Church Commissioner Questions – Church closures, coronavirus, persecuted Christians, marriage support

On 19th March 2020 the Second Church Estates Commissioner, Andrew Selous MP, answered questions in the House of Commons on church closures, coronavirus, persecution of Christians, and marriage support. A transcript is below:

Church Commissioners

The hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire, representing the Church Commissioners was asked—

Church Closure and Use

Bob Blackman (Harrow East) (Con):

  1. To ask the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire, representing the Church Commissioners, what criteria the Church of England uses to decide when to close a church and offer the building to other denominations and traditions. [901629]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Andrew Selous): I am pleased to be able to tell my hon. Friend that the Church opens as many, if not more churches than it closes each year. Parishes may want to focus their mission elsewhere, if the church in question is in a very remote rural location or if there is a very high repair bill. Use for worship by other Christian bodies is generally considered the best use, but there are many other suitable uses.

Bob Blackman: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. In my constituency, we have 24 churches of different denominations, yet the Christian religion is actually the minority. More recently, we have had a huge influx of Romanian citizens who are very keen churchgoers, but they cannot acquire premises. So as the Church of England population dwindles, can churches make efforts to reach out, particularly to the Romanian churches, to allow them to carry on their worship?

Andrew Selous: I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for explaining the situation in his constituency, and I can tell him that the use of church buildings by other Christian denominations is considered a very good use for any redundant Church of England church. The normal procedure is that the views of the local Member of Parliament, the local authority and local residents would be considered, so if there are closed churches in his area, he will have an opportunity to get involved in that process.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): Can the hon. Gentleman outline what advice for smaller congregations is in place at this time? Is it his interpretation that the closure of all churches, regardless of size, is optional, or that small congregations can continue to meet, even if they do so in small numbers?

Andrew Selous: As my hon. Friend knows, I speak purely for the Church of England in this place, and the Church of England is following exactly the health advice from the Government. I can tell him and the House that while public worship has been suspended for the time being, churches remain open for prayer and in particular ​for baptisms, weddings and funerals. Self-distancing will be required. Numbers in churches will be kept to a minimum, and no one self-isolating must attend the ceremony. Parishes are being trained in live-streaming services where they can. Wellbeing and mental health resources will be published soon, and churches are of course encouraged to support the vulnerable who are self-isolating and to continue to support food banks and night shelters in particular.

Steve Double (St Austell and Newquay) (Con): In the light of my hon. Friend’s response to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), does he agree that, although churches are not gathering for worship, they still have a vital role to play in meeting the spiritual, emotional and, indeed, practical needs of our communities at this very difficult time? Although they may not be gathering for services and other meetings, churches are most definitely not closed.

Andrew Selous: I thank my hon. Friend for that important point, and he is exactly right. The Church is much more than just its buildings; it is its people. This is an opportunity for all of us, as Christians, to reach out to others in need—there are many in all our communities—and that is exactly what the Church will be doing over the coming months.

Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): As public worship is suspended during the coronavirus crisis, what plans does the Church of England have for a national day of prayer?

Andrew Selous:  The Archbishop of Canterbury has called for a national day of prayer this Sunday. The Church is particularly keen that all Christians reach out to look after the vulnerable in their communities, as I have just said to my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double). The archbishop has called for people to put lighted candles in their windows at 7 pm on Sunday as a sign of solidarity with what the nation is currently going through.

Persecution of Christians

Caroline Ansell (Eastbourne) (Con)

  1. To ask the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire, representing the Church Commissioners, what recent assessment the commissioners have made of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s progress on implementing the recommendations in the Bishop of Truro’s independent review for the Foreign Secretary of FCO support for persecuted Christians. [901631]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Andrew Selous): The Church of England is pleased that the Government have repeatedly said they will implement in full the recommendations of the Truro review. The Church is in regular contact with the review implementation team. Promoting faith literacy among our diplomats remains work in progress, but we are reassured by continuing work on that aspect of the review.

Caroline Ansell: I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. As the world looks to navigate the challenge of the virus, other challenges clearly remain. Indeed, those challenges can be exacerbated in such circumstances, so ​what steps is the Church of England taking to work hand in glove with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to tackle anti-Christian persecution across the world?

Andrew Selous: I know my hon. Friend takes a strong interest in this important area. The Church is working closely with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and with the Department for International Development to develop better religious literacy, and the Anglican communion combats persecution against all people of faith, or of no faith, around the world. The Church would welcome a Magnitsky Act to target sanctions against those who persecute people for their religion or belief, in line with recommendation 8 of the review. Quarterly progress statements on the implementation of the review would also be helpful.

Marriage and Relationship Support

Scott Benton (Blackpool South) (Con):

7. To ask the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire, representing the Church Commissioners, what marriage and relationship support the Church of England offers to couples. [901633]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Andrew Selous):  Almost all couples receive marriage preparation before a Church of England marriage service. Some churches later offer marriage enrichment courses and marriage MOT evenings. The Church is concerned about the fall in marriage rates, as well as about the breakdown of marriages, and a number of churches are taking action to address this issue.

Scott Benton: I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. How does the Church aim to support couples and families in this moment of national crisis, when they are forced to spend more time together and are probably feeling anxious, possibly with several family members unwell?

Andrew Selous:  I thank my hon. Friend for that very relevant question. The new marriage and pre-marriage courses released in January are now available online as digital resources that any church can forward to couples in isolation to help them invest in their relationship when they are likely to have more time together, as well as more pressure on them. The pre-marriage course welcomes and is suitable for couples who are not engaged but want to explore what marriage means.

Thangam Debbonaire (Bristol West) (Lab):  This is probably something to come back to once we have got past the immediate crisis, but what progress has been made on liaising with the Department for Education on aligning such pre-marriage education with schools’ relationship education, which has now been made compulsory for all young people? Will that tie up?

Andrew Selous: I thank the hon. Lady, who I know takes a serious interest in these issues, for her question. I can tell her that the Church is very keen to work hand in glove with schools in this important area. Relationship education and relationship support has a very important role in our schools so that we have healthy, respectful marriages and relationships throughout our country.

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): May I suggest that one form of marriage support the Church of England might like to get on with is enacting clause 1 of my Civil Partnerships, Marriages and Deaths (Registration Etc.) Act 2019, which became law a year ago now and will overhaul marriage registration and allow mothers’ names to go on marriage certificates for the first time since 1832? Can he give us a progress report on whether this is at last going to happen?

Andrew Selous: I thank my hon. Friend for that question—he has been very diligent in pursuing this matter for some time. I know it was a particular concern of my predecessor, Caroline Spelman, when she was in this place. I will get my hon. Friend an update on that issue. I will tell Church House about the urgency of the situation, and if he will allow me, I will write to him with specific details.

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