My Lords, what a wonderful illustration this is of the value of your Lordships’ House. We pass from a Statement on the G7, with all its international implications and ramifications, to come to talk about the English parish church. I am exceptionally grateful to have this opportunity. Almost exactly two years ago I had a similar opportunity to talk about the importance of English cathedrals; so this is mark 2.
It is impossible to drive anywhere in my native county of Lincolnshire without being conscious of the centrality of the parish church in all the many communities of that large county. I could spend my 15 minutes—if I chose to, but I shall not—talking just about Lincolnshire’s parish churches, which are some of the greatest in the land. One thinks of: the magisterial spire of Louth, second only in height and equal in glory to that of Salisbury; the incredible Saxon-Norman minster church at Stow, in the tiniest of hamlets; or the most magisterial tower of any parish church in England at Boston—a landmark to seafarers for centuries. Then there are the tiny churches: Langton by Spilsby, a Georgian gem where Dr Johnson was a regular visitor to his friend
My passion for churches began in my native county at the little church of Clee, once a tiny village between Grimsby and Cleethorpes that has now been swallowed up. The church, with its Saxon tower and its Norman nave, contains a tablet on one of the pillars in the nave recording the dedication by St Hugh of Lincoln in the reign of Richard I. That is where it all began for me, but when I came to another place almost exactly 44 years ago, the first campaign that I sought to lead was to get state aid for our parish churches. The first Private Member’s Bill that I introduced had the same objective. In my first book, Heritage in Danger, which I wrote way back in 1976, the future of the parish church loomed large. This issue has engaged me for a long time. I suppose that I ought to declare—although I have no pecuniary interest—that for more than 40 years I have been successively trustee and vice-president of what is now called the National Churches Trust. For 15 years, I was president of the Staffordshire Churches Trust; and for 30 years, I have been trustee or vice-president of the Lincolnshire Churches Trust.
Why? It is because I believe that it is in the parish churches of our land that we come closest to the soul and history of each community that the individual church serves. You can trace the ups and downs of the community economically by the extensions and reductions in size to churches. You can follow the history of the worthies of that community by studying their monuments and memorials. Even in this secular age, everyone who lives in England is a parishioner, lives in a parish, is entitled to the ministrations of the Church of England—whatever his or her race, creed or colour—and can enter the only public buildings that are always open and welcoming to people. Every single one of our fellow citizens has this inalienable right. They are buildings that speak of their communities, to their communities, for their communities. In almost every case, they remain the most prominent public buildings. They are not just places of worship, although that is their prime purpose and concern. They are places where the community can come together. They are places where concerts can be held. They are the focal point. In almost every village and small town in England, the parish church is the most prominent building.
Some people might say, “Why just concentrate on the parish churches? Are there not many more important religious buildings?”. Of course there are. Some who will take part in this debate have a particular interest in those. All the trusts with which I am involved give grants to all religious buildings, be they Roman Catholic churches, Quaker meeting houses or Methodist chapels. The real problem facing those who care about these things, however, rests with the Anglican churches because the Church of England has some 16,000 for which it is responsible—12,500 of which are listed buildings; 45% of grade 1 listed buildings in this country are church buildings, most of which are parish churches.
All this comes at a cost that is not primarily borne by the state, even though that campaign to which I referred was successful. It was a marvellous illustration of the fact that this issue crosses party boundaries that it was a Conservative Government who made the decision that state aid should be available but a Labour Government in 1974-75 who implemented it. We are also grateful to successive Governments, particularly to Gordon Brown when, as Chancellor the Exchequer, he gave a special grant to offset the fact that repairs to listed buildings, wrongly in my view, are eligible for VAT. Nevertheless, as long ago as 2004, English Heritage estimated that maintaining our parish churches cost £175 million a year, of which the churches themselves produced £115 million. I would hate to move towards the French system, whereby the fabric of all religious buildings is vested in the state. If you go to France you do not find that local patriotism and passionate concern, shared by believers and non-believers alike, for their parish church. When, however, that is considered in the context of wind farms or what we are planning with HS2, the amount of money that we are talking about to safeguard our parish churches is a very tiny sum indeed. We have to bear in mind that our churches and cathedrals are the most visited buildings in our country and are worth £350 million a year to the tourism economy—something to which your Lordships will be turning attention in the next debate.
There are always problems with buildings that are old, fragile and vulnerable. One has to guard against lead theft, vandalism and all things. I want, however, to talk briefly about a particular menace to many old churches, the menace of the bat. I became acutely conscious of this when I visited the wonderful collegiate church of Tattershall in Lincolnshire last summer, which has some of the most remarkable 15th-century brasses in the country. They are all being corroded by bat droppings. In many churches in our land the bat is a terrible problem. I shall quote from a letter that I received only this morning from the Church of England Parliamentary Unit:
“Where there are large colonies it can become intolerable. Churches were built for the worship of God by people. They were not built as nature reserves. The smell, the mess which has to be cleared up puts an intolerable burden on parishes, and in some cases is making the buildings unusable. We have heard of one instance where the vicar has to shake bat faeces out of her hair while celebrating communion at the altar … The impression is that the bats matter much more than the worshipping community—and this is exacerbated by the fact that Natural England have abrogated responsibility … to the Bat Conservation Trust, who are quite legitimately a pressure group”.
I also quote from an article in Ecclesiology Today by Dr Sally Badham, who says:
“Of course it is important that our native species should be protected, but I firmly believe that a much more realistic balance needs to be struck between bats’ needs and the protection of our national heritage and the health of people visiting and attending churches … We must wake up to the fact that we just cannot afford for our historic churches to be turned into bat barns”.
This is a subject that is not sufficiently aired, but it really is a very true danger. If this debate achieved only one thing—a better balance between the demands of English nature and the needs of the English heritage—I would be well content.
