On Thursday 29th November 2018 the Second Church Estates Commissioner, Rt Hon Dame Caroline Spelman MP, answered questions in the House of Commons on the Northern Forest Initiative, persecuted Christians overseas, Christ Church college Oxford, and the Church of England’s Christmas campaign. A full transcript is below:
The right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners was asked—
Northern Forest Initiative
Rachael Maskell (York Central) (Lab/Co-op): What discussions the Commissioners have had with representatives of the northern forest initiative; and if she will make a statement. 
The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Dame Caroline Spelman): The Church Commissioners own 3,500 acres of forestry in England, some of which falls within the focus of the northern forest initiative. The Church Commissioners have had some high-level conversations with the Woodland Trust and would certainly consider being part of this initiative.
Rachael Maskell: With 50 million trees expected to be planted as part of the northern forest initiative to improve air quality and mitigate flooding, as well as to improve wellbeing and be there for us all to enjoy, it is really important that the Church of England estate also participates in that, not least as the 13th biggest landlord in our nation, owning land the size of Iceland, I believe. How many trees will the Church of England be planting, particularly around the area of York, where the archbishop’s palace, no less, was affected by the floods of 2015?
Dame Caroline Spelman: The Church Commissioners own a great deal of agricultural land. The important thing with the planting of trees is that it needs to be on land suitable for that purpose. Prime agricultural land is usually reserved for food production, but land that is, for example, wet—it can be in close proximity to rivers—is better suited to tree production. The hon. Lady, representing the city of York, has every interest in trees being planted that would slow the flow of the river through her city.
Persecution of Christians
Fiona Bruce (Congleton) (Con): What steps the Church of England is taking to raise awareness in the Government of the persecution of Christians throughout the world. 
The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Dame Caroline Spelman): The Church of England remains concerned about the increase in violence and intimidation against Christians and all religious minorities across the globe. In fact, my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne) reminded colleagues at this week’s Prime Minister’s questions of the visit of the Patriarch of Jerusalem, His Beatitude Theophilos III, who will be in Parliament next Wednesday. He is regarded as a senior cleric from the Christian communion in Jerusalem, and he is to give a talk about the future of Christians in the Holy Land.
Fiona Bruce: Aid to the Church in Need’s latest world persecution report and Baroness Cox’s “Hidden Atrocities” report, both published this month, state that the religious element of attacks by militants on communities in northern and central Nigeria is increasing. For example, 539 Christian churches have been destroyed in Nasarawa state alone in 2018. Catholic Bishop William Avenya of Gboko has now warned the international community,
“Please don’t make the same mistake as was made with the genocide in Rwanda.”
Will the Church of England engage with Department for International Development and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to help fully address those grave concerns?
Dame Caroline Spelman: I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. In fact, on Monday, the Archbishop of Canterbury will brief members of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief, as part of its inquiry on Nigeria. He knows the country extremely well, as he worked there, and has visited it as recently as October. He is deeply concerned about attacks on Christians and has urged our Government to help Nigeria to enforce security and promote reconciliation between people of different faiths.
Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab): The Rev. Steven Saxby organised for me an excellent briefing with Anglicans from the Philippines, where there are serious human rights abuses. Could the right hon. Lady ask the Church of England whether it is tackling that in a structured way?
Dame Caroline Spelman: One advantage of the size of the Anglican communion is that its reach is across all continents, and the persecution of Christians in all continents is a matter of great concern to the Church of England, as part of the Anglican communion. I will certainly look more closely into what is happening in the Philippines, and I thank the hon. Lady for that suggestion.
Sir Desmond Swayne (New Forest West) (Con): I attempted to restrict the scope of a question to the holy lands and was summoned to the Table Office to change the offending words. It is not persecution, but does my right hon. Friend resent that secular agenda as much as I do?
Dame Caroline Spelman: That is almost a question for the Chair, rather than the Second Church Estates Commissioner. I am concerned about religious literacy and understanding better the Holy Land. I was fortunate to be able to make a visit with five Members of Parliament, led by the Speaker’s Chaplain, Rose, to the Holy Land for the first time, to see for myself the plight of Christians there and the complexity of the issues in the Holy Land. I do not think we should baulk at calling it the Holy Land, for many of the world’s faith regard it as such.
Several hon. Members rose—
Mr Speaker: What a delicious choice—I call Jim Shannon.
Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): Can the right hon. Lady outline whether she has had any discussions with the Home Office, to request that Asia Bibi and her family are offered asylum in the United Kingdom, and the outcome of those discussions?
