Church Commissioner Questions: income inequality, Heritage Lottery Fund, clergy vocations, oppression of overseas Christians, same-sex marriage

On 26th October 2017 the Second Church Estates Commissioner, Rt Hon Dame Caroline Spelman MP, answered questions from MPs on income inequality, the Heritage Lottery Fund, clergy vocations, the oppression of Christians overseas and same-sex marriage.

Income Inequality

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab): What recent discussions the Church of England has had with the Government on income inequality. [901426]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Dame Caroline Spelman): The Church has committed to being a living wage employer and for many decades has paid the same level of minimum stipend regardless of gender or geography. I can only answer for Church policy, but bishops in particular speak to relevant Ministers in the Treasury and other Departments about the impact of their policies.

Kerry McCarthy: Earlier this month the Archbishop of Canterbury wrote a powerful article for the Financial Times on how our economic model is broken and no longer working for everyone. Does the right hon. Lady agree with him—I appreciate she has just said she cannot answer for everyone—and particularly on the need for a fairer tax system, does she believe the Government are listening?

Dame Caroline Spelman: The Archbishop of Canterbury has recently been involved in the Institute for Public Policy Research commission on economic justice, and the article the hon. Lady mentions was written off the back of that commission’s erudite report, which I commend to the House. It focuses on things that need to be fixed and improved, but the Church itself is trying to do its bit. It recognises that we need to start right at the beginning of life by teaching financial literacy to our children so they are able to avoid the perils of debt, which is a scourge on this nation.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): The Church Commissioner will agree that the Church has a strong role to play in the guidance of others. Does she also agree that the glass ceiling, which she has referred to, is still in place? How can we encourage small and medium-sized businesses to play their part in bringing it down?

Dame Caroline Spelman: As a female, I am sympathetic to the point about the inequality caused by glass ceilings, which are still very much in place. This goes beyond the policy of just the Church, however, although it is trying to do its bit to ensure that its male and female employees are treated equally.

Heritage Lottery Fund

Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab): What representations she has received on the closure of the Heritage Lottery Fund strand for listed places of worship. [901428]

Dame Caroline Spelman: The Church continues to regret the decision by the Heritage Lottery Fund to close the grants for places of worship scheme. The Church Buildings Council is in close discussion with the HLF as to how we can try to find a way forward. The Church has received assurances from the chairman of the HLF that the amount of its funding for places of worship will, as a proportion, continue at comparable levels to the distribution in 2016.

Helen Goodman: Parishioners at St Mary the Virgin in Middleton-in-Teesdale and at St Mary’s in Barnard Castle were disappointed. Given that we are talking here about half the listed buildings in the country and that three quarters of Church of England buildings are listed, will the Church make further representations to the HLF on this important matter?

Dame Caroline Spelman: I am aware of the decision by the HLF north-east committee to reject the two applications to which the hon. Lady refers. There was a great deal of competition for those funds, but I understand that both the unsuccessful projects are being invited to a heritage grants workshop on 1 December at HLF offices to look at other ways of applying through its open programme for funds.

Clergy Vocation

Chris Davies (Brecon and Radnorshire) (Con):  What progress the Church of England has made on reaching its target of increasing clergy vocations to the priesthood by 50% by 2020. [901429]

Dame Caroline Spelman: The Church of England is well on its way to reaching its 2020 target, women have made up over 50% of ordinands in the last year, and, indeed, we have the highest level of ordinands for 10 years, an increase of 14% since last year. There has been a particularly strong increase, of 19%, in the number of women entering training compared with 2016.

Chris Davies: I thank my right hon. Friend for her answer and for the welcome news that it contained. What steps is the Church taking to ensure that the diversity of those being considered for ordination better reflects the country as a whole? While answering, will she join me in congratulating the Most Rev. John Davies, the Bishop of Swansea and Brecon, on becoming the 13th Archbishop of Wales—the first from that diocese?

Mr Speaker: Perhaps he is a relative of yours.

