On 2nd March 2017 the Second Church Estates Commissioner, Dame Caroline Spelman MP, answered oral and written questions in the House of Commons, covering wi-fi in churches, art exhibitions in churches, the Anglican Church in South Sudan, the House of Bishops’ Report on Human Sexuality, and church building repairs. A full transcript follows:
The right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
Parish Churches: Wi-fi/Broadband
1. Andrew Stephenson (Pendle) (Con) What progress has been made on identifying parish churches suitable for wi-fi and broadband in rural areas. 
7. Chris Davies (Brecon and Radnorshire) (Con) What progress has been made on identifying parish churches suitable for wi-fi and broadband in rural areas. 
9. Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con) What progress has been made on identifying parish churches suitable for wi-fi and broadband in rural areas. 
The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Dame Caroline Spelman): I would certainly like to welcome the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) to her position and I look forward to working with her at these question sessions.
There has been a lot of interest from colleagues in this question of how to provide the internet to parts of the country that currently have poor provision. Churches play an important role in supporting community infrastructure, and the Diocese of Norwich has led the way. Since 2011, it has been the majority shareholder in WiSpire, which provides wi-fi internet signal boosters to churches across the diocese. We are in early discussions to expand that provision into the St Edmundsbury and Ipswich and Ely dioceses.
Andrew Stephenson: May I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer? Can she explain how the Church is engaging with communities that live in particularly rural and sparsely populated areas to enable them to receive high-speed broadband?
Dame Caroline Spelman: Obviously, the topography of Lancashire is challenging, so I am very sympathetic to my hon. Friend’s case. In fact, I went to see an example of a wi-fi booster signal, and as long as there is a line of sight between a church tower and another church tower, or a high building, it is possible to provide internet coverage in remote rural areas that currently have no signal. I encourage him to speak to the Bishop of Carlisle and I will give every support in his endeavour to ensure that his constituents are not digitally divided.
Mr Speaker: This is very reassuring indeed.
Chris Davies: Right across the country, church buildings are central to strong local communities. Will my right hon. Friend explain whether it has been possible to provide wi-fi and broadband in listed churches and chapels to help those buildings to remain sustainable well into the future?
Dame Caroline Spelman: I am grateful for that question, because there is a commonly held myth that it is not possible to amend ancient and listed buildings in these ways, but as my hon. Friend will have seen from the success in Norwich diocese, there is no fundamental barrier to putting a wi-fi booster set or a mobile phone booster on the top of a church tower or spire. That is why the Government have welcomed the partnership with the Church of England to try to reach our notspots.
Daniel Kawczynski: Will my right hon. Friend outline what work the Church is undertaking to assess the potential scale of this project, and how Members can identify buildings in notspot areas that could be used for wireless transmitters?
Dame Caroline Spelman: Yes; my hon. Friend is right. I am sure that he would like the Church in Shrewsbury to be actively involved in this. The absolute key to this is knowing where the notspots are. I met the Minister for Digital and Culture, as I think many colleagues in the House did, who has an enormous spreadsheet that shows where the gaps are, and that is now being matched to what the Church can provide. We have offered to help to create a property asset register, so that this matching process can take place, and I hope it will benefit my hon. Friend’s constituency.
2. Art Exhibitions
Christian Matheson (City of Chester) (Lab) What assessment the commissioners have made of the use of churches and cathedrals as venues for art exhibitions. 
Dame Caroline Spelman: Chester cathedral already has a very strong reputation for the provision of excellent services to its visitors and its local community. Indeed, for over 1,000 years, the Church has been a patron of the arts. Churches and cathedrals provide an excellent venue for exhibitions; I am convinced that the cathedral in Chester is a very good venue for them.
Christian Matheson: I am most grateful to the right hon. Lady for the support that she has given in the past to Chester cathedral’s efforts to increase visitor numbers and therefore, hopefully, to increase worship numbers as well. Does she share my dismay, however, that Arts Council England has declined to support Chester’s bid for support for the major sculpture exhibition that it is hosting this year—the largest in the north of England? Might the Church Commissioners indicate to Arts Council England their support for the cathedral?
