Church Commissioner Questions: historic buildings, Christian persecution overseas, promoting marriage

On 17th January 2019 the Second Church Estates Commissioner, Rt Hon Dame Caroline Spelman MP, answered questions from MPs on historic church buildings, Christian persecution overseas, and the promotion of marriage. A full transcript follows:

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

Protection of Historic Church Buildings

Alex Burghart (Brentwood and Ongar) (Con): What steps the Church of England is taking to ensure that historic church buildings are protected. [908606]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Dame Caroline Spelman): The Church of England continues to suffer thefts of metal and other items of historical and architectural interest from its churches. The Archbishop’s Council conducted an inquiry into this, and the trend appears to be gradually moving from east to west and from south to north. I encourage my hon. Friend to look at the Church of England [Churchcare] website for ways of protecting his churches more successfully.

Alex Burghart: I thank my right hon. Friend for her answer. We are blessed with a great many historic churches in Brentwood and Ongar; too often, they have to be kept locked for very long periods of the week, making them inaccessible to the public. What conversations has she or the Government had with Historic England and the police to ensure that more of our historic churches can be open to the people who wish to use them?

Dame Caroline Spelman: My hon. Friend has a real gem in the form of a beautiful Anglo-Saxon church— St Andrews, Greensted—which, despite the fact that it does not have a metal roof, has suffered these kind of thefts. At the end of last year, the Church of England participated in a Historic England review called Operation Crucible as part of the strategy against metal theft. There is no question but that the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 2013 needs to be tightened to recognise illegitimate businesses, which often have their own forges and furnaces and melt down the metal before it even reaches scrap dealers’ yards.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): In the UK, there are some 340 important historic churches. National Lottery funding has made money available to some of them, but there is certainly a shortfall in funds. May I ask the right hon. Lady whether other funding avenues could be made available for preservation works?

Dame Caroline Spelman: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question. The Church would direct him, his churches and others with historical churches facing the threat of metal theft, towards a Home Office panel for grants to protect religious buildings from hate crimes. Some churches have been recipients of these grants.

Martin Vickers (Cleethorpes) (Con): Sadly, many of our most beautiful churches are now closed for worship and have been declared redundant. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that Church Commissioners will continue to do all they can to preserve those beautiful buildings?

​Dame Caroline Spelman: The Church of England opens as many churches as it closes—there is often a misunderstanding about that—and whether people come to worship or to visit the historical artefacts, increasing footfall through churches is a deterrent to crime and theft. I encourage all hon. Members with beautiful churches in their communities to use them or lose them, and to encourage people to go into them so that we keep them open and keep the criminals out.

Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): What is the Church of England doing to keep historic church bells ringing in historic church buildings?

Dame Caroline Spelman: The Church of England succeeded in producing a magnificent peal of bells to mark the centenary of the Armistice, and I am sure that churches in the constituencies of many hon. Members took part. Grants are available to restore belfries and bells, and a great effort was made to make churches ready for that historic moment in our nation’s history.

Persecution of Christians

Jeremy Lefroy (Stafford) (Con) & Henry Smith (Crawley) (Con) & Sir Desmond Swayne (New Forest West) (Con) & Bob Blackman (Harrow East) (Con) & Kevin Foster (Torbay) (Con) & Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab):

To ask the right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, what (a) steps the Church of England is taking and (b) recent discussions the Church of England has had with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on tackling the persecution of Christians throughout the world. [908608]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Dame Caroline Spelman): I do realise that the grouping of these questions will make it sound rather like Foreign Office questions for Christianity—but then, the Anglican Communion is the third largest global organisation in the world, after the United Nations and the Catholic Church.

The Church of England has regular discussions with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on freedom of religion and belief. I am pleased to announce to the House that the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Surrey (Mr Hunt), invited the Bishop of Truro, before Christmas, to lead an independent review of UK Government support for persecuted Christians.

Jeremy Lefroy: The number of Members who attended the meeting in the House yesterday about the Open Doors report shows just what huge interest there is in this issue. It was very disturbing to hear about the significant increase in the persecution of Christians, and indeed of people of other faiths, in the past year or two. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that as the report is compiled, the bishop will talk with as many Members as possible? We hear from our constituents and from around the world about individual cases of persecution.

Dame Caroline Spelman: I am delighted to give my hon. Friend that assurance. I, too, was really shocked by the report presented in Parliament yesterday, which shows that 40 countries out of the 50 on the Open Doors watch list are places where Christians experience very high or extreme levels of persecution. I shall go from this place to a meeting at the Foreign Office with the Foreign Secretary, as well as the bishop, and I will make that request directly to him.

Henry Smith: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. I echo the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) in welcoming the Open Doors “World Watch List” report, launched here in Parliament yesterday.

With regard to Commonwealth countries on the list, we heard, for example, some very harrowing reports of abuse against Christian communities in Nigeria. What effort can the Commonwealth side of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office make in helping to mitigate such persecution?

