MPs Questions to Church Commissioners

In Church Commissioners’ question time in the House of Commons on 19th January 2014, Sir Tony Baldry MP was asked by MPs to answer questions on the Pilling Report, homelessness, the Church of England 100 Treasures project, violent attacks on clergy, Grade I listed churches, religious tolerance and the Christian celebration of Christmas.

14.01 CCQ Baldry

Transcript (via Parliament.uk):

Pilling Report

Mr Ben Bradshaw (Exeter) (Lab): What assessment the Commissioners have made of the Pilling report, published by the House of Bishops working group on human sexuality in November 2013; and if he will make a statement.

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Sir Tony Baldry): The report was discussed by the House of Bishops in December and its recommendations will be considered by the College of Bishops later this month.

Mr Bradshaw: Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that the report’s recommendation that parishes should be allowed to offer same-sex couples some sort of blessing would in effect simply formalise what already happens in practice in many Anglican parishes? Does he agree that the vast majority of Anglicans in this country would welcome a more generous approach to long-term, faithful, same-sex relationships?

Sir Tony Baldry: I agree with the principle that everyone should be welcome at the communion rail. The working group did not recommend a new authorised liturgy, but a majority of its members did recommend that vicars should, with the consent of parochial church councils, be able to mark the formation of a permanent same-sex relationship in a public service. I am sure that that is one of the issues that the House of Bishops will be considering very seriously in the context of its consideration of the Pilling report’s recommendations.

 

Homelessness

Andrew Stephenson (Pendle) (Con): What steps the Church of England has taken in Lancashire to support the homeless and people in poverty over the Christmas period.

Sir Tony Baldry: A lot happened in the diocese of Blackburn over the Christmas period. In my hon. Friend’s constituency, the Colne and Villages parish held a Christmas café, and many parishioners also worked with local businesses and schools to support food banks. I am told that one local business in Pendle donated more than 60 hampers of food, toys and clothes, which were then distributed by the local ecumenical Church network.

Andrew Stephenson: I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. I have in the past mentioned the work of St Philip’s church in Nelson and its food bank. Does he agree that although food banks are particularly important over the Christmas period, they do not tackle the root causes of food poverty? Will he say more about the Church Commissioners’ work to rebalance the Church’s activities towards addressing the underlying problems and finding long-term solutions to food poverty?

Sir Tony Baldry: The Church urban fund would acknowledge that food banks do not tackle the causes of food poverty. We need to know more about why people use food banks, which is why the Church urban fund is undertaking detailed research on this matter. The report was published in September.

 

Church Treasures

Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab): What progress has been made in the Church of England’s campaign to save 100 church treasures.

Sir Tony Baldry: The 100 Church treasures campaign seeks to protect 100 of the unparalleled array of artworks, including monuments, wall paintings, stained glass, textiles and mediaeval timberwork, which are at risk in our parish churches, in order to keep our buildings open, and our national and local heritage on public display for years to come.

Helen Goodman: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that answer. It is remarkable that for only £3 million 100 Church treasures can be preserved. Obviously, I am particularly interested in what is happening to those in the Durham diocese: the William Morris carpet at Monkwearmouth; the Church masonry at St Hilda’s church in Hartlepool; and the painting in Holy Trinity church in Darlington. Some of those communities will find it difficult to raise the money. What more might we do to support them?

Sir Tony Baldry: The hon. Lady is absolutely right: for quite modest sums, really important pieces of national heritage can be protected. Let me deal with just one of the examples she mentioned. Holy Trinity church in Darlington needs just £16,000 to restore a painting by the wartime artist John Duncan. The whole point of this campaign is to try to lever in funds from other donors, trusts and individuals who might not normally give money to supporting Church heritage but who would be minded to give money specifically to support a particular piece of artwork or heritage in this way. The campaign is already having some success.

 

Violent Attacks on Clergy

Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab): What discussions the Commissioners have had with Government Ministers on recent trends in the number of violent attacks on clergy.

Sir Tony Baldry: Figures on these cases are not held centrally, and supporting clergy who have suffered attacks is the responsibility of the individual diocesan bishops.

Diana Johnson: I think we all recognise the excellent work that the clergy do in our local communities. Unfortunately, at times, they do put themselves in harm’s way. Would the right hon. Gentleman support a Government review of these attacks, and is it time to look at designating them as religious hate crimes?

Sir Tony Baldry: As the hon. Lady says, clergy are often on the front line in supporting the most vulnerable in the community and, sadly, that sometimes results in their being attacked. I wonder whether she would mind if I discussed this matter with the Archbishops of Canterbury and York to see whether they feel that such a review is necessary in these circumstances.

 

Homelessness

Andrew Selous (South West Bedfordshire) (Con): What recent steps the Church of England has taken in the St Albans diocese to support the homeless and people in poverty.

Sir Tony Baldry: The diocese of St Albans has supported a number of projects, particularly those working with homeless people in Hemel Hempstead, St Albans, Stevenage, Bedford, Luton and Watford. The annual December sleep-out, which was supported by my hon. Friend, has managed to raise nearly £1 million over the past 20 years to support homeless people in the diocese of St Albans by making funding grants available, encouraging volunteers and helping to raise further money.