Dame Caroline Spelman: Cathedral attendance is rising, in no small part because of the quality of the services that are offered. People enjoy going to cathedrals for exhibitions. The Church of England fully supports Chester’s ambition to hold a similarly significant exhibition. My understanding is that the funding for this is on a rolling programme, so I really encourage the cathedral to apply again, and of course we will provide our support.
Jeremy Quin (Horsham) (Con): It is often new churches that are best configured for a variety of uses. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Richard Coldicott, the incumbent, and the congregation of St Mark’s, Holbrook, in my constituency, on its consecration last week as a brand-new parish church?
Dame Caroline Spelman: It gives me great pleasure to congratulate the congregation of St Mark’s on having the vision to create a new church. In fact, the Church of England is opening as many new churches, typically in new developments, as it is closing old ones. Of course a new facility like that is a wonderful venue for the arts and for exhibitions such as those that we are discussing.
Mr Speaker: I hope the Hansard text of the right hon. Lady’s reply to the hon. Gentleman will be posted on the church door. That would seem only fitting.
Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Will the right hon. Lady also bear in mind not only exhibitions, but new music? Will she look at a work performed at Peterborough cathedral only a few days ago, “Even You Song”, with a wonderful new libretto by someone called Dr Lucy Sheerman?
Dame Caroline Spelman: I am very impressed to hear about that. When one looks through the list of the exhibitions that are being held in cathedrals up and down the country, one cannot fail to be impressed by the range and depth. May I commend to hon. Members an exhibition about refugees at Southwark cathedral, a mere short step from the House, should they require some respite from the labours of the House and its debates? This is a very current topic, and I commend it to the House.
Mr Speaker: Splendid.
Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Many parish churches in the borough of Kettering, particularly in rural villages, are opened up for a variety of community activities, including art exhibitions. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is an excellent way of getting people into churches who might otherwise never cross the threshold?
Dame Caroline Spelman: My hon. Friend is completely right. The sheer scale of these beautiful buildings creates a backdrop for the presentation of art and the display of sculpture. We have some really interesting and famous examples of sculpture in our cathedrals, including works by Gormley, and indeed Tracey Emin has a piece in Liverpool cathedral. I encourage all Members to encourage their constituents to visit their churches and cathedrals not just for worship, but for the beauty of the art presented within them.
Anglican Church (South Sudan)
5. Mrs Theresa Villiers (Chipping Barnet) (Con): What plans the Church of England has to support the Anglican Church in South Sudan. 
The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Dame Caroline Spelman): The Church of England is responding to the crisis in South Sudan with prayer and practical action. The Church of the Province of South Sudan has 5 million members and is spread across 43 diocese, so there is an opportunity to provide aid right to the frontline through the Church network.
Mrs Villiers: Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Church, which is flourishing in South Sudan, can play a really valuable role in helping to distribute aid and support to all those affected by the famine there?
Dame Caroline Spelman: My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. In Department for International Development questions, I asked the Secretary of State to acknowledge the opportunity to distribute aid through the Church network. We should not forget the work of Christian Aid in South Sudan, which is providing direct unconditional grants, equivalent to $93, to families who have lost everything so that they can rebuild their lives.
8. Bishops’ Report on Human Sexuality
Mr Ben Bradshaw (Exeter) (Lab): What discussions she has had with Church leaders on the vote by the General Synod to reject the bishops’ report on human sexuality; and if she will make a statement. 
Dame Caroline Spelman: The majority of members of the General Synod voted to take note of the report of the House of Bishops, but the motion did not pass because a small majority was against it in the House of Clergy. Following that, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York issued a statement committing them to find a way forward.
Mr Bradshaw: Was it not very significant that it was the clergy, who are in the frontline of providing pastoral care to their parishioners, who voted down the bishops’ paper? Is it not increasingly untenable for our Church, which enjoys significant privileges in this country because of its established status, to continue to discriminate against its own members simply because they happen to be gay?
Dame Caroline Spelman: There was a narrow margin in the House of Clergy vote—93 in favour of taking note to 100 against—but a majority is required in all Houses. The way forward, as outlined by the archbishops, is that the pastoral oversight group led by the Bishop of Newcastle, the Rev. Christine Hardman, will now work on how to be as generous as possible to welcome all lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people into the Church and to include them in the work of the pastoral oversight group.
