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Church Commissioners

Volume 497: debated on Thursday 15 October 2009

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

St Margaret’s Church, Westminster

1. What representations the Church Commissioners have received on the St. Margaret’s church, Westminster restoration appeal. (293065)

Let me say to the hon. Gentleman, without discourtesy, that the answer is none. Let me add, however, that I have visited St. Margaret’s and seen what urgent remedial work has to be done. I invite other Members also to visit the church.

As the hon. Gentleman will know, St. Margaret’s church dates back to the 11th century and was last refaced in 1725. The sum of £2 million is a significant target. Given that St. Margaret’s is the parish church of this House of Commons and often conducts funerals and memorial services for Members, will the hon. Gentleman undertake to hold discussions with the Church Commissioners and the chapter of Westminster Abbey to ensure that those funds are raised?

The hon. Gentleman is right to reflect on the £2 million that the appeal is intended to raise. He is also right to point out that in 1972 an Act of Parliament required Westminster abbey by law to keep St. Margaret’s open for such use as Parliament required. In the usual fashion, however, it did not allow for funding from Parliament. We hope that Members will contribute generously to the appeal, and I repeat that they should visit the church as often as they can.

I will certainly refer the hon. Gentleman’s question to the Church Commissioners.

One of the most heavily used paved areas in this crowded and busy city must be the footpath between St. Margaret’s and the abbey, and the slabbed area in front of the church. Is it right that the church is having to fund the restoration of those cracked and uneven areas? Should that not be either for Westminster city council or for the national taxpayer? If that is part of the scheme, it is unfair.

My hon. Friend has made a valid point. The church is always on its own when it comes to expenditure; it receives no support whatever from the Government. The Westminster Abbey and St. Margaret Westminster Act 1972 placed the church and churchyard of St. Margaret’s once more under the governance of the dean and chapter of Westminster, with one of the canons, Mr. Speaker’s chaplain, serving as rector. The question of who is responsible for the upkeep of the footpath seems to have fallen through one of the many interstices that prevent the Government from spending any money at all.

Parish Priests

Figures are published at the end of December. On 31 December 1997 there were 7,471 full-time parochial clergy of incumbent status, compared with 6,450 on 31 December 2007, the latest year for which figures are available.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that parish priests play a crucial role, especially in rural parishes? Because the number of priests has fallen, the size and number of parishes that they are being asked to look after has risen. That is putting huge pressure on them, and is obviously quite stressful. What are the hon. Gentleman and the Church Commissioners doing to try to increase the number of parish priests, particularly in rural areas?

I know that the hon. Lady has strong views about the adequacy of the stipend to attract priests, especially in rural parishes. The Church is keen for stipends to be flexible enough to allow it to put clergy where they can best be deployed, consistent with preventing their mobility from being impeded.

As the hon. Lady has said, the number of ordinants has risen. In 2007, 552 new clergy were ordained, the highest number since 2000. We welcome the upward trend in ordination numbers, but recognise that owing to deaths and retirements the number of stipendiary clergy is falling overall.

It is good to hear that there are more priests in training—particularly, one imagines, women priests—but, in addition to the amalgamation of many parishes, another growing trend which I consider worrying is that priests are expected to do at least a part-time job, if not a full-time job, as well as being priests. That puts enormous pressure on them. What research is the Church undertaking to ensure that those people can cope with the new work load, and are not unfairly put upon?

My hon. Friend makes a valid point. At the end of 1997, 6 per cent. of parochial-incumbent status clergy—or 426 overall—were women, whereas in 2007, 15 per cent., or 974, were women. I fully accept my hon. Friend’s point about the work load of priests. During the recess I was up in Teesdale, where I visited many churches and was surprised to learn that one particular vicar covered at least five churches, which seemed to me an enormous work load. The problem is recognised, but how we deal with it shall have to be discussed with the Archbishops Council.

Sale of Redundant Churches

In 2008, net proceeds from the disposal of closed church buildings and sites were just under £4 million.

I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. Does he know what conditions were attached to the sale of those churches, and how many of them ended up becoming part of the leisure and entertainment industry, and particularly the adult entertainment sector?

We have very strict criteria on redundant churches and what uses they can be put to after sale. If my hon. Friend has a particular case he wishes to refer to me, I will be very interested to look at it. I am sure that he will understand and accept that the proceeds from the sale of closed churches are used to support dioceses in the work of the living Church. Since the Pastoral Measure came into effect, we have distributed £32 million in such support, also supporting the preservation efforts of the Churches Conservation Trust which is co-funded by the Government. To return to my hon. Friend’s original point, we take great care when we sell a redundant church.

In deciding on the proceeds from the sales of redundant churches, what consideration is given to the wonderful work undertaken by the Churches Conservation Trust? During the recess, I met its north-west regional manager at Christ church, a beautiful church in Macclesfield which could be used by the public if there were sufficient investment to enable it to meet health and safety requirements and all the other regulations imposed by Government. What consideration does the hon. Gentleman give to the work of the Churches Conservation Trust?

