Church Commissioner Questions: modern slavery, Middle East peace, Church of Scotland relations, LGBTQ community, bell ringing, Nigerian Christians, religious literacy, overseas orphanages, affordable housing, gay conversion therapy.

On 7th June 2018 Dame Caroline Spelman MP, representing the Church Commissioners, answered questions in the House of Commons from MPs on modern slavery, Middle East peace,  Church of Scotland relations, LGBTQ community, bell ringing, Nigerian Christians, religious literacy, overseas orphanages, affordable housing, and gay conversion therapy.  A transcript is below:

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

Clewer Initiative

Joan Ryan (Enfield North) (Lab): To ask the right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, what progress the Church of England has made on the Clewer initiative to tackle modern-day slavery. [905689]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Dame Caroline Spelman): The Clewer initiative was set up in 2017 as a three-year, fixed-term project with the express aim of securing a world free from slavery. It enables dioceses to develop strategies so that we can better detect instances of modern slavery and provide support and care to victims.

Joan Ryan: I welcome the Church of England’s commitment to tackling modern slavery. Can the right hon. Lady confirm whether the exploitation of vulnerable young people and adults in the county lines drugs trade is also a focus of the Clewer initiative? What work is the Church doing with the police, the Government and other parties to tackle this menace?

Dame Caroline Spelman: The Church works very closely with a large number of partners in order to try to stamp out modern-day slavery, including the Licensed Taxi Drivers Association, the National Crime Agency, the National Police Chiefs Council and immigration service officers—all the parties that need to be involved. The exploitation of very young, vulnerable children in trafficking drugs for illegal gangmasters is something that all these agencies need to work together on, and the Church supports that strongly.

Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): I am sure that my right hon. Friend will recognise the work that faith communities do in protecting the victims of human trafficking. Will she welcome the role of the Clewer initiative in detecting trafficked people in our communities?

Dame Caroline Spelman: I thank my hon. Friend for his question. In March, the Clewer initiative launched a campaign called Hidden Voices, basically so that all of us open our eyes and our ears to the slavery that is all around us. It provides residential training courses for faith communities and day courses, so that we all become more sensitised to see what is happening around us.


Middle East

John Grogan (Keighley) (Lab): To ask the right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, what initiatives the Anglican communion is supporting in the diocese of Jerusalem to help promote peace between the Israeli and Palestinian Christian and Muslim communities. [905690]

Dame Caroline Spelman: One of the most important ministries of the episcopal diocese of Jerusalem has been the ministry of dialogue and reconciliation between Christians, Muslims and Jews. Its archbishop recently announced the establishment of the diocesan department for peace, reconciliation and interfaith dialogue. We were very lucky, Mr Speaker, recently to have a visit from the Dean of Jerusalem to the Houses of Parliament to talk about its work.

John Grogan: Is the right hon. Lady worried that the number of Christians in the Palestinian territories is declining? What more can be done to bring together, in particular, young people of different faith communities?

Dame Caroline Spelman: The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. The Christian community on the west bank has plummeted as people have left in droves to come to live in Europe or to go to live in America. It is a particular challenge to persuade young people to remain. If they leave for university, it is quite often difficult to get back. So the Church is working very hard on this. There is a scheme whereby children from the region can do exchanges with children in other places. For example, 16 children from the Zebabdeh community did an exchange with Ballinteer Community School in Dublin. This enables them to see beyond their tight and very difficult world but also to feel supported in remaining in their homes, where their roots are.

Jeremy Lefroy (Stafford) (Con): On Maundy Thursday this year, I had the privilege of attending a service at St Paul’s church in Shefa-Amr, the Anglican church in northern Israel. I commend the work that the Anglican diocese of Jerusalem does throughout the entire diocese, both in Israel and on the west bank. May I urge my right hon. Friend perhaps to visit some of these churches and encourage them as they support their congregations in this wider ministry?

Dame Caroline Spelman: There is no substitute for a first-hand account. I know that my hon. Friend is knowledgeable about the work that the Anglican Church does with all communities in Israel. I hope that, one day, in the not too distant future, I shall get the chance to go to see this for myself, perhaps with some colleagues who have also not had the opportunity to visit the holy land.

Dr David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): Earlier this year, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was shut to visitors because of some pressure that the Israeli authorities were putting on because of land changes. Will the right hon. Lady make sure that, through her dialogue with our Church, she talks to the Israeli authorities to make sure that that church is kept open, because visitors want to visit it?

