In Church Commissioners Question Time on Thursday 21st November 2013, Sir Tony Baldry MP was asked by MPs to answer questions on women bishops, the recruitment of clergy, credit unions and metal crime.
Andrew Stephenson (Pendle) (Con): What progress has been made by the General Synod of the Church of England on legislating to enable women to enter the episcopate.
The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Sir Tony Baldry): Yesterday, the General Synod voted by 378 votes to eight, with 25 abstentions, to approve a new package of proposals that will enable women to become bishops in the Church of England.
Andrew Stephenson: This is obviously very welcome news. Can my hon. Friend give us an idea of the likely time scale for the introduction of the change?
Sir Tony Baldry: My hon. Friend is right; this is very welcome news. As a result of the vote yesterday, I am confident that this House will have an opportunity to pass the necessary legislation in the lifetime of this Parliament.
Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab): While I of course welcome the progress that has been made, may I point out that if the same arrangements were put in place for a black bishop’s leadership to be challenged and for the case to be taken to an ombudsman, there would rightly be outrage?
Sir Tony Baldry: I am not entirely sure what point the hon. Lady is trying to make. The proposals put forward by the General Synod have had overwhelming support. If she looks at the figures, she will see that they have complete support throughout practically the whole of the Church. Perhaps she would like to discuss her concern with me outside, because I do not really understand the point she is trying to make.
Martin Vickers (Cleethorpes) (Con): I, too, welcome the fact that the Church has at long last made progress on the matter of women bishops. I know that my hon. Friend has seen the report by Professor Linda Woodhead entitled “Telling the truth about Christian Britain”, which makes rather depressing reading for those of us who are members of the Church. Is he confident that the Church can now move on from these endless internal debates and start preaching the gospel and working for the good of society?
Sir Tony Baldry: My hon. Friend makes a good point. The sooner we can resolve the issue and have women deacons, priests and bishops in the Church of England, the sooner the Church will be able to move forward and fulfil its broader national ministry.
Mr David Winnick (Walsall North) (Lab): After the disappointment of last year, this is indeed welcome news. Perhaps those members of the clergy who still have reservations—I hope that they are few in number—should come to the House of Commons and see the exhibition in the Admission Order corridor showing the struggle that women had to get the vote and the right to be elected to the House. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, now that the Church of England is taking this welcome step, other religions and faiths that discriminate against women—I could list them, but I will not—should follow the same path?
Sir Tony Baldry: May I gently say to the hon. Gentleman that it is slightly more complex than he suggests? Some of those who are opposed to women bishops are themselves women. They are conservatives and evangelicals who have theological objections because they believe in male headship. I do not think that we can necessarily castigate people who are against women bishops as being against women. The good news is that we now have a way forward that will enable us to have women bishops—I hope by the end of this Parliament.
John Cryer (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab): The congregation of the Church of England has been in headlong decline for a long time, and that is continuing. How likely is it that that trend would be reversed were the Church of England by some chance to pursue its existing policy of barring women from being bishops, which most people think is redolent of a past era?
Sir Tony Baldry: I am glad to say that a large number of parishes are growing. The Archbishop of Canterbury has made it clear that his primary mission is growth. We want to see the Church of England grow. Hopefully, now that we have resolved the issue of women bishops, everyone in the Church of England and everyone who supports it can focus their intention on that growth.
Recruitment of clergy
Valerie Vaz (Walsall South) (Lab): What recent assessment the Church Commissioners have made of trends in recruitment of clergy.
Sir Tony Baldry: The number of ordinations to stipendiary ministry has remained broadly stable over the past 20 years. In 2012, 11,375 ordained clergy and at least 1,411 chaplains were serving in the Church of England, and there were 12,953 parishes. As a result, it is not unusual for a parish priest to have the care of souls for more than one parish.
Valerie Vaz: The vicar at St Lawrence church in Darlaston in my constituency has to cover All Saints in Darlaston and All Saints in Moxley. Will the hon. Gentleman find a way to support her, perhaps by considering the appointment of another full-time vicar?