I hope other things will come from the debate too. I hope the Government—the Minister will respond to this—will recognise that targeted grants to anticipate problems, aimed at clearing gutters and repairing roofs, would be greatly helpful. I would like to see a special national heritage memorial fund to devote resources to church memorials and monuments. What more appropriate time to do that than when we are commemorating the centenary of the first Great War and approaching the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War? I would also like to see more young people encouraged not just to go to church services—that is the job of the church—but to recognise their intrinsic architectural and historical importance. These buildings are part of the warp and weft of our civilisation.
As a result of the debate I had two years ago, a campaign was mounted. In that debate I called for £50 million for cathedrals. It did not succeed, but this year in the Budget we got £20 million from the Chancellor. Of course he cannot open a purse at the Dispatch Box, but I hope when the Minister comes to reply he will promise to talk to ministerial colleagues about how a little really does go a long way in this context.
One of the enduring sounds of the English countryside and the English townscape is the bells of our churches. We have a unique tradition of campanology in this country. I was talking only yesterday to the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, who encouraged me to talk about this briefly, saying how wonderful it would be if more young people took up what is the mathematical art of bell-ringing. If the bells could ring out from the parish churches of England, acknowledging the fact that your Lordships’ House had devoted some time to their future and that a Government had been generous in recognising their problems, I would be delighted indeed. The bells ringing out might even have the additional advantage of driving the bats out of the belfry.
My Lords, listening to that leaves me with a certain amount of bemusement. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, for bringing this debate and subject to our attention. He was in what I can only call symphonic form, with that lovely opening movement, which I wanted to go for a lot longer, as we visited, through his experience and the music of his words, those rather picturesque places in Lincolnshire and other places. However, there was the sudden shock as a new movement was brought in, where the word “bats” suddenly changed everything and made me wonder how on earth to respond. As a Methodist, responding to a debate about the parish church is the equivalent of Pavlov’s dog responding to a bell. The opportunity to interfere in other people’s affairs is too great a temptation to neglect. We do not have belfries in Methodism, so I guess we do not have bats. I will leave that bit of it aside. The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, then moved into that last scherzoid movement, where money came into it and the pace quickened. So did the temperature. I might achieve that myself by the time I finish my own remarks.
As a phrase, “the parish church” simply conjures up all kinds of images that are not dissimilar from the ones spoken of by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack. Simon Jenkins in his lovely book gave us 1,000 of the best churches in England. Of course, nearly all of them were village churches in one place or another, and every single page was taken with high-definition photography. That showed us why it is lovely to be British and why it is nice to have a day in the countryside. The church I am responsible for, Wesley’s Chapel in London, crept in through the back door and is one of the 1,000, but only grudgingly. Simon Jenkins said that it was a bit of a mausoleum, really, spoilt by all those Victorian monuments. I thought he was referring to Westminster Abbey for a moment, but it was us. I will take him there one day and show him that it is better than he thinks.
There are then, of course, all those monumental works that we become accustomed to, such as Nikolaus Pevsner’s The Buildings of England: 46 volumes, cataloguing in great detail all the great buildings we are thinking about. John Betjeman did it in a different style and mood—how wonderful he was too as a character—helping us to see the importance of the parish church.
All these works point to the importance of our built heritage, but the large majority of these 16,000 churches to which the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, referred are in the countryside. Thomas Gray’s “Elegy”, of course, is almost imprinted on one’s heart: those roses “born to blush unseen” and waste their fragrance on a “desert air”. The rural community was served by these churches when they were isolated from each other and were communities in their own right. Since industrialisation and the arrival of the motorcar they have been on a tourist trail. They are visited much more often, but in their day, before the pre-emptive takeover of the Reformation and before industrialisation, they were positively quintessential places that drew the communities they served together. The dark satanic mills of England’s green and pleasant land drove our imagination into overdrive so that we could think of the parish church as just what we were losing, just what we wanted to keep at all costs.
We have rather fantasised the parish church in the course of these historical developments. Once upon a time, as well as worship, business was transacted in the church. People were at play in the church: they had banquets and parties in the church. Schools were run in the church. There were mystery plays in the church porch. Feasts were held. Then there was a rather puritanical moment when ale could not be served in church, so village halls got built. Suddenly all the fun things started happening in the village hall and the church was simply left for its spiritual purposes. That is a rather sad moment to record in the history of our land. I want to have fun in church; I do not want to have to go to a dingy little hall to do it. The harvest festival suppers I have been to in church halls, when there was a lovely space just across the road, do not leave me with happy memories.
Then has come the reinvention of the village, as wealthy people bought houses as rural retreats, or they became dormitories for commuters, or places where the retired emigrated to, or second homes for those with ample means. Suddenly the village was reinvented. It was no longer the community of people indigenous to it. The vision of the English countryside as “timeless”, dotted with ancient houses and an immemorial landscape, became what featured in our imaginations and on those railway posters from the early days of British Rail, attracting us to leave the cities and go into the countryside. Suddenly we were thinking about “The Archers”, “The Vicar of Dibley” and “Midsomer Murders”. They all brought a rather fantasised understanding of the village to our imagination. Villages progressively lost their doctor, their school, their garage, their pub, their shop and their post office. The church, too, should have gone under by way of those same market forces. However, the wealthy people who had come to live there put their hands in their pockets, organised events and signed cheques, and against the evidence of the market the village church was maintained.
Alongside all that—I am sorry about the history lesson but I have had to dispose myself against my natural inclinations in order to remind myself of the real importance of the parish church—there is the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings and all the preservation societies that the noble Lord sits on, or has sat on for many years. Sir Roy Strong, in his history of the parish church, makes a rather different remark. He suggests that the word “preservation” has been unfortunate, that churches were great at adapting to their circumstances and at serving the needs of their generation, and that preservation seems to oblige us not to change a thing but to keep things exactly as they were. That is very difficult to imagine in an organism that is breathing and alive.
Those who think of the parish church in these idealised ways—Jane Austen, George Eliot and Anthony Trollope—have left their imaginative mark on our minds, but I want us to debunk some of that and take the parish church on its own terms. Be good and feel good about it but do not keep it as a kind of mothballed creature protected against the depredations of time.
