Church Commissioner Questions: public worship, tree planting, Christmas services, gender-based violence, Living in Love and Faith, cathedral services, Christian persecution, community support, consistory court appeals

On 26th November MPs put questions to the Second Church Estates Commissioner, Andrew Selous MP, on public worship, tree planting, Christmas services, gender-based violence, Living in Love and Faith, cathedral services, Christian persecution, community support and consistory court appeals. A transcript is below:

Church Commissioners

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

Covid-19 Lockdown: Public Worship

Sir Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): What representations the Church of England has made to the Government on the importance of public worship during periods of covid-19 lockdown. [909344]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Andrew Selous): Both archbishops joined other faith leaders earlier this month in writing to the Prime Minister to highlight the importance of public worship. The worship of Jesus is the spiritual fuel that keeps the engine of the Church running.

Sir Edward Leigh: Over the past 1,000 years, we have had a fair proportion of saints and sinners as Archbishop of Canterbury, but one thing that we demand of our established Church is that it provides robust leadership against arbitrary government. I do not know whether my hon. Friend noticed that 90 colleagues and I wrote to the Prime Minister on the subject of the closure of churches, but can he assure me, as a voice of the established Church in this place, that if there is any future proposal to prevent public worship, the Church of England will demand evidence—there has never been a shred of evidence—and we will try to save this very important part of public life?

Andrew Selous:  I not only noted my right hon. Friend’s letter, but was one of the signatories to it. Like him, I know that clergy have worked extraordinarily hard to provide covid-secure services. I felt safer in church than in any other public space I have been in during the pandemic. My right hon. Friend makes a very valid point. I have registered that point very strongly, and I will absolutely feed it through to the leadership of the Church of England.


High-quality Grade 1 and 2 Farmland

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab): What proportion of agricultural land owned by the Church of England is high-quality grade 1 and 2 farmland. [909345]

Andrew Selous:  Approximately 35,000 acres of land owned by the Church Commissioners is high-quality grade 1 and 2 farmland, representing 39% of the overall agricultural portfolio. Information on diocesan land holdings is not held by the Church Commissioners.

Kerry McCarthy: I thank the hon. Member for that answer. At the last Church Commissioners questions, he said to me that he strongly wanted to see more trees planted on the Church estate, but that most of the rural estate is high-quality agricultural land and is therefore not suitable. He has just said that 39% is high-grade agricultural land. Does that not mean there is an awful lot of other land on which they could plant trees and help meet the Government’s commitment to increasing woodland cover?

Andrew Selous: As I think I said at the last questions, I commend the hon. Lady for raising this issue and, indeed, for returning to it today, and I genuinely welcome her scrutiny. More than 60% of our farmland is let on secure agricultural tenancies, with the rest on tenancies under the Agricultural Tenancies Act 1995. Both of those limit our ability to intervene directly. However, we do encourage our tenants to farm sustainably and join environmental stewardship schemes to plant trees and hedgerows wherever possible. In addition, we are undertaking a natural capital assessment, which will provide a baseline and trajectory of progress towards achieving lower carbon outputs.


Christmas Services: Covid-19

Dr Luke Evans (Bosworth) (Con): What steps the Church of England is taking to support churches to conduct Christmas services during the covid-19 outbreak. [909347]

Dr Neil Hudson (Penrith and The Border) (Con): What steps the Church of England is taking to help ensure that people can safely celebrate Advent and Christmas during the covid-19 outbreak. [909352]

Jacob Young (Redcar) (Con): What steps the Church of England is taking to help ensure that people can safely celebrate Advent and Christmas during the covid-19 outbreak. [909353]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Andrew Selous): From 2 December, places of worship can reopen for public worship, and churches and cathedrals can now approach Advent and Christmas with certainty. Clergy have already demonstrated that they have made their buildings covid-secure, and many cathedrals and churches are planning to have multiple services to accommodate more people as fewer are allowed in each service.

