Church Commissioner questions: church building reopening, weddings, housing, public worship, music, online services, family life, church finances and the Transition Pathway Initiative

On 25th June 20202 the Second Church Estates Commissioner, Andrew Selous MP, answered questions from MPs in the House of Commons, on: church building reopening, weddings, housing, public worship, music, online services, family life, church finances and the Transition Pathway Initiative. A transcript is below:

Church Commissioners

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

Church Services: Covid-19

Dame Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) (Con): When the Church Commissioners plan to reopen churches for services as the covid-19 lockdown restrictions are eased. [903754]

Felicity Buchan (Kensington) (Con):  When the Church Commissioners plan to reopen churches for services as the covid-19 lockdown restrictions are eased. [903761]

Sir Desmond Swayne (New Forest West) (Con):  What representations the Church Commissioners have made to the Government on enabling public worship to resume in churches. [903764]

John Lamont (Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk) (Con):  What the timeframe is for the resumption of church services as the covid-19 lockdown restrictions are eased. [903778]

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): When the Church Commissioners plan to reopen cathedrals and churches for worship; and if he will make a statement. [903779]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Andrew Selous): The last three months have been the first time in more than 800 years that England has gone without public worship and the sacraments, so there is real joy that we can meet again, socially distanced, from 4 July. I can give an assurance that the personal safety of clergy who are shielding should be prioritised and they can continue to do their duties remotely.

Dame Cheryl Gillan [V]: The self-sacrifice of so many people during the extreme lockdown period will have saved many lives, but one of the great sacrifices for many people will have been the inability to attend church physically and to have had to cancel weddings, baptisms and other deeply significant ceremonies. I understand my hon. Friend had to cancel his own daughter’s wedding last Saturday, and I wish her and her fiancé all the best. Will he now confirm that their wedding, as well as many others, can now go ahead in safety in church with 30 guests, and when does he expect the number of guests to be increased to reflect the capacity of the church being used and the new 1 metre-plus rule?

Andrew Selous: I thank my right hon. Friend for her kind good wishes, which are greatly appreciated. As she said, weddings can now take place from 4 July, but only with a maximum of 30 people. This is a huge relief to many couples throughout the country. For church services, there is no maximum number within a place of worship as long as the premises comply with covid-secure guidelines.

Felicity Buchan: Given the country’s need for more housing, including more social housing, are the Church Commissioners able to take into account social and community outcomes in their land development decisions, and not just maximising financial profit?

Andrew Selous:  I thank my hon. Friend for that question, and I can tell her that the Church of England pensions board already supports the social housing market through investments in social housing bonds. The commissioners also make provision for social and affordable housing on housing developments as per local planning requirements, while being required, like all charities, to obtain best value reasonably obtainable in the market when disposing of assets. But I am keen to explore whether the Church Commissioners are able to play any further role in solving the nation’s housing crisis. The Archbishop of Canterbury’s housing commission, which the Bishop of Kensington co-chairs, is looking separately at wider housing policy, and I am engaging closely with that work.

Sir Desmond Swayne:  I used to enjoy a hymn sandwich before this interdict, but I have broken the habit. How is my hon. Friend going to lure us back if we are not allowed to sing? May I suggest, as a minimum, shorter services, even shorter sermons, some comfortable words from the Book of Common Prayer and an end to prating prelates?

Mr Speaker:  Well, Andrew Selous, sing to that one.

Andrew Selous: That is a challenge indeed, Mr Speaker, but what I would say to my right hon. Friend is that I hope he has taken part in some of the uplifting online worship and services that have been available to him during the lockdown, and I would add that the warmth of the welcome, the opportunity for fellowship and the chance to grow in faith through prayer, worship and the revelation of God’s word will prove an irresistible temptation to my right hon. Friend to return.

John Lamont:  I very much welcome that services can resume in places of worship in England and that private prayer is allowed in other nations of the United Kingdom, but what discussions have there been with Churches to ensure that people are encouraged to go back to church and are reassured that it is safe to do so?

Andrew Selous:  The Church is delighted to be able to throw open its doors again, so that we can gather again for public worship and weddings in the way that we have not been able to do over the past three months. We will make sure that people are safe. I know that clergy and church wardens are taking their responsibilities very seriously to make sure that people are safe when they come, and we are really looking forward to seeing them back again in all our churches.

Mr Speaker:  We are now heading to the shadows of the spires of Lichfield cathedral with one Michael Fabricant.

Michael Fabricant [V]: Thank you, Mr Speaker: from where I am sitting now Lichfield cathedral is just about 100 yards behind me.

Lichfield has a great choral tradition; we have a choral school and the services are very good. It is open for two hours a day at the moment for private prayer, but when does my hon. Friend anticipate that we will be able to go to evensong and enjoy the wonderful choir that sings there?

Andrew Selous:  My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Cathedrals such as Lichfield are at the centre of the amazing choral tradition that we have in this country. Sadly, I have to tell him that singing and chanting are not allowed even at a distance, due to the additional risk of infection, and woodwind and brass instruments should not be used, but that still leaves many other instruments. His constituents can return for public worship from 4 July and I know that Lichfield Cathedral will be making them very welcome when they return.


Church Services: Live Streaming

Greg Smith (Buckingham) (Con): What assessment the commissioners have made of the effect of live streaming church services on the number of people taking part in church services. [903759]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Andrew Selous):  I am pleased to be able to tell my hon. Friend that more people have been taking part in church services during lockdown than ever before. The national weekly service of the Church has been viewed more than 5.2 million times, with 21.5 million related social media posts, and a third of the people watching Archbishop Justin Welby’s Easter day service were under the age of 34.

