MPs Questions to Church Commissioners

In Church Commissioners Question TIme on Thursday 10th October 2013, Sir Tony Baldry MP was asked questions on cathedral congregations, Syria and Egypt, food banks, bats in churches, church credit union and scrap metal.

Tony Baldry MP

Cathedral Congregations

Mr David Nuttall (Bury North) (Con): What lessons the Church of England has learned from the increasing size of congregations attending services at cathedrals.

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Sir Tony Baldry): I am glad to report that over the past 10 years there has been a 35% increase in average weekly attendance in cathedral services. A team from Cranmer Hall at St John’s college, Durham is conducting a detailed survey of the trends in increased cathedral attendance.

Mr Nuttall: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. It is indeed good news that there has been such a significant increase in the number of people worshipping in cathedrals over the past 10 years. Will the research seek to discover why attendance at services held in cathedrals has been going up at a time when attendance at many parish churches has been declining?

Sir Tony Baldry: Absolutely; the research will seek to understand the detail of attendance trends at cathedrals and I hope that the results of the study will be published early next year.

Susan Elan Jones (Clwyd South) (Lab): I am sure that many of us will be of the view that the increased attendance in cathedrals must be down not only to the high standards of liturgy but to the fact that they have a diverse range of clergy. On the subject of churches and diversity, would the hon. Gentleman like to congratulate the Church in Wales on the decision to elect women as bishops? Would he say that there are great lessons to be learned for the Church of England, which is increasingly becoming a minority within the Anglican communion on that issue?

Sir Tony Baldry: The House well knows that I very much look forward to the day when the Church of England can welcome women as bishops.

Syria and Egypt

Simon Hughes (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (LD): What discussions the Church of England is having with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office regarding the protection of religious minorities in Syria and Egypt.

Sir Tony Baldry: Following the Archbishop of Canterbury’s visit to the middle east in the summer, he met my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary in July to discuss the vulnerable situation of religious minorities in Syria and Egypt. The Church of England has made representations to Foreign Office Ministers to suggest appointing an ambassador at large for religious freedom.

Simon Hughes: That is a welcome bit of news, both about the meeting and the initiative. May I reinforce the point that in Syria and Egypt and across the middle east and north Africa the decline in Christian communities is alarming and they are feeling horribly oppressed, as they are in many other Muslim countries of the world? Will my hon. Friend ask the commissioners and the Church in this country to make that a priority in the years ahead? They need our help, and they need to know that the rest of the Anglican communion is on their side.

Sir Tony Baldry: I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend. It is difficult to underestimate what is happening. The International Society for Human Rights, a secular organisation based in Germany, estimates that 80% of all acts of religious discrimination in the world today are directed at Christians. The bishop of the Coptic Church in Egypt, based in London, has said that there is almost ethnic cleansing to eliminate Christianity and Christians in Egypt, so this is an issue to which we must all—the Church of England, the Foreign Office and civil society as a whole—give the highest priority. Whether it is people being murdered in Peshawar or churches being burnt in Baghdad, this is a terrible issue which must be addressed collectively.

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab): I urge the hon. Gentleman to look at the recent report by Amnesty International into the attacks on Coptic Christians and on churches, in Egypt in particular but in the middle east more generally. I echo the request by the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) for the hon. Gentleman to talk to his colleagues in the Foreign Office and ensure that this issue is an absolute priority for them.

Sir Tony Baldry: I thank the hon. Lady for her question. I reiterate what the Archbishop of Canterbury said on the Amnesty International report. Archbishop Justin said that he welcomed

“this timely report from Amnesty International”

and continued:

“Attacks on any community are deplorable and any state has the responsibility to protect its citizens. The appalling attacks in August on the Christian community in Egypt highlight the need for all citizens to be duly protected. Despite the pressure they are under, by the grace of God, Christians in Egypt continue to do all they can to work for the good of the whole of the society of which they are an essential part.”

It is very welcome that organisations such as Amnesty International are drawing attention to what is happening to Christian minorities in the middle east and elsewhere in the world.

Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): If Muslims were treated in this country as Christians are being treated in Egypt and Syria, there would be international outrage. Can the Church of England work with the papacy, the United Nations and other international organisations to have a real international initiative, perhaps with the Arab League, to condemn all these atrocities before they get far, far worse?

Sir Tony Baldry: The international community as a whole needs to recognise that the persecution of any faith group, and the persecution of Christians across the world, is wholly unacceptable and has to stop.

Food Banks

Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab): What work the Church of England is undertaking to support food banks in local communities; and if he will make a statement.

Sir Tony Baldry: Many parish churches are closely involved in running and supporting food banks all across the country, and a recent report from the Church Urban Fund found that four out of five churches are supporting a food bank in one or more ways.

Diana Johnson: I was pleased to hear what the hon. Gentleman just said about the progress made in the Church of Wales. The fight obviously continues in the Church in England to ordain women bishops. On the increasing number of people using food banks, however, does the hon. Gentleman agree with the Archbishop of Canterbury that

“there is a danger…that people are categorised, that all people on benefit are seen as scroungers and that’s clearly completely untrue”?

