Church Commissioner Questions -worship, choral singing, bereavement support, marriage, rewilding, tree planting, net zero targets, regenerative agriculture, Westminster Abbey

On 17th June 2021 MPs put questions to Andrew Selous MP, Second Church Estates Commissioner. Text of the oral and written answers is below.

Oral Questions

Martin Vickers (Cleethorpes) (Con): Whether the Church of England plans to support online and in-person communal worship as covid-19 restrictions are lifted. (901321)

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Andrew Selous): The Church of England is strongly encouraging churches to support both in-person and online communal worship, and training has been given to thousands of clergy to enable this. It is up to local churches to decide how best to do this.

Martin Vickers: I thank my hon. Friend for his reply. It is welcome that the Church is encouraging this both online and in-person. For those housebound, who perhaps in the past have only received home communion, to be able to participate more is very welcome, but nothing can actually replace the fellowship of being a part of a real-life congregation. Can he give an absolute assurance that no barriers will be put in the way of achieving that?

Andrew Selous: I could not agree with my hon. Friend more, and I can give him a complete assurance that the Church of England fully recognises the importance that so many people attach to worshipping communally together in church. At the same time, we are very keen not to lose those who join us online, and we hope we will be able to get to know many of our new online attendees as soon as possible in due course.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): What discussions the commissioners have had with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care on reintroducing choral singing in churches and cathedrals during the covid-19 outbreak. (901322)

Andrew Selous: The Church is having ongoing discussions with the Government about when choral and communal singing in churches and cathedrals can return, and I am very aware how frustrating the current situation is for choirs across the country.

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

Michael Fabricant [V]: Some people relax with yoga, others with tai chi—perhaps you do, Mr Speaker—but in the good old days when I used to have a week in Westminster and then get back to Lichfield, I unwound by going to evensong in Lichfield cathedral, which is very relaxing indeed. Whatever reason people go to evensong—perhaps even religious reasons, for worship—there is a need for it to be restored. What assurance can my hon. Friend give that, come 19 July, things will truly get back to normal in Lichfield and elsewhere?

Andrew Selous: I was praising my hon. Friend in front of all the cathedral deans on Tuesday for his diligence on behalf of Lichfield cathedral. He is absolutely right about the beauty of our choral tradition and how much it is cherished. We all want to see a return as quickly as possible.

Dr Lisa Cameron (East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow) (SNP): What steps the Church is taking to support and strengthen families and marriages. (901324)

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Andrew Selous): Both archbishops are very committed to strengthening families and marriages across the country, which is why they have launched their commission on families and households to see what greater support the Church can provide in this vital area of our national life.

Dr Cameron [V]: What a welcome response. Given that the Government have recently announced the foundation of the National Centre for Family Hubs, led by the Anna Freud Centre, and given the interest in family hubs from our local Hope Church in Blackwood, what communication has the hon. Member had with the Family Hubs Network to ensure that churches are involved in this support that is being offered to vulnerable families across our local communities?

Andrew Selous: I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s question. Like her, I am a great fan of family hubs. The families and households commission will be looking carefully at how family hubs can help families to flourish and how churches could be involved in this important work.

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab): What steps the Church of England is taking to promote rewilding in new tenancy agreements. (901325)

Andrew Selous: I commend the hon. Lady’s continued focus on this vital area. Our new farm business tenancies strongly encourage good environmental practice, such as ensuring that watercourses are kept clear, hedgerows are well maintained and topsoil is preserved. We are reviewing tenancy obligations as our new environmental strategy is developed.

Kerry McCarthy: I thank the hon. Member for his engagement with me on this issue—and his tolerance, in some cases. I am pleased to see that the commissioners will be carrying out a natural capital audit of their 105,000 acres of land. Can he say whether that is likely to result in recommendations on conservation and rewilding? If so, will he consider looking at the National Trust’s model tenancy agreements to see whether that is something that could be put in future tenancy agreements on the commissioners’ land?

Andrew Selous: I continue to be grateful to the hon. Lady. The Church wants to be an exemplar in this area. I can tell her that we expect the results of the natural capital audit shortly and will use it to see where we can enhance the environment of our rural land after we have listened to and collected the necessary data from our tenants.

Alex Sobel (Leeds North West) (Lab/Co-op): What plans there are for rewilding, tree-planting and sustainable farming on Church estates. (901328)

Rachael Maskell (York Central) (Lab/Co-op): What steps the Church of England is taking to increase planting and rewilding on its land. (901354)

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Andrew Selous): Ahead of the new environmental land management schemes, we are undertaking a natural capital audit across our rural holdings. The report, which is expected later this year, will include a review of woodland management and new tree planting, including riparian planting.

Alex Sobel [V]: The Church is a significant UK landowner, owning 105,000 acres of land, with a property portfolio worth over £2 billion. May I ask what plans it has for rewilding, tree planting and sustainable farming on its estates, as well as for being more transparent about what land it owns and how that land is used?

Andrew Selous: I can tell the hon. Gentleman that like him I want to see a lot more trees planted. The Church in 2020 planted 1.1 million trees, on top of the 2.6 million we planted in 2019. Page 24 of the 2020 annual report shows our top 20 property holdings and our top 20 equity holdings.

