Church Commissioner Questions: Holy Land, Nigeria, Local Authority Grants, Parish Ministry, Trees, Coronation

On 28th April 2023 MPs asked questions of Andrew Selous MP, Second Church Estates Commissioner.

Holy Land: Desecration of Religious Sites

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con)

1. What discussions the Church of England has had with international counterparts on the desecration of religious sites in the Holy Land. (904699)

Sir Desmond Swayne (New Forest West) (Con)

4. What discussions the Church of England has had with international counterparts on the desecration of religious sites in the Holy Land. (904702)

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Andrew Selous): In the first three months of this year, seven cases of serious vandalism and antisocial behaviour against churches have been recorded in Israel. That is a sharp increase on the previous year. The Church of England continues to work with the Anglican Archbishop of Jerusalem, the heads of other Churches, other faith leaders and the Jordanian Government, as custodian of the holy sites, to maintain the peace.

Tim Loughton: It was particularly galling to see these scenes in what is supposed to be a liberal democracy in the middle east: the desecration of Christian graves and other Christian sites—something that, I am afraid, we have become used to in other countries. These were effectively religious terrorists and extremists, with no regard for the Christian religion. What measures are taking place to ensure that, in future, Christians can celebrate the Easter fire ceremony at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem without facing undue restrictions as a result of the fear of violent clashes?

Andrew Selous: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is right to draw attention to the Easter fire ceremony at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. That 2,000-year-old ceremony has repeatedly taken place without serious incident. It is certainly our view that the restrictions have been overly heavy-handed. As he will know, the Archbishop of Canterbury has called out what has been happening—the attacks on Christian graves and so on —as blasphemous attacks. The UK Chief Rabbi has also spoken out, as we need to do across the House. I hope the Foreign Office will have similar things to say.

Sir Desmond Swayne: Last Thursday, the Minister of State at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), came here and announced a strategic partnership with the Government of Israel. That ought to give us some influence over the level of vandalism and antisocial behaviour to which churchgoers are being subjected, oughtn’t it?

Andrew Selous: As always, my right hon. Friend makes an important point. He may have seen that over Easter the Latin Patriarch said:

“The frequency of these attacks, the aggressions, has become something new. These people feel they are protected…that the cultural and political atmosphere now can justify, or tolerate, actions against Christians.”

Attacks are simply not acceptable, whether against Christians or people of any other faith or no faith. I hope that what my right hon. Friend has said, as a distinguished former International Development Minister, will be heard loudly and clearly at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.

Christians in Nigeria

Fiona Bruce (Congleton) (Con)

2. What discussions the Church of England has had with the Church of Nigeria on the killing and abduction of Christians in that country. (904700)

Andrew Selous: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is also the Prime Minister’s special envoy on freedom of religion or belief, for the service she does in bringing this appalling issue back before the House. Since the matter was last raised with me on 9 March there have been further atrocities against Christians in Nigeria, and the issue does not get enough attention in our media, which is why I am extremely grateful to her for raising it. The Archbishop of Canterbury met the candidates in the presidential election, and stressed the need to prioritise ending inter-community and inter-religious violence, and we will continue to speak out.

Fiona Bruce: Open Doors reports that on Good Friday

“32 Christians were killed…in an attack by suspected Fulani militants on an IDP camp in Benue State…while people were asleep”,

and that the camp

“houses nearly 30,000…mostly Christians, mainly women and children, who…fled their villages because of Fulani militant attacks.”

Open Doors described this as part of a number of “widespread attacks” across the state, including an attack on a church in Akenawe village on Palm Sunday, when a boy was killed and three people, including the pastor, kidnapped. Does my hon. Friend agree that stronger measures are needed to protect such vulnerable communities in Nigeria? What can the Church do to call this out?

Andrew Selous: Frankly, words are a rather inadequate response to what we have just heard, but we must not tire of raising our voices with Nigeria, which is, after all, a Commonwealth country with which we have very good relations. As a good friend to Nigeria, I would expect our distress to be heard loudly and clearly. The Foreign Office obviously needs to keep on passing on the message.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): May I take this opportunity to wish the Church Commissioner a very happy birthday? He, like me, does not count the years but makes the years count; we’re at that age!

Further to the question of the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), there are missionaries from the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in Nigeria, including some from my constituency and across all of Northern Ireland. What discussions have taken place to ensure that support is available for ex-pat and United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland missionaries in the regions we are discussing who are isolated and may be in a vulnerable position?

Andrew Selous: I thank the hon. Member for raising this issue, for his continued interest in it and for the magnificent work he does chairing the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief. The Bishop of Guildford was recently in Nigeria, speaking out on behalf of all Christians, not just members of the Anglican communion, in Nigeria. The Church of England will keep on engaging in this issue—sometimes quietly, sometimes behind the scenes, but we will continue to speak truth to power.

