On the 11th March 2015 during the final House of Commons session of this Parliament for questions to the Church Commissioners, MPs asked the Second Church Estates Commissioner, the Rt Hon Canon Sir Tony Baldry MP, about the House of Bishops’ Pastoral Letter, St George’s Jerusalem, the rural church, faith leaders and citizenship values, church buildings, the living wage, Lichfield Cathedral and ethical investment.
This was the final Church Commissioner questions session for Sir Tony Baldry MP, who retires at the end of this Parliament. Tributes to his work were paid by MPs and by the Speaker.
A full transcript can be found below.
Church Commissioners Questions
The right hon. Member for Banbury, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
House of Bishops’ Pastoral Letter
Mr David Nuttall (Bury North) (Con): What steps the Church Commissioners plan to take in response to the House of Bishops’ pastoral letter on the 2015 general election.
The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Canon Sir Tony Baldry): A copy of the House of Bishops’ pastoral letter has been sent to every Member of Parliament. The letter makes it clear that it is not a shopping list of policies that the bishops would like to see, and that if anyone claims that the pastoral letter is saying, “Vote for this party or that party”, they have misunderstood it, but that there is a need to focus on the common good and the participation of more people in developing a political vision.
Mr Nuttall: As this is the last Church Commissioners questions before Dissolution when my right hon. Friend leaves this House, may I place on record my thanks for all his work as the Second Church Estates Commissioner?
Is my right hon. Friend concerned that this letter, which is actually a 52-page booklet, may have been misrepresented in some quarters by some commentators, who have cherry-picked certain phrases and passages rather than looking at the document as a whole?
Canon Sir Tony Baldry: My hon. Friend makes a good point. I hope every parliamentary colleague will read the bishops’ pastoral letter. I do not expect everyone to agree with everything in it, but it is a thoughtful and thought-provoking document which makes it clear that the bishops believe that
“the great majority of politicians and candidates enter politics with a passion to improve the lives of their fellow men and women.”
Only yesterday the Archbishop of Canterbury made this observation:
“It’s just the reality; decisions have to be made and it is often unbelievably difficult. Politicians know that quite often they are doing the best they can and the more I see of them the more I reckon that it’s very rare to find one who isn’t doing the best they can but often in incredibly difficult situations.”
St George’s Cathedral (Jerusalem)
Jeremy Lefroy (Stafford) (Con): If the Church Commissioners will take steps to support St George’s cathedral in Jerusalem.
Canon Sir Tony Baldry: Like any Anglican cathedral overseas, St George’s cathedral in Jerusalem is financially independent of the Church Commissioners. However, I would hope that everyone possible would support the work of the friends of St George’s cathedral in Jerusalem, a UK registered charity that has the Archbishop of Canterbury as patron.
Jeremy Lefroy (Stafford) (Con): I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer and join my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) in paying tribute to the work that he has done as the Second Church Estates Commissioner.
On a visit with the International Development Committee last year in the area, I had the privilege of being invited by my constituent, Mrs Hifsa Iqbal, to an interfaith conference hosted by St George’s cathedral in Jerusalem. May I encourage the Church Commissioners to look at the very important work that St George’s is doing in the middle east and see what support they can give?
Canon Sir Tony Baldry: My hon. Friend makes a good point and I entirely agree with him. St George’s cathedral in Jerusalem seeks to support everyone in need irrespective of their faith, but its support for Palestinian Christians is particularly important as they often feel themselves to be twice a minority. It is a sad fact that the number of Christians in the Holy Land has dwindled significantly in recent years, so I hope that we will all do what we can to support the work of St George’s cathedral in Jerusalem, and the schools and hospitals that it runs for everyone in the west bank and in Gaza.
Duncan Hames (Chippenham) (LD): That is indeed a sad fact. I was fortunate to be able to join worshippers for evensong at St George’s cathedral in Jerusalem and I still remember the prayer that evening, that we should pray not just for the Israelis or for the Palestinians, but for ourselves—that we should not separate them in our prayers. Does that not illustrate the vital contribution that St George’s can make to both civic and spiritual life in Jerusalem?
Canon Sir Tony Baldry: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. I commend to every colleague psalm 122, which includes the words:
“Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.”
