House of Lords debates ‘the importance of the English Parish Church’

“No other country in Europe has less financial support from the taxpayer for ecclesiastical heritage than England—which, ironically, has an established church” – Bishop of Norwich, 12/6/14

On 12th June Lord Cormack led a debate in the House of Lords on the subject ‘That this House takes note of the importance of the English parish church.’ The Bishop of Norwich spoke in the debate, about the community and financial value of parish churches, their heritage importance and current financial pressures. Lord Ahmad responded for the Government. Their speeches are reproduced in full below. The Bishop’s speech can also be viewed at ParliamentLive.TV and a useful summary of the debate can be found on the Law & Religion UK website, here.

14.06.12 Bishop of Norwich

The Lord Bishop of Norwich: My Lords, we are meant to declare our interests in this House, but I think that standing here dressed like this is probably a visual declaration. Noble Lords will not be surprised to learn that I believe that the Motion tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, to take note of the importance of our parish churches, is one that I am happy to endorse. It applies in Wales and Scotland as well, of course, although I need to be a bit careful of the Presbyterian conscience and not presume any authority north of the border. Born as I was in a non-conformist manse, indeed a Congregationalist manse, I welcome the contributions of the noble Lords, Lord Griffiths and Lord Mawson, to our debate. A good deal of what I will say later about community engagement in our parish churches would apply equally to churches of other traditions.


The diocese of Norwich actually outflanks the diocese of Lincoln in all sorts of ways. It has more medieval churches per square mile than anywhere else in western Europe. In our 577 parishes there are 642 churches serving a total population of only 900,000 people. I have parishes in urban areas of well over 20,000 in population, but I also have 150 parishes with a total population of fewer than 150 people each, in which the parish church will often seat the whole village and several other settlements nearby as well. So “parish” means different things in different places, but the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, was right to say that all parishioners have a right to the ministry of their parish church.

Of course, our churches are not owned by their congregations or by the parochial church councils: nor are they branches of the diocese, let alone of the national church. It is the local worshipping communities which, largely, maintain these great historic buildings, especially in rural areas.

I sometimes ask people what Norfolk might look like if you removed all the parish churches from the landscape. It would lose so much of what makes each individual community distinct and, indeed, what makes our city distinct. Norwich Union, now Aviva, has used the cathedral spire in different ways as its logo for many years. It is no surprise that a great church represents that great company’s location of origin—we should have patented it. Remove those parish churches from Norfolk or from any other county and you would also have a spiritually flattened landscape. Our parish churches are hallowed by prayer. Two-thirds of them are surrounded by churchyards: a reminder of the gift of previous generations and now, in many cases, nature reserves—too much tidiness can be destructive. They are centres of community life and, of course, the worship within them spills over into the establishment of all sorts of social action agencies, cultural events, drama, choirs, music-making and all the rest.

Before I look at the community life in our churches more fully, I will say a word or two about the buildings themselves and remind the Minister and the Government just what a good deal they get from the Church of England. I recall a survey, not many years ago, which said that 37% of the population believed that the clergy of the Church of England were paid by the Government—there’s a thought. An even higher proportion of people believed that our church buildings were maintained by the taxpayer. That continues to be true. With the increasing significance of the Heritage Lottery Fund in relation to historic buildings—which I welcome, including its repair grant scheme for places of worship—less now comes from the UK taxpayer to maintain this massive part of our built heritage. No other country in Europe has less financial support from the taxpayer for ecclesiastical heritage than England—which, ironically, has an established church.

Around £115 million is raised by congregations every year, on top of everything else, to maintain our parish churches. The tireless voluntary effort of the faithful members of the Church of England is not always adequately recognised as a massive contribution to our national heritage. As the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, pointed out, even in secular France, every parish church built before 1905 is maintained entirely at the expense of the state. However, as he also pointed out, absolutely rightly, they do not see very much love. As a result, I would not argue for that, but I am conscious that the rising generation of worshipping Anglicans is much less content to take on responsibility for the maintenance of these historic buildings than their parents and grandparents were; they believe that much of what is listed and monitored by the state should be supported by state funds.