The further good news is that, while indoor singing is limited to performance only, we can all take part in outdoor and door-to-door singing, staying 2 metres apart or away from the threshold, and nativity plays for under-18s are permitted in accordance with the performing arts guidance.

Dr Evans [V]: I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s comments on services, but at Christmas time, the Church does a lot more—it provides support for our communities through financial advice, fuel and food poverty advice and, of course, the social support that is at the heart of it all. With that in mind, what discussions has he had with local and national Government and the Churches to ensure that they can continue to provide that support in a covid-secure way at Christmas?

Andrew Selous: I know that my hon. Friend takes a close interest in this area of the Church’s work. The Church continues to work with the Government through the places of worship taskforce to advise parishes on how to continue providing critical assistance locally, which they have done wonderfully well. For example, St Peter’s in Market Bosworth, in his constituency, is supporting the local women’s refuge with food and toiletries.

Dr Hudson [V]: I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. Once again, churches have done amazingly through this pandemic, continuing with outreach to their communities. I pay tribute to the churches in Penrith and The Border and across the country that enabled remembrance ceremonies to go ahead this year in challenging circumstances. Does he agree that, as churches look to reopen for worship and other activities in the months ahead, targeted Government financial support for them would be a great way to ensure that their vital community work and support can carry on?

Andrew Selous: Churches did indeed organise very respectful and safe remembrance services. The National Churches Trust estimates that the economic value of our social action is worth around £12.4 billion. I can tell my hon. Friend that 227 churches and cathedrals have been supported by the culture recovery fund, for which I thank the Government.

Jacob Young [V]: I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. Churches in Redcar and Cleveland, such as St Mark’s in Marske and St Cuthbert’s in Ormesby, have gone above and beyond to ensure that the risk of transmission in churches is low. They are a place for people of all faiths and none to find peace in what has been an incredibly difficult eight months. Unfortunately, Advent Sunday this year will fall inside the lockdown, but I am grateful that the Government have said that churches can reopen for the rest of Advent from 2 December. What message does the Church Commissioner have for those churches in Redcar and Cleveland in the approach to Christmas?

Andrew Selous: I am delighted to learn of the important role that churches in Redcar and Cleveland have played in helping people to find peace during this dreadful pandemic. The closure of churches is not something that any of us ever wants to see again. I hope that my hon. Friend’s constituents will follow the advice of the Archbishop of Canterbury: to come to church in person or virtually and to spend time with their wider families in a safe and responsible way.


Consistory Courts: Appeals Process

Conor McGinn (St Helens North) (Lab): What recent assessment the commissioners have made of the effectiveness of the process of appeal against consistory court decisions to the provincial court of the archbishop. [909348]

Andrew Selous: The decision of a consistory court can, with permission, be appealed to the relevant provincial court, provided that the appeal does not relate to a question of doctrine, ritual or ceremonial. As in the temporal courts, an appeal must have a real prospect of success, or there should be some other compelling reason why the appeal should be heard.

Conor McGinn: I want to pay tribute to the family of Margaret Keane, whose grief at the loss of their mother has been compounded by still not having a headstone on her grave to visit this Christmas, two and a half years on from her death. The family have said that Margaret is “In our hearts forever”—“In ár gcroíthe go deo”—and that sentiment is shared now by the Irish community in Britain. May I ask the commissioner—I thank him and the Church for their engagement with me and the work they do in Saint Helens in the diocese of Liverpool—if a review can take place into the current appeals system in ecclesiastical courts, whereby even successful appellants are liable potentially for huge court costs to an unlimited amount? This is an access to justice issue and one of fairness that should be looked at.

Andrew Selous:  I am sure that the whole House would want to extend their sympathies to the Keane family, and I am hopeful that change is on the way. The Church of England (Miscellaneous Provisions) Measure 2020, which was recently passed by this House, provides for exemptions from and reductions in court fees in the ecclesiastical courts to be made in secondary legislation. The Fees Advisory Commission will be asked to consider these provisions and, following that, an Order in General Synod will be made next year and will be laid before Parliament.


