Church Commissioners’ Questions: 12th June 2014
Rt Hon Sir Tony Baldry MP, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked questions in the House of Commons on 12th June, on the service of remembrance for Stephen Sutton, school chaplains, persecuted Christians overseas, listed church building repairs, credit unions and biblical literacy amongst children. The transcript is below:
Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con):If he will visit Lichfield cathedral to discuss the service of remembrance and celebration of the life of Stephen Sutton. 
The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Sir Tony Baldry): I am always happy to visit Lichfield cathedral. The whole country will have celebrated the life and achievements of Stephen Sutton. The recent service of remembrance and celebration at Lichfield cathedral demonstrates the importance of cathedrals as a focus for unity at times of local and national celebration, commemoration and mourning.
Michael Fabricant: It is a shame in this instance that the Archbishop of Canterbury is not empowered to confer sainthoods. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Adrian Dorber, the dean of Lichfield cathedral, on seizing the moment and taking advantage, in the best possible way, of the great outpouring of passion and grief that people in my constituency experienced over the great work and life of a 19-year-old who died of cancer?
Sir Tony Baldry: I agree that the experience of holding a vigil at Lichfield cathedral for Stephen Sutton helped to focus national attention on the remarkable courage and exuberance with which Stephen lived his last three years of life. He managed to raise £4 million for the Teenage Cancer Trust by telling his story and through his determination to make every moment of his life count.
Chaplains in Schools and Academies
Martin Vickers (Cleethorpes) (Con): What estimate the Church Commissioners have made of the number of chaplains in schools and academies.
The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Sir Tony Baldry): There are nearly 380 Anglican chaplains working in schools. A recent report by the National Society found that a growing number of schools are paying for salaried chaplains.
Martin Vickers: I thank my right hon. Friend for his reply. Does he agree that school chaplains help to further the work of the Church in encouraging the spiritual development of our young people and giving them a better understanding of the pressures pertaining to modern society?
Sir Tony Baldry: I do agree with my hon. Friend. As Her Majesty the Queen made clear in a speech at Lambeth Palace in 2012, a long part of our nation’s tradition has been for the Church of England to promote tolerance and understanding of other faiths. An increase in the number of chaplains in schools furthers the promotion of tolerance and community integration.
Mr David Nuttall (Bury North) (Con): What representations the Church of England has made on Meriam Ibrahim.
& Andrew Stephenson (Pendle) (Con): What representations the Church of England has made on Meriam Ibrahim.
The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Sir Tony Baldry): The Archbishop of Canterbury and the Church of England wholeheartedly supported the call from the Christian Muslim Forum for the death sentence against Meriam Ibrahim to be dropped. The Church of England will continue to support the Archbishop of Sudan on this issue.
Mr Nuttall: I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. The plight of Meriam Ibrahim is of great concern to churches throughout the country. St Anne’s parish church, Tottington, in the diocese of Manchester, where I serve as church warden, wrote to the Sudanese embassy two weeks ago setting out our concerns. Will my right hon. Friend urge the leaders of the Church of England to do all they can to keep up the pressure to secure the freedom of this lady?
Sir Tony Baldry: My hon. Friend is right, and his constituents demonstrate that this concern is shared throughout the country. I hope that other communities and individuals who feel similarly will also write to the Sudanese embassy and that parliamentary colleagues will support early-day motion 71, tabled in my name, which has support from Members in all parts of the House.
Andrew Stephenson: A number of Pendle residents have contacted me to express their concern about this case and what it means for the Christian community in Sudan. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the issue is that the alleged crime of apostasy is in direct conflict with fundamental human rights, as set out in the UN universal declaration of human rights?
Sir Tony Baldry: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, and that point was reinforced yesterday by the Prime Minister. Article 18 of the UN universal declaration of human rights seeks to enshrine freedom of religion and the freedom to change one’s religion, whereas the alleged offence of apostasy makes it a hanging offence to change one’s religion. They are clearly incompatible. In international law, fundamental universal UN human rights must prevail.
Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab): The case of Meriam Ibrahim has come to particular public attention because it is so shocking in its detail, but of course she is just one of many people across the world who are being persecuted for their religious faith. What outreach work is the Church of England doing with other Christian Churches in the countries where persecution of Christians is a significant issue?
Sir Tony Baldry: As at least two debates in this House in recent months have demonstrated, article 18 of the UN declaration of human rights seems to be an orphaned right. The Church of England and other faith groups have been working hard to ensure that the international community and the UN Human Rights Council pay proper regard and respect to article 18.
Listed Buildings (Repairs)
Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab): What estimate has been made of the cost of the backlog of repairs to the Church of England’s listed buildings.
Sir Tony Baldry: The Church of England’s 12,500 listed churches have an estimated backlog of repairs of £60 million, and the 42 cathedrals have an estimated backlog of £87 million over the next five years to keep them open and watertight.
Helen Goodman: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that response. I recently visited Lincoln cathedral and met the dean, who told me that that cathedral has a backlog of repairs of £16.5 million. The right hon. Gentleman has done well to get money out of the Treasury, but in fact Lincoln could eat up all that money. What more does he think we could do to ensure that we preserve these vital national assets?
Sir Tony Baldry: The hon. Lady is correct: this is quite a challenge, but I think one needs to recognise that there is a number of pots of money available. There is the very welcome £20 million the Chancellor of the Exchequer recently awarded to cathedrals to keep for immediate repairs; the Heritage Lottery Fund has put aside £25 million a year for necessary repairs; the listed places of worship scheme totals £42 million a year; and of course we have to be grateful to the wider public, who raise approximately £115 million each year to spend on repairs to their parish church buildings. The hon. Lady is a Front-Bench spokesperson for her party on culture, media and sport, and I am always willing to discuss with her other ways she thinks further funds can be found.
Miss Anne McIntosh (Thirsk and Malton) (Con): Thousands of small parish churches are in desperate need of urgent repairs to heating, lighting and electrical systems, as well as roof repairs. How much or what proportion of the amounts that my right hon. Friend just mentioned relate to VAT due on those repairs?
Sir Tony Baldry: My hon. Friend may recall that the Chancellor of the Exchequer made very generous provision of, if I recall correctly, £25 million to help to offset VAT costs on church repairs, so there is no reason why churches should be deterred from carrying out repairs and restoration by concerns about VAT bills.
Damian Hinds (East Hampshire) (Con): What progress the Church of England has made on support for the provision of responsible financial services.
Sir Tony Baldry: The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Task Group has identified a number of initiatives to promote responsible credit and savings and is now implementing those initiatives across the country.
Damian Hinds: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer. The Archbishop’s intervention has already had a profound and welcome impact. May I encourage the commissioners to do all they can to support that work through the clergy credit union, the use of premises, the promotion of volunteering and financial education in Church schools?
Sir Tony Baldry: I entirely agree that progress is being made. Credit unions are now being set up in towns and cities across the country. I refer my hon. Friend and the entire House – it is always good to see so many Members present for Church Commissioner questions – to a rap released yesterday by the Church of England entitled ‘We need a union on the streets’. It underscores the views of the Church of England on payday lending and highlights credit unions as a better way to borrow. It can be found at https://soundcloud.com/the-church-of-england/we-need-a-union-on-the-streets. The chorus is:
‘What we need is a union, we need a union on the streets
Everybody hand in hand, people can’t you understand?’.
Biblical Literacy (Children)
Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): What steps the Church of England is taking to increase biblical literacy among children.
Sir Tony Baldry: It is important to remind the House that the Education Act 1944 made religious education a compulsory subject in schools. I do not believe it is possible in England to properly teach religious education without ensuring that children have a proper understanding of Bible narratives.
Mr Sheerman: Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that we should see it not only as religious education but as part of our heritage and citizenship in this country, and that the stories of Noah’s ark, Adam and Eve and even the nativity should be part of that citizenship education? Is he worried about the recent poll that showed the low level of such knowledge among children and their parents?
Sir Tony Baldry: I entirely agree. It would be very difficult, for example, for an A-level student to understand the work of T. S. Eliot without any knowledge of the Bible narratives. There is a responsibility on schools to teach religious education, and one would hope and anticipate that they would teach the Bible and Bible narratives as part of that. Families do that, as, of course, do the churches through Sunday schools.
Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): Further to those comments on biblical literacy, will my right hon. Friend welcome the Heart 4 Harlow and Harlow credit save initiative, which provide help for financial affairs, particularly beating the loan sharks? When he is next in the area, will he visit Heart 4 Harlow, the faith community and the credit save initiative to see what they are doing?
Mr Speaker: Order. I would describe that as attempted ingenuity. The hon. Gentleman is seeking to shoehorn into the last question on the Order Paper that which he would have put if he had been called on the previous question, but, because I am in a generous mood, let us hear Sir Tony.
Sir Tony Baldry: I always welcome opportunities to visit Harlow and to support my hon. Friend, who is such an excellent constituency Member of Parliament.