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Volume 594: debated on Thursday 12 March 2015

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

House of Bishops

1. What steps the Church Commissioners plan to take in response to the House of Bishops’ pastoral letter on the 2015 general election. (908037)

A copy of the House of Bishops’ pastoral letter has been sent to every Member of Parliament. The letter makes it clear that it is not a shopping list of policies that the bishops would like to see, and that if anyone claims that the pastoral letter is saying, “Vote for this party or that party”, they have misunderstood it, but that there is a need to focus on the common good and the participation of more people in developing a political vision.

As this is the last Church Commissioners questions before Dissolution when my right hon. Friend leaves this House, may I place on record my thanks for all his work as the Second Church Estates Commissioner?

Is my right hon. Friend concerned that this letter, which is actually a 52-page booklet, may have been misrepresented in some quarters by some commentators, who have cherry-picked certain phrases and passages rather than looking at the document as a whole?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. I hope every parliamentary colleague will read the bishops’ pastoral letter. I do not expect everyone to agree with everything in it, but it is a thoughtful and thought-provoking document which makes it clear that the bishops believe that

“the great majority of politicians and candidates enter politics with a passion to improve the lives of their fellow men and women.”

Only yesterday the Archbishop of Canterbury made this observation:

“It’s just the reality; decisions have to be made and it is often unbelievably difficult. Politicians know that quite often they are doing the best they can and the more I see of them the more I reckon that it’s very rare to find one who isn’t doing the best they can but often in incredibly difficult situations.”

St George's Cathedral (Jerusalem)

Like any Anglican cathedral overseas, St George’s cathedral in Jerusalem is financially independent of the Church Commissioners. However, I would hope that everyone possible would support the work of the friends of St George’s cathedral in Jerusalem, a UK registered charity that has the Archbishop of Canterbury as patron.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer and join my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) in paying tribute to the work that he has done as the Second Church Estates Commissioner.

On a visit with the International Development Committee last year in the area, I had the privilege of being invited by my constituent, Mrs Hifsa Iqbal, to an interfaith conference hosted by St George’s cathedral in Jerusalem. May I encourage the Church Commissioners to look at the very important work that St George’s is doing in the middle east and see what support they can give?

My hon. Friend makes a good point and I entirely agree with him. St George’s cathedral in Jerusalem seeks to support everyone in need irrespective of their faith, but its support for Palestinian Christians is particularly important as they often feel themselves to be twice a minority. It is a sad fact that the number of Christians in the Holy Land has dwindled significantly in recent years, so I hope that we will all do what we can to support the work of St George’s cathedral in Jerusalem, and the schools and hospitals that it runs for everyone in the west bank and in Gaza.

That is indeed a sad fact. I was fortunate to be able to join worshippers for evensong at St George’s cathedral in Jerusalem and I still remember the prayer that evening, that we should pray not just for the Israelis or for the Palestinians, but for ourselves—that we should not separate them in our prayers. Does that not illustrate the vital contribution that St George’s can make to both civic and spiritual life in Jerusalem?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. I commend to every colleague psalm 122, which includes the words:

“Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.”

Christianity (Rural Areas)

3. What steps the Church of England plans to take to maintain and support a Christian presence in every rural community. (908039)

The Church of England is committed to being a Christian presence in every community. The recently published “Growing the Rural Church” report identifies a number of recommendations to help rural multi-church groups to flourish.

As well as being places of worship, especially in rural areas, churches are community hubs, and with priests being spread over so many parishes now, there are increasing problems. Will my right hon. Friend do everything he possibly can to ensure that the Church provides as many clergy as possible for our rural parishes?

Yes, indeed. We certainly seek to recruit more stipendiary and self-supporting clergy. My hon. Friend makes an important point. The vibrancy of churches is important to rural life. There are 635 churches in the diocese of Lincoln. They all play an important part in the vibrancy and vitality of the countryside of Lincolnshire.

Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the Church Commissioners dig deep into their resources to ensure that the jewels of the rural crown of the multiple parish churches in a constituency such as Thirsk and Malton will be preserved and kept in the best possible state of maintenance?

One of the tasks I will take on when I leave the House is to chair a statutory body, the Church Buildings Council, which is responsible for the maintenance, repair and restoration of all 16,000 parish churches throughout England. I want to make sure that they are always seen as a blessing, not as a burden. We must acknowledge that the majority of English churches are in rural areas, which cover only a sixth of the population, so we have some challenges, but they play an important part in the lives of every village community.


4. If the Church Commissioners will discuss with Church of England bishops initiatives involving other faith leaders on instilling citizenship values throughout the population. (908040)

Bishops throughout England work closely with other faith leaders in their diocese to uphold citizenship values throughout their communities.

The right hon. Gentleman has always been more of a blessing than a burden in these sessions, and today especially so.

On a serious note, citizenship is taught patchily in schools in our country. We have a wonderful interfaith group in Huddersfield which leads this positive move to share faith and interests. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that if the hard work is done in such organisations all the time, when crises arrive it will stand us in good stead?

I entirely agree. Indeed, I am glad that during this Parliament the Government, through the Department for Communities and Local Government, have supported three programmes to help promote faith communities: Near Neighbours, which is operated by the Church Urban Fund; Together in Service, which is operated by FaithAction; and the work of the Inter Faith Network for the UK. Another challenge that I am taking on after standing down is chairing the trustees of the St Ethelburga’s centre for reconciliation and peace, based in the City of London, which works with many interfaith institutions right across the country, whether in Huddersfield, Manchester or elsewhere. There is an enormous amount of really good practice going on in interfaith work across the United Kingdom, of which we can all be proud.