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Church Commissioners

Volume 667: debated on Thursday 31 October 2019

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

Archbishops of Canterbury and York: Workload

7. What assessment has been made of the effect of the workload of the Archbishops of (a) Canterbury and (b) York on their ability to carry out their functions effectively; and if she will make a statement. (900275)

The Archbishops of York and Canterbury have many duties in relation to the northern and southern provinces of the Church of England, and the Archbishop of Canterbury is also the spiritual leader of the Anglican communion, a global network numbering tens of millions of members. There is no doubt in my mind that both these men are able and effective.

But both these men are overworked. My right hon. Friend—indeed the whole House—will be aware that 1,200 years ago, Archbishop Hygeberht was the Archbishop of Lichfield. It seems to me that you, Mr Speaker, could have a future role in your retirement as the Archbishop of Lichfield—

No, Lichfield. We want him in Lichfield and then the hard work done by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York could be shared. We have that precedent; we want you now.

Fortunately, I had a little advance notice of the tenor of my hon. Friend’s question. He is absolutely right that, for around 16 years between 787 and 803, there was an Archbishop of Lichfield. This arose from the fact that King Offa, in the kingdom of Mercia, struck a deal with the Pope, requesting an archbishop to be named to serve in his kingdom, but that deal involved sending an annual shipment of gold to the Pope for alms and supplying the lights for St Peter’s church in Rome. My hon. Friend, as the Member for Lichfield, might like to make a similar offer to the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Community Reconciliation

The Church of England is involved in reconciliation work, both at home and abroad, and most recently on the international scene, the leadership of the Church of England has worked with the Roman Catholic Church on peace-building in Sudan, convening a meeting of Sudanese leaders in the Vatican. The Archbishop of Canterbury identified reconciliation as one of the key priorities for his tenure.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for the veracity with which you have chaired this House and the firm but kind way in which you have held that office. We recognise your service, but also the sacrifice you have made for this Parliament and our democracy.

I thank the right hon. Lady for her reply and also wish her well in her retirement. Our communities are divided and so many people across our country are broken at this time, so what is the Church of England doing to drive forward a process of peace and reconciliation for the future of our country?

There is an active proposition to initiate a reconciliation process, run out of Coventry. The cathedral of Coventry has a mission for peace and reconciliation because of its heritage. The Archbishop of Canterbury has spearheaded this offer. I do not know much about retirement, but I have offered to help with this process, because there is no doubt that we need to heal the divisions in our society. The Church has the necessary infrastructure—a cathedral in every city; a church in every parish—to help us to do this.

May I also pay huge tribute to the Second Church Estates Commissioner, who has done an amazing job?

With regard to paying tribute to the Archbishop of Canterbury and His Holiness the Pope, I was in the Vatican representing the Prime Minister. The work is amazing. Does the Second Church Estates Commissioner agree that one key thing that we need to do is to ensure that our diplomats have appropriate religious literacy training so that they can carry on such work on religious reconciliation around the world?

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind words. I certainly welcome him to this Question Time in his role as the special envoy for freedom of religion and belief. He can do important work within the Foreign Office to deliver on promises that officials will be required to undertake religious literacy training before postings to countries where it is really important to understand the role of religion in the culture and life of those nations.

What is the Church of England doing to help women leaving prison to strengthen family and community ties?

With your permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to say on behalf of colleagues that we are hugely grateful to my right hon. Friend for her service to us here and to the Church in her role as the 41st Second Church Estates Commissioner. She has listened and acted as a wise counsel and an adviser behind the scenes to the Church, the General Synod, the Government and the many colleagues here who have raised concerns with her about the big questions of the day: the persecution of Christians overseas, Church schools and buildings, and strengthening our communities.

My right hon. Friend has helped the cause of getting mothers’ names on marriage certificates and has been a great all-round advocate for the role of faith in public life—not forgetting, too, that she was our first female Second Church Estates Commissioner. She will, I am sure, continue to be a positive voice and a presence for people of faith outside this place, and she will be greatly missed here.

Those are such kind words, and I will treasure them; I really appreciate the thought that went into expressing them. On the work of our prison chaplains and in particular the focus on ex-prisoners being reconciled into their communities, my hon. Friend is right. I did in fact host a meeting in Parliament with Bishops Christine and Rachel of Newcastle and Gloucester respectively, which focused on the great need there is to provide a suitable transition for women as they leave prison and return to the community and to address some of the long-standing issues from which they suffer. I commend the work of the Re-Unite project in Gloucester and the Anawim women’s centre in Birmingham; they are doing a remarkable job in helping these women make that transition.

The hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) has offered a beautiful tribute, but every word of it was richly deserved by the right hon. Lady.

Telecommunications: Use of Churches

9. What discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport on the effective use of churches in the telecommunications network. (900277)

This is a subject that my right hon. Friend has been very diligent in drawing to my attention. I recently met the Minister for digital and broadband, my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman), and we had a really positive discussion about the work the Church is doing to increase access to digital and broadband networks in rural areas. Hon. Members may recall that the Church signed an accord with the Government to put at their disposal all church buildings and land to try to make sure we can eradicate those notspots in rural areas.

This is an issue on which the right hon. Lady has been both most helpful and assiduous, as she has been in the discharge of every duty she has undertaken in the 20 years that I have known her. I thank her for that service and wish her all the best for the future.

I am not sure what can be said in answer to that, but hon. Members present will know with what great affection my right hon. Friend is held, affectionately known by most of us as Dessie. There is no one I would rather entrust my life to in a tight spot than this remarkable, brave individual.

On the matter raised, I just want to record the Church’s welcome for the announcement made by the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport of match funding with £500 million for the initiative by mobile providers to share masts. It does not deal with the shortfall, where there are no masts, but that is where the Church intends to help.

Given the Secretary of State’s announcement that she is retiring, I would like to record my grateful thanks to her for her work in this Parliament.

Thefts from Churches

As we have seen all too clearly in the recent very heavy rainfall, wet weather is often the moment we realise we have a hole in the roof, and, sadly, many churches have discovered that through the theft of lead from church roofs. It is only when the weather turns inclement that thousands of pounds worth of damage is done, which small congregations simply do not have the resources to meet. The Church is working closely with the police and other partners to raise awareness and encourage local parishes to take precautions, such as having roof alarms or SmartWater marking, so we can fend off what is organised crime.

May I, too, join in the tributes to the right hon. Lady in this role and the other roles that she has had in this place and say that I am sad she is leaving, and I am sad that she cited some of the abuse that she has received as one of the reasons that she is leaving this place?

On the specific question, what work is going on to consider the replacement of lead roofs with those of other materials such as steel or zinc?

I thank the hon. Lady for those very kind words, and indeed, with the full support of my staff, I did speak out about the abuse we face and that might perhaps be part of my legacy to this place; I hope sincerely that those who are returned will really do something about it, particularly by tackling the wild west of the internet where there is not sufficient regulation of what is expressed, although I commend the guidance given by the Church of England about how to navigate the internet wisely.

On the point raised, it is important to share the following information, because theft from churches, particularly of roofs, affects many colleagues. New guidance has been published by Historic England on non-lead metal roofs for churches, to deter the risk of metal theft. It is important to note that even a grade 1 listed building can be fitted with lead substitutes, which do not therefore attract the type of crime that I described at the beginning and is causing so much damage and cost.

Marriage: 16 and 17-year-olds

11. What assessment the Church of England has made of the potential merits of ending marriages involving 16 and 17-year-olds. (900279)

The legal position is that 16 and 17-year-olds are entitled to have their banns published and to marry in church. I am sure that all Members who have been to an Anglican wedding will be familiar with the moment during the service when the priest asks whether anyone has an objection to the marriage. That is part of the marriage process. When a young couple are preparing for marriage, they are prepared by the priest for the very profound decision that they are making. However, those of such a tender age constitute only a very small percentage of the number who marry in Anglican churches.

May I echo the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and reiterate that my right hon. Friend will be missed when she leaves this place?

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, given the international reach of the Anglican communion, the Church of England’s support for ending marriages between 16 and 17-year-olds in the UK would send a powerful message to other jurisdictions and faith communities around the world?

As I mentioned earlier, the Anglican communion covers a very large number of nations and a very large number of people whose cultural norms differ from our own, but aid agencies often handle the issue of child marriage very effectively through their health and education programmes. I particularly commend the work of the Mothers Union in this respect. Its members are active in, for instance, southern Sudan with finance and literacy programmes to ensure that families do not rely on dowry payments as a way to sustain themselves. Dioceses in Kenya work with the community to prevent child marriage, and there are similar arrangements in Ghana. The Mothers Union also has initiatives to tackle child marriage in the United States of America, because in 13 states there is no minimum age for marriage.