Rachael Maskell: The Church of England is in the business of restoration. Yet over the centuries we have seen our natural habitats retreat into manufactured and managed landscapes, which are just ineffective at balancing our delicate ecosystem. As a significant landowner lagging behind the national ambition on rewilding as well as planting, what are the next steps the Church will take to build our natural cathedrals of woodlands and wildernesses ahead of COP26? How much will it invest in that project, and will it set a diocesan and local church challenge in this year of COP26 for them to play their part too?

Andrew Selous: There was a lot there, but I will do my best. I can tell the hon. Lady that, of the 184,000 acres we own in total, 92,000 acres are timber, but she is right that there is more to do. I will be attending the Groundswell conference next week, as will some members of the Church Commissioners, along with a number of Environment Ministers, and we are very conscious of the important issues that she raises.

Janet Daby (Lewisham East) (Lab): What progress the Church of England has made on engaging the companies it has invested in to (a) improve transparency and (b) transition to a low carbon economy. (901329)

Andrew Selous: The commissioners have a long history of leveraging their position as an investor to increase transparency and to make sure that companies are Paris-aligned—most recently, with ExxonMobil. The commissioners’ work alongside other investors can often play a leading role in organisations such as Climate Action 100+, the United Nations Principles for Responsible Investment and the Institutional Investors Group on Climate Change.

Janet Daby [V]: This week, the Young Christian Climate Network began its relay for justice, where over 500 young people will take part in the trek from Truro Cathedral to Glasgow to call for bold action from our political and religious leaders. We all know that warm words will not stop the earth’s temperature rising, and although I very much welcome the update from the commissioner today, will he confirm that every component of the Church, including the commissioners, is on track to reach zero carbon by 2030?

Andrew Selous: All parts of the Church are absolutely committed to reaching net zero. The Church will shortly be meeting Environment Ministers to see what more we can do together, and our ethical investing has won a number of awards in that area.

Selaine Saxby (North Devon) (Con): What progress the Church of England has made towards its 2030 net zero target. (901331)

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Andrew Selous): We estimate that the net carbon footprint for our church buildings is 12.5% lower than in 2006. We have developed an energy footprint tool, which has been shortlisted for an award at this year’s Energy Awards, and 38% of our parishes have engaged with the footprint tool. I suggest to my hon. Friend that she encourages parishes in her constituency to do so as well.

Selaine Saxby: I am sure that my hon. Friend would agree that small rural churches, of which there are many in my North Devon constituency, have an important role to play in hitting net zero. I know many congregants who are keen to do more with their local church to help. Will he explain what the Government are doing to promote the role that individuals and small rural churches can play together in this national issue?

Andrew Selous: I am delighted to be able to tell my hon. Friend that the diocese of Exeter has just received a £1 million grant from the Church for its Growing the Rural Church project. She could encourage local churches to join the Eco Church scheme and suggest that they move to a renewable electricity supplier. For those fit enough to cycle to church, she might ask them about where bikes could be left securely during services.

Written Answers:

Adam Holloway (Conservative – Gravesham): To ask the Member for South West Bedfordshire, representing the Church Commissioners, when the appointment of an Assessor to enquire into complaints made against the Royal Peculiar of Westminster Abbey by the congregation of St Margaret’s Church will be made.

Andrew Selous: As a Royal Peculiar, Westminster Abbey does not come under the responsibilities of the Church Commissioners. Accordingly, the most appropriate person to deal with this enquiry is Mr Richard Tilbrook, the Prime Minister’s Appointments Secretary at the Cabinet Office.

Jim Shannon (Democratic Unionist Party – Strangford): To ask the Member for South West Bedfordshire, representing the Church Commissioners, what steps the church is taking to support regenerative agriculture, plant more trees and be good stewards of hedgerows on its land.

Andrew Selous: The Church Commissioners work with their tenants to support the good stewardship of their land and are currently undertaking a natural capital assessment of its estate. The majority of our agricultural land is tenanted, and the Commissioners new farm business tenancies strongly encourage good environmental practice such as ensuring watercourses are kept clear, hedgerows are well maintained, and topsoil is preserved.

The Church Commissioners direct landholdings currently total 184,700 acres as of the end of December 2020. 92,000 acres were in our Rural Portfolio, including land allocated for strategic development and 92,700 acres in our Timberland Portfolio. 120,500 acres (65%) of the Commissioners total land holding are in the UK, with the rest held across the globe. More detail can be found in the latest annual report, which is available here:

Jim Shannon (Democratic Unionist Party -Strangford): To ask the Member for South West Bedfordshire, representing the Church Commissioners, what recent steps the Church has taken to support people who have lost loved ones during the covid-19 pandemic.

Andrew Selous: Throughout the pandemic, the Church of England has operated an online book of remembrance to help families commemorate loved ones lost during this period. In addition, the Church has continued to operate its grief counselling services at a parish level to support those in the community in need. Across the country, parishes have also broadcast funerals virtually, allowing family and friends of the deceased across the globe to participate in the ceremony.

Discussions have now started at St Paul’s Cathedral about a permanent memorial. Conversations are at the early stages of exploring a new memorial within the cathedral to create a space to remember all those we have lost to this virus. Other local memorials or commemorations are also being considered where appropriate.


%d bloggers like this: