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Church Commissioners

Volume 609: debated on Thursday 5 May 2016

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

Same Sex Marriage: Clergy

1. What discussions the Church Commissioners have had with the Church of England on supporting clergy who have entered into same sex marriages or civil partnerships. (904800)

I should first declare my personal position, which is that I voted in favour of same sex marriage when the decision was before Parliament, but I do recognise that it is difficult for the Anglican Church. The Anglican Communion extends over many different cultures and many continents, and not all cultures and societies move at the same pace. It is therefore all the more remarkable that the Archbishop of Canterbury managed to get a unanimous agreement among all the bishops of the Anglican Communion, in Canterbury, in January, that there should be a new doctrine condemning homophobic prejudice and violence, and resolving

“to work together to offer pastoral care and loving service irrespective of sexual orientation.”

I thank the right hon. Lady for her answer. She will be aware that many people feel called to ministry, including, naturally, many people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender. Although Church of England policies protect heterosexual couples if they are in a marriage by not taking their status into account when it comes to jobs within the Church, the same is not true for those who have entered same sex marriages. Is she aware of cases of written permission from bishops placed on file, and of refusals to issue licences when new positions are sought, including even secular positions? Will she do her best to ensure that LGBT clergy are not discriminated against here in the Church of England?

As I mentioned, the Anglican Communion is extremely diverse. What we must remember, living here in the liberal west, is that a typical Anglican communicant is in Africa and black, female and under 35; in many African nations there are also very strong views on this subject, and keeping the Communion together is a big challenge. It is open to Church of England clergy to enter into civil partnerships, and many do so. The Church of England in England is moving forward in its understanding with a shared conversation, three parts of which have already occurred. In July this year, the Synod will move forward with the shared conversation about sexuality—the nature of human sexuality. I reiterate the point that the whole Communion agreed unanimously that the Church should never, by its actions, give any impression other than that every human being is the same in God’s sight regardless of sexuality.

The Dean of Lichfield cathedral, Adrian Dorber, is always telling me how short of money the cathedral is. May I just say that I live for the day when gay clergymen can be openly gay and there will be gay marriages, which will be paid for in Lichfield cathedral and all the other cathedrals in England and the rest of the United Kingdom, in a liberal nation.

I look forward to visiting the Lichfield diocese. Indeed, the Government have been very generous in their funding for repairs to that beautiful cathedral. On the specific subject of human sexuality, I do not think that the Archbishop of Canterbury could have been clearer about his leadership in bringing the whole Anglican Communion together for the first time, united behind the doctrine that we should condemn homophobic prejudice and violence at home and abroad.

Near Neighbours Programme

I am so sorry that we do not have the presence of my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess), as it would have given me an opportunity to thank Mr Speaker for hosting a reception in his apartment to celebrate the Queen’s birthday. What better opportunity could there be to bring the community together—people of all faiths and all backgrounds—in every one of our constituencies than to celebrate the birthday of the Head of the Church?

Specifically, in relation to the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers), I wish to highlight that a further tranche of £1.5 million-worth of funding has been made available for a Near Neighbours programme, which is administered by the Church urban fund to encourage people of different religions to come together to understand each other better and to improve the cohesiveness of our society.

I thank my right hon. Friend for a very full answer. In Lincolnshire, we have both coastal communities and, in the agricultural industry, many seasonal workers who come from all sorts of different faiths. Will she outline what additional work the Near Neighbours programme can do to support coastal communities and rural areas?

This kind of fund provides very small grants to communities, which are used to meet a range of pressing social needs, including employment skills, environmental work, homelessness, healthy eating projects and so on. It is significant that 71% of those projects have continued to run after the funding has ceased. It is precisely because of the diverse backgrounds of the seasonal workers in Lincolnshire—many are from the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church—that such grants could facilitate the cohesiveness of the society in my hon. Friend’s constituency.

Iraq: Christian Communities

4. What discussions the Church Commissioners have had with Christian communities in Iraq on the future of those communities. (904803)

7. What discussions the Church Commissioners have had with Christian communities in Iraq on the future of those communities. (904806)

In March, the Bishops of Coventry, Leeds and Southwark, who play a leading role for the Church on international development issues, travelled with Christian Aid to Iraqi Kurdistan, where they met internally displaced people from Iraq and refugees from Syria, and saw at first hand the pressures that Christians in those communities suffer.

I appreciate the good work that the Church Commissioners are doing with the Christian communities in Iraq. What role are they playing in communicating the outcome of those discussions back to Government, and indeed congregations in the UK, and is there more that concerned Christians in my constituency can do to show the strength of feeling on that important issue?

Yes, immediately upon their return the bishops, with their first-hand knowledge, wrote to the Foreign Office, drawing its attention to the persecution suffered by the Christians in those countries. In order to inform our congregations, many of us have Church-based non-governmental organisations who have produced excellent briefing documents, which are shared with parishes up and down the country so that they can pray in an informed way. I have written to the Foreign Office about what is effectively genocide, particularly of the Yazidi community, and I recommend other like-minded Members of Parliament to do the same.