Parish Church Network: Covid-19

Karl MᶜCartney (Lincoln) (Con): What steps the Church of England is taking to secure the long-term financial stability of the parish church network following the covid-19 outbreak. [909349]

Andrew Selous: The Church has provided £35 million of sustainability funding to help dioceses that have been the hardest hit financially as a result of the pandemic. This is focused on dioceses in lower income areas and with fewer historic resources. Advice has been given on encouraging joyful giving and tithing as the cornerstone of parish finances, both by direct debit and card readers, as well as traditional giving in the plate.

Karl MᶜCartney [V]: Good morning, Mr Speaker, and I look forward to seeing you later.

I thank my hon. Friend for his response on behalf of the Church Commissioners—[Inaudible]—it is pleasing to hear. We look forward to a quick return to daily and weekly services for primary worship as soon as we are able, but also to the collections taken at these services along with the extra-curricular activities in the annual calendar of parish churches to fundraise and generate income for churches and their parishioners, which we hope can be reinstated as soon as is practicable, too.

Andrew Selous: Public worship can start again from next Wednesday, but it may take a while for church hall income, fundraising events and visitor income to pick up. Twelve churches in the Lincoln diocese have received £1.8 million from the Government’s culture recovery fund, and Lincoln cathedral has received £1.2 million from that fund.


Local Communities: Covid-19

Sir David Amess (Southend West) (Con): What steps the Church of England has taken to support local communities throughout the covid-19 outbreak. [909350]

Andrew Selous: As the Archbishop of York has pointed out, the Church has been “astonishingly present” throughout the pandemic, with over 35,000 active community projects. The GRA:CE Project report by Theos and the Church Urban Fund documents the enormous range and depth of this involvement, and the National Churches Trust’s “The House of Good” report recently estimated that parishes contribute around £12.4 billion of social good to the English economy.

Sir David Amess: I know that my hon. Friend would agree with me that at this particular time our churches are more important than ever. Certainly in my constituency, they do remarkable work—for instance, with the Southend night shelters—and during the coronavirus pandemic, they have been delivering food and medicines to vulnerable people. Will my hon. Friend please tell the House what the Church is doing to thank local churches and to celebrate their work?

Andrew Selous: I thank my hon. Friend for his question, and he is absolutely right that we all owe a huge debt of gratitude to clergy and parish workers, who have worked extraordinarily hard throughout the pandemic. In Southend West, for example, at Saint Saviour’s Westcliff, the congregation host a food bank and are collecting prescriptions and delivering food to those who are unable to leave their homes in my hon. Friend’s constituency. The Church of England is encouraging all congregations to continue with this kind of neighbourliness over the Christmas period to support vulnerable and lonely people.


Persecution of Christians

Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con): What steps the Church of England is taking to prevent the persecution of Christians throughout the world. [909351]

Andrew Selous: I would like to thank my hon. Friend for the enormous dedication and energy he put into this issue as the Prime Minister’s special envoy for religious freedom. The Church of England continues to press for the implementation of all the Truro report recommendations and challenges Governments and other faith leaders around the world who do not respect freedom of religion or belief.

Rehman Chishti [V]:  I thank my hon. Friend for his kind words. Recently around the world, including in Nice and Vienna, evil acts have been committed in the name of religion. Pope Francis said in 2018:

Every religious leader is called to unmask any attempt to manipulate God for ends that have nothing to do with him or his glory.

The Archbishop of Canterbury expressed similar views in 2016 on tackling extremism through theological dialogue. Can my hon. Friend confirm what steps are being taken by the Church to work with other faith leaders around the world to further address the issue of persecutions of Christians, who are the largest persecuted faith in the world, and to address the issue of other individuals of all faiths being persecuted for their faith through theological and inter-faith dialogue?

Andrew Selous:  My hon. Friend will know that there is a debate later today on this very subject, and he is absolutely right about the importance of inter-faith dialogue, which is why three years ago the Anglican primates launched an inter-faith commission to build mutual understanding and trust between different faiths. The Archbishop of Canterbury, who has a particular heart for reconciliation, said it

will bring together the wisest people across the Communion to work on this area in the places of highest tension with the aim of replacing diversity in conflict with diversity in collaboration.”


