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I am pleased to be able to tell my hon. Friend that the Church opens as many, if not more churches than it closes each year. Parishes may want to focus their mission elsewhere, if the church in question is in a very remote rural location or if there is a very high repair bill. Use for worship by other Christian bodies is generally considered the best use, but there are many other suitable uses.
I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. In my constituency, we have 24 churches of different denominations, yet the Christian religion is actually the minority. More recently, we have had a huge influx of Romanian citizens who are very keen churchgoers, but they cannot acquire premises. So as the Church of England population dwindles, can churches make efforts to reach out, particularly to the Romanian churches, to allow them to carry on their worship?
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for explaining the situation in his constituency, and I can tell him that the use of church buildings by other Christian denominations is considered a very good use for any redundant Church of England church. The normal procedure is that the views of the local Member of Parliament, the local authority and local residents would be considered, so if there are closed churches in his area, he will have an opportunity to get involved in that process.
Can the hon. Gentleman outline what advice for smaller congregations is in place at this time? Is it his interpretation that the closure of all churches, regardless of size, is optional, or that small congregations can continue to meet, even if they do so in small numbers?
As my hon. Friend knows, I speak purely for the Church of England in this place, and the Church of England is following exactly the health advice from the Government. I can tell him and the House that while public worship has been suspended for the time being, churches remain open for prayer and in particular for baptisms, weddings and funerals. Self-distancing will be required. Numbers in churches will be kept to a minimum, and no one self-isolating must attend the ceremony. Parishes are being trained in live-streaming services where they can. Wellbeing and mental health resources will be published soon, and churches are of course encouraged to support the vulnerable who are self-isolating and to continue to support food banks and night shelters in particular.
In the light of my hon. Friend’s response to Jim Shannon, does he agree that, although churches are not gathering for worship, they still have a vital role to play in meeting the spiritual, emotional and, indeed, practical needs of our communities at this very difficult time? Although they may not be gathering for services and other meetings, churches are most definitely not closed.
I thank my hon. Friend for that important point, and he is exactly right. The Church is much more than just its buildings; it is its people. This is an opportunity for all of us, as Christians, to reach out to others in need—there are many in all our communities—and that is exactly what the Church will be doing over the coming months.
The Archbishop of Canterbury has called for a national day of prayer this Sunday. The Church is particularly keen that all Christians reach out to look after the vulnerable in their communities, as I have just said to my hon. Friend Steve Double. The archbishop has called for people to put lighted candles in their windows at 7 pm on Sunday as a sign of solidarity with what the nation is currently going through.