Christianity (Rural Areas)
Martin Vickers (Cleethorpes) (Con): What steps the Church of England plans to take to maintain and support a Christian presence in every rural community.
Canon Sir Tony Baldry: The Church of England is committed to being a Christian presence in every community. The recently published “Growing the Rural Church” report identifies a number of recommendations to help rural multi-church groups to flourish.
Martin Vickers: As well as being places of worship, especially in rural areas, churches are community hubs, and with priests being spread over so many parishes now, there are increasing problems. Will my right hon. Friend do everything he possibly can to ensure that the Church provides as many clergy as possible for our rural parishes?
Canon Sir Tony Baldry: Yes, indeed. We certainly seek to recruit more stipendiary and self-supporting clergy. My hon. Friend makes an important point. The vibrancy of churches is important to rural life. There are 635 churches in the diocese of Lincoln. They all play an important part in the vibrancy and vitality of the countryside of Lincolnshire.
Miss Anne McIntosh (Thirsk and Malton) (Con): Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the Church Commissioners dig deep into their resources to ensure that the jewels of the rural crown of the multiple parish churches in a constituency such as Thirsk and Malton will be preserved and kept in the best possible state of maintenance?
Canon Sir Tony Baldry: One of the tasks I will take on when I leave the House is to chair a statutory body, the Church Buildings Council, which is responsible for the maintenance, repair and restoration of all 16,000 parish churches throughout England. I want to make sure that they are always seen as a blessing, not as a burden. We must acknowledge that the majority of English churches are in rural areas, which cover only a sixth of the population, so we have some challenges, but they play an important part in the lives of every village community.
Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): If the Church Commissioners will discuss with Church of England bishops initiatives involving other faith leaders on instilling citizenship values throughout the population.
Canon Sir Tony Baldry: Bishops throughout England work closely with other faith leaders in their diocese to uphold citizenship values throughout their communities.
Mr Sheerman: The right hon. Gentleman has always been more of a blessing than a burden in these sessions, and today especially so.
On a serious note, citizenship is taught patchily in schools in our country. We have a wonderful interfaith group in Huddersfield which leads this positive move to share faith and interests. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that if the hard work is done in such organisations all the time, when crises arrive it will stand us in good stead?
Canon Sir Tony Baldry: I entirely agree. Indeed, I am glad that during this Parliament the Government, through the Department for Communities and Local Government, have supported three programmes to help promote faith communities: Near Neighbours, which is operated by the Church Urban Fund; Together in Service, which is operated by FaithAction; and the work of the Inter Faith Network for the UK. Another challenge that I am taking on after standing down is chairing the trustees of the St Ethelburga’s centre for reconciliation and peace, based in the City of London, which works with many interfaith institutions right across the country, whether in Huddersfield, Manchester or elsewhere. There is an enormous amount of really good practice going on in interfaith work across the United Kingdom, of which we can all be proud.
Fiona Bruce (Congleton) (Con): What support is available for the upkeep of historic churches in local communities.
The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Canon Sir Tony Baldry): The Heritage Lottery Fund makes money available for church repair and restoration. The Chancellor of the Exchequer recently announced a £15 million fund to assist churches with roof repairs. There are other sources of funding, such as help from landfill tax credits, to a number of charities and foundations that regularly and generously support repair, reordering and restoration work in parish churches. Details of possible funding can be found at www.churchcare.co.uk
Fiona Bruce: I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Does he agree that parish churches such as St Michael’s in Middlewich in my constituency are an invaluable community resource, and that the cost of repairing and maintaining such listed church buildings should not just fall on the shoulders of church congregations but be shared more widely?
Canon Sir Tony Baldry: I agree that parish churches are an invaluable community asset. We ought to thank the Chancellor for what he has done during the course of this Parliament. There is gift aid; there is the small gift relief legislation that we passed; there is the listed places of worship scheme, which effectively relieves churches of the cost of VAT on repairs and restoration; and there is the recent £15 million roof fund that the Chancellor made available for helping to repair church roofs. Churches are part of our national heritage, and the whole community has a responsibility to help to maintain and restore them.
Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): In my constituency, the friends of the Presbyterian church in Portaferry have a wonderful historic church. They applied for, and were successful in getting, a grant of some £900,000 from the Big Lottery Fund. Those moneys enabled the church to be refurbished, retained and restored to its former glory. What contact have the Church Commissioners had with the Big Lottery Fund scheme to ensure that all churches can do the same?