Dame Caroline Spelman: When the Dean of Jerusalem came to visit parliamentarians in both Houses, he explained in great detail the political background to what is going on. If I share with the House that this gentleman is a Christian Israeli, and actually no less than the son of a carpenter from Nazareth, perhaps Members will see that there was no person better qualified to explain to us, as British parliamentarians, just how complicated the situation is in Jerusalem. I think we have to trust the people who really understand this well to try to work through to peaceful solutions for that part of the world.


Columba Declaration

Andrew Bowie (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (Con): To ask the right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, what progress has been made since the Columba declaration on promoting closer ties between the Church of Scotland and the Church of England. [905691]

Dame Caroline Spelman: The Columba declaration was designed to set up a contact group to initiate and promote activities that strengthen the partnership in mission between the Church of England and the Church of Scotland. It was set up and met for the first time in November 2017.

Andrew Bowie: I thank my right hon. Friend for her answer. In this year, when the Church of Scotland General Assembly has in the Right Rev. Susan Brown elected its fourth female moderator and London has gained its first female bishop, might my right hon. Friend expand on the work that the Churches are doing to attract a wider range of applicants to the ministry?

Dame Caroline Spelman: First, through my hon. Friend, I would like to congratulate the Right Rev. Susan Brown on her appointment. This is now an increasingly strong trend. The Queen has just named the Very Rev. Vivienne Faull as the next Bishop of Bristol, which brings us to a total of 15 female bishops in the Church of England. The ministry department within the Church is also conscious of the need to diversify and encourage more applicants from black and minority ethnic backgrounds. It has set up a mentoring scheme, and if any hon. Members would like to be mentors for applicants from those communities, they would be very welcome.


LGBTQ Community

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): To ask the right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, what steps the Church of England and Anglican communion are taking to promote a more tolerant attitude towards members of the LGBTQ community; and if she will make a statement. [905692]

Dame Caroline Spelman: It so happens that my hon. Friend’s constituency lies in the diocese of Lichfield, which has just issued new guidelines that call for a Church where LGBTQ people feel welcomed and honoured. That letter was sent to all clergy and lay ministers in the diocese, which has 600 churches and covers a population of 2 million people.

Michael Fabricant: My right hon. Friend will understand that the whole question of gay marriage has not exactly endeared the Church of England to gay people. Nevertheless, I am encouraged by what she says. Perhaps she could expand a little more on what is happening in the Lichfield constituency, which extends all the way to the border with Wales.

Dame Caroline Spelman: All four Bishops in that diocese—the Bishops of Lichfield, Wolverhampton, Stafford and Shrewsbury—are signatories to that initiative, ​which gives practical expression to what the Archbishop of Canterbury was referring to when he talked about radical Christian inclusion.

Dame Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) (Con): My right hon. Friend knows that same-sex marriages can receive a blessing in some churches, but sadly can be refused in others. What can she do to ensure that that inequality is addressed immediately and that this very important ceremony is offered throughout all our churches in the United Kingdom?

Dame Caroline Spelman: Across the Anglican communion, this is a difficult subject; I acknowledge that. Not all people either in this country or across the wider communion are of one view. The Church is working very hard to try to obtain better understanding. A conversation ensued across the Church of England to try to help people of different points of view to come to a greater understanding of the other person’s point of view, and the Bishop of Newcastle is tasked with running a group relating to sexuality in the Church. Blessings, where they occur, are often at the discretion of the diocese, and the Church is nothing if not a devolved institution.


Bell Ringing

Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): To ask the right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, what steps the Church of England is taking to promote bell ringing. [905693]

Dame Caroline Spelman: Mr Speaker, in case you are looking for a new hobby that will build on your already excellent level of fitness and mental alertness, you need look no further than bell ringing. Churches are always looking for new volunteers to whom they can show the ropes.

Mr Speaker: I am most grateful to the right hon. Lady for her advice. I have been to the church in Lillingstone Lovell—to mention just one location in my splendid constituency—where there are some very enthusiastic and capable bell ringers. Maybe other invitations will be forthcoming.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): But there are bats in that belfry.

Mr Speaker: There may be bats in the belfry; I do not know. The hon. Gentleman is chuntering from a sedentary position. Whether he does so with the advantage of knowledge of the matter is a divisible proposition.

