Church Commissioner Questions: covid-19, mental health, debt advice, youth work, online worship, overseas aid, racism

On 10th September 2020 MPs asked questions of the Church Commissioners, represented by Andrew Selous MP, Second Church Estates Commissioner. A full transcript is below:

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

Covid-19: Mental Health

James Sunderland (Bracknell) (Con): What steps the Church of England is taking to support mental health during the covid-19 outbreak. [905855]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Andrew Selous): This is a timely question from my hon. Friend, on World Suicide Prevention Day. The Church’s healthcare chaplains work in both acute and community mental health services. The diocese of Manchester provides mental health wellbeing youth workers, to provide mental health first aid, and the parish of Goudhurst in Kilndown in Kent provides subsidised mental health counselling in 13 schools.

James Sunderland: Given the current crisis and the inability of young people to meet, what impact is covid-19 having on the young persons working for the Church in that good work?

Andrew Selous: My hon. Friend raises an important point. His own diocese, the diocese of Oxford, reports that connection with young people has been greatly reduced throughout lockdown. With the new measures to suppress the virus coming in on Monday, churches can hold services tailored to young people, as many already do, and church youth groups can continue to meet in multiple groups of six or fewer. I hope that churches will consider those options to increase the number of young people involved with the life of the Church.


Covid-19: National Recovery

Danny Kruger (Devizes) (Con): What steps the Church of England is taking to support national recovery from the covid-19 outbreak. [905863]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Andrew Selous): Church schools have taken a lead in getting children back to school, and many of the Church of England’s 33,000 social action projects have adapted and expanded—for example, in the provision of food, especially to those who are vulnerable and shielding.

In my hon. Friend’s diocese of Salisbury, £1.27 million has been spent on the Renewing Hope project to support ministry and mission in rural communities, and Salisbury cathedral is one of 12 to benefit from the £900,000 the commissioners have spent supporting heritage crafts.

Danny Kruger: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. It is incredibly encouraging to hear all of that. Does he agree with me that faith communities, the Church and other faith groups have a huge contribution to make to national recovery and to the future of our society, but that to realise this potential we need public servants at all levels of national and local government and in public services to overcome certain prejudices or suspicions they have about working with faith groups, and what does he think the Government can do to encourage this?

Andrew Selous: I am pleased that my hon. Friend has raised this point, because he is absolutely right. The Government need to combat religious illiteracy by making the case that the public square should never be purely secular, as secular humanism is itself a belief system and such an approach would be illiberal.


Covid-19: Financial Support

Dr Luke Evans (Bosworth) (Con): What steps the Church of England is taking to support people in financial difficulty during the covid-19 outbreak. [905864]

Andrew Selous:  Some 1,000 Church of England parishes are directly involved in debt advice, sometimes working with debt counselling organisations such as Christians Against Poverty. In my hon. Friend’s county of Leicestershire, the diocese of Leicester chairs the Fair Finance Group, which tackles financial exclusion, working with local councils, the Department for Work and Pensions and credit unions.

Dr Evans:  I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that answer, because financial difficulty is a really difficult problem. I was lucky enough to visit St John’s in Hinckley, at the request of the Rev. Gary Weston, where he showed me their food bank and the food parcels that they deliver to provide support locally. One of the questions that he wanted me to ask today was about better joining up with local government and raising awareness of what churches can do, because they can respond very quickly to provide support for local people in need. What steps is my hon. Friend taking to ensure that that can happen?

Andrew Selous:  I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question, which leads on directly from the previous question from our hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Danny Kruger), and he is absolutely right to raise it. I am very aware of the good work of St John’s in Hinckley. He might know that it is benefiting from £800,000 of further investment in mission and ministry, provided by the Church’s strategic development funding.

Churches such as St John’s have been quietly getting on with essential work in the community, as is happening up and down the country, and I am hugely grateful to all of them. He is absolutely right; they need to work hand in hand with local authorities, and local authorities need to be aware of what churches are doing in their areas.


Church Services: Innovation

Steve Double (St Austell and Newquay) (Con): What steps the Church of England is taking to support churches to continue to use innovative ways of conducting services after the covid-19 outbreak. [905865]

Andrew Selous: My hon. Friend is right to raise this point. I know that he, like me, celebrates the fact that now more people than ever have been taking part in church services during lockdown. The Church will continue to support good online worship, incorporating the best of the changes from lockdown with the best of what came before.

Steve Double: Since the beginning of the pandemic, churches have been conducting services in a variety of ways. I am thinking in particular of the open-air services held by Wave House church in Newquay and the Anchor church in Fowey—in Cornwall we do like a church with a maritime themed name. Other churches have been holding services online.

A recent Tearfund survey found that as many as one in four adults in the UK has listened to or watched a religious service during the lockdown. Does my hon. Friend agree that, as we come out of the pandemic, it is important that churches continue to innovate and adapt, in order to engage with people in a variety of ways?

Andrew Selous: Absolutely. My hon. Friend raises a really important point. I am grateful to him for alerting the House to Tearfund’s research, which found that one in four people in the UK has listened to or watched a religious service over the lockdown, and I am particularly pleased to learn of the initiatives in the two local churches that he mentioned.

He will be pleased to know that the diocese of London, for example, has led large outdoor services, and in the diocese of Norwich, in a large-scale drive-in service, hymns and preaching were beamed directly to car radios through a dedicated FM channel.


Overseas Aid and Development

Wes Streeting (Ilford North) (Lab):  What (a) steps the Church of England is taking and (b) recent discussions the Church of England has had with the Government on overseas aid and development. [905882]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Andrew Selous): The pandemic has worsened poverty and hunger in many developing countries. In response, the Archbishop of Canterbury has launched the Together In Unity Appeal to help vulnerable communities across the Anglican communion. The Church is in regular contact with Ministers and envoys to discuss a range of development and freedom of religion and belief issues.

Wes Streeting:  I very much welcome the Church’s work in this area. Does the Church share my view that the merger of the Foreign Office with the Department for International Development must not lead to the UK abandoning its commitment to the 0.7% target, and that every penny counted against that target should genuinely be spent on aid and development purposes?

Andrew Selous:  Yes, absolutely. The Church is pleased that the Government have publicly committed both to spending 0.7% of gross national income on aid and to maintaining the OECD definition of overseas development assistance.


Racial Discrimination

Janet Daby (Lewisham East) (Lab): If he will publish an update on the Archbishop of Canterbury’s steps to tackle racial discrimination in the Church of England. [905884]

Andrew Selous:  In July, both archbishops launched an anti-racism taskforce to assess progress in implementing past recommendations to the Church in this area. The report will be concluded before the end of the year, and then an archbishops’ commission will be formed to produce recommendations for action on combating racism.

Janet Daby [V]: The Archbishop of Canterbury’s proactive approach over the summer to address the Church’s issue with racial inequality was welcome. He also commented that the Church was still deeply institutionally racist. Does the hon. Member believe, as I do, that there is a need to address in more depth the history of the Church’s involvement in the slave trade and beyond?

Andrew Selous: Although the Church has issued a formal apology for slavery and both archbishops undertook a public act of repentance, the Church does still need to be deeply mindful of its involvement in slavery and its more recent completely shameful treatment of Windrush generation migrants, who were, in some appalling cases, asked not to come to Church of England services. We ask forgiveness from those who we have treated so badly.

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