If the economic recovery is as bright as we are told, we ought to look again at the prospects for this huge inheritance of glorious medieval buildings. I echo others who say that there are ways in which we might be able to target some of the most testing and hidden parts of our buildings, such as roof repairs, where a grant scheme would be really useful. I would be very grateful for the Minister’s comments on future funding in what I believe to be a pending crisis. Even though our church buildings are in such fine condition now, I am not sure what the future holds for 20 or more years’ time.

People love churches: even excluding worshippers, they visit them in droves. Some 31 million people will visit our cathedrals and churches this year. That is worth about £350 million to the tourism industry, but these iconic buildings are often ignored or marginalised in many tourism strategies and cultural plans. Often that is down to a failure of imagination and perhaps a default secularist mindset.

The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, mentioned bats. Anne Sloman, the chair of the Church Buildings Council, Sir Tony Baldry, the Second Church Estates Commissioner, and I, with others, have had lots of ministerial meetings, and a great deal of work has been done with Natural England and Defra. There are positive developments, but it is always odd to me that our parish churches seem to be treated much more as barns than as houses. They are places where people gather to worship and to eat—not just the sacrament of holy communion but more socially as well, although I doubt any other eating place would be allowed to be so unhygienic.

In my remaining time I will concentrate on community engagement. We use the same word—church—for the people as well as the building, of course. I remember some years ago at a conference a bishop saying, “We must put buildings before people”. I could feel the hackles rising all around. But what he meant was that we should present our buildings to people, to place them at the disposal of the community, to do many of the things the noble Lord, Lord Mawson, spoke about—to put them in front of people.

Nowadays I spend a great deal of time, even in a diocese with a host of medieval buildings, dedicating extensions and adaptations to ancient churches to make them usable community buildings—often reversing some of the things that the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, spoke about: removing the pews and returning the nave to those community purposes that he spoke about. One of our churches is turned weekly into a cinema. In another of our churches, the nave is used as a school hall and gymnasium for a school nearby that is on such a restricted site that it does not have the space to do these things. That is precisely what a medieval church is meant to be and do, and we are discovering all sorts of possibilities. I could take noble Lords to churches with shops in them or which host farmers’ markets; there are a few with post offices, but that has proved more difficult to achieve than we expected.

Of course, it is in our churches that people gain the inspiration to serve the community around them. I think of two Christian magistrates, two women from Norwich—one Anglican, one free church—who almost 20 years ago formed a small charity to offer help, advice, support and friendship to sex workers in the city. They began by making a vestry in one of our churches an extremely comfortable drop-in centre, with voluntary and paid staff. The Magdalene Group is now well respected and widely admired for its work with sex workers and is consulted internationally for what it has done. All that would not happen if the church was not people as well as buildings—people who care for one another and have entrepreneurial spirit.

It is well known now that there are many food banks in our churches. That is true with us, too. But it is less well known how often the church has reached out to those with drug and alcohol problems or how many of our churches offer debt advice services, bereavement care and a host of other activities.

On Sunday week I will be on a visitation to one of our council estate parishes in Norwich. It is a modern church, not a medieval one. As well as visiting the morning congregation, in the afternoon I will visit a Tamil language congregation given hospitality by the local parish. That congregation has grown and integrated exceptionally well. The ethnic diversity of our urban parishes is nowadays a cause for celebration and I am proud of the way in which so many of our churches welcome the stranger and engage with the migrant worker as well as those permanently in our country. The English parish church is now typically multi-ethnic in urban areas, and increasingly so in our market towns and even our villages.

Last Sunday I was in a small Norfolk village called Bergh Apton. It is a dispersed community. It has only about 300 people. Over the past three weekends more than 60 local people, including some from nearby settlements, formed the cast of a four-act modern mystery play, “The Legend of the Rood”. It was written by a Norfolk storyteller. It was full of humour and local references. It was the story of salvation with a contemporary twist. Pharaoh looked rather like Boris Johnson. Moses was based on “Citizen Smith”, who sought the liberation of the people of Tooting which he wanted to be the promised land. I had a part. I was cast as God—typecast, I suppose. It was an extraordinary cultural event, set in and around the parish church, drawing the community together: creative, empowering, spiritual, human, educational and entertaining. It was the English parish church doing its job. Similar stories can be told everywhere.