Grant Funding from Local Authorities

Selaine Saxby (North Devon) (Con)

5. How the Church of England plans to spend grant funding from local authorities. (904703)

Jerome Mayhew (Broadland) (Con)

9. How the Church of England plans to spend grant funding from local authorities. (904708)

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Andrew Selous): Grants that would cover kitchens, loos or disability access, basic repairs to rooves and windows and so on are in many cases unavailable to Church of England parish churches because of an inconsistency in the way in which local authorities are applying the law, and the Bishop of Bristol has tabled an amendment to the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill to resolve this so that parish churches can apply for such grants, and I hope the Department will be supportive of it.

Selaine Saxby: I recently visited Meshaw Together near South Molton to discuss plans for its local church, St John the Baptist, reordering the church for wider community use. The project led by Jeff Souch and supported by the vicar was unsuccessful in securing platinum jubilee funding, but might I be able to meet with my hon. Friend to try to find additional funding that may be available for this community initiative that also secures the future of the church?

Andrew Selous: Yes, of course I will meet with my hon. Friend. I have also heard of the good work of St John the Baptist, Meshaw. The Church Commissioners have given £11 million over the next three years to fund specialist support officers to advise on community projects of this nature and to help with fundraising. Small grants are available to help with repairs and towards buildings becoming net zero. may also provide helpful information. The Exeter diocese recently held a “meet the funders” day, to which more than 100 people turned up, to learn how churches such as St John the Baptist can approach funders such as the Benefact Trust. I encourage Meshaw to follow that up.

Jerome Mayhew: My hon. Friend has made reference to the speech of the Bishop of Bristol in the other place highlighting an apparent inconsistency between the Local Government Act 1972 and the 1894 Act, which gives cause for concern as to whether local government funding for Church buildings is legal. Does my hon. Friend recognise that as a serious concern, and if so how does he propose to clarify the issue?

Andrew Selous: My hon. Friend is right about the Bishop of Bristol, whose amendments in the other place have the support of heritage bodies and the National Association of Local Councils, whom I have also met on the issue. All we are asking is for Church of England parish churches to be treated the same as other faith and community buildings, which does not seem a lot to ask for, and I would hope that both my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean), and the Whip, my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley South (Mike Wood), are listening hard to what I have said and representations will be made to Ministers about these issues.

Parish Ministry

Martin Vickers (Cleethorpes) (Con)

6. What steps the Church of England is taking to strengthen its parish ministry. (904704)

Andrew Selous: Parish ministry is at the heart of everything we do in the Church of England. Between 2023 and 2025, to support our mission to tell people the good news about Jesus Christ, we will distribute £1.2 billion—a 30% increase. The largest part of that funding will be used to revitalise parish ministry.

Martin Vickers: My hon. Friend will be well aware of concerns in congregations up and down the country about the diminishing number of priests. Will he assure the House that the Church will continue to do all it can to provide funds for the stipendiary ministries?

Andrew Selous: There has been an increase in the number of ordinands between 2016 and 2020, when we had 1,373 in total, including 591 starting training, which was the largest in a generation. There was a slight dip during the pandemic, but we are committed to continuing to train more priests; that is absolutely essential and is exactly what the Church of England wants to see.


Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con)

7. Whether the Church of England is taking steps to plant more trees on its land. (904705)

Andrew Selous:  Since 2014, the Church Commissioners have planted 819 acres of new woodland in the UK. Over the last two years we have bought 438 more acres in south Wales and Angus in Scotland, to plant 350,000 more trees, subject to planning permission. Over the last five years we have planted 11.8 million trees globally.

Mr Hollobone: That is great news for Scotland, Wales and the rest of the world, but what about England’s green and pleasant land? England has, at 10%, the lowest tree coverage in Europe, so can we have more church trees, please, in England?

Andrew Selous: My hon. Friend speaks so well, not only for Kettering but for England. He is right to draw attention to the fact that England is among the countries with the least tree cover in Europe. The Church absolutely wants to play its part in changing that. To help achieve that, it participated in the Queen’s green canopy initiative, including through work on an 8,000 mixed-tree plantation in north-west England. We also work with farming tenants across England to explore every possible planting opportunity, including planting trees in hedgerows, agri- forestry and field-scale woodland planting, and will carry on doing so.


Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con)

10. What steps the Church of England plans to take to mark the coronation of His Majesty King Charles III in (a) cathedrals and (b) other places of worship outside of London; and if he will make a statement. (904709)

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Andrew Selous): There will be services and events all over the country in cathedrals and parish churches to celebrate the coronation. The one in Lichfield cathedral will be on Sunday 7 May, and I am sure that my hon. Friend will attend if he possibly can.

Michael Fabricant:  My hon. Friend has put me on the spot, but I confirm that I will attend. I hope that reassures him. Could he quickly—or even slowly—outline what further work the Church of England is doing to engage people locally in the coronation?

Andrew Selous: I can reassure my hon. Friend that the Church is doing a great deal in that area. We are supporting the Big Help Out to promote volunteering, along with many charities and businesses, as well as the Big Lunch to break down barriers and combat loneliness. We also have Sing for the King and Ring for the King to promote choral singing and bell ringing, linked to the coronation. [Interruption.]

Mr Speaker: You may well like campanology, Mr Fabricant, but I will leave that there.

Hansard source

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