Mr Hollobone: In contrast with bell ringers in churches in most other countries in the world, in this country, bell ringers can change the order in which the bells are rung, thus allowing for great creativity and the creation of wonderful different sounds. It is a startling fact that 95% of all the churches in the world where that is possible are located in England. Is not now the time to celebrate this wonderful part of English heritage and unique contribution to church music?

Dame Caroline Spelman: My hon. Friend has done a good job of presenting the significance of bell ringing in our culture and its wider impact across the world. That significance is recognised by the Church of England, and the Central Council of Church Bell Ringers has promoted a campaign called “Ringing Remembers”, ​the purpose of which is to recruit 1,400 new bell ringers in honour of the 1,400 who lost their lives in world war one. The endeavour will be to ring the bells of churches throughout the land on the centenary of the Armistice this year.

Mr Speaker: I gather, by the way, that bell ringing is quite a strenuous business; it is not to be underestimated by colleagues.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): The wonderfully historic Anglican church, St Mark’s in Newtownards in the heart of my constituency, has a working belfry. Does the right hon. Lady believe that there is an acceptable level of funding to help with the upkeep of such towers and their bells? If not, will she apply pressure on the Government to ensure that there is?

Dame Caroline Spelman: I had the great privilege of ringing a bell in a Church of Ireland church, and I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on highlighting the significance of bell ringing in his constituency. If hon. Members have in their constituencies churches that are in need of grants or funds for the restoration of bells—time is short before the centenary of the Armistice—the ChurchCare website has grants available to repair and restore bells. Other sources of funding are also available—indeed, a grade 1 listed church in Castle Bromwich secured funding from English Heritage. Grants are available, and Members should assist their churches in securing them so that they may be part of the great occasion of the centenary of the Armistice.


Nigeria: Violence against Christians

John Howell (Henley) (Con): To ask the right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, what steps the Church of England and Anglican Communion are taking to tackle violence against Christians in Nigeria. [905694]

Dame Caroline Spelman: My hon. Friend is a trade envoy to Nigeria, and he has a wealth of knowledge about that part of the world. The Archbishop of Canterbury also has a great deal of knowledge about Nigeria, having lived and worked there, and he cares deeply about the persecution of Christians around the world. He has appealed publicly and directly in face-to-face meetings to the Nigerian President, to try to bring the violence against Christians to an end.

John Howell: After the recent terrible massacre of Christians attending church in the middle of Nigeria, the President was summoned to Parliament, service chiefs and security advisers had motions of no confidence passed against them, and Parliament was suspended. Does that not show that the country is taking the problem seriously?

Dame Caroline Spelman: There is no doubt that the problem is being taken to the heart of the Nigerian constitution and its institutions. I remind my hon. Friend that on 22 May we had a debate in Westminster Hall at which many Members raised reports from Christian Solidarity Worldwide about the terrible violence perpetrated against Christians, particularly in the north of Nigeria, but also in the middle belt and as far south as Delta state where the oil is. Let us not forget that there are still ​Chibok girls in captivity. The issue may have fallen from the top hit list of interests and press themes, but young girls are still held in captivity; one of them in May spent her 15th birthday in captivity because she would not renounce her faith.

Mr Speaker: I am certain that Christian Solidarity Worldwide, which is a magnificent organisation, will appreciate the tribute that the right hon. Lady has just paid to it, and she will share my conviction that it is fantastically represented by Ben Rogers, among others.


Religious Literacy Training

Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab): To ask the right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, what steps the Church of England is taking to support the provision of religious literacy training for Government Departments and embassies. [905695]

Dame Caroline Spelman: The Church of England fully supports the provision of religious literacy training across all Government Departments. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office provides religious literacy training through the LSE Faith Centre, following an open competition. It is essential that diplomats abroad and officials here at home understand the histories of different faiths.

Helen Goodman: I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for that answer. Religious conflict is obviously worst in the middle east. My understanding is that the training is not compulsory. Will she have a conversation with the Minister with responsibility for the middle east and north Africa about this matter?

Dame Caroline Spelman: Despite the training provided by the LSE Faith Centre receiving excellent reviews, the uptake is disappointing. Perhaps the hon. Lady would like to join me in having a conversation with the Minister for the Middle East, my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), who is very knowledgeable about the area, to see if we can advance take-up of the course across all Government Departments.


