Church Commissioner Questions: Ukrainian Refugees, Persecuted Christians, Holy Trinity Church Wingate, Affordable and Sustainable Housing, and Accessibility of Churches

 On 8th September 2022, MPs put questions in the House of Commons to the Second Church Estates Commissioner, Andrew Selous MP:

Ukrainian Refugees

Greg Smith (Buckingham) (Con):

1. What steps the Church is taking to help support Ukrainian refugees. 

Sir Desmond Swayne (New Forest West) (Con):

7. What steps the Church is taking to help support Ukrainian refugees.

Andrew Selous: Six bishops and hundreds of clergy have Ukrainian evacuees living with them, and the Church of England is using vacant vicarages in a number of places. Churches are also actively involved in recruiting new hosts where needed.

Greg Smith: Over the summer, I was delighted to meet Reverend Peter Godden at St Dunstan’s church in Monks Risborough—England’s oldest recorded parish—to hear at first hand about some of the incredible work that the church and wider deanery is doing to support 130 Ukrainian refugees who have been welcomed to the wider Princes Risborough area in my constituency, such as English lessons, a conversation café and a children’s summer week. Will my hon. Friend join me in thanking all our churches for the work they are doing to support our Ukrainian friends? What more can the Church of England do to support churches such as St Dunstan’s in their work?

Andrew Selous: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the interest that he takes in and the support that he gives to his local churches. It is wonderful to hear of the practical compassion in action of St Dunstan’s in Monks Risborough and St Mary’s in Princes Risborough. I know that those churches are making a big difference to the lives of Ukrainian refugees. I assure him that the Church is actively seeking new hosts where some families want to pass on that responsibility and it will keep on with this important work.

Sir Desmond Swayne: As we approach the six-month point, what action can the Church take to encourage members of their congregations to step forward—and the congregations themselves to support them—where some initial sponsorships are not renewed?

Andrew Selous: My right hon. Friend asks a typically pertinent question. I reassure him that many dioceses are developing schemes to rematch sponsors and Ukrainian refugees as the initial six-month placements draw to an end. We are also funding other support programmes for Ukrainians, for which I am extremely grateful. We must all guard against compassion fatigue.

Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Is the hon. Gentleman aware that my parish church in Huddersfield is playing a very good role in helping Ukrainian refugees, but in a sense the honeymoon period is over? People from Ukraine in my constituency told me last week that they need help with permanent housing, with education and with the translation of their qualifications into English qualifications. They also very much need to use their high skills to help the community.

Andrew Selous: I am grateful for what the hon. Gentleman has told the House. I know that he takes a supportive interest in what his local churches do in this important area. He is right in everything he says. The Government will play their part, and I can assure him that the Church will absolutely continue to be there at a national and local level to do everything that is needed.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): I thank the hon. Gentleman for his deep interest in these matters, which is much appreciated. Following on from what other hon. Members have said about the integration of Ukrainian refugees, has consideration been given to allowing the use of parish halls free of charge for English lessons and as community hubs for small pockets of rural Ukrainians to meet?

Andrew Selous: The hon. Gentleman makes typically sensible suggestions. He has put them on the record, and I know that the Church will do everything possible nationally and locally. He has made good suggestions.


Persecuted Christians: 2019 Report

Theresa Villiers (Chipping Barnet) (Con):

2. What steps the Church is taking to help implement the recommendations of the report of the Bishop of Truro on support for persecuted Christians published in 2019.

Andrew Selous: I thank my right hon. Friend for her sustained and long-term interest in freedom of religion and belief for Christians and people of all faiths around the world. At the Lambeth conference, the Bishop of Chelmsford, herself a Christian refugee from Iran, spoke about the need to challenge some of the darker elements of faith leaders who condone persecution.

Theresa Villiers: In the light of the conclusions of the independent review assessing the implementation of the Bishop of Truro’s report on supporting persecuted Christians around the world, what improvements would the Church like to see in relation to the envoy for freedom of religion or belief? My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) has done a wonderful job, but we want to see the post established on a permanent basis, with greater capacity to engage across Government and resources to match.

Mr Speaker: Now that the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) has been named, I think we ought to bring her in.

