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Church Commissioners

Volume 707: debated on Thursday 27 January 2022

The hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—

Churches and Cathedrals: Sustainability

1. What assessment the Church of England has made of the steps needed to put the maintenance of churches and cathedrals on a sustainable basis. (905258)

The Church estimates that over the next five years at least £1.14 billion of maintenance and repairs are needed for churches and cathedrals. The Church is very grateful that 550 churches and cathedrals have already benefited from the culture recovery fund, but there remains an urgent need for predictable and sustainable sources of funding, which enable us to keep skilled builders and craft people in work.

Last week, the listed places of worship grant scheme was extended until 2025, which I welcome. It is absolutely crucial for churches such as All Saints in Beighton, in my constituency, and the repair work on its thatched roof. Almost half the grade I listed buildings in this country are church buildings. Does my hon. Friend agree with me that that scheme should be now made permanent?

I am delighted that the thatched roof of All Saints, Beighton, has been fixed and that the listed places of worship grant scheme, which covers the VAT cost, was helpful in achieving that. The Government have extended that scheme for the next three years, but in order for churches and cathedrals to continue contributing some £50 billion a year to national wellbeing, my hon. Friend is right that we will need to put these repairs on a sustainable footing. That is why I will be copying this exchange to the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Tackling Racial Inequalities

The Archbishops of Canterbury and York have established the racial justice commission, chaired by my good friend Lord Boateng, in order to help the Church of England become more like the nation it serves. The commission is making good progress and will report in 2023. It updates the archbishops every six months on progress.

Last April, the Church’s anti-racism taskforce published its final report that included a series of recommendations, including around participation and representation. However, I am concerned by a report by the Archbishops’ Council on racial justice, published this week, that rejects the recommendation to fund racial justice officers in each diocese and says the recommendations about shortlisting candidates from a black or ethnic minority background are unlikely to be met. That is worrying and unacceptable, as without proper commitment and investment to increase representation, there will be more decades of inaction. Does the Commissioner agree with me that there is role to play to ensure that there are adequate resources to assist the Church in achieving greater representation?

I agree with the hon. Lady that the Church has not done well enough in this area in the past, but I am sure that she will be pleased to learn that, on Tuesday this week, two UK minority ethnic bishops were consecrated at St Paul’s Cathedral. There are plans for more UK minority ethnic clergy to take part in House of Bishops meetings. I am sure that, like me, she will also be encouraged by the work of the Peter Stream in several dioceses, which has had great results in broadening both the ethnic and social diversity of those seeking ordination.

Freedom of Religion or Belief

It gives me very great pleasure, on behalf of the whole of the Church of England, to thank my hon. Friend for her hard work as the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief, and also to congratulate our mutual friend, David Burrowes, on his appointment as her deputy. The Church looks forward to working with her over the coming months to deliver a successful international ministerial meeting in London in July, which will make a real difference to those who suffer because of their faith or belief.

I thank my hon. Friend for those words and welcome the international opportunities to champion freedom of religion or belief at the ministerial conference in London in July, which I am very proud that the UK is hosting, and at the Lambeth conference. Will my hon. Friend join me in commending the motion of the diocese of Lichfield at the forthcoming General Synod that the Church of England not only prays for the persecuted Church, but that its dioceses offer support to link dioceses in parts of the world where the Church is facing persecution, and that the next Lambeth conference addresses the issues of the persecution of Christians?

I am only sorry that, unusually, our hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) is not in his place to hear my hon. Friend’s praise for his diocese. She is absolutely right that the Church of England’s diocesan links around the globe or Anglican Communion enable that practical help to flow to those who are suffering because of their faith while also developing a greater awareness of this horrendous persecution. I also hope that she will engage directly with the bishops from areas of persecution at the Lambeth conference later this year.

Many of my constituents have written to me to express their concern about the persecution of Christians across the world. In particular, Newcastle boasts a large number of Nigerian diaspora Christians who are concerned following the launch of the Open Doors’ World Watch List. What can local churches do to support the promotion of freedom of religion across the world with the Church of England?

I am particularly grateful to the hon. Lady for mentioning Nigeria, because the situation there, in many cases, is extremely challenging for Christians. One practical thing that she could do is to get the Open Doors’ World Watch List—the map—and send it to all the churches in her constituency, so that they can put it in their porch to make sure that everyone is aware of the situation. That will help them hold her to account, and we all need to hold the Government and those other countries to account to make sure that freedom of religion and belief holds.

Parenting and Marriage

11. To ask the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire, representing the Church Commissioners, what steps the Church of England is taking to support family relationships, parenting and marriage. (905269)

The Church is deeply committed to marriage and will always be there to support every family and household. It is for that reason that both archbishops have launched a commission on families and households to look at what more the Church can do to provide the very best marriage preparation and enrichment and to strengthen family relationships.