I am grateful for the opportunity to repeat what I said a moment ago: the proceeds from the sale of closed churches are used in some measure to support the preservation efforts of the Churches Conservation Trust, which is co-funded by the Government. Therefore it is welcome that the 2008 sale proceeds were the highest for over a decade; that helps us help the Churches Conservation Trust. The current outlook for sales proceeds is less encouraging, however, given the economic climate.

Is the hon. Gentleman able to say how much of the net proceeds are reinvested in new church buildings? I always find it very sad when I see a closed church building, but if the money is being reinvested in a new church building the picture is, perhaps, not quite as bad as it might appear.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point. The purpose of the sales proceeds is essentially to support the dioceses in their work, which might, of course, include building a new church. We should not forget that thousands of churches up and down the land remain open. It is extremely important that people throughout the country have access to their churches when they wish, and if we are closing down churches, it would be nice sometimes to open others.

Agricultural Land

The commissioners hold over 109,000 acres of English farmland, spread across 44 estates and over 300 farms.

The Archbishop of Canterbury wants more food to be grown locally and has attacked organisations driven solely by the desire to make money. Is it not therefore paradoxical that the Church Commissioners, which he chairs, wants to concrete over 300 acres of prime agricultural land to the west of Chalcraft lane in my constituency? When challenged, the commissioners say they want to build on that land because they are obliged to maximise the amount of money they make. If the Archbishop of Canterbury were a politician, would it not be fair to say that he says one thing but does another?

It is always pleasant when the Archbishop of Canterbury is cited in the House of Commons. I am sure that he does not wish to be a politician and I would urge him not to be one. [Hon. Members: “He is a Member.”] The archbishop is a Member of the House of Commons now, is he? [Hon. Members: “He is in the Lords.”] He is a Member in Parliament; I am being diverted, Mr. Speaker.

The commissioners’ staff have explained to the hon. Gentleman that we have a legal duty to our beneficiaries. On this occasion, we accept that we have met some controversy in his constituency, but we have not to be distracted from our fiduciary duty. As the House is in an enlightened mood, may I cite the scriptures? In Ezekiel, it states:

“In controversy they shall stand in judgment…and they shall keep my laws and statutes.”

We propose to keep the laws and statutes of Parliament that have been conferred upon the Church Commissioners.

Can the hon. Gentleman tell us how much income the Church Commissioners are getting from their agricultural holdings as a result of EU subsidies? Is he pleased or angry that as a result of the devaluation of the pound those subsidies are increasing?

Order. Notwithstanding the hon. Gentleman’s considerable ingenuity, he is stretching a point. He might wish to dilate on that matter on another occasion, because it is outwith the terms of this question. We will therefore move on to Question 5.


5. What recent discussions the Church Commissioners have had with Natural England on the protection of rare bats in church roofs. (293070)

The Archbishops Council is working with not only Natural England but the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, English Heritage and the Bat Conservation Trust to strike a sensible balance between the protection of church buildings and their contents, and the protection of bats.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that a number of Norfolk churches have had their roof repair programmes delayed as a result of intervention by Natural England, which has insisted on the undertaking of lengthy and costly bat surveys? He is obviously aware of the problem, given his reply, so can he tell the House how many churches have been similarly affected? Does he agree that however important it is to conserve the bat, it is even more important to make an absolute priority of conserving our great heritage?

Yes, I am grateful to the hon. Member for Salisbury (Robert Key).

The commissioners are aware of Natural England’s requirements on such occasions and of the problem faced by the several hundred parish churches—of the thousands of such churches—that have bats. Only a handful of those churches have serious problems with bats, but in those cases the bats cause significant damage and great inconvenience. I would be happy to take up with Natural England the point that the hon. Gentleman has made.

Special Marriage Licences

6. Under what conditions the faculty office of the Archbishop of Canterbury may grant a special marriage licence for a wedding in a redundant church. (293071)

The Archbishop uses his power to grant such licences sparingly and with considerable care. It is not possible to list all the possible specific circumstances in which such a special licence might be granted, but I may tell the hon. Gentlemen that applicants should have a strong demonstrable connection with the church in question.

May I invite the Second Church Estates Commissioner to invite the Archbishop’s registrar to review the rules, because they are overzealous, they discourage people from getting married in church, they disappoint couples who have local connections—that has been the case in my constituency—and they deprive the Churches Conservation Trust of vital income? We should be encouraging the use of churches that have been deconsecrated and can be licensed for such purposes, rather than trying to put every possible object in the way of the use of those redundant churches.

The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. For the second time today we have referred to the Archbishop of Canterbury. He is sparing in the exercise of his powers over the places of marriage in the Church of England. Marriage ought normally to take place in a suitable parish church where couples have an ongoing worshipping relationship and receive the pastoral care of the priest. We must remember that thousands of churches remain open and that, as a result of the Church of England Marriage Measure 2008, there are many more churches from which to choose. However, I shall be happy to take up with Lambeth palace the point that the hon. Gentleman raises.

Rents on agricultural holdings have increased considerably over the past decade, and that has benefited the Church Commissioners. Is any regard taken of the level of single farm payment paid to those farmers when those rents are set?

I am not entirely clear how that fits with a question about the special marriage licence for a wedding in a redundant church, but the hon. Gentleman makes a valid and pertinent point and I will be happy to take it up with the Church Commissioners.