Dame Caroline Spelman: I can give the hon. Gentleman reassurance, and I sympathise with his concern for Asia Bibi. The information we have is that we need to be extremely careful that we do not exacerbate risks to Asia Bibi and her family. The Prime Minister answered a question during PMQs about what the Foreign Office is doing and confirmed that the UK is in conversations with other Governments, including the Government of Pakistan, on how to make Asia and her family safe.
Dr David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): We had an excellent debate this week on Nigeria, initiated by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). Will the right hon. Lady urge the Archbishop of Canterbury to visit another bedevilled part of the world, South Sudan? Although it is a Christian country, many Christians are being persecuted there.
Dame Caroline Spelman: The Archbishop of Canterbury is very alive to the situation in South Sudan. Every well-read Christian Member of Parliament surely must be. In my tenure as shadow International Development Secretary, I went to southern Sudan, and it is probably one of the most distressing places I have ever visited. The women there told me they had very little confidence of peace being secured, because they fear their men just like to fight.
Dean of Christ Church, Oxford
John Howell (Henley) (Con): What support the Church of England is providing to the Dean of Christ Church cathedral Oxford in the case brought against him by Christ Church college. 
The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Dame Caroline Spelman): At this stage, there is little more that I can add to the written answer that I gave my hon. Friend on Monday. A formal tribunal process is under way, following the statutes of Christ Church, and that will enable the complaint made against the dean to be properly investigated.
John Howell: I have spoken to the Bishop of Oxford, and I am a little more reassured about the pastoral care that is being made available for the dean, but this raises the important question of why an Anglican cathedral is so much in the pocket of an Oxford college.
Dame Caroline Spelman: I can reassure the House that the Bishop of Oxford is giving pastoral support to the Dean, and I know that he went out of his way to speak to my hon. Friend. This is a very unusual case in the Church of England—the dean of a cathedral is at the same time the master of a college—but I must underline that the complaint against the Dean is an internal matter for the college, and neither the Church Commissioners nor the wider Church of England has any role in that process.
Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab): What steps the Church of England is taking to promote the message of Christmas. 
The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Dame Caroline Spelman): I am so glad the hon. Lady has asked that question, as this Sunday is the first Sunday in Advent. We all look forward to Christmas. The Church of England reached over 6.8 million people with last year’s Advent and Christmas campaign. This year, the Church has launched a Follow the Star campaign. Details of that can be found on the Church website, or indeed in hard copies made available through Church House Publishing.
Diana Johnson: I thank the right hon. Lady for that reply, and I endorse the importance of Follow the Star to advertise services and signpost the campaign that the Church is running. I say to the right hon. Lady, however, that universal credit is being rolled out in my constituency just before Christmas. I am really concerned about the rising number of people attending the food bank, and I am also concerned about rising levels of homelessness and loneliness in the community. Does she think the Church of England could do more to take practical steps to convey the Christmas message in our communities?
Dame Caroline Spelman: The hon. Lady enables me to give the answer I so much wanted to give to Question 9, which had to be withdrawn at short notice. The Church has surveyed the social action projects in its 16,000 parishes, and 33,000 social action projects are under way in precisely the kind of areas the hon. Lady mentions—food banks, night shelters for the homeless and debt counselling. Indeed, this is living out the message of Christmas to the needy.
Dame Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) (Con): The message of Christmas is one of renewal and hope. Will my right hon. Friend bring a message of hope to people with autism in prison? It is essential that those who minister to them understand the condition. In the new year, will she look at ensuring that all prison chaplains are trained in autism? In that way, the Christmas message could be extended into 2019.
Dame Caroline Spelman: The message is that Christmas is for all, including inmates in prison. My right hon. Friend has campaigned so hard for those with autism. Our chaplains are given guidance on helping prison inmates with autism.
I must finish with a heart-warming story for the House, which perhaps those who read The Guardian will have spotted. The Dean of Salisbury cathedral provided stonemasons to a local prison who trained the inmates in how to fashion their own war memorial, and he inaugurated it in time for the Armistice. I just want to reassure the House that, for practical reasons, the number of chisels was counted on the way in and on the way out.
Martin Vickers (Cleethorpes) (Con): Many children will be in church over the Christmas period, particularly at events such as Christingle services. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is a great opportunity for the Church to spread the message to our young people in the hope that they will retain that message throughout their lives?
Dame Caroline Spelman: The Church of England has seen increasing attendance at its church services. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that crib services and Christingle services are very important for small people.
I would like to encourage you, Mr Speaker, to have a look at the Follow the Star campaign. It is different for a change: it does not start on the first day of Advent, but covers the 12 days of Christmas. When you and I have finished washing up after our Christmas lunches, we might sit down and reflect on the true meaning of Christmas and make sure that our children do get it.
Mr Speaker: I shall always profit from the right hon. Lady’s counsels, and I solemnly commit to take that advice on Christmas day.