Sir Tony Baldry: The benefits system exists to ensure that those who are entitled to benefits receive benefits. In respect of food banks, the question really is one of concern, which has been raised earlier in the House today, about the increase in the use of food banks. I would like to report to the House that the Church of England’s mission and public affairs team, together with Oxfam and the Child Poverty Action Group, are examining the underlying reasons for the rapid growth in the use of food banks, and will recommend changes in policy and practice that would help to reduce the use of food banks in the longer term.

Mr Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): Isn’t he a food bank himself? [Laughter.]

Mr Speaker: Order. I will not repeat what the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner) has just said from a sedentary position. The Second Church Estates Commissioner is an extremely distinguished Member, but he is not what was said of him from a sedentary position.

Sir Tony Baldry: If we were not discussing such an important subject as food banks, Mr Speaker, I would comment to the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner) that one of the great things about this place is that one must have humility. Ever since I received my knighthood, the family at home have called me “Sir Cumference Hippo”, so I would not worry too much.

Mr Speaker: We appreciate that from the hon. Gentleman, with his unfailing sense of humour.

Bats in Churches

Miss Anne McIntosh (Thirsk and Malton) (Con): What recent discussions he has had with Natural England on bats in churches; and if he will make a statement.

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Sir Tony Baldry): I understand from Natural England that the licence application for St Hilda’s in my hon. Friend’s constituency was submitted last Monday and a decision is expected this week. Following the granting of a licence, the work would start on site next week, blocking the access points of bats. The application is for the exclusion of bats from the interior of the church only, so this solution is intended to allow the interior of St Hilda’s church to be completely free from bats, while allowing their continued use of the exterior of the building.

Miss McIntosh: It is a source of some cynicism that the licence was issued or applied for only after my question regarding bats having the run of the church, St Hilda’s at Ellerburn, appeared on the Order Paper. As £30,000 of taxpayers’ money has been spent conducting a survey which has as yet led to no result, will my hon. Friend exert all his influence on the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to issue the licence so that the congregation can meet and use the interior of the church free from intrusion by bats?

Sir Tony Baldry: My hon. Friend makes a good point. It is worth recording that this one single parish church has had to spend tens of thousands of pounds so far just to get to this position. We have to improve the whole situation in relation to bats in churches. It is not a joking matter. Churches are not field barns; they are places of worship, and it cannot be right that bats can be excluded from reopened railway tunnels and the living spaces of domestic homes, but it is so difficult for active community buildings such as churches to resolve such an issue.

Church Credit Union

Fiona Bruce (Congleton) (Con): What progress the Church Commissioners have made on plans for a credit union.

Sir Tony Baldry: The Church of England is developing a three-pronged strategy in its work with credit unions. The first is to link parish churches to local credit unions to offer support where any is available. The second is to set up an archbishops taskforce to work with the credit union movement and the local banking sector to produce credible alternatives which offer financially responsible products and services. The third is the plan to found the Church’s credit union, primarily for clergy and Church employees.

Fiona Bruce: I welcome the work the Church is doing to promote the good work of credit unions. Will my hon. Friend also update the House on the involvement of the Church Commissioners in the proposed new bank, Williams & Glyn’s, which I understand is to lend to local small and medium-sized enterprises in particular?

Sir Tony Baldry: I am glad to be able to report to the House that the Church Commissioners were part of a consortium of investors that will be partnering with Royal Bank of Scotland to set up a new bank, Williams & Glyn’s. It will be a vigorous challenger bank which is intended to set up the highest ethical standards and give consumers more choice, and I hope that it will work out how we can better help some of those denied access to financial services.

Damian Hinds (East Hampshire) (Con): With regard to the first of my hon. Friend’s three prongs, are there any sub-prongs, by which I mean ways that local parishes can work with credit unions, perhaps through the use of premises, the recruitment of volunteers and board members, and, critically, raise awareness by marketing the credit unions?

Sir Tony Baldry: Absolutely; the Church of England is rich in resource, buildings and expertise, and we want to share all of that. We want to encourage many more credit unions to be established across the country.

Mr Speaker: Mr Kevan Jones—not here.

Scrap Metal

Andrew Stephenson (Pendle) (Con): What steps the Church Commissioners are taking to publicise the introduction of the Scrap Metal Dealers Act on 1 October 2013; and what steps churches are taking to protect themselves from lead theft.

Sir Tony Baldry: The Church of England has been working closely with its insurer, Ecclesiastical, to promote the “Hands off our church roofs” campaign, and the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 2013, which came into force on 1 October, is extremely welcome. Overall, we hope that we can promote the various deterrence methods available to protect church roofs and metal artefacts from theft.

Andrew Stephenson: Will my hon. Friend confirm that since it was made clear that that legislation would be introduced there has been a significant reduction in the incidence of metal theft? Although vigilance is still needed, does not the passing of the Act mean that we are no longer fighting a losing battle?

Sir Tony Baldry: The whole House will be really pleased about the introduction of the Act, because although we still have some way to go, the reduction in the incidence of metal theft has been substantial. Although churches of course still need to use CCTV, SmartWater and so forth, the fact that scrap metal can no longer be traded for cash—people can no longer rip lead from roofs and sell it the next morning for cash to a local dealer; it is now a cashless business—is clearly already having a considerable impact on ensuring that our heritage does not continue to be ripped off.

Taken from Parliament UK