Overseas Orphanages

Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): To ask the right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, what guidance the Church of England issues to parish churches on support for orphanages overseas. [905696]

Dame Caroline Spelman: The Church of England works internationally to support vulnerable children in various ways through its diocesan links and through Anglican mission agencies. It regularly assesses the range of support provided to make sure of best practice, especially with regard to vulnerable children.

Mr Sheerman: It is evident that there are many good orphanages in the most troubled parts of the world. There is also evidence, however, that some are used for child trafficking and are not really orphanages. Will the right hon. Lady join me in writing to the Archbishop of Canterbury to ask for a meeting and a commission on this involving all the aid agencies? I am bringing together all my local churches and other faith groups to discuss the issue. We must have an assurance that money raised by churches in this country goes to the right places.

Dame Caroline Spelman: The hon. Gentleman and I have both seen the presentation by the charity Home for Good. It brought to our midst an Australian Senator who is pioneering an amendment to modern-day slavery legislation on orphanage trafficking. She made a very important point that there is a cognitive dissonance. In this country, we would not tend to go first to an orphanage as a solution for the needs of a vulnerable child, yet we often give resources to such provision abroad without actually knowing whether they definitely get to the source and whether the children are well cared for by that source. It is very important that we pursue this topic rigorously and I am willing to support the hon. Gentleman’s multi-agency approach.


Affordable Housing

Meg Hillier (Hackney South and Shoreditch) (Lab/Co-op):  To ask the right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, what the Church of England’s policy is on the development of affordable housing on Church land. [905697]

Dame Caroline Spelman: In England, the Church Commissioners have identified land for development which has the potential to provide an estimated 24,000 new homes, including more than 30% affordable homes, subject to the requirements of the local planning authority.

Meg Hillier: That is a good news. I am sure the right hon. Lady will not be surprised that, in my constituency, which has such a severe housing problem, many of my churches are keen to deliver their Christian mission in part by providing long-term properly affordable homes. St John’s Hoxton has hit a real problem. Because it is in a heritage setting, it is grade 2 listed. Paragraphs 144 and 145 of the national planning policy framework, on planning and development, prohibits the church from building, and prohibits the council from giving it permission to build, affordable homes on the site. Is she or the Church having conversations with the planning authorities about how to change the law?

Dame Caroline Spelman: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for advance notice of this case. I have looked at it and I think the difficulty is that a range of local stakeholders, including Historic England and the local planning authority, do not support the proposed scheme. The difficulty relates to constructing houses on green space, which is also at a premium in London. To give her some encouragement, in the adjoining diocese of Southwark, a very similar scheme was passed after a couple of years of to-ing and fro-ing and trying to make it acceptable to all stakeholders. I encourage her to work together with all stakeholders to try to find the optimum solution.


Gay Conversion Therapy

Mr Ben Bradshaw (Exeter) (Lab): To ask the right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, what recent discussions the Church of England has had with Government Ministers on the General Synod’s resolution on gay conversion therapy; and if she will make a statement. [905700]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Dame Caroline Spelman): I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, because this allows me to update the House on the ​similar question that he asked me in January. I did follow my promise to write to the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price), who has responsibility for mental health, and arrange a meeting with her, which was constructive—the right hon. Gentleman came with me. She explained that the Department is surveying the extent of gay conversion therapy. I wrote to her again on 23 April requesting a copy of that Government survey, so that we might all benefit from their findings.

Mr Bradshaw:  I thank the right hon. Lady very much for what she has done to help on the issue of the intolerable practice of conversion therapy. Can I ask her to go back to the Minister and ask for a timescale? The Minister acknowledged that the problem was bigger than the Government had hitherto recognised and she did promise action. It would be nice to know when we might see that action.

Dame Caroline Spelman: To bring this absolutely up to date, I received a response from the Minister for Women and Equalities on the subject, which stated that the Minister would welcome another meeting with us, so I suggest that we take her up on her kind offer.

Mr Speaker: Very useful, thank you. I think the House owes a considerable debt of gratitude to the Second Church Estates Commissioner, the right hon. Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman), perhaps today, even more than ordinarily, because she has answered 10 of the 11 questions. In the process, she has undergone something of an exercise routine, having had to bounce up and down repeatedly to attend to the queries of right hon. and hon. Members. We are very greatly obliged to her for the quality of her answers and for the spirit in which they have been provided.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): Her reward is in heaven.

Mr Speaker: For the benefit of those listening to our proceedings, the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) chunters from a sedentary position that the right hon. Lady’s reward is in heaven.

Via Parliament.uk