Church Commissioner Questions: Church Attendance, Sustainable Maintenance, Historic Involvement with Slavery, Lichfield Cathedral, and Blessings for Same-sex Couples

On 26th January 2023, MPs put questions in the House of Commons to the Second Church Estates Commissioner, Andrew Selous MP:

Parish Churches: Family Attendance

Kevin Foster MP (Torbay, Con), asked:

  1. What recent steps the Church of England has taken to encourage families to attend events at parish churches.

Andrew Selous MP: There are Church of England churches that provide breakfast and lunch clubs, as well as youth, children’s and toddler activities, including messy church and much more besides. A vibrant children’s and youth ministry is often a key component of church growth.

Kevin Foster: I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. The core of any parish mission is outreach to the community, with events such as the forthcoming family fun day at St Martin’s church, Barton, which will offer local families a chance for free fun, with lunch included. What resources are the Church Commissioners providing to support parishes in that mission and to ensure that details of such events reach those who would most benefit from attending?

Andrew Selous MP: I commend my hon. Friend for drawing attention, for the second month in a row, to the great work done by his local churches—none more so than St Martin’s church, Barton under the inspirational leadership of Father Nick Debney and Pamela Macey. On behalf of the House and the Church of England leadership, I warmly thank them for everything they do. I will send my hon. Friend details of the national churches strategic funding programmes, to which the diocese of Exeter can apply for St Martin’s church and other local churches.


Churches and Cathedrals: Maintenance

Bob Blackman MP (Harrow East, Con) asked:

3.  What assessment the Church of England has made of the steps needed to put the maintenance of churches and cathedrals on a sustainable basis.

Andrew Selous: The Taylor review of cathedral and church building sustainability was published in 2017. There is an urgent need for dialogue with the Government about it, because without a bedrock of basic maintenance and repairs funding, there is a real risk to many of our amazing church and cathedral buildings. In passing, I note that such issues are always easier to address with a full church.

Bob Blackman: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. My constituency is home to no fewer than 24 churches, including every branch of Christianity, but St Lawrence’s church in particular is in dire need of repair. It is a very well populated church, but it does need additional funds to restore it to its previous good keeping. Can my hon. Friend tell me what help will be given to St Lawrence’s church?

Andrew Selous: I have read up on St Lawrence, Little Stanmore: its baroque interior and internationally renowned organ—Handel was employed as a composer in residence —are real treasures. I will put my hon. Friend in touch with the national church buildings department, which advises parishes on grants and support for refurbishment. I can also tell him that the Willesden area council of the diocese of London is able to distribute grants of up to £20,000 for urgent repairs.

John Cryer MP (Leyton & Wanstead, Lab): As the hon. Member said, a large number of churches and cathedrals in this country are in serious danger, including a number in my constituency. He also mentioned discussions between the Government and the Church of England on securing the future of churches. Will he say if those discussions are imminent?

Andrew Selous: I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that point, and I think the answer is that they need a bit of a boost, if I could put it that way. I would welcome his support, and indeed that of hon. Members on all sides, because I think all places of worship—and the Church of England does have an enormous number of grade I and grade II buildings—are important in all of our communities, and we do need a serious national conversation about how we keep them going for the future. Other countries fund them from the state. Personally, I do not think that is right, but I do think we need a dialogue with Government as to how we go forward in this area.


Church’s Assets: Historic Involvement with Slavery

Sir Desmond Swayne MP (New Forest West, Con) asked:

6. Whether the commissioners have made an estimate of the proportion of the Church’s assets that may have a link to a historic involvement with slavery.

Andrew Selous: The Church Commissioners have not tried to draw a direct line from historical investments to current assets, given the myriad inflows and outflows over 300 years. Our forensic accountants estimate that investments linked to the slaving activities of the South Sea Company were equivalent to several hundred million pounds in today’s money. That is deeply shameful to acknowledge, and while no amount of money will ever be enough to repair the horrors of the past, the Church Commissioners have decided to invest £100 million over the next nine years in a better future for all, particularly in those communities affected by historical slavery.

Sir Desmond Swayne: Can my hon. Friend assure me that the not disproportionate £100 million will be spent to reduce the shocking persistence of slavery in the present?

Andrew Selous: The £100-million fund will enable impact investment grant funding and research in response to the findings in the Church Commissioners’ report. An oversight group will be established to help the Church Commissioners shape and deliver that response. Today the Church Commissioners, as award-winning ethical investors, punch well above their weight in combating modern slavery and human rights violations all around the world.

