Church Commissioners’ Questions – marriage, vocations, gay conversion therapy, Middle East Christians, counter terrorism

17.12.07 Carolinespelman2On 25th January 2018 the Second Church Estates Commissioner, Rt Hon Dame Caroline Spelman MP, answered questions from MPs on marriage registration, vocations, gay conversion therapy, Christians in the Middle East, and counter terrorism measures at York Minster and other religious premises. The full transcript is below:

Church Commissioners

The right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—

Marriage Registration

Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab): To ask the right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, what assessment the Church of England has made of the potential merits of proposals in the Registration of Marriage Bill to enable a mother’s details to be recorded on marriage certificates. [903524]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Dame Caroline Spelman): I must declare an interest because I am promoting the Bill that would enable a mother’s details to be recorded in the registration of marriages, and I will introduce it for the second time on 23 February. More importantly, the Bishop of St Albans will introduce an identical Bill in the House of Lords tomorrow. The House could not have a stronger demonstration of how much the Church of England would welcome this change.

Diana Johnson: I congratulate the right hon. Lady on promoting the Bill. One way that women have been written out of history is by not having what work they have done in the past recorded on official documents such as a marriage certificates. I very much support what she is doing, but can anything else be done to promote the Bill and get Government support?

Dame Caroline Spelman: We are doing our very best. On 31 December, I was encouraged to read in The Sunday Times that a Home Office spokesman had told that newspaper that the Bill had been “signed off”. I hope that might mean that the Government will give the Bill time when it comes here from the Lords, as I am sure it will. We all want this to happen. It would put an end to an anachronism, and we would all cheer that. Many mothers who have weddings in the offing would like this change to happen in time for their children’s marriages.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): In a society where marriage break-ups and relationship breakdowns happen daily, we welcome the right hon. Lady’s assertion that it is now time to include the mother’s details on the marriage certificate. Will she outline a legal timescale for that, and say when it might be completed?

Dame Caroline Spelman: As things stand, an identical private Member’s Bill is being introduced in both Houses—that is a pincer movement to try to make this happen. This is only the fifth time that the House has attempted to get this important change to a law that dates back to 1853. If the Government were to give the Bill time in the House, that would speed up that change to the law. I hope that the statement from the Home Office on new year’s eve has some substance behind it, and that the Bill will soon be given time in the House.


Religious Vocations

Sir Desmond Swayne (New Forest West) (Con): To ask the right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, what recent assessment the Church of England has made of trends in the number of its religious vocations. [903527]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Dame Caroline Spelman): I know that my right hon. Friend has a great interest in this subject because he asked me about the training of ordinands in April last year. I am pleased to be able to tell the House that an additional 44 candidates have presented for training as ordained ministers, making a total of 544 in training. That means that we are well on our way to our target of 750 a year by 2020.

Sir Desmond Swayne: As so many clerics retire, what will be the future age profile of my right hon. Friend’s holy orders?

Dame Caroline Spelman: Like a lot of institutions, we face the prospect of large numbers of older clergy retiring at the same time as a result of previous pushes to increase the number of people being ordained and entering ministry. I am delighted to say, however, that the number of younger ordinands in the under-32 age group rose by nearly two fifths and now accounts for almost a third of the total.

Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): I was disappointed to hear recently from the head of Uber that only 5% of Uber drivers are women. What is the gender balance among the ordinands the right hon. Lady mentioned in the statement she just made?

Dame Caroline Spelman: The hon. Gentleman has always been assiduous in asking about gender balance. I am delighted to be able to say that the intake of female ordinands has seen an increase of 19% compared with last year. Although women make up only a third of the fully ordained clergy in place at the moment, we are moving, like other professions, towards 50:50.

Dr David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): In the diocese of Gloucester it would seem that as soon as we fill one vacancy, another arises. Bishop Rachel is working very hard, but the situation can be sorted only if we bring more people forward for training. What is the Church of England doing to enable that to happen?

Dame Caroline Spelman: We celebrated the introduction of Bishop Rachel as the first female [diocesan] bishop following the change in the law. We now have a female bishop for Newcastle sitting in the Lords, and very recently a female bishop for London was appointed. There is clear evidence of progress, and there is a method of positive discrimination whereby dioceses eligible to be represented in the Lords are encouraged to appoint a woman so that the Lords moves towards better representation of female bishops.


Gay Conversion Therapy

Mr Ben Bradshaw (Exeter) (Lab): To ask the right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, what discussions the Church of England has had with the Government as a result of the General Synod’s call to ban gay conversion therapy. [903528]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Dame Caroline Spelman): Following all meetings of the General Synod, it is standard practice for the clerk to the General Synod to inform the appropriate Department. That was done on 21 July following the vote at the Synod to ban conversion therapy. A response was received from the relevant Minister on 24 August.

Mr Bradshaw: It would be helpful if we knew a little more about what that response actually said. As the right hon. Lady will know, this so-called therapy does dreadful damage to young people emotionally and psychologically; its ban is long overdue. The sponsor of the excellent motion in the General Synod has asked for a meeting with the relevant Minister, but that has been refused. I hope that the right hon. Lady will intervene on her behalf.