I also want to bring the imagination into the cities, where parish churches also exist. I want to go from “Dibley” to “Rev.”. Shoreditch, where that was filmed, is just around the corner from where I live. So there are parish churches in cities as well as in the countryside, and they, too, do extraordinary things. The chapel that I serve is in a covenanted relationship with our parish church, St Giles Cripplegate. The sacred space has often become secular space in the cities, where space is at a premium, and we should remember that very seriously. In our little outfit, for example, as well as being a tourist attraction—we get tens of thousands of visitors a year to what is effectively a world heritage site—we have 60 or 70 non-governmental organisations or charities within half a mile of us, all because we are near the City of London. They are headquartered quite close to us and use our premises all the time. We introduce charitable bodies to each other so that critical mass might be achieved.
The boys’ school—a state school—just 100 yards from us uses our space. We invigilate examinations for children who have been excluded from school. We provide a safe space and proper invigilation not on school property. When Ramadan falls at a certain time of the year, Muslims come in and find a place where they can lay their mats, turn in the right direction and offer their prayers. When the forensics were being done for 7/7 and dreadful things were being done in the Honourable Artillery Company across the street, people who could no longer stomach what they were having to do month after month in the examination of human remains would come over for a cup of tea, which we were very happy to serve.
Extraordinary things can happen when you have that kind of space as your legacy. It is terribly important that the parish church should be understood to be any ecclesial body which, as well as having its own interests in the field of spirituality and worship, sees itself as being of public service. That should win the acclaim of people instead of the opprobrium that it too often gets.
We have a marvellous thing happening at the moment. The boys’ school that I mentioned has 150 teenage boys singing in a choir. To join the choir, they have to come to school an hour early. They have breakfast and then come to our place to practise their singing. A contingent of them is taking part in a performance of “The Armed Man” at the Albert Hall in September with children from Belgium, France and Germany to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the First World War. All these things are energies that we can harness and give some focus to in the space that we have to administer. So let churches do the churchy thing, but let all of us remember that we have a service—
I am sorry; I did not want to break into what is a brilliant speech, but in a way the noble Lord is dealing with the very easy bit—he is talking about space being used in the cities. At some point can he briefly get back to the village church, where there is a serious problem? He said, “Don’t leave them mothballed”, but where you have one vicar now serving 10 churches, how do you do anything else with it?
I thank the noble Lord for that intervention. I am very happy to offer a reply as that is the very basis upon which Methodists have been organised since time began: with one minister for about 15 churches. Either I would advise the noble Lord to come and join us or I would be very happy to put appropriate documentation under his nose or the names of people he can talk to to help him with his problem.
I was into my concluding remarks and my overdrive—what the Welsh call “hwyl”—with an appeal to see the parish church in its most generic and ecumenical way. It is an appeal to recognise that in the kind of space that people like me are responsible for in our church lives, we see the tools or the premises that we have as being at the disposal of the society that we serve. If only others would see us in that way instead of in a sectarian way, the energies and synergies would be very extraordinary indeed.
My Lords, I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, for initiating this debate. I start by talking about St Mary’s Priory church in Abergavenny. I have never been to this church, although I hear that it is very good. However, the reason I raise it is that, when I heard that the debate was taking place, Mr Humphrey Amos, who works in the Whips’ Office for the Liberal Democrats, immediately said, “You must mention this church because there is an appeal going on at the moment for a roof fund and any plug will be particularly good”. So, even though he was useless at predicting the time of this debate, I promised him that I would raise it.
That perhaps goes to the heart of a lot of people’s views of parish churches. If the debate had taken place somewhat later in the Session, I think that there would have been a raft of letters asking us to mention particular churches which are at risk, where the roof is going or where funds are needed. Therefore, I am thankful that we started off quite early in the Session before there was a chance to get those letters. I know that many noble Lords will have taken part in drives to raise funds or have worked with their local community. Of course, this is not just a rural issue, because the parish church is not just a rural phenomenon. In town, you go to your parish church and each church suffers the same problems. In fact, that has been brought very much to people’s attention with the recent television series “Rev”, which gives a very clear indication of it. One of the major plot lines is that the electrics are for ever on the blink and the priest does not have the money to replace them, so he is for ever looking at how he can deal with that problem.
Unfortunately, that is an issue that I come across in many rural churches. My own rural church is Holy Trinity in Horsley in Northumberland. We are in the most rural part of England. The vicar has to deal with six churches, some of which are 30 miles apart. It is quite a feat in itself to service that type of community. Even though we have a falling population—in Northumberland we have an ageing population and some of the rural areas are depopulating—I have always found it amazing that the churches are still seen as being at the heart of the community, and much effort goes in to keeping them in the condition they are in. It is hard to think of any other institution like that. The congregations have fallen but the churches are still in excellent condition and being used on a regular basis. The problem we face is that there has been a change in people’s perceptions of how they want to worship. The practice of turning up at church on a regular occasion is falling out of style with many of the population as people change the way in which they look at it
However, when a big occasion takes place, such as a wedding or a funeral, the church is then again the centre of the community and gets packed out. I went to a funeral recently in Holy Trinity and I learned a salutary lesson. If you go to a northern funeral you have to turn up extremely early because people go to the church and want to sit at the back. The closer you come to the actual time of the funeral, the further forward you end up. At a recent funeral I thought I would try to sneak in at the end, to show I was there, and I ended up sitting in the choir stalls right next to the coffin. It was almost an embarrassing experience.
To keep these churches going we have a raft of people who come forward to do the everyday necessities such as cleaning the gutters. We have a team who go round cleaning the gutters of the churches on a regular basis and looking after the churchyards. I cannot support the view of the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, that we should start to cull bats. If they cause some damage it is probably acceptable because of the threat that bats are facing, and churches are a refuge.
There is an enormous amount of nature in rural churchyards. Indeed, one of the problems we have is that there are diverse mushrooms growing in the churchyard so that people have made forays looking for a certain type of magic mushroom.
That leads me to two points that I wish to raise. The problems for churches have ever been thus. They have grown and shrunk throughout history and are indicators of the state of their communities. One of the standard pieces of work of an archaeologist is to look at the size of a church and to realise when that community was much larger and much richer. This is especially true in the Cotswolds, where a great deal of money was made from wool. Of course, the Woolsack is based on that money and most of the churches were built with it. We therefore now have enormous churches serving much smaller communities.
An enormous amount of work and rebuilding was done on churches in the Victorian period, and many of the problems we are now having are caused by roofs which are coming to the end of their lives. That puts a great deal of strain and stress on the community.
Now that some of these churches have gone forward we have a big problem with churchyards; many of them are filling up and there is little space—even in rural communities—for them to expand. As a society we should perhaps go back to the Shakespearean view: Yorick was dug up because you only got 10 years underground before someone else was put in your place. We have to start thinking about how we are going to use churchyards.
I commend the work of the Church Conservation Trust and the Heritage Lottery Fund in preserving our churches. I do not want to denigrate the work of English Heritage in ensuring that we preserve the historical nature of churches, but we should recognise that they are living buildings and have to move forward to meet certain needs. If we have to change the layout of churches to move with the times and ensure that people use these buildings, that is the best way of preserving parish churches.
Although there is a problem with failing congregations, churches are fundamental to the way in which people view the countryside—and not only the countryside but city churches as well. They have a future and will bring congregations together. However, we should not forget that they are living buildings and that, used properly, they can bring a community together.
On the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, I do not believe that we should see them as the preserve of the Church of England—although the Church of England has to maintain the 16,000 buildings. In Holy Trinity, I encountered a not very large congregation, the majority of whom were from different faiths. However, they all came there to worship together because it is a centre in that small community.
We also need to consider the stress that is being placed on our parish priests. In the north-east we have a problem in funding and finding parish priests. It is a difficult job.
I commend the work of the bishops who manage this large edifice. I particularly recognise the work of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Newcastle, Bishop Martin, who is a fantastic inspiration. He goes round and talks to communities, especially about the difficulty in keeping these buildings maintained. He is a calming presence, puffing on his pipe, when he looks at church roofs, as I have done with him. I know he is retiring next year.
It sums up our view of churches that, although we consider them to be in peril, suffering and having difficulties, as you go round from village to village and see well kept churches in pristine condition, you know they have a future as the heart of the community.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, for introducing this timely and necessary debate. As a non-conformist minister I would like the debate to widen and take on board the non-conformist churches which are responsible for a large proportion of the 55,000 church buildings in this country.
Many of the traditional church structures in this country are facing some serious challenges and are reviewing the uses of their buildings, assets and people. This is happening at the same time as the present Government are rightly encouraging a localism agenda, which potentially brings many opportunities to the churches, but I worry that the dots, in practice, are not being joined up.
I have been a minister in the United Reform Church for over 30 years and have experienced the best and worst of what the Christian denominations have to offer in this country. At their best, they have offered kindness, opportunity and a strong sense of community that has helped relieve social tensions and supported the most vulnerable in our society. At their worst, they have been closed-off, sadly sometimes inward-looking, with their heads in the sand if not in the clouds.
Where there are successful churches, I have seen a strong correlation between their actions and those of a well run small business or enterprise. Fundamentally, the churches are organisations with accounts, property, services and employees on the scale of a medium to large corporation. They have a business model of sorts that is based around the attendance and donations of the congregation. However, since many of the churches’ traditional social services were appropriated by the formation of the welfare state, many, but certainly not all, have lost sight of the practicalities of daily life, and the amount of red tape they now have to dance around has created a risk-averse culture. Better to do nothing than to take the risk of doing something and getting it wrong.
Arguably, this lack of clear focus and positive activity by the churches, rather than just a straightforward rise in secular beliefs, led to a drop in congregation numbers, breaking their fragile model and leading to a spiral of decline. That this decline has not been more pronounced is due to the assets the churches have, the disposal of which has allowed them to continue as if their present structures and often relative inaction were justifiable. It is not. It is not sustainable and, more importantly, it is causing many churches to fail to fulfil the vast majority of their social potential.
Some of our churches have still not responded to 1945. The problem is that generally they have turned their backs on business and enterprise and do not understand it. Often there is an ideological element to this, an anti-business mentality guided by well-meaning but naive ideas that capitalism is in some way immoral, that profit is theft, and that globalisation is really a gloss for exploitation. These were the views that predominated among the faith and social sectors when I first came to work as a minister in the East End of London in the early 1980s, and in my experience were in practice the drivers of poverty and a dependency culture in the area. We need only look at the protests at St Paul’s Cathedral in recent years to see that these attitudes still exist. Where there has not been outright hostility to business and enterprise, there has often been apathy and the growth of its symbiotic partner, a grants-based dependency culture.
The financial position and attitude of many, but not all, non-conformist churches in particular is not healthy, but these issues are endemic throughout Christian faith organisations. I know this from my first-hand experience of conducting consultancy work for churches across the nation. Here I must declare an interest as a director of the agency One Church, 100 Uses, a church-based social enterprise I created with colleagues to undertake this work and support churches in this endeavour. The key to transforming the situation is to embrace sound business principles. Our company recently undertook a piece of work with the Church in Wales, and I believe that our recommendations carry considerable resonance with the rest of the denominations across the United Kingdom.
If churches are going to survive and play a useful role in society and our buildings are to continue to inspire, Christian communities need to embrace the opportunities that, in time, the localism agenda may bring. They are certainly going to have to become more flexible to the needs of their communities as the next generation of young people grows up in an enterprise culture. Although mostly old and many in need of some attention, church buildings are actually assets, but because they are underused they often become liabilities, sapping the energy of the ministers and congregations who look after them. They need to be used more often and to become income generators. To achieve this requires some entrepreneurial ability. If that is not present in the immediate congregation, people need to look outside their usual comfort zone and build partnerships with sympathetic local small business people and entrepreneurs.