What are the very best examples of preparation and enrichment and classes for parents, and what is the Church doing to spread it about?

My right hon. Friend asks a typically astute question, and, like any national institution, the Church has examples of outstanding practice, which are not as widely shared as they should be. Although there is excellent work in every diocese, I have been particularly impressed by the pre-marriage course, which is also for couples who are not engaged and want to explore marriage, and the marriage course run by the Reverend Nicky Lee and his wife, Sila. These have been run in 127 countries for more than 1.5 million couples and get tremendous feedback.

I hope that my hon. Friend can give me a one-word answer to my question. Will he confirm what I understand was said by the Archbishop of Canterbury, which is that the Church of England has no objection in principle to suitably qualified humanist celebrants conducting marriages for those couples who so wish to make their vows to each other in that way?

I think I can make my hon. Friend at least partially happy

by telling him that the Church of England has no principled objection to humanist marriage. However, I know he will be aware that any move from a premises-based system of marriage registration to a celebrant-based one in England and Wales would not be a minor reform and would affect everyone involved in registering marriages. I recognise that Humanists UK have made alternative suggestions recently; while I can understand his frustration about progress, he will know that it is for the Government, not the Church, to make the ultimate judgment on whether and how the current system should be changed.

As a former parliamentary churchwarden at St Margaret’s and a lay canon at Wakefield, I remind the hon. Gentleman that there is a vibrant and lively Christians in Parliament group where some of the specific issues he has mentioned this morning could be better discussed. Could he get more involved in that and help us to get more hon. Members involved?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I am a former chair of Christians in Parliament, which is ably run by our colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Devon (Sir Gary Streeter), and I participate in its meetings. I am glad the hon. Gentleman has given it wider publicity in these questions.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his response. I am a great believer in marriage, as you are, Mr Speaker. I have 34 years of married life—my wife has stuck me for 34 years, so well done to her. I know the hon. Gentleman is equally committed to helping people stay married and stay in happy relationships. What is the Church doing to ensure that, where there are breakdowns and grievances, it can step in to help to resolve those issues and make the marriage last?

I thank the hon. Gentleman; sadly, some marriages cannot be saved, but he is right that many marriages, with the appropriate help and support, can be saved. All marriages go through difficult times, and he is right to say that that is an important role for the Church of England.

Christians: Middle East

6. What recent assessment the Church of England has made of the level of threats to Christians in the Middle East. (905263)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who I know takes issues of religious persecution very seriously indeed. We know from Open Doors and others of the extreme persecution suffered by Christians in, for example, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria, Qatar and Egypt.

I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. As the newly elected chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Christianity in the Holy Land, I am grateful for the attention of Members of this House, the media and faith leaders across the world on the challenges that Christians face in the Holy Land and in the middle east more widely, as he expressed. I welcome the public assurances from President Herzog and Interior Minister Shaked that Israel will support the Christians of the Holy Land, but may I ask what efforts the Church of England is making to work with Her Majesty’s Government to ensure that Jerusalem—a home to the three Abrahamic faith communities and, indeed, the religious capital of the world—is a place where Christian individuals and institutions can continue to flourish and thrive?

I know that, like me, my hon. Friend is deeply conscious that this is Holocaust Memorial Day. I can tell her that there are many strong relationships enabling the church to support Christians and churches in Jerusalem, the land where Jesus walked. Last year, the diocese of Southwark signed a covenant agreement with the diocese of Jerusalem, opening new opportunities for pilgrimage, prayer and mutual support. The Bishop of Southwark goes to Jerusalem often and is in regular contact with our consul general and with Ministers in London about what can be done to ensure the peace of Jerusalem so that all faiths can flourish in the Holy Land.

Gay and Lesbian Relationships

7. For what reason the Church of England has not made provision to enable a church blessing of gay and lesbian relationships. (905264)

The Church of England’s doctrine defines marriage as between one man and one woman, and changing doctrine is a serious matter that involves humbly seeking to discern the mind of God. The Church of England is engaging intensively with questions of identity, sexuality, relationships and marriage in ways that have not been done before. That process of learning, listening and discernment among clergy and congregations is enabling a deep engagement with difference and diversity as part of the Church’s discernment of a way forward.

I was interested to hear what the hon. Member said about supporting families and households, because in Wales and Scotland, there are blessings for lesbian and gay marriages, which shows the Churches’ acceptance and understanding of all households and families. It would be good for the Church of England to introduce a Measure on this issue sooner rather than later, as we know that it often moves at a glacial pace, as it did on ordaining women and having women bishops. This would be a welcome change for the Church to make.

I thank the right hon. Lady for the question. What she suggests may be welcome, but the Church needs to discern what it believes the true teachings of the gospels to be. In order to determine where God is leading us, we are engaged in one of the most extensive exercises in consultation, learning and prayer carried out by the Church in recent decades. Both the destination and how we get there are important.