We hear much in the media about declining congregations and the church in conflict. That narrative is much too easily accepted and fails to recognise just how fertile and creative is the English parish church. Churches are as engaged with their communities as ever, and I thank God for that.

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con): My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Cormack for bringing this important debate to the House. I join with all noble Lords in paying tribute to his enduring contribution in promoting our national heritage. I have a great fondness for my noble friend, not least because I happen to be his Whip and perhaps can exert greater influence over him than others in your Lordships’ House.

This has been a wide-ranging, enlightening and informed debate, as ever. We have talked about bells and budgets, buildings and bats, and hymns and history. This reflects the importance that the parish church has in our society today.

Before I turn to the role of the parish church, on a personal reflection, perhaps I may refer to what the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich said about how this Government should fully acknowledge what they get back from the Church of England. I, for one, as a Minister of this Government, can certainly qualify that fact because my own primary and formative education was at an establishment called Holy Trinity, which is as Christian as the right reverend Prelate’s attire. So I can certainly lay testament to that issue.

It is right to talk about the importance of the role of faith in society. For example, a Christian has the right to wear a cross at work, and we took steps to allow local authorities to continue to hold prayers at the beginning of meetings, should they wish. As other noble Lords have said, the Prime Minister used his Easter address to speak about the importance of Christianity and Britain’s status as a Christian country. He spoke passionately about being confident and standing up to define the values of responsibility, hard work, charity, compassion, humility and love—we have heard a great deal about these recently—Christian values that he identified as being shared by people of every faith and, indeed, none: the values of every faith; British values; indeed, the values of humanity.

Turning to the role of the English parish church, as many noble Lords have said, there are few sights that evoke the true Englishness of our great country than that of a parish church. Indeed, my noble friend Lord Cormack reflected upon this in his opening remarks, as did the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich and my noble friend Lord Lloyd-Webber in their contributions. We have been through a journey through England today. I was scribbling notes furiously. As my noble friend Lord Lloyd-Webber said, it is only when we embark upon our travels domestically and nationally that we realise the real strength of our heritage. This is reflected in our churches across the country.

The Church of England is responsible for 16,000 parish churches, 12,500 of which are listed as being of historic or architectural interest, and the oldest surviving parish church is St Martin’s in Canterbury, which dates back to around 590 AD. No other body has greater responsibility for England’s built heritage. An insight has been provided into rural parish churches, but as my noble friend Lady Wilcox demonstrated, there is great strength in our urban-based churches. That point was also well made by the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, in her contribution. To quote Dr Simon Thurley, the chief executive of English Heritage:

“The parish churches of England are some of the most sparkling jewels in the precious crown that is our historic environment”.

The noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, talked about the importance of our new developments, and used the example of Thaxted parish church. It is right to reflect upon that, and her suggestion is certainly one that I will take back to DCLG. It is important that, when local plans for future developments are drawn up, they are reflective. Indeed, I recall from my years of serving on a planning committee that the word “sensitive” was often used in relation to the local environment. Being sensitive to the local parish church is an important part of that.

My noble friend Lord Cormack said that parish churches are fundamental to the life of communities, particularly in rural areas, but also in our cities. The Government fully acknowledge the essential role they play in our social and cultural life. Church buildings are important cultural venues. ChurchCare estimates that nearly half of the UK’s church buildings are used for arts, music and dance activities. The noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, asked about Wimbledon, whose name I carry. I am pleased to inform him that St Mary’s church in Wimbledon not only has music of a Christian kind, but also music of an Indian kind. Indeed, the hall is often hired out for festivities held by every faith in the community. That reflects the pivotal role of parish churches in our towns and cities across the country.