Christmastide Services

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): What discussions the commissioners have had with the chairman of the Association of English Cathedrals on services during Christmastide; and if he will make a statement. [909354]

Andrew Selous: The Church Commissioners have regular discussions with the Association of English Cathedrals, and cathedrals have made huge efforts to reach out to people in their areas. Lichfield cathedral, which I know is close to my hon. Friend’s heart—I think that he lives within its shadow—will be having an illuminations show and will hold as many services as possible, including some outside if necessary.

Mr Speaker: Let us go to the shadows of Lichfield cathedral, with Michael Fabricant.

Michael Fabricant [V]: Thank you, Mr Speaker; I am indeed very close to Lichfield cathedral, and the dean of Lichfield cathedral is the chairman of the Association of English Cathedrals. We are all delighted that we are going to have services this year and he has sent me a question, and I am going to read it, because he only lives a few doors down, and I have given my hon. Friend prior notice of the question. The dean asks, “What additional support can be given to cathedrals in the first quarter of 2021 to ensure they remain open and responsive to public need?”

Andrew Selous:  I thank my hon. Friend for his question, and I will be leaving these questions to go into a governors meeting of the Church Commissioners, so I will pass that on very directly. I can tell him that Lichfield cathedral has received £140,000 from the national lottery heritage emergency fund, but I know it needs extra funding for urgent building projects, including a buttress that is causing structural concern. I can also tell him that conversations with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and the Treasury about the Government’s own Taylor review of church and cathedral building sustainability are ongoing.


Sexuality and LGBT Communities: Parish Discussion

Ruth Jones (Newport West) (Lab): With reference to the publication of the November 2020 Church of England report entitled “Living in Love and Faith”, what steps the Church is taking to encourage parishes to discuss sexuality and methods of supporting their own LGBT communities. [909357]

Andrew Selous: The “Living in Love and Faith” report is a teaching and learning resource for the Church on marriage, sexuality and relationships. We hope it will enable parishes to learn together over the next year as we engage graciously, respectfully and compassionately with each other.

Ruth Jones: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that equality cannot just be about words, but also needs to be about actions, so what is actually being done to reach out to support LGBTQ+ members of the Church at a local level?

Andrew Selous: The Church recognises that we are all created in the image of God and should all be treated with dignity, which is why we have also created an anti-racism taskforce. With “Living in Love and Faith”, we will move towards a period of discernment and decision making in 2022, and we want to ensure that differences of view are expressed courteously and kindly—something we could do rather better on in this Chamber from time to time.


Gender-based Violence

Fleur Anderson (Putney) (Lab): What recent steps the Anglican Communion has taken to help tackle gender-based violence throughout the world. [909367]

Andrew Selous: The Anglican communion is supporting yesterday’s White Ribbon Day, the United Nations day for the eradication of all forms of violence against women and girls, with 16 days of online panel discussions and social media campaigns to spot and eradicate gender-based violence. The resources are available in seven languages in over 165 countries, and this is as essential for economic development as it is for the promotion of fundamental human dignity.

Fleur Anderson: I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s and Church Commissioners’ support for the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. Sexual violence in conflict remains far too common a tactic of warfare. Can the Church Commissioners report on the steps being taken by the Anglican communion to stop the dreadful stigmatisation of survivors of sexual violence in conflict and the important role that the Church can play around the world?

Andrew Selous: The hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise this completely horrific practice. I can tell her that the Bishop of Gloucester has led discussions with Ministers about the role of faith communities, which are often the first point of call for people in need. Parishes are often willing to scale up support for people suffering from gender-based violence and domestic abuse. It is important that there is a level playing field for all providers of support and advice services, including church ones. That is what we are doing in the UK, but I take her point about the global nature of this issue and the important role that the Anglican communion has in engaging with it.