Dame Caroline Spelman: I am obviously not responsible for the Government’s decision, but the General Synod voted clearly and unequivocally to ban gay conversion therapy. I can share some of the contents of the letter that the Minister wrote to me. The Government are strongly against the practice of so-called reparative or conversion therapy. They have no current plans to ban or restrict it through legislation, because existing voluntary registers already provide safeguards for the public, but I will certainly assist in the way that the right hon. Gentleman suggests by writing to the Minister.

Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab): More widely, in some parishes anti-gay prejudice masquerades as theology. What further action can be taken to tackle that?

Dame Caroline Spelman: The leadership of the Church of England could not be clearer on this point. Archbishop Justin managed to secure a commitment to stamp out homophobia throughout the Anglican communion, when all the bishops were convened here in London. It has been established unequivocally, from the top of the Church all the way down, that homophobia has no place in the Anglican communion.


Christians: Middle East

Dr Matthew Offord (Hendon) (Con): To ask the right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, what support the Church of England is giving to Christian communities in the middle east as a result of attacks on those communities during Christmas 2017. [903530]

Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): To ask the right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, what support the Church of England is giving to Christian communities in the middle east as a result of attacks on those communities during Christmas 2017. [903532]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Dame Caroline Spelman): The Church of England is in regular contact with the diocese of Jerusalem and the diocese of Egypt with North Africa and the Horn of Africa. I am pleased to report that the news from the region was comparatively positive over Christmas, especially when compared with that of only a few months ago.

Dr Offord: Yesterday, I had a not only interesting but humbling experience when I visited the Holocaust Survivors Centre in my constituency. Many of the people there were actually survivors of the holocaust—the Shoah. Does my right hon. Friend accept that those people are not only concerned about attacks in other countries on the basis of religion, but feel that we need to do more to help the Egyptian Government to prevent such attacks, which are, effectively, a form of genocide?

Dame Caroline Spelman: The proximity of Holocaust Memorial Day reminds all of us that, sadly, such atrocities are ongoing in our world, and that people are persecuted for their faith. Egypt was relatively quiet over Christmas—quieter than in recent months—but it is the ancient Coptic Church in that country for which we, as fellow Christians, fear. It is a fact that Egypt has moved from 21st to 17th on the world watch list of countries about which we should be concerned, not least because of the rise of Daesh there.

Daniel Kawczynski: There is growing concern about the level and extent of the persecution of Christians throughout the middle east and north Africa. What representations is the Church of England making to the Government and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees about the disproportionately low number of Christians who are identified for resettlement to western countries?

Dame Caroline Spelman: We are in regular contact with both the Government and the UNHCR about the plight of persecuted Christians. We wanted to get to the bottom of why the percentage of Christians in refugee camps in a number of these countries is so low. In fact, the Christian diaspora is extensive, and Christians living in other countries where they can help to provide safe havens often enable their relatives to travel over. It is significant that, for example, 30% of Syrian refugees in America are Christian. Christians frequently choose to save themselves in such ways.

Gavin Robinson (Belfast East) (DUP): I am in no doubt about the spiritual and pastoral support that the Church of England offers fellow Christians throughout the world, but will the right hon. Lady outline some of the financial or monetary contributions that are made to programmes for those most directly affected?

Dame Caroline Spelman: Because the Anglican communion has a network of churches throughout the world, it can often provide food and resources, clothing and shelter for persecuted communities who are otherwise very hard to reach. Only yesterday, I met the Bishop of Goma, from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, who bravely puts his own life on the line to provide essential humanitarian assistance, at his own expense, for the Christians who suffer in his country. That is one of the strengths that the Anglican Church has to offer.


Counter-terrorism

Rachael Maskell (York Central) (Lab/Co-op): To ask the right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, what counter-terrorism measures are in place to protect Church of England premises; and if she will make a statement. [903531]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Dame Caroline Spelman): Six cathedrals have received money from the programme launched in July 2016 as the places of worship security funding scheme, which became, in 2017, the vulnerable faith institutions scheme. To get funding, a place of worship has to show evidence that it is vulnerable, and cathedrals have been given up to £45,000 to assist with measures that they need to undertake.

Rachael Maskell: I thank the right hon. Lady for the interest she has shown in the counter-terrorism measures that York Minster is trying to put in place. However, the funding for its specific work and the planning regulations are inadequate. Will she work with me to try to ensure that worshippers at York Minster are safe?

Dame Caroline Spelman: Unfortunately, I do not think it is possible retrospectively to reimburse the Minster for the measures it has taken, which I believe are in any event temporary at the moment, but may I share the good practice of the House of Commons, the parliamentary estate, Westminster Abbey and Westminster City Council, which work together to try to make these public spaces safer after the terrible events of last year? I will do everything I can to assist the hon. Lady in getting that kind of good partnership working around York.

Kevin Foster (Torbay) (Con): Given that the Church of England is responsible for some iconic sites, the attention given to this work is welcome, but will my right hon. Friend reassure me that those wishing to meet the living God will not find a palisade fence separating them from His house?

Dame Caroline Spelman: My hon. Friend is right: as Parliament does not wish to turn itself into a fortress because that would cut against what democracy stands for, no more does the Church want so to provide security measures that it becomes a less accessible place to meet with God. That balance has to be struck.

(Via Parliament.UK)