Greg Smith:  Parishes in the Winslow benefice in my constituency are seeing 400 to 500 people take part in virtual services each Sunday and about 100 each day in midday-ish prayer. Given the extraordinary number of people who have either connected with the Church for the first time or reconnected with it virtually, what plans do the Church Commissioners have to set aside funds to continue this excellent work?

Andrew Selous: I am delighted to learn about the increase in church attendance in my hon. Friend and neighbour’s constituency. It is not unusual. The Church made a significant investment in a new digital communications team in 2016 and we will continue to make sure that we provide a good digital offering. The experience of my hon. Friend in Winslow has been widely shared by churches across the country. Some 1,600 people are currently attending an online alpha course at one of our churches, and 3.3 million people have now watched the UK blessing worship video on YouTube, put together by Gas Street Church in Birmingham.


Smaller and Rural Churches: Covid-19

Rosie Duffield (Canterbury) (Lab): What assessment the commissioners have made of the ability of (a) smaller and (b) rural churches to re-open safely as the covid-19 lockdown restrictions are eased. [903760]

Andrew Selous: Church House staff and the House of Bishops are doing everything they can to assist parish churches to open safely. The guidance published by the Church is applicable for small and rural churches as well as for larger and urban churches.

Rosie Duffield: It is obviously fantastic to see Canterbury Cathedral open for private prayer, but rural and smaller village communities often use their churches as a lifeline, particularly those who have been shielding. I want to reassure them that it is going to be safe for them to return to church soon.

Andrew Selous: I can give the hon. Lady that reassurance. I know from my own village church how seriously the vicar and the church wardens are taking their responsibilities to make sure that the return will be safe, with hand sanitiser, removing the kneelers, keeping prayer books covered up and so on, as well as making sure that people sit at an appropriate distance. I am sure that the rural churches will be back in action shortly in the hon. Lady’s constituency.


Support for Family Life: Covid-19

Joy Morrissey (Beaconsfield) (Con):  What steps the Church of England has taken to support family life during the covid-19 lockdown. [903763]

Andrew Selous: In the diocese of Oxford, which covers Beaconsfield, churches have opened food banks and community larders and supported vulnerable people who are socially isolating as well as asylum seekers and key workers. In addition, nationally, the new marriage and pre-marriage courses have been available online throughout lockdown so that any local church can forward them to couples wanting to invest in their relationship.

Joy Morrissey:  What better way to celebrate couples than getting married, but, sadly, in beautiful Beaconsfield countless couples have had to cancel their church wedding. I welcome the news of 30 people being able to gather at a wedding, but what has the Church of England done to work with Government and to lobby them to increase the numbers for gatherings and weddings? Could we increase those numbers for this summer?

Andrew Selous: I thank my hon. Friend for that question, and she is right to say that a maximum of 30 people will be allowed at weddings from 4 July. That 30 includes the minister and the couple, and there should be social distancing of 1 metre-plus between individuals, households and support bubbles. The figure of 30 is what the Government have advised for now, and they obviously continue to listen to the science, but the couples I have spoken to are just so pleased to be able to get married. Perhaps a bigger party—perhaps a celebration of the renewal of vows—could take place next year.


Covid-19: Financial Effect on Churches

Mike Kane (Wythenshawe and Sale East) (Lab): What assessment the commissioners have made of the financial effect of the covid-19 outbreak on churches. [903766]

Andrew Selous: Lockdown has meant that income from hall lettings, events and parochial fees has stopped completely in many cases. Donations of gift aid have also been adversely affected, so the Church is hugely grateful to those who are able to support it through the planned giving scheme. That regular, committed giving has become more important than ever to the mission and ministry of the Church.

Mike Kane:  The Catholic diocese of Shrewsbury, which covers my constituency, has told me that income is down by a third since lockdown—a loss heading towards £700,000. In the long term, this will have an impact on building maintenance. Have the Government considered an enhanced gift aid scheme to help our faith communities to mitigate the damage?

Andrew Selous: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, and he is absolutely right to draw attention to this. I will certainly raise the issue with the Government on his behalf and that of the diocese that has brought it to his attention. I am grateful to him.


Transition Pathway Initiative

Barry Gardiner (Brent North) (Lab): What assessment the Church Commissioners have made of the effectiveness of the transition pathway initiative managed by the Church of England pension fund trustees. [903771]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Andrew Selous): The Church is proud of its role in developing the transition pathway initiative, which enables asset owners to identify which companies are implementing strategies in line with the Paris climate agreement. It is supported by investors, with over $20 trillion of assets under management, so it is now possible to distinguish between the high-carbon companies that are transitioning and those that are not.

Barry Gardiner:  I am very grateful for that answer, and congratulate the Church’s pension trustees on their innovation and vision. The TPI has worked with major global companies to reduce their emissions and has established a framework for pension funds to move towards net zero emissions. Can the hon. Gentleman tell me whether our own parliamentary pension fund is able to sign up to the initiative, and what more the Church could do to encourage other pension funds to join that $20 trillion of assets?

Andrew Selous: Each set of pension trustees has its own responsibilities, but I note that the Pensions Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), has said it is important that all pension fund trustees understand the risks and opportunities posed to their investments by climate change. I am always delighted when others follow where the Church leads.