Church Commissioner Questions – Coronavirus, Access to Worship, Family Life, Education, Clergy Discipline Process and Hospital Chaplains

On 19th May 2020 the Second Church Estates Commissioner, Andrew Selous MP, answered questions in the House of Commons on coronavirus, access to worship, family life, education, the clergy discipline process and hospital chaplaincy. A transcript is below:

Church Commissioners

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

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Family Life

Miriam Cates (Penistone and Stocksbridge): What steps the Church of England is taking to support family life during the covid-19 lockdown. [902783]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Andrew Selous): With no access to our church buildings, considerable innovation by the clergy has seen the creation of virtual prayer services, school assemblies, study groups, fellowship meetings and craft workshops. That is in addition to online church services, bereavement counselling, marriage preparation and marriage support.

Miriam Cates: In normal times, churches engage with thousands of parents and children each week through playgroups, coffee mornings, church services ​and youth groups, providing support to families across all sections of society. In my constituency, groups such as these have been a lifeline to many families, including my own. During this crisis, what steps are churches taking to remain in contact with these families, particularly to support parents as they continue to raise children in very difficult circumstances?

Andrew Selous: I am so pleased to hear how the work of the church benefits my hon. Friend’s family and the families of many of her Penistone and Stocksbridge constituents. I also recommend that families check out the Faith at Home video resources of the Church of England, which nurture a growing faith and this month focus on hope, courage, love and humility—all qualities that we need at work and in the community, as well as at home.

Clergy’s Access to Churches

Jerome Mayhew (Broadland): What assessment the Commissioners have made of the implications for the access of clergy to their churches of the most recent Government advice on covid-19. [902784]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Andrew Selous): Clergy can now return to their churches to pray and live-stream services. For the time being, churches must remain closed for public worship, as set out in law. The Government set out their ambition to reopen places of worship from 4 July, subject to further scientific advice. No place of worship will be able to reopen before a final decision by the Government, the necessary changes to the legal position in the published regulations and the accompanying decision by the diocesan bishop, which will take into account local circumstances.

Jerome Mayhew: During this national crisis, there has been a vital role for the established Church to represent the concerns and fears of the whole nation. Does my hon. Friend agree that the physical presence of a parish church, open for prayer and attended by its priests, is an important signal that we are not alone in our struggle? Health workers, care workers, bin collectors, posties and now all those who are unable to undertake their work from home have been asked to accept additional personal risk to carry out their important work for the health and wellbeing of the nation. Should our clergy not be allowed to provide the same level of service to their—[Inaudible.]

Mr Speaker: Whatever you can answer of that.

Andrew Selous: I very much agree with my hon. Friend about the physical presence of churches, but while our buildings may be closed, the Church is very much alive and has been astonishingly present in the midst of suffering and need, providing comfort, inspiration and a great deal of practical help. Those who allege that we have done nothing or vacated the field are not correct.

Buildings, Liturgy and Worship: Adaptation

Fiona Bruce (Congleton): What representations the Church of England has received on the adaptation of its buildings, liturgy and worship prior to their reopening after the covid-19 lockdown. [902785] 

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Andrew Selous): The House of Bishops guidance issued on 5 May shows that the Church of England is committed to reopening buildings in a phased and measured manner, in accordance with the legal position. We are working with the Government and representatives of the heritage planning sector to assess the need for building adaptations related to public health.

Fiona Bruce: Polling shows that during the current crisis, one in four adults, and one in three of 16 to 30-year-olds, have joined a religious service remotely. Does my hon. Friend welcome that, and what is the Church doing to ensure that this continues more widely, even after lockdown?

Andrew Selous: I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing those figures to the House’s attention and I welcome them very warmly, particularly the large viewing figures among younger people. She is absolutely right that the Church will need to keep up a significant online presence well after lockdown has finished.

Support for People in Need

Sir John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings): To ask the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire, representing the Church Commissioners, what steps the Church of England is taking with (a) the Government and (b) other faith groups to support people in need. [902787]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Andrew Selous): The priority for the Church has been to continue its vital service to those in material and spiritual need in all communities despite the restrictions imposed. Bishops and the Church are in regular contact with Ministers, and to this end the Church is represented on two Cabinet Office taskforces.

Mr Speaker: With a fantastic collection of Wisden cricket books, we go to Sir John Hayes.

Sir John Hayes: Thank you, Mr Speaker. I have many interests, including cricket, as you do I know.The smaller charities are struggling because of fundraising difficulties in the current crisis. Will my hon. Friend look at how the Church can work with those charities? It is true that our churches have closed, but the Church has many buildings—church halls and so on—that might be made available. Fellowship and faith are so important at this time, as is our charitable work. I wonder if he can help.

Andrew Selous: All food bank work in churches continues. For example, Christ Church in Eastbourne is feeding 200 people breakfast in its car park; churches in Alston Moor are delivering groceries in a refrigerated van; and St Luke’s in Buckfastleigh has delivered 18 sets of hearing aids among other items. There are wonderful examples of what the Church is doing, and no doubt that is happening in South Holland and the Deepings as well.

