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Church Commissioners

Volume 530: debated on Thursday 30 June 2011

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

Rural Committee

1. What recent reports he has received on the activities of the rural committee of the Church Commissioners. (62903)

In the past 12 months, the rural affairs group has worked on a variety of issues including bovine tuberculosis, the Localism Bill, common agricultural policy reform, lay ministry in rural churches and vocations and training in rural ministry.

I take this opportunity to congratulate the rural committee on the work that it does. Can my hon. Friend suggest ways in which we in this place can work more closely with the committee as it goes about its business?

The Church’s rural committee would certainly welcome a closer working relationship with my hon. Friend and the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which she so ably chairs. I encourage all bishops and suffragan bishops to take the opportunity of the parliamentary recess to get in touch with parliamentary colleagues from all parties to discuss how our colleagues can learn more from and work more closely with the Church, whether that is in rural areas, in urban areas or on any project.

New Statesman

3. Whether the Church Commissioners were consulted on the choice of Ministers to be invited to contribute to the edition of the New Statesman edited by the Archbishop of Canterbury. (62905)

May I ask my hon. Friend to thank the archbishop for sending the magazine and his articles to all Members of Parliament? I also recommend, through him, that The Daily Telegraph and the BBC actually read those articles. The archbishop was aware that a reader might say that to give a page to the Work and Pensions Secretary and five pages to an interview with the Foreign Secretary might show too much establishment leaning. The criticism of the archbishop is, as Lucy Winkett put it, new

“like the waves, old like the sea.”

I shall certainly convey my hon. Friend’s comments to the Archbishop of Canterbury. I will also say to my hon. Friend, who has been in this House for some considerable time, that sometimes what is heard is as important as what is said.

Fuel Prices

4. What recent assessment the Church Commissioners have made of the effect of fuel prices on the financial position of the Church of England. (62906)

Fuel prices impact on clergy, and dioceses are aware of the Government increase in mileage rates from April 2011.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the high cost of fuel is having a huge impact on the community and charitable work done by the Church? Will the Church play its part in asking the Government to delay the 3p inflationary rise in fuel tax that is planned for January?

Rising prices impact on us all, including those who undertake charitable and pastoral duties in the community. The Church of England will increase the mileage rate for staff and clergy, but we try to encourage them to travel by public transport wherever possible. I am sure I speak for all Members of the House when I say that we hope that charities and religious groups will endeavour to maintain their charitable and pastoral provision despite the change in fuel tax.

St Paul’s Church, Truro

The commissioners are actively working to find a suitable new use for St Paul’s church. Preparations are under way for placing it on the open market. The commissioners are not specifically involved with the hall, which is on a separate site owned by the Truro diocesan board of finance.

The church hall is a valuable community resource that is much appreciated by the homeless people of Truro, who receive a warm welcome and freshly cooked meals from the Truro homeless action group. Will my hon. Friend work with me to enable community groups to have the opportunity to secure the hall for the continued benefit of the community of Truro?

I entirely agree that Church of England buildings, whether they be churches or church halls, should wherever possible be open to the widest possible use by the greater community. That is part of the Church’s national mission, and I think that before any church or church building is declared redundant or sold every possible effort should be made to see that it is retained for community use. I will most certainly convey my hon. Friend’s comments to the diocese of Truro.


6. What steps the Church Commissioners are taking to encourage marriages in Church of England buildings. (62908)

The Church of England values the sacrament of marriage, it is keen to encourage marriage in churches wherever possible and it has recently changed the rules to enable couples to marry more easily when they would like to marry in church.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Does he agree that this is not just about buildings, but that organists and musicians, of whom I confess to being one, make a valuable contribution, and that the Church should promote those aspects as a package to encourage church weddings?

My hon. Friend was a much-respected organist and director of church music, and I think that one of the glories of England is church music, choirs and organ music. One reason many people want to marry in Church of England churches is the contribution of the choir and the organist.

I have married more people than, I think, anybody else in this House, and it was always great fun marrying couples in church, but the archbishop’s special licence system involved a lot of people, frankly, telling fibs about where they lived, so I hope that that will be reformed. Would it not help if the Church of England decided that it would like now to hold civil partnership ceremonies in its churches?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, that was a matter of much debate during the passage of the Equalities Bill both in this House and in the other place. It was resolved that there would be no change unless the General Synod agreed, and that is where the position lies today.