On our recent trip to Wales, we visited a church with an attached café. It was heavily subsidised by grants, a situation that is simply not going to be possible in the coming years. Over the road was a curry house, the winner of the Cardiff “Best Indian Restaurant” award 2011. Did that restaurateur know anything about the culture of churches? Probably not, but did he know something about how to make a small food-based business work in the local area? Actually, yes, he did. However, the church people had no idea of his existence. He was outside the realm of their understanding even though he was a member of the local community, because they had not thought to cross the road to speak to him and learn from him. When this is done, I can say from experience that interesting things happen. This is not just an isolated incident or a Welsh problem. It is a whole enclosed way of thinking that pervades the public sector as much as the churches.
Where there is some entrepreneurial flair within the church, it needs to be supported by a permissive attitude that sees the buildings as assets to be used and within which innovation and enterprise are encouraged alongside reflection, prayer and contemplation. Our beautiful ancient monasteries knew a great deal about this approach and embodied a culture of work and prayer that we need to engage with again. We are certainly actively doing this in the church I have been responsible for in Bromley-by-Bow, where with colleagues we have created over 50 businesses. That enterprise culture has helped to provide many hundreds of jobs and thousands of homes. There is nothing new here for Christianity.
The clergy are not generally regarded as the most entrepreneurial of people, and usually with good reason: you do not become a member of the cloth to open a haberdasher’s. However, for the clergy to be fully trained but ignorant of the very basics of business is irresponsible, if not inexcusable. A minister I spoke to recently said that by the time he had finished his theological training, he could not read a set of accounts, even though his church’s funds would ultimately be his responsibility. I find this baffling to say the least, but unfortunately not surprising. I would suggest that churches need to revisit their clergy recruitment and training and address this gaping hole in their education to give people the tools to put their natural creativity into practice.
Beyond the lack of entrepreneurs and a reluctance to move from a position of complacent decline, there are greater problems of leadership and management. As has already been mentioned, throughout the denominations there is an ever increasing number of church buildings that a single minister is becoming responsible for. It is a situation that is not going to attract good candidates to ministry or keep the current group fresh and motivated. Instead of being the salt and the yeast in the community and addressing social issues, ministers find themselves engaging in an endless round of services and meetings about property. If the churches are to embrace some of the opportunities presenting themselves in the localism agenda and the enterprise culture within which we all now live, hard questions need to asked about closing some churches, at least temporarily, to allow ministers to get involved in the communities in which they are meant to be leaders and to focus on making the other churches in their care self-sustaining. For churches to develop working and enterprising partnerships with their communities, it takes time and the ability to take the long-term view, but those are precisely the resources that the churches should be bringing to bear. There are some great examples of people doing all of this right across the country, but they are far too few and the lessons are often not being learnt by our church structures.
I am making all these suggestions to help revive the churches and encourage a practical and creative culture, one that is less about dependency and more about making the most of opportunities and assets. In spite of the churches’ committee-heavy structures and wide turning circles, there is time to rectify their problems; the situation is not irretrievable. It requires a shift in mindset that challenges a culture heavy with bureaucracy to become one that encourages entrepreneurs and celebrates ingenuity. There is a theological element that the churches are failing to grasp here. We believe that we are made in the image of God the creator and therefore we are creative beings. The fact is that business principles are those that work best at putting these ideas into practice, having been tried and tested by the competition of the marketplace. They are not “evil”, but are a set of tools that can be used for moral or, of course, immoral ends. I urge the churches to embrace this enterprising culture, to use their talents and join the next generation of young people as they become ever more entrepreneurial, while they still have the time.
My Lords, we are meant to declare our interests in this House, but I think that standing here dressed like this is probably a visual declaration. Noble Lords will not be surprised to learn that I believe that the Motion tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, to take note of the importance of our parish churches, is one that I am happy to endorse. It applies in Wales and Scotland as well, of course, although I need to be a bit careful of the Presbyterian conscience and not presume any authority north of the border. Born as I was in a non-conformist manse, indeed a Congregationalist manse, I welcome the contributions of the noble Lords, Lord Griffiths and Lord Mawson, to our debate. A good deal of what I will say later about community engagement in our parish churches would apply equally to churches of other traditions.
The diocese of Norwich actually outflanks the diocese of Lincoln in all sorts of ways. It has more medieval churches per square mile than anywhere else in western Europe. In our 577 parishes there are 642 churches serving a total population of only 900,000 people. I have parishes in urban areas of well over 20,000 in population, but I also have 150 parishes with a total population of fewer than 150 people each, in which the parish church will often seat the whole village and several other settlements nearby as well. So “parish” means different things in different places, but the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, was right to say that all parishioners have a right to the ministry of their parish church.
Of course, our churches are not owned by their congregations or by the parochial church councils: nor are they branches of the diocese, let alone of the national church. It is the local worshipping communities which, largely, maintain these great historic buildings, especially in rural areas.
I sometimes ask people what Norfolk might look like if you removed all the parish churches from the landscape. It would lose so much of what makes each individual community distinct and, indeed, what makes our city distinct. Norwich Union, now Aviva, has used the cathedral spire in different ways as its logo for many years. It is no surprise that a great church represents that great company’s location of origin—we should have patented it. Remove those parish churches from Norfolk or from any other county and you would also have a spiritually flattened landscape. Our parish churches are hallowed by prayer. Two-thirds of them are surrounded by churchyards: a reminder of the gift of previous generations and now, in many cases, nature reserves—too much tidiness can be destructive. They are centres of community life and, of course, the worship within them spills over into the establishment of all sorts of social action agencies, cultural events, drama, choirs, music-making and all the rest.
Before I look at the community life in our churches more fully, I will say a word or two about the buildings themselves and remind the Minister and the Government just what a good deal they get from the Church of England. I recall a survey, not many years ago, which said that 37% of the population believed that the clergy of the Church of England were paid by the Government—there’s a thought. An even higher proportion of people believed that our church buildings were maintained by the taxpayer. That continues to be true. With the increasing significance of the Heritage Lottery Fund in relation to historic buildings—which I welcome, including its repair grant scheme for places of worship—less now comes from the UK taxpayer to maintain this massive part of our built heritage. No other country in Europe has less financial support from the taxpayer for ecclesiastical heritage than England—which, ironically, has an established church.