Robert Jenrick (Newark) (Con): My right hon. Friend may be aware of the case of my constituent, Canon Jeremy Pemberton, who was found not to have been discriminated against on the grounds of sexuality when the Diocese of Southwell denied him permission to officiate in the light of him having had a gay marriage, despite the fact that neighbouring diocese would allow him to officiate. Does my right hon. Friend accept that allowing each bishop discretion in how to handle these, admittedly, complex issues is creating unfairness and variances that are quite hard to justify?
Dame Caroline Spelman: It is hard to comment on the specific case. It has come before the House before, but it is a legal process, which we normally do not comment on, although it has now reached its conclusion. My hon. Friend may not be aware that the Ecclesiastical Committee of this House actually met and was content with changes to the law with regard to the need to protect children and the powers and discretion that bishops have. Changes have taken place and more need to happen.
Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): But discretion is not always good in the Church, is it? Jeffrey John, the Dean of St Albans, has been barred from becoming a bishop in the Church in Wales, which I know is separate from the Church of England, because the other bishops have refused to do what they have done in every other case—accept what the members of the local diocese have wanted.
Dame Caroline Spelman: I am not responsible for the Church of Wales—[Interruption]—because I am responsible for the Church of England. However, I appreciate the point the hon. Gentleman is trying to make. This is a really serious matter, and we should heed what the Archbishop of Canterbury, as the head of the Anglican communion, said about the need to have radical Christian inclusivity. The Church of England is working within the current legal and doctrinal context towards a culture change that is inclusive.
Churches: Wifi and Broadband
Karl McCartney (Lincoln) To ask the right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, what progress has been made on identifying parish churches suitable for wi-fi and broadband in rural areas. (909030)
Dame Caroline Spelman: Churches across the Country play an important role in supporting community infrastructure for their local communities. The Diocese of Norwich since 2011 have been the majority shareholder in WiSpire which provides discreet Fixed Wireless Access technology to attach to church towers. This system builds a network of transmitters offering schools, businesses and residents the opportunity to connect to Wi-Fi and broadband particularly in rural areas.
The Church is in early discussions to expand this provision into the Diocese of St Edmundsbury & Ipswich and Diocese of Ely. Given the geography of the Diocese of Lincoln it may be a suitable candidate for consideration as the project expands as best provision using this system needs direct line of sight. Conversations are also in progress with the Government to test viability of this and other potential schemes across other parts of the country.
Churches: Repairs and Maintenance
Mr Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) To ask the right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, what steps the Commissioners are taking to assist urban parishes with capital funding for urgent restorative building work. (909029)
Dame Caroline Spelman: The Church of England highly values the work of the Heritage Lottery Fund in running the Grants for Places of Worship Scheme, a fund which puts £30m a year into UK listed places of worship, of all faiths and denominations. This dedicated scheme takes account of the specific needs of places of worship that are primarily run by volunteers who cannot afford to employ the skills of professional grant-application writers.
The Church has also worked closely with the National Heritage Memorial Fund during the recent Church Roofs Fund scheme that has invested £55m in over 400 places of worship, 300 of which were Anglican churches. This scheme has successfully kept the roof on churches where it was urgently needed in order to keep the building open for its community. This scheme has now ended and we are working with the National Heritage Memorial Fund to evaluate the impact of the scheme across the country.
Given the profound contribution churches make to the social and economic life of the nation it is right that this is recognised in this way, especially as the scheme ensures outcomes from repairs including benefits to local people.
The Church Buildings Council last year awarded just over £600,000 to churches for urgent repairs to buildings and objects including stained glass, sculpture and monuments. This is part of a long-term partnership with the Wolfson Foundation, Pilgrim Trust and Radcliffe Trust. The partnership between Wolfson Foundation, Pilgrim and Radcliffe Trusts has enabled a simple application process and fast response time, making it a relatively small but very valuable resource for struggling parishes. We are actively seeking to secure the future of this fund and increase its grant-giving capacity through the work of our new associated charity, the Anglican Parish Churches Fund.