Church Commissioner Questions – rural parish clergy, metal theft, bell ringing, gravestones

On 21st February 2019 questions were put by MPs to the Church Commissioners in the House of Commons, on rural parish clergy, metal theft, bell ringing, and gravestones.

In the absence of the Second Church Estates Commissioner questions were answered by the Leader of the House, Rt Hon Andrea Leadsom MP. As Lord President of the Council, the Leader of the House is one of the State Office Holders who are ex-officio Church Commissioners. 

Church Commissioners

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

Clergy Recruitment: Rural Parishes

Anne-Marie Trevelyan (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (Con): What recent assessment the Church of England has made of the effectiveness of its recruitment of clergy to rural parishes. [909349]

The Leader of the House of Commons (Andrea Leadsom): With permission, Mr Speaker, as an ex officio member of the Church Commissioners I have been asked to reply on behalf of the Second Church Estates Commissioner.

The Church of England has over 10,000 rural churches and 45% of those who attend church go to rural churches. The Church supports these rural churches through its dedicated national rural officer, who provides advice, consultancy and training for dioceses. The Church has recently launched a new recruitment portal which currently displays all jobs in 30 of the 42 dioceses, enabling clergy to sort jobs by postcode and categories.

Anne-Marie Trevelyan: As rural parishes go, the parish of St Mary on the island of Lindisfarne, Holy Island, in my constituency must be one of the smallest, most rural but most magnificent. It has a permanent population of only 200 people but, living in the cradle of British Christianity, it has hundreds of thousands of visitors every year. So will the Leader of the House join me in welcoming to her post, and with an outreach vocation, the Reverend Canon Dr Sarah Hills, our new vicar of St Mary, Lindisfarne?

Andrea Leadsom: I understand that the religious community on Holy Island was founded by an Irish monk called St Aidan in 635 AD. I certainly welcome the Reverend Dr Sarah Hills to her post and wish her well with her ministry. She brings with her considerable experience from Coventry cathedral, where she led the international reconciliation team.

Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Does the Leader of the House recognise that it is not just in rural churches—it is in rural and urban churches—where the clergy plays such an important role in the community? Particularly at this time when youth services have declined and local authorities cannot afford them, the role of the Church in rural and urban communities is absolutely crucial.

Andrea Leadsom: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: the Church plays a huge part in our whole society, whether rural or urban, and I pay tribute to all the excellent work of our clergy and lay preachers right across the United Kingdom.

​Andrew Griffiths (Burton) (Con): I am sure the Leader of the House will agree that it is not just church buildings that are of importance; it is the people within them and the work they do. Just two weeks ago I was able to do a tour of all the churches in Uttoxeter in my constituency. I talked to the people in those churches and witnessed first-hand the great work they do in our community by supporting people, particularly the sick and the vulnerable. Will the Leader of the House join me in congratulating Christians across the country for the work they do in our communities?

Mr Speaker: The hon. Gentleman is a busy bee doing this extensive tour; it sounds absolutely enticing.

Andrea Leadsom: I certainly join my hon. Friend in thanking all those who do so much right across our country. I pay particular tribute to the work of the Church of England, which operates the single largest group of schools in the UK. Very often those schools are in small rural communities, and the schools and their teachers face big challenges, as do other rural services—distance, access to facilities, cost of living, the reduction in family sizes and so on. The Church has done a great deal to try to improve the sense of community right across our country.

Dr David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I welcome the right hon. Lady to her place. Does she accept that one of the problems now is that we have so few ministers and so many churches to look after? In my own area, the Stroudwater team has three ministers to look after 15 churches, although we have had a vacancy recently. We ought to recognise that that puts enormous pressure on those ministers, and I hope that the Church is looking after their welfare.

Andrea Leadsom: I certainly join the hon. Gentleman in praising all those clergy who do so much, often working under quite some pressure and with large parishes to deal with. In 2017, the number of clergy who retired was 330, and I am pleased to say that the number that the Church is training is more than the number who are retiring.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): Will the right hon. Lady outline whether she has considered the idea of more joint parishes—joining with other denominations—thereby involving the community and making more regular use of our beautiful historic buildings? Coming together, perhaps?

Andrea Leadsom: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to point out the excellent work that some churches are doing to help and support their communities across the denominations. I would certainly encourage him to write to the Second Church Estates Commissioner, my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman); she can perhaps tell him a bit more about some of the work that the churches are doing.

Metal Theft from Churches

Luke Hall (Thornbury and Yate) (Con): What recent estimate the Church of England has made of the extent of metal theft from its churches. [909350]

The Leader of the House of Commons (Andrea Leadsom): The Church of England has unfortunately seen a steady increase in metal theft recently. Between 2017 and 2018, reports of thefts were up 25%. The rise is attributed to an increase in international metal prices. Additionally, significant thefts are being co-ordinated by organised criminals working in teams. The Scrap Metal Dealers Act 2013 had great success initially, but I understand that the all-party parliamentary group on combating metal theft is working closely with the Second Church Estates Commissioner to see what further work might be necessary to reflect the organised nature of this crime.