Dame Caroline Spelman: Nigeria is high up the Open Doors watch list of countries where Christians suffer persecution. I am sorry to say that in the past year 3,731 Christians were reported killed by the activity of extremists in Nigeria. As it is a former dependency of the United Kingdom, the Government ought to have some way of having greater influence. I know that the Archbishop of Canterbury, who is knowledgeable about Nigeria, uses every endeavour to bring pressure on the Government of Nigeria to better protect the Christians in their country.

Sir Desmond Swayne: What estimate has my right hon. Friend made of the willingness of International Development and Foreign Office Ministers to actually do something about the persecution of Christians and put it at the top of their priorities?

Dame Caroline Spelman: I am delighted to be able to tell the House that since the last set of Church Commissioners questions, the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) and I have paid a joint visit to a Minister of State at the Foreign Office to impress on him the importance of officials in the Foreign Office, the Department for International Development and other Government Departments, such as the Home Office, taking up the course for a better understanding of religious literacy. We were given assurances by the Minister that this would be impressed on officials.

Bob Blackman: I thank my right hon. Friend for her answers thus far. One area of the world where persecution is at its highest is Pakistan, where there have been a number of high profile cases. What is the Church doing to combat these terrible attacks on Christians, who just want to celebrate their religion?

​Dame Caroline Spelman: Pakistan is very high up on the Open Doors watch list of countries where Christians suffer persecution. I am sure that like me, my hon. Friend will have heard the case of Asia Bibi raised with the Prime Minister yesterday in the House. It is important not only that we look for a solution for her and her family that assures her protection, but that we remember that what we do on behalf of Christians in other countries can impact others around the world in the same way. The persecution of Christians in Pakistan is high on our agenda.

Kevin Foster: As has already been mentioned, yesterday saw the launch of the Open Doors “World Watch List 2019” here in Parliament. Can my right hon. Friend advise me of what use the Church of England makes of the analysis of the trends in the persecution of Christians across the globe in its discussions with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office?

Dame Caroline Spelman: Obviously the watch list is a useful guide to where the focus needs to be. The bishops take special interest in particular countries that are high up on that watch list. Bishops regularly pay visits to countries where Christians are persecuted. In fact, the bishop responsible for the plight of Christians in the middle east and Palestine is currently paying his regular annual visit to look at the decimation of the Christians in that region.

Diana Johnson: I was interested to hear that the right hon. Lady is about to meet the Secretary of State. He wrote over Christmas in The Daily Telegraph:

“It is not in our national character to turn a blind eye to suffering”,

and that the issue is about

“our deeds as well as our words.”

Will the right hon. Lady say something about the deeds she would like to see from the Foreign Secretary?

Dame Caroline Spelman: The Foreign Secretary has acted by bringing in a bishop—an independent person—to review the work of the Foreign Office in relation to the persecution of Christians abroad. Three areas will be assessed: the level of interaction between Churches and organisations overseas with British or foreign diplomatic missions in the protection of Christians; the experience of staff at the FCO, the Department for International Development and the Home Office, who may have been on the receiving end of approaches from Churches and other organisations seeking help for persecuted Christians; and the feedback of international organisations on British activities and an assessment of the approaches of other countries’ diplomatic missions to the persecution of Christians.

Promotion of Marriage

Fiona Bruce (Congleton) (Con): What steps the Church of England is taking to promote marriage. [908615]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Dame Caroline Spelman): The most recent figures published by the Church of England show that in 2017 the Church conducted 41,000 marriages and services of prayer and dedication. The church wedding is affordable: at less than £500, the cost of a wedding in church is not the main part of what it costs to get married. Free of charge, the clergy offer advice to help tailor the ceremony for the couple and, perhaps most importantly, to prepare them for their lives together.

Fiona Bruce: Church wedding fees can put some couples off marrying in church. Will the right hon. Lady commend the excellent initiative led by my own minister, Mike Smith, vicar of St John’s, Hartford? Along with volunteers from the church, he has put together a wedding package for three couples consisting of a church wedding, a photographer, flowers, cake, a reception, and even wedding dress alterations, all for £1,000. Is that not a model that other churches could follow?

Dame Caroline Spelman: I think it is an excellent model. As one with children of marriageable age, I only wish we lived in the diocese that is making the offer, but perhaps it will catch on. I sincerely hope it will.

Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): We availed ourselves of the opportunity to have our children baptised in St Mary’s Undercroft, and our daughters were married at St Margaret’s, Westminster. Are those facilities well known, and are they well used? It is a great tradition. Are Members of Parliament aware of the facilities available to them, and do they use them?

Dame Caroline Spelman: The hon. Gentleman has done the House a service in reminding all colleagues that that opportunity is open to them. I know that many Members have experienced wonderful family occasions. However, in my capacity as Chairman of the Joint Committee on the draft Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Bill, I should warn colleagues that we shall need to look very carefully at what facilities will remain available while the House is being restored.


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