourism?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for returning to the theme of faith tourism, which is very important for the Church. He would wish to know that the commissioners’ involvement in any preservation matter begins once a decision has been taken to close a particular church of worship. Since 1969, the future of 1,741 redundant churches has been decided under the pastoral measure. Alternative uses have been found for 1,007, while 352 have been preserved and 382 have been demolished. Preservation and faith tourism are extremely important, and how we can link them together as part of our English heritage is a matter of some concern to the Church.

My hon. Friend will know that there are at least three proposals to consider how the Church of England could receive a massive boost to bring their buildings up to scratch for all the reasons he has just set out. Will he explain what is happening and tell us of any deliberations he has had with Ministers on how we can provide this massive investment, which, as he knows more than me, is sadly needed?

My hon. Friend raises an important point about the relationship between Church and state. It is not generally known that the state does not help us by financing the preservation of churches, although we work closely with English Heritage, from which we receive funds. There is a great concern in the Church that funds might be diverted from the heritage fund to the Olympic games, which would not assist in the preservation of churches. I will be happy to write to my hon. Friend on the specific matters to which he refers, and put a copy of my letter to him in the Library.

My question is not about a church that is closing—quite the opposite. My question is about St. Peter’s church in the village of Prestbury, just outside Macclesfield, which is a flourishing and highly popular church. It is a valuable listed building, but there is a huge debate in the village about the proposal to extend the exterior of the church, rather than alter it inside. Can the hon. Gentleman indicate what factors the Church Commissioners would take into account to allow this substantial alteration to a beautiful church that is much valued? There is great debate in the village. I am not taking sides—that is not my business—but I want to know which factors are taken into account.

That looks like a planning matter for the local community, but there are several aspects to what the hon. Gentleman says. First, it is a beautiful church; secondly, it is well attended; and thirdly, there is the question whether it should expand from within or without. The gospel has already expanded from without, which is why it has lasted for 2,000 years. I would be happy to look into the matter to which the hon. Gentleman refers, and to give him a proper written answer.

I expected to be answering questions today rather than asking them, but the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans), who tabled a question on postal voting has unstarred his question, which deprives several hon. Members in my party of the chance to raise the issue.

May I take the opportunity of using a question relating to churches to thank the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Sir Stuart Bell)? I particularly value his kind comments. Does he agree that the burden of maintaining one of the glories of this country, namely our old churches, falls heavily on the modest number of people in the congregations? If the state were minded to divert more resources to churches, many people would warmly welcome that.

That question gives me two opportunities. The first is to return to my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South (Ben Chapman), and to say that faith tourism will be considered by the General Synod next month. On state involvement in Church funding and maintaining our heritage through the preservation of our buildings, it was someone else who said,

“Render…unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s”.

The state has steadily withdrawn over many years from its Church involvement. It is a matter of great concern in the Church that secularism seems to be on the march, and that the Church and its majority community is somehow falling behind in the stakes. Everything that we say in this House on the Church, the preservation of churches and our heritage, is welcomed, and it is listened to elsewhere.