Luke Hall: I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Thieves recently took the lead from the magnificent 900-year-old Old Sodbury church in south Gloucestershire, but sadly, only part of the cost of replacing the roof was covered by the insurance. What discussions has the Church of England had with the Government and the insurance industry on the theft of metal and decorative objects from churches, so that we can be sure that these magnificent buildings can be protected for generations to come?

Andrea Leadsom: I am so sorry to hear about that theft. It is an unusual theft, in that it does not fit the recent pattern. The church of St John’s, Old Sodbury, estimates that about 150 square metres will need to be replaced at a cost of around £50,000, only some of which will be covered by its insurance. I can tell my hon. Friend that the Church is working with law enforcement, the metal recycling trade, Historic England and the all-party parliamentary group on combating metal theft to find ways to address these crimes.

Bell Ringing

Alex Burghart (Brentwood and Ongar) (Con): What steps the Church of England is taking to support bell ringing in its churches. [909351]

The Leader of the House of Commons (Andrea Leadsom): The Church works closely with the Central Council of Church Bell Ringers, which supports local associations with a network of teachers, including one in my hon. Friend’s constituency. Following the recent successful recruitment of new bell ringers for the world war one anniversary, the Church was pleased to hear that many of the new members have decided to continue to ring with their local towers.

Alex Burghart: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer. Will she tell us what the Church of England is doing to encourage young people into bell ringing, so that we can foster the next generation of campanologists?

Andrea Leadsom: I hope that my hon. Friend will be encouraged to learn that more than 250 young people will gather in Liverpool this weekend to take part in the national youth ringing contest. The Church of England is delighted to see young people rediscovering the love of these traditional community activities. Church schools and parishes provide a range of support to children and ​young people, and initiatives such as these show how beneficial exercise and teamwork can be for young people’s wellbeing.

Mr Speaker: I must say to the House that I have observed bell ringing being undertaken in Winslow and in Lillingstone Lovell in my constituency, and very skilfully undertaken it was too. For my own part, I am bound to say that I think I was very maladroit when trying to bell ring. I found it a most strenuous activity. But there you go—perhaps with practice I might get a little bit better.

Sir Desmond Swayne (New Forest West) (Con): Will my right hon. Friend make representations to the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport about the loss of income to belfries from letting them to telecommunication companies for their antenna? As a consequence of the cack-handed introduction of the telecommunications code, the loss of income is as disconcerting to bell ringers as it is to the vicar.

Andrea Leadsom: My right hon. Friend raises a worrying issue that I am sure the Second Church Estates Commissioner will be pleased to hear about and tackle on his behalf.

Maintenance of Graves

Melanie Onn (Great Grimsby) (Lab): What recent assessment the Church of England has made of the adequacy of its policies on the maintenance of graves. [909359]

​The Leader of the House of Commons (Andrea Leadsom): With permission, Mr Speaker, as an ex officio member of the Church Commissioners I have been asked to reply on behalf of the Second Church Estates Commissioner.

It is not clear from the hon. Lady’s question whether it relates to an open churchyard or a closed churchyard. For a closed churchyard, the responsibility for maintenance and management is often held by the local authority. The regulation of an open churchyard, however, is managed under the faculty process, which is the Church’s planning process. Each diocese publishes guidelines on its website, and the regulations are there to make sure that churchyards remain places that we can all enjoy for years to come.

Melanie Onn: My question relates to a constituency case that I have raised with the Second Church Estates Commissioner in advance of this Question Time. Shelley Fleming, my constituent, lost her husband Keith in October 2017—he was aged just 49. When she was arranging his place in the church’s graveyard, she was not notified that there would be any restrictions on her choice of grave at the Great Coates St Nicolas church. I would like the Second Church Estates Commissioner to work with me to encourage the church to review its regulations to permit the laying of flush kerb stones to carefully and respectfully mark parishioners’ final resting places.

Andrea Leadsom: I am so sorry to hear of Keith’s passing, and I am sure everyone in the Chamber would pass on their great sympathies. It is such an incredibly young age to die.

The regulations that govern churchyards differ from those that govern municipal cemeteries, where the land is not consecrated. A churchyard almost always surrounds a church building, and memorial stones that may be entirely suitable for an urban municipal cemetery may be out of place when they are close to an ancient church, especially one in a rural setting. If a constituent wants kerb stones installed around a grave, this would generally require the special permission of the diocesan chancellor. I will ask the Second Church Estates Commissioner to write to the hon. Lady with more information about the regulations and processes.


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