With permission, Mr Speaker, as an ex officio member of the Church Commissioners I have been asked to reply on behalf of the Second Church Estates Commissioner.
The Church of England has over 10,000 rural churches and 45% of those who attend church go to rural churches. The Church supports these rural churches through its dedicated national rural officer, who provides advice, consultancy and training for dioceses. The Church has recently launched a new recruitment portal which currently displays all jobs in 30 of the 42 dioceses, enabling clergy to sort jobs by postcode and categories.
As rural parishes go, the parish of St Mary on the island of Lindisfarne, Holy Island, in my constituency must be one of the smallest, most rural but most magnificent. It has a permanent population of only 200 people but, living in the cradle of British Christianity, it has hundreds of thousands of visitors every year. So will the Leader of the House join me in welcoming to her post, and with an outreach vocation, the Reverend Canon Dr Sarah Hills, our new vicar of St Mary, Lindisfarne?
I understand that the religious community on Holy Island was founded by an Irish monk called St Aidan in 635 AD. I certainly welcome the Reverend Dr Sarah Hills to her post and wish her well with her ministry. She brings with her considerable experience from Coventry cathedral, where she led the international reconciliation team.
Does the Leader of the House recognise that it is not just in rural churches—it is in rural and urban churches—where the clergy plays such an important role in the community? Particularly at this time when youth services have declined and local authorities cannot afford them, the role of the Church in rural and urban communities is absolutely crucial.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: the Church plays a huge part in our whole society, whether rural or urban, and I pay tribute to all the excellent work of our clergy and lay preachers right across the United Kingdom.
I am sure the Leader of the House will agree that it is not just church buildings that are of importance; it is the people within them and the work they do. Just two weeks ago I was able to do a tour of all the churches in Uttoxeter in my constituency. I talked to the people in those churches and witnessed first-hand the great work they do in our community by supporting people, particularly the sick and the vulnerable. Will the Leader of the House join me in congratulating Christians across the country for the work they do in our communities?
The hon. Gentleman is a busy bee doing this extensive tour; it sounds absolutely enticing.
I certainly join my hon. Friend in thanking all those who do so much right across our country. I pay particular tribute to the work of the Church of England, which operates the single largest group of schools in the UK. Very often those schools are in small rural communities, and the schools and their teachers face big challenges, as do other rural services—distance, access to facilities, cost of living, the reduction in family sizes and so on. The Church has done a great deal to try to improve the sense of community right across our country.
I welcome the right hon. Lady to her place. Does she accept that one of the problems now is that we have so few ministers and so many churches to look after? In my own area, the Stroudwater team has three ministers to look after 15 churches, although we have had a vacancy recently. We ought to recognise that that puts enormous pressure on those ministers, and I hope that the Church is looking after their welfare.
I certainly join the hon. Gentleman in praising all those clergy who do so much, often working under quite some pressure and with large parishes to deal with. In 2017, the number of clergy who retired was 330, and I am pleased to say that the number that the Church is training is more than the number who are retiring.
Will the right hon. Lady outline whether she has considered the idea of more joint parishes—joining with other denominations—thereby involving the community and making more regular use of our beautiful historic buildings? Coming together, perhaps?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to point out the excellent work that some churches are doing to help and support their communities across the denominations. I would certainly encourage him to write to the Second Church Estates Commissioner, my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman); she can perhaps tell him a bit more about some of the work that the churches are doing.