Dame Caroline Spelman: I certainly welcome the new Archbishop of Wales, John Davies, to his post. I also welcome the new Bishop of Llandaff, the Right Rev. June Osborne. I would certainly say that the Church in Wales is doing its very best to progress diversity. Also, we should not overlook the need to draw more people from different ethnic backgrounds, and the Church has strategies to increase the numbers of black and ethnic minority ordinands, who currently make up only 3.5% of clergy.

Mr Speaker: I am glad to hear that there are such plans. They ought to get on with it.

Kevin Foster (Torbay) (Con): I am sure that my right hon. Friend will agree that a vocation for the priesthood is fundamentally based on a call from God, and that that call never went only to white men of a certain age. Does she therefore agree that this work is about making people feel able to take up that call and not about setting a target to increase the number of calls that God makes?

Dame Caroline Spelman: Very much so; a vocation is gender blind. The 19% increase in the number of women coming forward for ordination is evidence that it is an attractive vocation to enter, and the Church strives to make training programmes more accessible to women and to people from diverse backgrounds.

Overseas Oppression and Discrimination

Theresa Villiers (Chipping Barnet) (Con): What steps the Church of England is taking to support Christians facing oppression and discrimination abroad. [901431]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Dame Caroline Spelman): This is an excellent and timely question, because tomorrow marks International Freedom of Religion or Belief Day, and the Church of England has been supporting a number of events, not least the one held in your house yesterday, Mr Speaker. There will also be a debate on this subject later today. The Church remains concerned about the increasing attacks on Christian communities around the world and continues to assist the International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief.

Theresa Villiers: Will my right hon. Friend tell us what the Church is doing to help internally displaced Christian communities return to their homes in northern Iraq?

Dame Caroline Spelman: I have raised with the Department for International Development on number of occasions the need to help Christians return to their ancient homeland. I can tell my right hon. Friend that the Nineveh Reconstruction Committee, which is a collaboration between the Chaldean Church, the Syrian Catholic Church and the Syrian Orthodox Church, has so far restored 1,700 properties, enabling just over 4,700 Christian families to return home.

Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP):  Next week marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. What is the Church doing to promote and celebrate an event that led to major religious and social freedom in this nation?

Dame Caroline Spelman: There are already a number of events to mark the Reformation. Indeed, you can hardly fail to turn on the radio without hearing about the commemoration of this great occasion. However, in the spirit of the question, I want to share with the House something that a Minister of State said yesterday at the reception in the Speaker’s house: “It is incumbent on us all—all of us of faith and those of no faith—to speak up for the tolerance to hear each other.”

Same-sex Marriage

Mr Ben Bradshaw (Exeter) (Lab): What recent discussions Church of England bishops have had on allowing parishes to hold ceremonies to celebrate same-sex marriages. [901432]

Dame Caroline Spelman: The Church’s doctrine, as set out in canon law and as explicitly recognised by the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013, is that marriage is a union of one man and one woman. As hon. Members will be aware, a resolution was passed over the weekend by the synod in Hereford. That motion will go to the General Synod and will be considered by its business committee for debate.

Mr Bradshaw: Given that many Anglican churches, including my wonderful cathedral in Exeter, already perform ceremonies to celebrate same-sex marriages, would it not be better for the Church just to get on with it and for bishops to make an announcement, rather than carrying on with what is in effect an institutionalised hypocrisy?

Dame Caroline Spelman: Obviously it is open to the right hon. Gentleman’s diocese to follow the same process that the Hereford diocese has just undertaken, but the Church is active in this area with two initiatives. A pastoral advisory group has been set up—led by the Bishop of Newcastle, Christine Hardman—to work on the development of pastoral practice within the Church’s existing teaching, and a major teaching document is being produced on marriage and sexuality.

Mr Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): When so many gay people are being persecuted throughout the world, particularly in Commonwealth countries, does my right hon. Friend not believe that allowing gay people to marry in churches in this country would send the right signal?

Dame Caroline Spelman: An important step forward was made by the worldwide Anglican Church in accepting a new doctrine against homophobia, which is part of trying to stamp out such persecution across the wider Anglican communion.