Andrew Selous: Will my right hon. Friend join me in thanking the staff of the diocese, the volunteer organisers, security guards and the Women’s Institute, which provided hot soup all night for all of us on the sleep-out? The money raised has helped a lot of local homeless charities, not least Linton-Linslade Homeless Service, which does such good work in my own area.

Sir Tony Baldry: Indeed. Churches throughout the country support a whole number of initiatives that encourage large numbers of volunteers. I know that my hon. Friend is patron of the Linton-Linslade Homeless Service, which offers short-term emergency shelter, supplies and support to people who are homeless or about to become homeless and does invaluable work in the area.

 

Grade I Listed Churches

John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): What assistance is available for grade I listed church buildings in need of major repairs.

Sir Tony Baldry: The most significant funder of repairs for grade I listed churches is the Heritage Lottery Fund, under the grants for places of worship scheme. The Wolfson Foundation, Garfield Weston Foundation and the Veneziana Fund also provide funding in some circumstances.

John Mann: The right hon. Gentleman will be aware of the incredibly diverse array of grade I listed churches in the Bassetlaw constituency. Would he be prepared to use his good offices to ensure that the Church Commissioners can better advise the volunteers running those churches on how to access the funds and that the north of England and the more deprived communities get a fair crack of the whip?

Sir Tony Baldry: The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. He is fortunate in having 26 fantastic listed churches in his constituency. Some, such as All Saints, go back to the 10th century. I entirely agree that it is very important that parochial church councils and others know how to access funds such as the Heritage Lottery Fund, and I will discuss with the churches and cathedrals division at Church House how we can better promulgate the way that that advice can be obtained.

 

Religious Tolerance

Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): What discussions the Commissioners have had with Government Departments on the promotion of religious tolerance.

Sir Tony Baldry: I think everyone in this House would wish to see religious tolerance supported. After all, the Martyrs’ Memorial in Oxford is a daily reminder of those who were burned at the stake for their beliefs. It was not far away from here, at Tyburn, that people were hanged, drawn and quartered for their religious beliefs. Indeed, one only has to see the plaque in Westminster Hall to remember where Sir Thomas More was put on trial in part for his beliefs. In this country, we have learned through the Reformation and the counter-Reformation and beyond the essential need for religious tolerance in our nation.

Robert Halfon: As well as discussing religious intolerance with Government Departments, will my right hon. Friend discuss it with St James’ church, which has held a shockingly anti-Israel exhibition over the past couple of weeks? Far from promoting religious tolerance, it did much to undermine it.

Sir Tony Baldry: My hon. Friend raises a conundrum: to what extent should the tolerant tolerate the intolerant? The demonstration at St James’ Piccadilly was not against Judaism or Jews but against the illegal occupation under international law in the west bank and some of the settlements. In this House, we must be careful about what is seen as religious tolerance and about not tolerating intolerance or breaches of international law.

Mr Speaker: The right hon. Gentleman may choose to prepare a detailed paper on the matter and to lodge it in the Library of the House where I feel confident it will be a well-thumbed tome.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): On the subject of religious tolerance, what discussions has the Commissioner had with media outlets such as TV and radio with regard to Christian programming? Does he agree that it is important to retain a level of programming that reflects the Christian status of this nation? What can be done to promote such programming?

Sir Tony Baldry: To be honest, I do not think that Christians do too badly. If one gets up early enough, one find a perfectly good programme between 7 and 8 o’clock on BBC Radio 4 every Sunday. I do not think we can feel that we are in some way discriminated against by the broadcasters.

Mr Speaker: Last but not least, I call Fiona Bruce.

 

Christian Celebration of Christmas

Fiona Bruce (Congleton) (Con): What recent assessment the Commissioners have made of difficulties faced by Christians in celebrating Christmas in certain parts of the world. [901882]

Sir Tony Baldry: The House will, I am sure, have noticed that the Archbishop of Canterbury used his first Christmas day sermon to condemn the treatment of Christian communities in the middle east. Archbishop Justin said that the persecution of Christian minorities represented injustice and observed that Christians

“are driven into exile from a region in which their presence has always been essential”.

Sadly, Christians are attacked and massacred, and we have seen terrible news from South Sudan, the Central African Republic and elsewhere, where political ambitions have led to ethnic conflict.

Fiona Bruce: I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. In the light of the escalation in religious persecution in many countries across the world, will he kindly arrange a meeting with the appropriate Minister and bishop responsible for foreign affairs and international development to highlight the need for the Department for International Development to form a policy to address such issues and that of freedom of religion as a fundamental human right?

Sir Tony Baldry: I should be happy to do so, but taking human rights violations into account when aid decisions are made does not necessarily mean refusing to give aid to countries in which such violations take place. It may be in precisely these difficult contexts that we need to be engaging with aid, as religious persecution is often linked to problems in education, economic development and conflicts over natural resources where aid can and does make a huge difference. My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point that is worth pursuing with ministerial colleagues in DFID.