Persecution of Christians is an increasingly worldwide concern. I recently hosted the launch by Open Doors of its report on northern Nigeria—I visited Nigeria with the International Development Committee just a few weeks ago. The report, entitled “Crushed but not defeated”, outlines how more than 1 million Christians there have been affected by targeting, discriminatory practices and violence, including by Boko Haram. Does the right hon. Lady agree that it is crucial that the whole international community helps to address this, to restore reconciliation in communities there?

Yes, we are all familiar with the terrible pictures from northern Nigeria. When the Archbishop of Canterbury convened representatives of the middle east Churches, he actually spoke at a prayer vigil, where he highlighted that this is a moment for such evil to be brought to an end. He said:

“It must stop…If it does not stop…in…places around the world, such as northern Nigeria…it will continue to spread.”

The Church is well aware, as I am sure we all are, of the need to make a stand against this evil, so that it does not spread further.

I spent several years as special envoy on human rights to Iraq, so I met many of the beleaguered minority religions of Iraq. I hope that the Church Commissioners will look at the plight of all of them—the Mandaeans, the Yazidis and the Turkmen, to mention just a few. Will the right hon. Lady pay particular tribute to Canon Andrew White, who was known as the Bishop of Baghdad for his work over the many years that he spent in the country, attempting to bring all the warring sides together?

The position of the Church of England is indeed to speak up for all religious minorities where they have been persecuted in that region, and those Church representatives could not have put it better in stating that the region is

“in desperate danger of losing an irreplaceable part of its identity, heritage and culture”

in all those religious minorities. The hon. Lady is right: Canon Andrew White has done a remarkable job speaking up for the plight of the Christians in the region. I am regularly in receipt of his email and I recommend that other Members of the House who are interested in the subject read his emails.

Apprenticeship Levy

5. Whether the Church Commissioners have made an assessment of the effect of the apprenticeship levy on the Church of England. (904804)

The Church of England supports the Government’s drive to increase the number of apprentices. Apart from some of the central bodies and larger diocesan offices in cathedrals, most Church bodies will not be affected by the levy, because their payrolls fall below the £3 million threshold, but the Church is in the rather unusual position of having 8,000 office holders out of its total 24,000 employees, and the Church would very much like to see the levy being used to train more ordinands.

May I push my right hon. Friend to expand a little more on that unusual position? Clearly, those office holders are not employees. How does that affect their situation?

In a way, the Church is an anomaly. Quite a lot of organisations have office holders—unless I am much mistaken, MPs are technically office holders—but every vicar in every parish is not in a position to employ an apprentice. Indeed, having a curate is quite a luxury, as it takes so much to train people. I hope the Government will support the Church’s quest to use some of the moneys from the apprenticeship levy to meet its shortfall of approximately 40,000 ordinands.

My right hon. Friend highlighted the shortage of clergy for parishes, and it is important that the apprenticeship levy does not compound that situation. Does she agree that it is also important that it is not compounded by an enforced retirement age for clergy who are able and willing to continue serving their parishes where there would often be a long interregnum otherwise? Will she take this matter up with the Church Commissioners?

I expect all of us have met or been ministered to by a wise elderly priest, but the statutory retirement age for clergy is 70. Exceptions can be made. Although that is officially the retirement age, clergy may be given permission by the bishop to continue to officiate. A team vicar may have their term extended by two years, and a further extension may be achieved by a fixed-term licence, particularly in a diocese where there is special pastoral need. So there are ways in which exceptionally able clergy can continue to serve beyond the age of 70.

ExxonMobil: Climate Change Policies

6. What the purpose is of the resolution co-filed by the Church Commissioners to commission ExxonMobil to carry out an impact assessment on the effect of climate change policies on that company’s portfolio and strategy. (904805)

The Commissioners have co-filed a resolution with the New York State Common Retirement Fund so that ExxonMobil’s shareholders can indicate to the company their wish to see better corporate reporting on the long-term risks that the transition to a low-carbon economy presents to Exxon. This includes a scenario in which the implementation of the Paris agreement restricts warming to below 2°C.

Before they are too critical of the oil companies, may I suggest that the Church of England Commissioners read the Bible—Matthew 25, the parable of the oil lamps and the 10 virgins—and remember that it was the five virgins who lived happily ever after and who had a cheap and ready supply of this much-maligned fossil fuel?

My hon. Friend and I perhaps do not share the same interpretation of the Bible when it comes to belief in climate change as a phenomenon. When I shortly visit the diocese of the Arctic, I shall have very much in mind the recent news that the British research station is in danger of sinking into the sea, as was shown in a documentary on television last night. Will my hon. Friend recognise that the Church Commissioners have been commended with a number of prizes for their work on an ethical investment strategy, which includes taking account of the risk that climate change poses to investments?