Fiona Bruce (Congleton) (Con): I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) for her question and my hon. Friend the Second Church Estates Commissioner for his answer. The recent independent review of progress on Truro has confirmed that there is more to be done before FORB becomes firmly embedded in the work of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. One area that was highlighted is the need for better engagement with stakeholders, among which the Church is key. Would the Second Church Estates Commissioner be willing to join me to discuss the matter at a meeting with an FCDO Minister, which has been agreed?

Andrew Selous: I should be delighted, and I would like to bring our bishops who lead in the area and senior officials from Church House to that important meeting.


Holy Trinity Church, Wingate

Grahame Morris (Easington) (Lab):

4. What progress the Church has made on the review of lessons learned at Holy Trinity Church, Wingate.

Andrew Selous: This has been a deeply troubling time for the Bell family, and I want to pass on my heartfelt apologies for what has happened. I am pleased that the issue has been resolved and the lessons learned process begins next month, and I know that the vicar of Holy Trinity Wingate has strongly supported the family during this difficult time.

Grahame Morris: May I place on record my thanks to the hon. Member for his assistance with this matter during the recess?

I can report to the House that Thomas Bell’s coffin has been located, and that his late wife Hilda was buried with him after a heartbreaking eight-week delay. Appallingly, however, for 17 years the family—who were my constituents, living in Easington—unknowingly attended the wrong grave, and in the process of locating Mr Bell’s coffin several other errors were identified. Does the hon. Member agree that we need to improve burial records, with digital copies, introduce a new process for marking plots after burial, and draw up rules for the orderly organisation of plots in churchyards?

Andrew Selous: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: record-keeping is incredibly important. The Parochial Registers and Records Measure 1978 clearly states that records should be kept in fireproof places, and the hon. Gentleman’s point about digital copies was also well made. The lessons learned inquiry will focus on best practice for all parishes. Let me add, on a personal note, that I was very pleased that Mrs Bell’s great-grandchild was baptised in the church last weekend.


Affordable and Sustainable Housing

Caroline Ansell (Eastbourne) (Con):

9. What steps the Church is taking to provide affordable, sustainable housing on its land. 

Andrew Selous: Following the Church’s “Coming Home” report on meeting housing need, the Church is looking to establish a new national housing association and to make use of Church-owned land to develop more affordable homes where we are able to, along with pod homes to house vulnerable people temporarily.

Caroline Ansell: Understandably, there were mixed feelings when the original St Elizabeth’s church in Eastbourne’s old town had to be demolished, but the church community moved next door and is thriving. Demolition created a significant site in a prime location in a town where housing development opportunities are few and far between. May I ask my hon. Friend what progress has been made in order to realise the potential on the site?

Andrew Selous: St Elizabeth’s Eastbourne was due for demolition in 2019 because the building was unsafe, and I am pleased that the congregation are thriving in their new location. We are now looking for a new home for the Hans Feibusch murals from the crypt, which I have to say, from the photographs I have seen of them, are very splendid. We are working with the local council, developers and the local community to find an appropriate housing scheme for this site.


Accessibility of Churches

Dr Caroline Johnson (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con):

12. What steps the Church is taking to improve the accessibility of churches for people with disabilities.

Andrew Selous: The Church of England strongly encourages parishes and cathedrals to ensure access for all, wherever possible. On a personal note, I am grateful to the parish church where I grew up for providing ramps to get my mother in and out of the church in her wheelchair. The public worship of Jesus should always be accessible to as many people as possible.

Dr Johnson: The Holy Trinity or West Allington church is beautiful and historic, but access to it is quite poor. The lovely grass slope going up to the church means that, in winter and in poor, wet weather, the church is inaccessible to the elderly and those with disabilities, and some of my constituents have missed family funerals as a result. What can the Church Commissioners do to help?

Andrew Selous: It is typical of my hon. Friend’s conscientiousness that she has visited Holy Trinity, Allington to help get these much-needed improvements. If she contacts the archdeacon of Boston, the archdeacon will work with her and the parish, with the assistance of the church buildings department, to improve their bid for the necessary funds to help revitalise the church as a resource for the whole community. As she says, it is appalling that people have not been able to attend family funerals.


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