The noble Lord, Lord Griffiths of Burry Port, talked about the diverse uses made of church facilities, while the noble Lord, Lord Mawson, talked about social enterprise. Parish churches have helped to shape our own identity. They remind us of the values of peace, charity, trust, service to others, humanity and social justice. The right reverend Prelate also underlined them. My noble friend Lord Redesdale talked about the vital role played by volunteers. Noble Lords will realise that he is not in his place right now, but he has a very good excuse. He is part of our rowing team and even now he is out on the Thames rowing, I hope, the Lords to victory over the Commons. Along with our colleagues, we wish him well.

Noble Lords: Hear, hear!

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon: Parish churches also offer significant resources: buildings, organisational capacity, skilled volunteers and experience of reaching marginalised and excluded groups. The role of welfare was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Mawson. Churches up and down the country have a pivotal role to play, and I shall come to it in a moment. According to the Church Urban Fund figures for 2013, some 54% of Anglican parishes run at least one organised activity to address social needs such as loneliness, homelessness, debt, low income, unemployment and family breakdown. Let us cast our mind back to the recent floods. A great example of this work is reflected in the fact that many parish churches, along with their multi-faith partners, contributed to the response in practical ways through the provision of storage, providing shelter and refreshments, rest for volunteers and workers involved in the emergency operations, as well as acting as clearing houses for offers of accommodation. St John’s church in Surrey opened up a free café in Egham High Street for those affected by the floods so that they could access hot food and drink and be given community support. Indeed, many church volunteers worked within communities to distribute sandbags to families who had been affected by flooding.

Several noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Mawson, talked about the need for churches to change. Although I could give several, I can think of no better example than that of the Church of St Peter and St Paul, Algarkirk, in the diocese of Lincoln, and thus in my noble friend’s patch. The church congregation wrote to say that the church had been locked every day except for Sunday worship until the summer of 2012. The church had suffered vandalism, lead theft, and a general deterioration of the building and its interior, as well as an accumulation of clutter in the churchyard. The parish took the decision to open the church, and since then it has welcomed visitors from all over the world. A big clean-up was held and a programme of events and activities established. The church is being used for book swaps as there is no local library. The atmosphere in the church has improved immeasurably and a huge repair and conservation project has been embarked upon. This demonstrates the diversity of the role of the churches, which are recognising that they have a wider role to play.

Several noble Lords raised the issue of church funding, in particular my noble friend Lord Cormack. At present, the Government provide funding to the sector through a number of means, including the Listed Places of Worship Grant Scheme, where a budget of £42 million is guaranteed until 31 March 2016, and which is open to listed places of worship throughout the whole country. The right reverend Prelate asked about other funding. As my noble friend acknowledged, there is also the Heritage Lottery Fund, which makes grant available to places of worship in need of urgent structural repairs, and the £20 million additional funding allocated for cathedrals announced in the 2014 Budget. Importantly, this will ensure that Anglican and Roman Catholic cathedrals can undertake essential repair works as they play an important role in the First World War commemorations. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport is also administering the First World War centenary cathedral repairs fund. These all go some way to helping to look after some of our most treasured national heritage. I shall take back the point made by my noble friend Lord Lloyd-Webber and by the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, about the National Heritage Memorial Fund and write to noble Lords as appropriate on that matter.

Turning to bats, I will share a confession with noble Lords. This is one of those issues about which, when I sit down as a Minister for my briefings, I have very limited knowledge. I certainly remember bats of a cricket kind, and my memories of bats in childhood also refer back to Batman and Robin. Being the younger of two brothers, I always ended up playing Robin, but took some consolation from the fact that Robin was often called the Boy Wonder—I leave the rest to your Lordships’ assessment. As for bats specifically, most medieval churches will have bats, and Norfolk churches seem to have particular problems in this respect. In fact, historic buildings, especially churches, play an important role in helping to protect the conservation status of native bats. In a changing landscape, churches can represent one of the few remaining constant resources for bats, thus giving them a disproportionate significance for the maintenance of bat populations at a favourable conservation status. If churches wish to undertake works to address this problem, they can call the bat helpline—I am sure noble Lords will rush to it—where advice is given for free on timing and on whether investigation may be required. Under this service, 202 visits were made to churches last year.