Around £115 million is raised by congregations every year, on top of everything else, to maintain our parish churches. The tireless voluntary effort of the faithful members of the Church of England is not always adequately recognised as a massive contribution to our national heritage. As the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, pointed out, even in secular France, every parish church built before 1905 is maintained entirely at the expense of the state. However, as he also pointed out, absolutely rightly, they do not see very much love. As a result, I would not argue for that, but I am conscious that the rising generation of worshipping Anglicans is much less content to take on responsibility for the maintenance of these historic buildings than their parents and grandparents were; they believe that much of what is listed and monitored by the state should be supported by state funds.
If the economic recovery is as bright as we are told, we ought to look again at the prospects for this huge inheritance of glorious medieval buildings. I echo others who say that there are ways in which we might be able to target some of the most testing and hidden parts of our buildings, such as roof repairs, where a grant scheme would be really useful. I would be very grateful for the Minister’s comments on future funding in what I believe to be a pending crisis. Even though our church buildings are in such fine condition now, I am not sure what the future holds for 20 or more years’ time.
People love churches: even excluding worshippers, they visit them in droves. Some 31 million people will visit our cathedrals and churches this year. That is worth about £350 million to the tourism industry, but these iconic buildings are often ignored or marginalised in many tourism strategies and cultural plans. Often that is down to a failure of imagination and perhaps a default secularist mindset.
The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, mentioned bats. Anne Sloman, the chair of the Church Buildings Council, Sir Tony Baldry, the Second Church Estates Commissioner, and I, with others, have had lots of ministerial meetings, and a great deal of work has been done with Natural England and Defra. There are positive developments, but it is always odd to me that our parish churches seem to be treated much more as barns than as houses. They are places where people gather to worship and to eat—not just the sacrament of holy communion but more socially as well, although I doubt any other eating place would be allowed to be so unhygienic.
In my remaining time I will concentrate on community engagement. We use the same word—church—for the people as well as the building, of course. I remember some years ago at a conference a bishop saying, “We must put buildings before people”. I could feel the hackles rising all around. But what he meant was that we should present our buildings to people, to place them at the disposal of the community, to do many of the things the noble Lord, Lord Mawson, spoke about—to put them in front of people.
Nowadays I spend a great deal of time, even in a diocese with a host of medieval buildings, dedicating extensions and adaptations to ancient churches to make them usable community buildings—often reversing some of the things that the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, spoke about: removing the pews and returning the nave to those community purposes that he spoke about. One of our churches is turned weekly into a cinema. In another of our churches, the nave is used as a school hall and gymnasium for a school nearby that is on such a restricted site that it does not have the space to do these things. That is precisely what a medieval church is meant to be and do, and we are discovering all sorts of possibilities. I could take noble Lords to churches with shops in them or which host farmers’ markets; there are a few with post offices, but that has proved more difficult to achieve than we expected.
Of course, it is in our churches that people gain the inspiration to serve the community around them. I think of two Christian magistrates, two women from Norwich—one Anglican, one free church—who almost 20 years ago formed a small charity to offer help, advice, support and friendship to sex workers in the city. They began by making a vestry in one of our churches an extremely comfortable drop-in centre, with voluntary and paid staff. The Magdalene Group is now well respected and widely admired for its work with sex workers and is consulted internationally for what it has done. All that would not happen if the church was not people as well as buildings—people who care for one another and have entrepreneurial spirit.
It is well known now that there are many food banks in our churches. That is true with us, too. But it is less well known how often the church has reached out to those with drug and alcohol problems or how many of our churches offer debt advice services, bereavement care and a host of other activities.
On Sunday week I will be on a visitation to one of our council estate parishes in Norwich. It is a modern church, not a medieval one. As well as visiting the morning congregation, in the afternoon I will visit a Tamil language congregation given hospitality by the local parish. That congregation has grown and integrated exceptionally well. The ethnic diversity of our urban parishes is nowadays a cause for celebration and I am proud of the way in which so many of our churches welcome the stranger and engage with the migrant worker as well as those permanently in our country. The English parish church is now typically multi-ethnic in urban areas, and increasingly so in our market towns and even our villages.
Last Sunday I was in a small Norfolk village called Bergh Apton. It is a dispersed community. It has only about 300 people. Over the past three weekends more than 60 local people, including some from nearby settlements, formed the cast of a four-act modern mystery play, “The Legend of the Rood”. It was written by a Norfolk storyteller. It was full of humour and local references. It was the story of salvation with a contemporary twist. Pharaoh looked rather like Boris Johnson. Moses was based on “Citizen Smith”, who sought the liberation of the people of Tooting which he wanted to be the promised land. I had a part. I was cast as God—typecast, I suppose. It was an extraordinary cultural event, set in and around the parish church, drawing the community together: creative, empowering, spiritual, human, educational and entertaining. It was the English parish church doing its job. Similar stories can be told everywhere.
We hear much in the media about declining congregations and the church in conflict. That narrative is much too easily accepted and fails to recognise just how fertile and creative is the English parish church. Churches are as engaged with their communities as ever, and I thank God for that.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Cormack very much for giving the House the chance to debate the importance of the English parish church. I am an oblate of the Anglican Community of St Mary the Virgin at Wantage. I go home at weekends to my village and my church of St Just in Roseland. When I am in London for the rest of the week I can worship at St Peter’s Square, so I am used to a fair variety of Anglican worship.
Today, I am here to speak as the chairman of the Diocesan Advisory Committee for the Care of Churches in the diocese of London. From this position, I can reliably inform noble Lords that in the diocese of London bats are our friends because they do not, largely, like our church buildings and steer clear of them. I will also explain a little further about the importance of the English parish church in an urban, metropolitan context.
