On 17th March 2016 MPs put questions to Rt Hon Caroline Spelman MP, representing the Church Commissioners. Questions were asked on mission in deprived areas, helping ex-offenders into work, sustainable energy, women’s leadership in the church and the contribution of cathedrals to cultural and economic life. A transcript is below.
The right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked
1. Fiona Bruce (Congleton) (Con): What plans the Church of England has to engage with communities that are most in need; and if she will make a statement. 
5. Tom Elliott (Fermanagh and South Tyrone) (UUP): What plans the Church of England has to engage with communities that are most in need; and if she will make a statement. 
7. Jeremy Quin (Horsham) (Con): What plans the Church of England has to engage with communities that are most in need; and if she will make a statement. 
The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Mrs Caroline Spelman): Under the Church’s major renewal and reform programme, the whole basis on which the commissioners will disburse funding to dioceses will be weighted significantly towards resourcing the Church’s mission in the most deprived areas.
Fiona Bruce: As a former Warrington councillor, I am aware that the boiler room learning hub at Sir Thomas Boteler School, supported by Warrington Youth for Christ, provided a supportive place for after-school study for many students over several years. Does my right hon. Friend agree that such partnership working between local churches and community groups is one of the best ways of raising the life chances of children in the communities most in need?
Mrs Spelman: Yes, I could not agree more. This school, in the Chester diocese, near my hon. Friend’s constituency, is an example of best practice. I was struck by its introduction of a leadership programme for 14 to 16-year-olds. It takes them to Lancaster University for four days and helps them to fulfil their potential and play an active role in their community and wider society.
Tom Elliott: Will the right hon. Member tell us whether the Church has any specific programmes dealing with the homeless or those with long-term addictions, such as alcohol or drug abuse?
Mrs Spelman: I cannot speak for the Church of Ireland. Obviously, I am speaking from the experience of the Church of England, whose social action does indeed cover the most vulnerable people in our society. Right here, in the diocese of London, it is possible for Members of Parliament to see the work the Church of England does among the homeless. That is replicated in all the dioceses within the Church of England, and I imagine that the same happens in the hon. Gentleman’s own nation.
Jeremy Quin: May I draw my right hon. Friend’s attention to the work down by Horsham Matters in my constituency? Those local churches are working together to provide a winter homeless shelter and other help for the homeless, a food bank and furniture and white goods for those in crisis. They even provide places for apprenticeships—[Interruption.] I understand, Mr Speaker. They do a lot of good work. Is that not a fine example to share with the House?
Mrs Spelman: That is one of many examples of where the Church’s social action really makes a difference to the most vulnerable. In respect of the earlier question about the role of the local council, it is significant that Horsham council ran a social inclusion working group bringing together churches, charities, the citizens advice bureau and debt advice organisations to support and advise the most vulnerable.
See Potential Initiative
2. Andrew Stephenson (Pendle) (Con): What discussions the Church Commissioners have had with the Church of England on supporting the Government’s See Potential initiative. 
Mrs Spelman: The Church of England is fully supportive of the See Potential initiative and all efforts to help employers recognise the potential within people regardless of their background.
Andrew Stephenson: The See Potential initiative focuses in part on helping people with criminal convictions to get an opportunity in the jobs market. Churches are a vital presence within the prison system and are often key to people’s rehabilitation. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Church can play an important role in spreading the message to other employers that there is a benefit to them in exercising the Christian value of forgiveness?
Mrs Spelman: I could not agree more with that example, as it is incumbent on Christians to visit people in prisons. I have been very struck by an initiative from my own parish church, whereby volunteers mentor ex-offenders before they come back into society to help them prepare to go straight and to live a life in which they can sustain themselves. These are excellent examples that can be replicated in all constituencies.
Sustainable Power Generation
6. Dr Andrew Murrison (South West Wiltshire) (Con): What steps the Church Commissioners are taking to increase the sustainable generation of power on the Church estate. 
The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Mrs Caroline Spelman): The Church Commissioners are committed to the sustainable generation of power on the Church estate. As of January 2016, over 400 churches and clergy homes were generating electricity from solar panels on their roofs, and both Winchester cathedral and Gloucester cathedral are planning to install solar panels this year.
Dr Murrison: Very conveniently, most of our ancient churches are built east-west, which means that there is a southerly elevation that is convenient for photovoltaic generation. What more encouragement will my right hon. Friend give the Church Commissioners to make sure that this important community resource is used to turn our ancient churches from the chilly places they currently are into something more accommodating?
Mrs Spelman: My hon. Friend’s question is timely, because it allows all hon. Members to hear that it is possible to put these renewable energy features on listed buildings. Churches have found all sorts of ways of installing renewable energy generation, and the planning authority within the Church, the Faculty, has become much more flexible when it comes to requests to install these renewable energy features.
Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con): I hope my right hon. Friend will not mind if I get a bit Trollopian. In order to take these sorts of matters forward, we need leadership in the Church. In the diocese of Oxfordshire, we are lacking a bishop. There has been no Bishop of Oxford for such a long time that we are beginning to wonder whether Sir John Chilcot is involved in his appointment. Will my right hon. Friend convey that what we need is leadership in the Church—locally as well as nationally?
Mrs Spelman: I am not sure that this question has a great deal to do with renewable energy; it may have more to do with Trollope. The vacancy in the Oxford diocese is, of course, a matter of concern, but there has already been one attempt to bring a list of candidates before those who can help to make that decision. I believe that a second attempt to produce such a list will be evident in May.
Mr Speaker: I note that the hon. Gentleman acutely exploited the diverse meanings of the word “power” so that he could remain in order.
Representation of Women
8. Pauline Latham (Mid Derbyshire) (Con): What support the Church Commissioners are giving to the Church of England to increase the representation of women in leadership positions. 
Mrs Spelman: I am very pleased to say that No. 10 Downing Street has just announced that the Venerable Jan McFarlane, currently Archdeacon of Norwich, will take up the post of Bishop of Repton. She will be the first female bishop in the east midlands.
Pauline Latham: I welcome that announcement—I am delighted to hear that we are to have a woman bishop at Repton—but will my right hon. Friend also join me in welcoming the Lords Spiritual (Women) Act 2015, which will enable the Bishops Bench in the other place to better reflect the gender diversity in the Church and in wider society?
Mrs Spelman: Absolutely—and how hard my predecessor worked on that legislation. There are now two female Lords Spiritual, and for the next nine years the 2015 Act will enable any new female diocesan bishop to be introduced before the next available man.
Sir Peter Bottomley (Worthing West) (Con): We are enjoined to do mathematics. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, given that women were held back for so many decades, it should not be a surprise if positions of responsibility and power are over-represented in new appointments, so that the balance of merit reflects the talents of both men and women in the Church of England?
Mrs Spelman: I could not agree more, and that is the justification for the very mild positive discrimination that is being applied in this instance with the aim of introducing more women to the House of Lords. Women now make up 41% of the total number of full-time ordained clergy.
9. Grahame M. Morris (Easington) (Lab): What support the Church Commissioners provide to cathedrals to contribute to the cultural and economic life of the UK. 
Mrs Spelman: Cathedrals play a significant part in the local economy. Attendance is increasing, and their contribution to the economy has increased by 27%. No doubt that was partly responsible for inspiring the Chancellor’s generous doubling of the £20 million that was originally provided for the cathedral repair bill as part of the centenary world war one fund.
Grahame M. Morris: Durham cathedral, which is in my area, is a particularly fine example. Let me also give a plug for that great working-class gathering, the Durham miners’ gala, which will take place on Saturday 9 July. Could any of that £20 million be used to renovate some of the churches and church assets in other mining communities? St Mary the Virgin church in Seaham, for example, is one of only 20 Viking churches in the country.
Mrs Spelman: I could not agree more with the hon. Gentleman about the magnificence of Durham cathedral. In fact, it is about to launch an Open Treasure project that is designed to produce a sustainable future for the cathedral. However, a sustainable and flourishing cathedral has a knock-on effect on any city and its regional economy. As we have seen in other dioceses, a cathedral can act as a hub, attracting more and more visitors, and also drawing their attention to the magnificent things that can be seen in surrounding churches.
Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): Tonight Lichfield cathedral will switch on the new lights whose installation was made possible by the last £20 million grant from the Chancellor. However, the chapter roof is now leaking, and it holds the medieval library. May I engage my right hon. Friend in helping us to try to get some more money with which to restore and maintain the library?
Mrs Spelman: I am sure that, following the Chancellor’s generosity yesterday in agreeing to provide an additional £20 million to help with the cathedral repair bill, Lichfield will be one of the first contenders to dip into that fund. As is so often the case after a Budget, the Church of England now has an opportunity to say a very big thank you for the additional money.
Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP) rose—
Mr Speaker: I will call the hon. Gentleman if it is to be one short sentence.
Jim Shannon: Thank you, Mr Speaker. This is my one short sentence. Is there a case for cathedrals to reach out and host events, whether they are classes or simply community events that help to bring the community together while also encouraging more people to visit cathedrals? I hope that that is short enough, Mr Speaker.
Mrs Spelman: It is clear from the increasing attendance figures that Church of England cathedrals do bring more people together. It is also significant that, in the last decade, there has been a 14% increase in the number of educational visits, which demonstrates that cathedrals appeal to all generations.