Church Commissioner Questions – Wonga, religious freedom, community use of churchyards, First World War. 

On 18th October 2018 the Second Church Estates Commissioner, Rt Hon Dame Caroline Spelman MP, answered questions from MPs in the House of Commons on Wonga, religious freedom, community use of churchyards and commemoration of the First World War.  A full transcript is below:

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

Wonga Loan Book

Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Ind): To ask the right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, what progress the Church of England has made on bringing together organisations and people of good will to buy the Wonga loan book. [907121]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Dame Caroline Spelman): I pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman for his extensive work on this issue. The Archbishop of Canterbury has been in discussions with the charity and finance sectors about how to minimise the potential harm to Wonga’s former customers who are unable to pay back their loans. We are hopeful that debt collection best practice will be applied in recovering any outstanding debts.

Frank Field: I thank the right hon. Lady for that reply. With reference to the written answer she gave me about how the commissioners are using their huge portfolio of funds to push firms in the right direction, does she accept that the list of firms whose annual general meetings the commissioners turned up at to push social justice was short and rather disappointing? Will she meet with me urgently to see how that programme can be extended?

Dame Caroline Spelman: I am happy to meet with the right hon. Gentleman, and I would have been delighted to discuss his idea about the Wonga loan book before it was in the public domain. The Church of England paid close attention to his proposal and took the view that others are better placed to take the matter forward. However, going to AGMs is not the only intervention that Church Commissioners can make when trying to influence business and corporate policy in an ethical direction. That can also be done in writing and meetings do take place with a large number of companies.

Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): To reduce future reliance on loan companies such as Wonga, what is the Church of England doing to encourage personal financial education in its schools?

Dame Caroline Spelman: That is a good question. We obviously want to try to prevent the sort of situation that has arisen for Wonga’s customers. The Church of England’s primary focus is on tackling indebtedness in three ways: teaching children about financial literacy through the Just Finance Foundation, working to increase access to responsible credit, and supporting organisations such as Christians Against Poverty, which provides advice and debt counselling.

Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab): What else can be done to get more Church of England investment into ethical businesses? Could the Church play a hands-on role in assisting ethical businesses in some of our most disadvantaged communities?

Dame Caroline Spelman: The Church Commissioners are advised by the ethical investment advisory group and a very clear direction is given to asset managers about the sectors of the economy that the Church will not invest in on ethical grounds—for example, pornography and tobacco. The Church has recently played very close attention to the practice of the extractive industries and has had not a little success through its shareholder engagement in getting companies involved to change their policy towards tackling climate change.

Religious Freedom

Fiona Bruce (Congleton) (Con): To ask the right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, what steps the Church of England is taking to promote religious freedom. [907123]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Dame Caroline Spelman): The Church of England welcomes the appointment of Lord Ahmad as the Prime Minister’s special envoy to promote religious freedom; the Church called for this and it fulfils a long-standing request from faith communities in this country. I look forward to working closely with him. Next month, the Church of England plans to convene a reference group between its bishops and staff, the legal profession, theologians, ethicists and academics to explore the issues of religious freedom.

Fiona Bruce: Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the recent landmark unanimous judgment of the Supreme Court in the case of Lee v. Ashers Baking Company Ltd and others and the religious ​freedom it has confirmed for Christians here in the UK not to be coerced into expressing views contrary to their sincerely held biblical beliefs?

Dame Caroline Spelman: Whatever one’s views on marriage, everyone should be equal before the law and, of course, I would argue, equal in God’s sight. The Church of England agrees that no one should suffer discrimination in the provision of goods and services on the grounds of age, race, gender, sexuality or any other personal characteristic. I think that it is striking that the Supreme Court found that there was no discrimination in this case, but instead found that the key issue was the right to freedom of expression.

Dr David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): What additional measures does the Church intend to try to put in place to make sure that everyone has the opportunity to visit a place of worship on their preferred day?

Dame Caroline Spelman: It may be of interest to the hon. Gentleman to know that yesterday the Archbishop of Canterbury made a speech in the House of Lords about religious tolerance. The Church has consistently made the case that people should be able to worship unimpeded in this country according to their faith. The Archbishop said something very telling; he said that society needs to learn how to disagree well and that we need a society where rich beliefs and traditions can rub up against each other and against secular ideology in mutual challenge and respect.

Jeremy Lefroy (Stafford) (Con): What work is the Church of England doing with other Christian Churches and other faiths—with Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and so on—to stand united on behalf of religious freedom around the world and against the persecution of religious minorities in every country, whatever the majority faith? I have to say with great sadness that Christians are the most persecuted minorities around the world.