The diocese of London consists of 480 parish churches, each with its own defined parochial area. The diocese covers London north of the Thames from the M25 in the west as far as the River Lee in the east, including the heart of the East End, the City, the West End, Metroland and beyond. The rest of greater London is shared between the dioceses of Southwark, Rochester and Chelmsford. I need hardly remind noble Lords of the great diversity and stark contrasts to be found in these places, from the hardest pressed urban deprivation to the richest square mile in the world, with every inch of this area having its own parish church—whether it wants to use it or not. The best English parish churches do not conform to any defined standard imposed from above. They find their place among their local community and grow out of it, imaginatively tailoring their activities to the needs of their locality.
My role in the diocese of London is to chair a learned body called the diocesan advisory committee, or DAC. DACs have been around since the 1920s and have a very specific remit in preserving, enhancing and promoting the importance of English parish churches. I count among my predecessors Ivor Bulmer-Thomas, Member of Parliament for Keighley and founder of the Friends of Friendless Churches, and Sir John Betjeman, already lyrically referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths of Burry Port, and whose writing on churches is among his most enduring.
Each of the 42 dioceses of the Church of England is required by law to have a DAC and the purposes and workings of each of those committees are equally clearly defined in legislation. The DAC provides advice on all aspects of managing church buildings. In London we see around 300 cases every year, from major extensions and restorations to minor re-orderings and making lavatories accessible. In this way the diocesan advisory committee is a key guardian of English parish churches, protecting their importance for future generations.
As chairman I see two main branches to this. I am sure that we are all familiar with the historical, architectural, artistic and academic importance of our church buildings, each of them a record in stone of the people who built them and the generations who have worshipped there since; witness to the formative events of our country, nationally, regionally and parochially. This importance is duly acknowledged by Her Majesty’s Government: 45% of all grade 1 listed buildings are Church of England parish churches. Following changes to VAT rules in 2012, the Government acknowledged that more prosaically by generously providing funding to ensure that the impact on historic church buildings was minimised.
What can sometimes be forgotten is that that rich cultural resource is as rich as it is only because the buildings have been used. The use of the buildings is the second branch of importance that I oversee. Our churches have been chopped, changed, extended and reduced, with every phase adding its piquancy to the cultural soup. In being awed by the splendour of these buildings, we must not be lured into misguided preservationism, which will silence our generation to the ears of the future. Church buildings must be permitted to change to meet the needs of the present. That, in turn, will give them a sustainable future.
Balancing between those two potentially competing forces—the accident and the substance of churches, if one wishes to be philosophical about it—is the challenge that greets every new DAC chairman, such as me. The governing legislation enjoins us to,
“have due regard to the role of the church as a local centre of worship and mission”, not only to ensure that the building is well fitted to its congregation but that the very act of making it so may become a new chapter in the rich history of that building.
One thing that is changing is the way in which church buildings are used. Other speakers have referred to this. Long gone are the days when it was frowned on to clap in church—I remember when you could not clap in church—and in many cases, church doors were shut during the week. The activities of parish churches in London now encompass much more than worship alone. They include running 150 schools, educating 53,500 children from all faiths and backgrounds and administering more than 1,000 projects of social transformation, impacting on the lives of more than 200,000 people annually. All that work is ably supported by more than 10,000 volunteers.
Many of those projects require transformation of the church building and, consequently, the advice of my committee. In recent years, the DAC has seen proposals for post offices, doctors’ surgeries, free schools, nursery schools, a gym, several night shelters, cafes, counselling services and innumerable charitable activities meeting local need. That is not on a small scale. Taking night shelters as an example, over the winter of 2012-13, 280 churches mobilised 5,200 volunteers across every denomination. There were church night shelter schemes in 23 boroughs, offering shelter and hospitality for more than 1,300 people.
The diocese of London has given central recognition to those new developments in the life of the church in London through an ambitious programme entitled Capital Vision 2020. The belief behind Capital Vision is that London’s churches should not be static museums, nor should they be bland community resources. Rather, they should have the confidence to be churches: outward looking and inward welcoming. Capital Vision aims to find the best examples of thriving, open, community-focused churches in London, and to teach their lessons to others that may be struggling.
I like to think that I see a lot of the importance of the English parish church in the work that I do for the diocese of London. London’s churches are as varied and colourful as London's communities. They are places where differing strands come together, both temporal and eternal; places of history and beauty; places of celebration and of mourning; places of splendid ceremony and of ministering to the poor.
Churches are also places where international visitors of all faiths and none can connect with God, yet also places which stand at the heart of their local communities, seeking to connect with people’s hopes and needs.
Through being an open presence in the midst of our city, our church buildings will bear a welcoming witness to the Christian faith to all who enter them.
In an era when, nationally, fewer of our citizens attend church for worship, more than ever before are visiting churches for cultural, community, educational and altruistic purposes. In this way the English parish church will, I believe, continue to be the beating heart of its local community and one of the key defining features of English society in the 21st century.
My Lords, this weekend I am going to bake some scones—probably fruit scones. I am then going to bring them in to St John’s church in Neville’s Cross in Durham, of which I am a member, to serve to the people of Durham. On Sunday we are having our annual gathering in the field behind our church, when the neighbours collect and people come from across the city. Once again I am in charge of the tea tent—or, to be more precise, the tea and coffee bit of the scout hut. I have to confess that my scones are not very good, at least not by the competitive baking standards of the Church of England. However, as the tea monitor, when I looked down the list showing me the promised baked goods, I found all kinds being offered—rock cakes, flapjacks and sponge cakes, but no scones. I normally make a chocolate cake. However, I am also aware that somewhere there is a piece of canon law in the Church of England requiring that if 50 or more Anglicans gather outside in public then they must be given scones with their tea—so it was Sherlock to the rescue.
So far, so Barbara Pym. But what in fact is going on next Sunday is not a church fête but what we call our EcoFest. About seven years ago we gathered for our regular church parish weekend away in Whitby and two members of our congregation challenged our church to think about what we were doing about the environment. We discussed it a lot that weekend and made a number of changes to our own homes and to our church, including putting solar panels on the roof, but we also began to think about what we should do for the city. As a result, we now have an annual gathering in which we bring together people from across the city who are interested in the subject.