Sir Tony Baldry: The pay of clergy and how clergy are organised is a matter for the diocese and the local bishop. The hon. Lady has kindly written to me about this issue, which is causing her concern. I will, if I may, take it up with the Bishop of Lichfield and come back to her.
Miss Anne McIntosh (Thirsk and Malton) (Con): Local churches are at the heart of rural life. We have parish priests who are asked to look after sometimes four, five or six parish churches. Can we keep that situation under review? We want to keep the parish churches open, but it is more than humanly possible for one person to nurse so many parish churches.
Sir Tony Baldry: Those are all challenges that we face. How we maintain and keep churches open in rural areas and ensure good ministry for new housing estates in urban areas are the responsibilities of diocesan bishops. We are fortunate in having some excellent new stipendiary clergy coming forward and a large number of self-supporting ministers who support the work of the Church of England. The point that my hon. Friend makes is a good one. Essentially, the Church of England has to be a national church, serving all parts of the country, and we are determined that it should continue to do that.
Mr Robin Walker (Worcester) (Con): What plans the Church of England has to support credit unions.
Sir Tony Baldry: The Archbishop of Canterbury has highlighted the need to support credit unions, so the Church is developing a credit union in association with some other national churches from across the country. To drive that, Archbishop Justin has convened a task group, which will be chaired by a senior figure from the banking industry with much relevant experience of the whole sector.
Mr Walker: I welcome the archbishop’s commitment to credit unions, but is my hon. Friend aware of the investment by the Worcester diocese in the Castle and Crystal Credit Union in Dudley, which is available to many of my constituents living in social housing in Worcester?
Sir Tony Baldry: That credit union is a model one. This will be a generational change; it will not happen overnight. We all need to support the credit union movement to ensure that those on low incomes and those who may have difficulties accessing credit do not fall into the hands of loan sharks. We are determined to take forward the building up of the credit union movement in this country.
Neil Parish (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): Following on from the credit union question, the Church of England has many assets and quite a lot of cash investments, could it not invest that directly in a credit union to help the situation?
Sir Tony Baldry: My hon. Friend will find that something like 45 bishops in at least 31 dioceses have already been involved in a range of activities to support and raise awareness of credit unions, including investing in them.
Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Given the financial firepower available to the Church Commissioners, this is an excellent way for the Church of England to re-engage with some of the most vulnerable in our society in these difficult times. Will my hon. Friend encourage the Church Commissioners to devolve the management of these credit unions down to parish level so that the parish priests and vicars can direct the help to those who most need it?
Sir Tony Baldry: Credit unions are local organisations. The Church of England will not be running credit unions but will, wherever possible, support them with expertise and buildings and in any way we can. Credit unions are already local organisations and that is part of their importance, just like with local community banks. Of course it is very important that they deliver their services locally.
Jeremy Lefroy (Stafford) (Con): What assessment he has made of the effects on churches of metal crime since introduction of the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 2013.
The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Sir Tony Baldry): The enactment of the Scrap Metal Dealers Act is warmly welcomed by the Church. The additional powers under the Act have strengthened the hand of the important agencies against this crime, which for churches is now at its lowest level for many years.
Jeremy Lefroy: I thank my hon. Friend for that statement. Will he provide some information about the effects of this welcome Act, promoted by my right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway), on churches in my diocese of Lichfield, led by the lord bishop?
Sir Tony Baldry: In 2011 in the diocese of Lichfield there were 100 claims for lead metal theft costing nearly £200,000. As of May of this year, there were fewer than 10 claims costing less than £10,000. Churches still have a duty to use things such as SmartWater and CCTV, but the fact that it is now no longer possible for robbers to strip churches of lead at night, go round to the scrap metal yard next day and get paid in cash means that we are seeing a considerable drop in lead theft. That is good news and the whole House should be grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway) for getting the Bill through Parliament.