I know there were different opinions about bats, but I am also mindful that noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, talked about music in churches, while the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, talked about the role of the church beyond the faith of Christianity. I look back to my Church of England education and remember a hymn:

“All things bright and beautiful,

All creatures great and small …

The Lord God made them all”.

Perhaps we can reflect on the conservation of bats in that light.

I am pleased to say that many places of worship may be able to secure funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund for conservation or repair works. This could include, on a serious note, bat surveys or mitigation works as part of a wider project. Defra has funded a three-year research project to develop bat deterrents for use in churches and English Heritage is now funding the development of a toolkit for churches based on those research results. This will be available by early 2015.

A central and pivotal role of the church, and indeed of all faith communities, is in social action. The Government fully appreciate that faith communities make a vital contribution to national life, something which has continued for centuries. The church is a primary example of this. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich talked about this, as did the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, in one particular respect. I am sure I speak for all noble Lords when I say that we want to see a few cakes and scones make an appearance this way—we will hold her to that.

The Government want to help develop further effective working relationships between people of different faiths. Across our great country, people from different faiths are working hard not just in countless churches but in mosques, temples, gurdwaras, synagogues and in charities and community groups to address problems and challenges in their local communities. We are doing so because practical co-operation between faith groups is crucial to our society. It is about people from different backgrounds coming together, not just sitting around sharing scones, tea and perhaps samosas but working together for the common good and tackling shared social problems, from improving our green spaces to challenging homelessness, but also to confront and stand firm against the rise of the ugly face of extremism.

We have therefore invested more than £8 million in the Church Urban Fund’s Near Neighbours programme, which is using our country’s celebrated parish system. I pay tribute to the Church of England in this respect. We are putting our money where our mouth is, not through a top-down intervention but by using the existing infrastructure of the Church of England parish system to build productive local relationships between people of different faiths in areas of high deprivation. Again, I use the example of the floods, where the Near Neighbours scheme was a great example of communities working together.

Every area in which Near Neighbours works has active parish churches that are seeking the good of these communities. Local vicars are in place to provide support and expertise for local people, including those who are involved with the programme. In addition, through the Together in Service programme launched last year, we are further strengthening social action around the country. We are investing £300,000 in this programme over two years and there are 25 projects currently running.

We also continue to fund the important work of the Inter Faith Network for the UK in linking and encouraging interfaith dialogue across the country. I am pleased to say that there were more than 350 events across the country last year during Inter Faith Week.

The noble Lords, Lord Mawson and Lord Griffiths, talked about churches transforming themselves. We have heard from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich and the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, examples of churches opening their doors, changing their nature, welcoming communities—social action in cities, towns and villages up and down the country, communities coming together through the church at a time when society needs them to do so. Local parish churches, alongside other places of worship and non-faith-based community groups, act as a key point of contact for many local people.

As the nation emerges from this recession, I fully acknowledge that there are still people in need and I can think of no better institution than the parish church to continue working to address poverty as well as enhancing community relations at a local level. I have no doubt that the English parish church will continue to rise to the challenge and do what it is good at doing.

A number of questions were raised. If I have missed any, I will of course write to noble Lords. I always listen to the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, with great intensity and attention. In his vibrant contribution he talked about funding. I have already talked about the various funding schemes in place. I hope he is reassured that I will take back his suggestion on the heritage fund. We have also announced, as I mentioned, £20 million for the repair of cathedrals. That is a recent example of the Government listening and supporting the sector. Of course, we are using the English parish system to administer the Near Neighbours programme.

The Christian parish church in England plays a key and pivotal role. It acts as an example to other communities—indeed, to other faiths. I hope and I know it will step up to the challenge in ensuring that it brings its Christian message of hope through its social action, through its architecture and, as my noble friend Lord Lloyd-Webber suggested, through its acts to build a society based on love and respect, which celebrates our history and our music with an exemplary ethos of service to the community, driven by an unstinting desire to serve humanity. The noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, said that the presence of the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, guarantees that the sun will rise. Thanks to your Lordships’ contributions, the sun has truly shone on this debate.