Dame Caroline Spelman: As hon. Members will know from this Question Time, the Anglican Church around the world regularly speaks up on behalf of persecuted Christians. I regularly take questions from hon. Members about countries in which persecution is an issue. Last Saturday, the Archbishop of Canterbury was invited to speak in Nigeria ahead of the elections there to call for peace. He never misses an opportunity to make the case for persecuted Christians around the world.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): As the right hon. Lady knows, people of all faiths and none across the world are subject to persecution for their religion or beliefs. Can she share with the House what the Church of England is doing to support the welfare of non-Christian communities around the world and to advocate for their right to freedom of religion or belief?

Dame Caroline Spelman: I think that particularly in the middle east, where Christians are often a persecuted minority, we speak up regularly about their plight. The Anglican Church also speaks out on the persecution of other denominations. The campaign that Christians ​have supported for the better protection of the Yazidi minority is just one example in that region of how we must be prepared to speak up for others.

Luke Pollard (Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport) (Lab/Co-op): The recently published commission on religious education set out a framework for updating RE and teaching the importance of religious freedoms. What steps is the Church of England taking to implement its findings?

Dame Caroline Spelman: The Church is very supportive of improved religious literacy in our schools. If ever there was a time to understand better the world we live in, it is now. This is the time when we need to equip our children, whatever their faith or background, to better understand what sometimes underpins the conflicts that exist around the world. So this is a timely intervention and I am pleased we have moved away from a now rather old-fashioned view that, if we just stamped out the teaching of religion, everything would be fine—nothing could be further from the truth.

Churchyards: Community Use

Kevin Foster (Torbay) (Con): To ask the right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, what plans the Church of England has to encourage more community use of churchyards. [907127]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Dame Caroline Spelman): This year, the Church Urban Fund showed that mental health and loneliness are a growing issue in our local communities. Parishes are being encouraged to use their churchyards and green spaces to support community gardening projects to promote wellbeing, caring for their community’s mind, body and spirit. The Church of England is working with the Church Times, the Guild of Health and St Raphael, and the Conservation Foundation to launch the Green Health awards to showcase best practice.

Kevin Foster: I thank my right hon. Friend for her answer. Paignton churchyard is one of the most historic and beautiful places in Torbay, yet the cost of maintaining safe access to it for the community can end up falling on the congregation. What support does the Church of England offer to its local parishes to ensure that they can maintain and enhance access to such special places?

Dame Caroline Spelman: In respect of where the responsibility for safe access lies, there is a distinction between churchyards that remain open for use, which are the Church of England’s responsibility, and those that are now full, for which the responsibility shifts to local government. In the case my hon. Friend raises, the Church of England would be very supportive if it is still an active churchyard, so to speak.​

I am delighted to say that in my hon. Friend’s diocese there are two Green Health award nominees: St Sidwell’s church in Exeter and All Saints in Okehampton. I encourage him to look at other churches in this constituency that might be candidates for such awards.

First World War Centenary

Alex Burghart (Brentwood and Ongar) (Con):To ask the right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, what plans the Church of England has to commemorate the centenary of the end of the first world war. [907131]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Dame Caroline Spelman): This, I think, will be the last set of questions before we reach 11 November, which will be the culmination of four years of the Church of England marking the centenary of world war one. On that day, we will be encouraging parishes to ring their bells and commemorate bells and to commemorate every name on the war memorial. The Church has been distributing national resources to every parish with suggested liturgies, and also supporting the “Ringing Remembers” bell-ringing campaign. At an earlier Question Time, I mentioned that even hon. Members might like to consider becoming a bell ringer to mark such an auspicious occasion.

Alex Burghart: I thank my right hon. Friend for that response. I grew up with my great grandmother, who lived through the first world war, and I knew some of her friends who were widowed in it and some of her friends who never married because of it. Will she ask the Church of England to remember the home front in its thanksgiving services?

Dame Caroline Spelman: The home front was a very important part of the great war and we should remember, as we do, not just the lives laid down in conflict but the sacrifices made by so many. May I use this opportunity to remind hon. Members present that the Parliament choir will be singing jointly with the choir of the German Parliament in the event to mark the centenary of the Armistice on the evening of Wednesday 31 October? As I understand it, every seat in Westminster Hall has now been sold, but there is always an opportunity for returns, if hon. Members have not thought to come to that event. I think and hope that it will be a very special occasion.

Bob Blackman (Harrow East) (Con): Soldiers of all faiths and of no faith came together to help us in the great war. What plans does the Church have to include all faiths in this commemoration, so that we can bring people together?

Dame Caroline Spelman: The resources I referred to on the Church website to assist parishes in preparing for the marking of the Armistice include a really interesting monologue entitled, “Steps towards Reconciliation”, which looks at ways to bring people of very different backgrounds together. The Archbishop of Canterbury supported the call by the former Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, that all faiths be represented at the Cenotaph to show, in an act of solidarity, that people of all faiths and of none will never forget the sacrifice that was made to keep us free.


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