Jim Shannon (Strangford, DUP): While we cannot and should never ignore the Church’s historical involvement with slavery, is it not better to focus on the missionary work that churches did over the years, with the spread of the Gospel and the best story ever told: that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners?

Andrew Selous: I do not think it is a question of either/or. When the chief executive of the Church Commissioners was on the “Today” programme recently explaining why we have done this, he was contacted later that day by a global majority heritage individual who had stayed away from the Church for 40 years and is now going to come back again. I say also to the hon. Gentleman that full churches do not tend to fall down.


Lichfield Cathedral

Michael Fabricant MP (Lichfield, Con) asked:

7. Whether he plans to visit Lichfield cathedral to see the work of Dean Adrian Dorber. 

Andrew Selous: I look forward very much to visiting Lichfield cathedral, but sadly that may not be until after Dean Adrian Dorber retires. I know that the dean’s work has been so significant that I will see many ongoing examples of his tremendous legacy when I do visit.

Michael Fabricant: My hon. Friend is absolutely right, because he will see the Herkenrode glass, which has been restored, and he will hear the magnificent organ, for which £6 million had to be raised to make it sound so beautiful. They are a reminder that a dean’s work is not just worship, but fundraising, management and all the other factors in running a great and successful cathedral such as Lichfield. What sort of training is given? It seemed to me that poor Adrian Dorber had to learn on the job and then, with a little bit more investigation, Mr Speaker—it is a bit like being a Speaker, actually—that they all have to learn on the job. Can we not improve on that?

Andrew Selous: One might think that Lichfield cathedral was the only cathedral in the Church of England, because my hon. Friend is one of the very few Members who regularly stands up for his cathedral. Running a cathedral, as he rightly says, is not only a major spiritual undertaking to proclaim the good news of Jesus, but a huge management task, which is why we require all new deans to undertake a component of an MBA module before taking up office.


Blessings for Same-sex Couples

Christine Jardine MSP (Edinburgh West, LD) asked:

8. Whether the Commissioners have held discussions with senior Church leaders on allowing clergy to conduct blessings for same-sex couples.

Andrew Selous: With you permission, Mr Speaker, following my response to the urgent question on Tuesday, the advice I was given then was by the Church legal office, and I was yesterday asked to make a small clarification. A simple majority in each of the three Houses of the General Synod could suffice to pass a measure and amending canon to change the definition of marriage in ecclesiastical law, but circumstances could also arise in which two-thirds majorities in the House of Bishops and the House of Clergy would be needed, and, as with all authorised forms of service, a two-thirds majority in each House would be required for the approval of the Synod as a form of service for the marriage of a same-sex couple. I apologise, Mr Speaker, but I was only informed yesterday. Given that I was answering questions today, I thought you would find it acceptable that I put that slight clarification on the record.

In answer to the question from the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine), it is the case that the General Synod of the Church of England can make its own decisions on these matters. Members of the Synod will have a chance to make their own views clearly known, having listened to the very forcible views expressed in this House on Tuesday. I repeat that the Church of England has apologised for past behaviours, and welcomes and values LGBTQI+ people unreservedly and joyfully.

Christine Jardine: I thank the hon. Member for that clarification and for his comments about welcoming the LGBTQI+ community joyfully. But can I ask him to clarify then why it is that a man and a woman who do not believe in God and do not regularly attend church are welcome to marry in the Church of England—indeed, the Church’s website says, “God’s blessing is the main attraction for many couples”—but a couple in a same-sex relationship, both of whom may have worshipped in the Church all their lives and live in the spirit of Christian faith, are denied the same right in the Church, even though similar denominations in Scotland offer that opportunity? Can the hon. Member inform the House whether the Commissioners have discussed that inequality with the Church of England?

Andrew Selous: The hon. Lady is right to raise this issue. These matters will be very livelily debated at the General Synod between 6 and 9 February. I can also tell her that each province in the global Anglican communion is autonomous. The majority of the provinces in the communion provide neither blessings nor marriages for same-sex couples: the Scottish Episcopal Church provides marriages, the Church in Wales provides blessings, and the Church of Ireland provides neither for same-sex couples, so the hon. Lady can see that there is a variety of practice within these islands. But I have heard what she has said and, more importantly, I will make sure that the General Synod is very well aware of her views and those of others in this House.


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