7. What steps the Church Commissioners are taking to promote tourism focused on church buildings and church heritage. (62909)

The General Synod passed a motion encouraging all dioceses to support church tourism and to link with a wider national church tourism strategy. The cathedral and church buildings division of the Church of England encourages best practice, including opening churches, welcoming visitors and providing interpretation, and it works closely with partners including the Churches Tourism Association, Cathedrals Plus and the Churches Conservation Trust.

My hon. Friend and I share a great passion for tourism organisations and our churches working together more effectively. Does he recognise that in east Kent we have a set of 10th, 11th and 12th century churches marking St Augustine’s way, and will he join me in making a representation to the Church of England to ensure that visitors understand and enjoy those churches more?

My hon. Friend is fortunate in representing a fantastic constituency, which, among its other attributes, was the place where St Augustine landed. I could cite at least three good examples of church tourism in my hon. Friend’s constituency, but, as I was accused during the last Church Commissioners questions of loquaciousness, I will resist that temptation and simply say that I will encourage the Bishop of Dover and, indeed, other bishops to ensure that hon. Members know of the efforts being made in all our constituencies to promote church tourism, because it is very important to make sure that as many people as possible can enjoy the heritage of our church buildings.

Religious Education

8. What steps the Church Commissioners are taking to support the teaching of religious education in schools. (62910)

Every diocese in the Church of England supports RE teaching in its schools, and most diocesan education advisers also support and provide materials for the teaching of RE in non-Church schools.

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. As I believe he knows, a petition with 140,000 signatures expressing concern at the exclusion of RE from the English baccalaureate was presented to Downing street yesterday. One unintended consequence of that exclusion is that the number of pupils applying to study RE at GCSE has dropped significantly, as have application rates for RE teacher training—by some 25%. What action can the Church Commissioners take to ensure that the study of RE is properly resourced, bearing in mind that it is still a statutory—that is, compulsory—subject for pupils in school up to 16 years old?

My hon. Friend raises a serious point about RE in the E-bac. She will know that the Bishop of Oxford, who chairs the National Society—in other words, he is the lead bishop on education in the Church of England—has, on several occasions, made clear the concerns of the Church of England, and indeed other faith groups, to ministerial colleagues in the Department for Education. I heard the Minister with responsibility for schools say in a debate in Westminster Hall that he would reflect on those representations, and we look forward to hearing what decisions Ministers take in respect of RE in the E-bac.

Women Bishops

Notification has been received from six diocesan synods, and I am pleased to tell the hon. Lady that so far all the dioceses that have voted have voted to approve the legislation.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that answer. Given the overwhelming support for women bishops, may I urge him to introduce legislation at the very earliest opportunity so that we can enshrine in law equality between men and women as bishops?

The hon. Lady knows that I share her aspiration. Let me explain this process to the House, because I look forward to the support of all Members of the House when the Measure comes before Parliament in due course. Every diocese, of which there are 44, has to vote. Six have voted; colleagues can work out the maths on the rest that still have to do so. Once they have all voted, there will be a meeting of the General Synod, which I hope in due course will approve the measure so that it can come before Parliament to enable the consecration of women as bishops. I certainly hope that in the lifetime of this Parliament, Parliament will approve that measure.


10. What assessment the Church Commissioners have made of recent trends in the proportion of Church of England congregations that are (a) from black and Asian minority ethnic groups, (b) women, (c) disabled people and (d) from low-income groups. (62912)

The latest figures collected in relation to the hon. Gentleman’s question were part of a 2007 national parish congregation diversity survey. They show that about 5% of Church of England core congregations are from minority ethnic backgrounds and about 65% are women. Figures for disabled people are kept by dioceses individually and are not held centrally.

The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that things have moved on somewhat since 2007 and that, particularly in the more deprived areas, there will be a hardening of the problems of meeting the cuts that are going to hit them. I believe that there is a very strong place for the Church in those areas in particular. Will he ensure that the Church does the work that it should be doing in trying to attract these people through its doors?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that question, because it gives me the opportunity to make the position clear. The Church Commissioners have £5.5 billion under investment, of which we disburse about £100 million every year to the Church. Much of that goes to poorer dioceses with inner-city and deprived areas so that the Church can fulfil its mission to such areas and to those who need the greatest support. We see that as a very important part of our role and of the Church’s national mission.