Clergy Discipline Process

Peter Gibson (Darlington): To ask the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire, representing the Church Commissioners, what steps the Commissioners are taking to review the clergy discipline process. [902791]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Andrew Selous): I recognise my hon. Friend’s experience in dealing with these difficult issues. The operation of the clergy discipline measure is currently being reviewed, and it is hoped that less serious complaints could be referred initially to mediation or alternative dispute resolution, which would allow complaints to be dealt with more expediently and effectively.

Peter Gibson: Research has shown that the clergy discipline process leaves many members of our clergy vulnerable and, in some deeply saddening cases, has driven them to take their lives. What steps are the Church Commissioners taking to review these processes and to provide the right mental health support to those clergy subject to discipline, particularly where such discipline arises from a spurious or malicious allegation? Will my hon. Friend reassure the House that the Church Commissioners will provide our clergy with the support they need during the process?

Andrew Selous: Our hope is that the proposals under consideration, which I have just outlined, will mitigate the possible detriment to respondents from complaints that may be unfounded. Freeing bishops from direct judicial involvement in disciplinary matters will enable them more easily to offer the pastoral support my hon. Friend refers to. We are also exploring how to supplement ecclesiastical legal aid to support those responding to complaints.

Remote Access to Church Services

Theresa Villiers (Chipping Barnet): To ask the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire, representing the Church Commissioners, what steps the Church of England is taking to maintain remote access to church services during the covid-19 outbreak. [902793]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Andrew Selous): I can tell my right hon. Friend that the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Easter day sermon was listened to by 5 million people and that the Alexa Church app has had a 70% increase in usage in the last month. Perhaps most notably, “The UK Blessing”, co-ordinated by Gas Street Church, Birmingham, has been downloaded 2.6 million times, and according to the Prime Minister is a sensational singing masterpiece to which he has awarded a point of light.

Theresa Villiers: I warmly welcome the huge efforts going into ensuring that people have remote access to church services, but there are some situations when that is not a substitute for meeting in places of worship with one’s family, so can I urge the Church Commissioners and my hon. Friend to speed up the introduction of small-scale funerals within churches, with social distancing observed, because of the comfort they can bring to people bereaved by this terrible crisis?

Andrew Selous: I know what a deeply difficult issue this is. The Church will work with the Government on these issues to do safely what my right hon. Friend asks. She will be aware that cleaning in many of our churches is done by volunteers, some of whom are elderly and may have difficulty coming in between funerals, but the point she makes is very valid and has absolutely been noted.

Support for Hospital Chaplains

Andrew Griffith (Arundel and South Downs): What support the Church of England provides to hospital chaplains in the course of their ministry to the sick during the covid-19 outbreak. [902794]

Andrew Selous: I thank my hon. Friend for his interest in and concern for our hospital chaplains, who have done such amazing work in recent months. The Church works closely with the College of Healthcare Chaplains to ensure support for our chaplains. Anglican chaplains, while being required to hold a bishop’s licence, are actually employees of the trusts they serve, not the Church of England.

Andrew Griffith: I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. Sadly, I was touched by the virus with the loss of my father, and Father John Diver of St Lawrence’s parish in Sidcup was a source of great comfort to him and my family at a difficult time. Would the Church Commissioner join me in recording our gratitude to hospital chaplains and to the clergy of all faiths?

Andrew Selous: I know that the whole House would want to extend our deepest condolences to my hon. Friend for the very sad loss of his father. What he says about all chaplains is absolutely right, and the Archbishop of Canterbury has himself been volunteering as a chaplain at St Thomas’s Hospital. I thank him very much for his kind comments, which will be deeply appreciated.

Church of England Schools: Support for Children and Parents

Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale): What steps Church of England schools have taken to support children and parents during the covid-19 lockdown. [902795]

Andrew Selous: I would like to thank very warmly and pay tribute to all the teachers and staff in Church schools who are providing teaching and care for children at this difficult time. They have moved rapidly to provide online lessons and resources, and are looking after children of key workers and overseeing the distribution of free school meal vouchers. The Church is also delighted to have partnered with the Oak National Academy to provide assemblies and weekly collective worship.

Tim Farron: Here in Cumbria and the South Lakes, headteachers of Church schools—in fact, of all schools—do want to return on 1 June, but of course they see protecting the safety of their school community as their first and primary responsibility. Will the hon. Gentleman make strong representations to the Department for Education about supporting those schools that decide to stay closed for the time being for safety reasons, especially given new Government guidance against schools using flexible approaches for returning pupils?

Andrew Selous: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. In addition to being Second Church Estates Commissioner, I am a governor myself of a Church school, and I actually attended a governors meeting by ​Zoom early this morning looking at exactly these issues. I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, and I will make sure that his comments are fed in. I know that the ​Department for Education is taking these issues very seriously and will proceed cautiously, as we would all expect it to do.


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