May I, too, pay my tribute to my right hon. Friend? She and I entered the House on the same day in 1997, as did you, Mr Speaker. We have shared many worthwhile causes, and she will be greatly missed. One of those causes was, of course, marriage certificates, whether for marriages between 16 and 17-year-olds or for any other marriages. As a result of my Civil Partnerships, Marriages and Deaths (Registration etc) Act 2019, mothers’ names will at last be added to those certificates.

Will my right hon. Friend update us on the progress that is being made ahead of the digital registration that is to be introduced? Is it the case that in certain churches, the Church of England has given its agreement to the manual writing of hard-copy certificates until the necessary technology is available? That, I am sure, would be a welcome common-sense measure.

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind words. We did indeed enter Parliament together, and in those early weeks when we did not really have an office, and we were adjusting to the long-hours culture, and we missed our children—I was pining for mine—he was kind enough to make me hot cocoa late at night. I have not forgotten those early times.

Let me update the House. My hon. Friend was the Member of Parliament who landed the prize of securing a change in the law of 1837 that did not allow mothers the same right as fathers in terms of marriage registration, but progress is slow on the accompanying regulation. My hon. Friend may wish to join me in putting some pressure on the future Government to complete that process, because there are practical steps that can be taken in the short term. The Church has offered to allow existing registration books to be used, and where it says “father”, the name of the mother can be added in brackets. If it is to take a while to take marriage registration into the digital age, many mums who are hoping to have that new right can achieve it in the short term by means of a simple practical solution.

Digital Technology: New Congregations

12. What assessment the Church of England has made of the effectiveness of the use of digital technologies to reach new congregations. (900280)

During my time as Second Church Estates Commissioner, I have seen the Church of England transform its digital communications. Its annual mission statistics show, for example, that the Daily Prayer app has been downloaded more than 5 million times and is used on average for eight minutes per user per day; our social media now reaches 3.6 million people; the A Church Near You website allows people to google their nearest church and the times of the services there; and an Alexa skill set up by the Church has had more than 100,000 inquiries.

I thank my right hon. Friend for her answer and for the incredible job she has done as the Second Church Estates Commissioner. She has been truly amazing and a great friend to many of us. I have fond memories of her not only in her current role but on many occasions in Switzerland on the annual skiing visit. I would like to thank her for her friendship.

The Church is central to all our communities, and engaging with the wider public is ever more important. Will my right hon. Friend tell us more about what the Church intends to do to ensure that wider engagement through the use of social media and digital is rolled out more widely across the whole country?

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind words. For the record, I must say that being Second Church Estates Commissioner has been a great blessing. When I was invited to do the job, David Cameron said to me, “The thing about this role, Caroline, is that you are answerable only to the Queen and God.” What a privilege that is!

It so happens that I met the diocesan directors of communication yesterday at Canterbury cathedral, and they are all really aware of the transition that the Church needs to make into a fully digital version of what it does today. I have given the House an indication of that, but for those of us who still like a hard copy of things to inspire us, I draw hon. Members’ attention to the fact that the forthcoming busy time will at some point be coterminous with Advent, for which the Church has published a “Follow the Star” booklet, which hon. Members are welcome to avail themselves of.

That was magnificently done. I hope that I can be forgiven for saying to the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell), and more widely to the House, that as the hon. Gentleman referenced Switzerland, and I am on my last day, he has given me my cue to say that the best thing about Switzerland is not its skiing, its chocolate, its watches or its financial services; the best thing about Switzerland is Roger Federer.

Mr Speaker, I should like to pass on my thanks to you, on behalf of Scottish Conservative MPs. You have given us the opportunity to speak so that our constituents know that the Scottish National party is not the only voice for Scotland in this place. It is good for our Parliament, our country and our democracy that all the voices are heard, so I thank you for that.

What conversations have been had with the Department, and indeed the estates in Scotland, to ensure that the Government’s new initiatives on the shared rural network for mobile coverage and the exciting new developments on broadband will mean that the estates in Scotland can be used and leveraged so that my constituents can benefit as much as constituents elsewhere in the UK?

I am delighted to say that my responsibility covers only the Church of England, but obviously the Church in Scotland is part of the Anglican communion, and the opportunity to use church buildings, spires, towers and the ridges and hills on land that the Church owns is an obvious way to ensure that there are no more notspots in Scotland.