Canon Sir Tony Baldry: May I write to the hon. Gentleman, because I need to pick through that question? I have responsibility only for the Church of England, and I do not think my responsibilities stretch to Northern Ireland, so I need to see what help I can offer him.
Mr Ben Bradshaw (Exeter) (Lab): What the Church Commissioners’ policy is on paying the living wage.
Canon Sir Tony Baldry:The Church Commissioners and the Archbishops Council are committed to paying the living wage and ensuring that all staff and contractors who are employed at directly owned commercial and residential properties are paid at least the living wage. Other parts of the national institutions, including the Church of England, are committed to paying the living wage and are following the Living Wage Commission’s recommendations to put in place a transitional programme that involves all staff being paid the living wage by 2017.
Mr Bradshaw: Given that completely satisfactory answer, Mr Speaker, may I dispense with my supplementary question and simply, through you, thank the right hon. Gentleman for the superb job he has done as Second Church Estates Commissioner? He should be aware that millions of Anglicans and non-Anglicans across the world, but particularly our fantastic women priests, have him to thank for having saved the Church of England from itself in its original debacle over women bishops. On their behalf, thank you.
Canon Sir Tony Baldry: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for those very kind comments. On this, as I hope on much, the work has benefited from cross-party collaboration, and much of what we have achieved we have achieved only by people in this House working together.
To ask the right hon. Member for Banbury, representing the Church Commissioners, If he will visit Lichfield Cathedral to discuss the maintenance and fabric of the building with the Dean and Chapter.
Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): Five years ago, I started nagging my right hon. Friend about money required to maintain the fabric of Lichfield cathedral, and I do not intend his retirement to stop me. What hope can he give Lichfield cathedral that we will receive funding in order to maintain the wiring—and when will he come and visit Lichfield?
Canon Sir Tony Baldry: My hon. Friend’s question on the Order Paper was whether I would visit Lichfield cathedral, to which the answer is yes. The answer to his supplementary question is that, as the House will know, the Chancellor made £20 million available so that we could ensure that all our cathedrals were in a good state to commemorate the centenary of the first world war. Lichfield cathedral needs some serious money to help rewire it, because otherwise it will be unable to function. I am looking forward to visiting Lichfield cathedral shortly to see Lichfield’s treasures, including the Lichfield angel and my hon. Friend.
Mr Speaker: The right hon. Gentleman may be looking forward to his visit to Lichfield cathedral, but I do not suppose he is looking forward to it as much as the people of Lichfield.
Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab): What the Church Commissioners’ policy is on investing their funds in petrochemical companies.
The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Canon Sir Tony Baldry): The Church Commissioners do invest in petrochemical companies. These investments are managed in line with our ethical investment policy. The commissioners intend to continue to engage collaboratively with other shareholders and the industry to encourage greater transparency and transition to a lower-carbon economy.
Kerry McCarthy: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that reply. It is an honour to be the last person ever to ask him a question. It is just a shame that we are not talking about bats, as we usually do.
I know that the right hon. Gentleman feels that some progress has been made on this issue, but others have said that the Church of England is rather dragging its feet. Will he heed the calls of Archbishop Desmond Tutu to show strong moral leadership on this issue and report back sooner rather than later?
Canon Sir Tony Baldry: I am not quite sure on what specific issue the hon. Lady wants us to show strong moral leadership. The fact is that we have a vibrant North sea oil industry in this country, so we all have an interest in investing in the petrochemical industry. We need to ensure that we work with other shareholders and institutions to try to ensure that the oil companies act as transparently as possible and move as fast as possible to a lower-carbon economy.
Mr Speaker: In simply adding to the very proper tributes that have been paid to the right hon. Gentleman, I would like to take the opportunity to say that he has been assiduous, accomplished and avuncular in equal measures, which has been hugely appreciated across the House. I think he is aware that I am visiting Bloxham school in his constituency tomorrow. I cannot claim that I am doing so specifically to pay tribute to him, but it will be a pleasure to be in his constituency. On behalf of the whole House, I would like to thank him for his 32 years’ service in this place.