Church Commissioner Questions: covid and church attendance, baptisms, weddings and funerals, IICSA, renting of church premises, woodland holdings

On 15th October 2020 MPs put questions to Andrew Selous MP, Second Church Estates Commissioner, on covid and church attendance, baptisms, weddings and funerals, IICSA, renting of church premises, and woodland holdings. A transcript is below:

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

Church Attendance and Participation

Dr Neil Hudson (Penrith and The Border) (Con): What plans the Church of England has to increase the number of regular church attendees during the covid-19 outbreak. [907540]

Mrs Sheryll Murray (South East Cornwall) (Con): What progress the Church of England is making on increasing participation in worship, weddings and other ceremonies. [907545]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Andrew Selous): The “A Church Near You” website advertises 17,000 regular Church of England virtual services and events, and those are only a portion of all that is on offer. Weddings and funerals are also often livestreamed, as my own daughter’s was in the summer, and my hon. Friends will be pleased to know that Carlisle cathedral streamed ordinations earlier this month and that St Martin’s, Liskeard will have a drive-in carol service in Morrisons car park on 20 December, which will also be livestreamed.

Dr Hudson [V]: I thank my hon. Friend for that encouraging answer. Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, it has been at first impossible and latterly difficult to enable church congregations to meet physically as they used to. However, churches up and down the land have done amazingly by offering virtual services, prayer sessions and courses such as Alpha courses, meaning that many additional people who had never been to church before are now involved in a church. Will my hon. Friend join me in thanking churches of all denominations who have done so much during the pandemic to serve their local communities, ranging from worship opportunities to physical care, food distribution and pastoral support?

Andrew Selous: I thank my hon. Friend very much indeed for what he said. Of course, I am delighted to do so. I am sure, in fact, that the whole House would like to thank clergy, staff and volunteers who have risen to the challenge of maintaining worship and meeting need in a magnificent manner. They have been astonishingly present throughout the pandemic.

Mrs Murray: Government guidance talks of including participation in livestreaming of services, as my hon. Friend mentioned with his daughter’s wedding. What technical help is being given to assist churches to allow them to include more participation?

Andrew Selous: I can tell my hon. Friend that the Church made a significant investment in a new digital communications team back in 2016. The training has been used by over 4,000 clergy. Over 7 million people have used our daily prayer apps. Nearly 3 million people have watched national online services, with about a fifth of those being people who rarely go to church or do not go at all. The good news is that the Church is reaching more people than ever before.

Baptisms, Weddings and Funerals: Attendance Restrictions

Karl MᶜCartney (Lincoln) (Con): What recent discussions the Commissioners have had with Government Ministers on covid-19 attendance restrictions for baptisms, weddings and funerals. [907541]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Andrew Selous): The Government have kept in constant touch with the Church of England, all denominations and all faiths throughout the pandemic. Dioceses, parishes and cathedrals are quickly notified of any changes to law or guidance.

Karl MᶜCartney [V]: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer, but how can we ensure that we do not put any further restrictions on baptisms, weddings and funerals? Does my hon. Friend agree that those ceremonies must be supported and that we cannot have another six months of cancellations?

Andrew Selous: I strongly agree with my hon. Friend. I am very pleased that baptisms, weddings and funerals can continue in some form in all three covid alert tiers. I am pleased that the Government recognise the huge significance of those services in people’s lives.

Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse

Cat Smith (Lancaster and Fleetwood) (Lab): What plans the Church of England has to implement the recommendations of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse investigation report on the Anglican Church, published in October 2020. [907542]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Andrew Selous): As the Archbishop of Canterbury has said, the findings of the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse are “shameful and disgraceful” and remind us how badly we have treated and continue to treat victims and survivors. All the recommendations are going to the House of Bishops on Monday for urgent response and action.

Cat Smith: Any Church should be a haven for children and young people to be able to grow in Christ but to do so in safety. The report found that 390 clergy and leaders in the Church of England were convicted of child abuse between the 1940s and 2018, but many more will have evaded punishment for their crimes. In fact, in 2018 alone, we heard that 449 concerns were raised about child sexual abuse relating to church leaders, so does the Commissioner agree that historical complaints against living alleged perpetrators must be investigated and justice brought for their victims? Can he outline what action the Church is taking to ensure that those found guilty of offences are removed as a threat to children?

Andrew Selous: I can indeed. The House of Bishops is urgently and very seriously considering the recommendations, including deposition from holy orders. We will address both practice and culture within the Church and are working on a redress scheme for victims and survivors, and we fully co-operate with all police investigations.

Renting of Church Premises

Rob Butler (Aylesbury) (Con): What assessment the Church of England has made of the economic effect on parishes of the inability to rent out church premises during the covid-19 outbreak. [907548]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Andrew Selous): Around 60% of parish income comes from giving, but rental income from halls and other premises has been badly affected, so I would strongly encourage Christians to increase their giving to their local church if they are able to do so, to support our ability to tell more people the good news of Jesus and, critically, to support the 35,000 social action projects helping children who are homeless and vulnerable.

Rob Butler: St Mary’s in Aylesbury is a grade 1 listed community treasure that is fundraising for much-needed repair and restoration, but it has lost about 40% of its overall income this year due to coronavirus, notwithstanding the commitment of members of the congregation who are paying by standing order, which is still being done. However, events such as lunchtime concerts, craft fairs and civic services have all been cancelled, so what will the Church do to help parishes such as St Mary’s financially during the current crisis?

Andrew Selous: I very much recognise the picture that my hon. Friend paints of what is happening at St Mary’s in Aylesbury. I can tell him that, nationally, the Church has provided a sustainability fund to respond to the financial pressures caused by covid, and I also want to thank the Culture Secretary for the £10.7 million for vital repair work for 66 churches and cathedrals, and for what it will do to keep key craftsmen and women in work. I would welcome my hon. Friend’s support in engaging the Government with the Taylor review recommendations to support the maintenance of churches like St Mary’s in Aylesbury in a sustainable and long-term manner.

Church of England Estate: Woodland

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab): What proportion of the Church of England’s estate is covered with woodland. [907556]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Andrew Selous): In December 2019, the Church Commissioners had 53% of their global land, 27.5% of their UK land and 4% of their English land in forestry, and we also own pooled timber funds in the United States.

Kerry McCarthy: The 4% English cover puts it at the very bottom of the list. As I understand it, there are 105,000 acres in England. Why is the figure so low? Is there not a strategy to increase that cover, given that we know how important the role of trees is in natural carbon sequestration? Could the Church of England not do an awful lot better when it comes to England?

Andrew Selous: Like the hon. Lady, I strongly want to see more trees planted, and can tell her that so far this year we have planted 1.1 million trees in the UK, on top of the 2.6 million last year. We are always looking to plant more trees, but most of our rural estate is high-quality agricultural land, and is held in long-term tenancies to produce food.

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