The result is a huge mix of campaign groups, green campaigners, alternative energy providers, people who do vegetable boxes, beekeepers, fair trade stalls, bicycle repair workshops and a car-sharing club. There is also a toy swap-shop for the kids so that you can swap the toys you are bored with for those that you have yet to get bored with. The Durham Foodbank will be there because many of our church members are involved in running it. At the end, our rector, Barney Huish, will lead us all in beer and hymns accompanied by a brass band, this being the north-east. A special addition this year will be hustings so that the local political parties can come along and talk to us. When we first did this we were amazed to find that many of the people and groups who are interested in the same subject did not know each other. They met for the first time when they came to our EcoFest, in the little field behind our little church.
I am not going to talk about the wonderful buildings of the Church of England—partly because although my church has much to commend it, having been set up as a mission church at the end of the 19th century by our mother church, which is 800 years old, its charms have yet to trouble greatly either the bat community or English Heritage. I want to talk instead about what happens inside it.
I have been a regular attendee at just three churches, having acquired the churchgoing habit rather late in middle age. The first one that I went to was very different. It was St Mary’s Islington, which is famous for many things. My noble friend Lord Griffiths might be familiar with it because it is notorious for having ejected Charles Wesley at least once from its premises. The church is at the heart of Islington, a borough which is polarised between conspicuous wealth and mostly hidden but profound deprivation. It is a neighbourhood of incredible diversity but one in which people live parallel lives. Their thoughtful and very impressive current vicar, Simon Harvey, put it like this:
“The people who share the 43 bus share little else. Parochial ministry in this context is about offering opportunities for encounter, understanding and fostering commitment to a common good, as well as worshipping God”.
They do indeed pursue the common good.
The facilities at St Mary’s are used by 2,000 people a week, meeting in more than 100 groups that range from 12-step drug recovery programmes through to a stroke club, a project on childhood obesity and an annual “Soul in the City” community festival that serves thousands of people. They have been working to keep the church open every day, as the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, described, so that people who work and play in Islington today can find this space of sanctuary, as people have done on the same site for the past thousand years. The church also runs an open youth club, which I chaired for a bit while I was there—although that is now being done much more ably—as well as a preschool, both of which bring together council funding with church time and investment.
My church when I am in Westminster is St Martin-in-the-Fields. Many noble Lords will know that church well. They may well have been to concerts there; the church has one of the foremost chamber ensembles. Dick Sheppard, the vicar of St Martin’s during the First World War, used the church to give refuge to soldiers on their way to France. He saw it as what he called “the church of the ever open door”, and its doors have remained open ever since. It offers ministry to homeless people both directly and through the Connection at St Martin-in-the-Fields, which cares for around 7,500 individuals each year. St Martin’s was involved in the anti-apartheid movement and the founding of many charitable and campaigning bodies, including Amnesty International, Shelter and the Big Issue. It is an inclusive, welcoming church to this day, a place where people of different faiths regularly pray together.
These three churches, united only by the rather random fact that I have had the privilege to worship at them, show me some really important things about the English parish church. First, English parish churches are places of meeting, gathering and connection. The theologian Luke Bretherton talks of the early church as having been what he calls a third space. In those days there were two clear spaces: the public space, the polis, and the household, the oikos. The church, the ekklesia, was a third space, and a very unusual one where men and women, Greek and Roman, slave and free all mixed together, which simply would not have happened elsewhere. The first time that I walked into St Mary Islington, I realised that this was the one place in Islington where I had seen such a huge variety of people gathered together under one roof. The first time that I attended morning prayer at St Martin-in-the-Fields and heard the sounds of people who had spent the night all across the streets of London coming inside the church as we prayed at the centre of it, I realised how rarely our lives intersect in a great city like this—but they do in church.
Secondly, like many church and other faith groups, these English parish churches are doing so much for their local communities—in fact, they are focusing lots of their time and money on those who are outside the church. As well as all the events that so many noble Lords have described, we all know of the unsung heroes, those who visit the sick and the housebound, who volunteer in prisons and food banks and who run holiday clubs for local children and lunch clubs for older people.
Thirdly, without any disrespect to my nonconformist friends, both noble and otherwise, there is something unique about the established church. On a practical level, it is a body whose churches are maintained from its own resources, as we have heard, yet, as the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich have pointed out, is by definition open to anyone who lives within its boundaries.
I was chatting this week to Father Richard Carter, the inspiring associate vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields. He described having received a call to tell him that someone in his parish was dying, so of course he immediately went to the hospital to be with them. When the person had died, he went to visit the family more than once, organised and conducted the funeral and went to the crematorium. The point is that he would, and does, do this for anyone who lives in his parish boundaries, whether or not they or their family have ever set foot in church, and so do vicars up and down the country.
As we know, any English person can be baptised or married and have their funeral in their parish church. We often joke about the “hatch, match and dispatch” role of the church but these things really matter; they are the crucial life stages, the rites of passage that secular society increasingly does very badly, especially the first and the last of those. This is a huge challenge for a cash-strapped Church of England but it is very important, and I am proud that so many churches work hard to maintain it.
The interesting thing is that that same priest used to serve in the Solomon Islands. He described an occasion on which charities had gathered there in the wake of a crisis to ask the local people how they wanted the aid money they had brought to be spent. The response was pretty surprising: people said that they wanted the money to go to their local churches. The reason was that the local church knew the community intimately and, literally, knew the lie of the land; it understood the needs and challenges facing the local people. This priest, Richard, and his fellow clergy minister with the same understanding and care to their new congregations here in the centre of London, with all their diversity.
One of the most unusual things that I find about the English parish church is that it spans a huge range of theological views, often indeed in the same church. The Prime Minister talked recently of a,
“perceived wooliness when it comes to belief”, on the part of the Church of England. Actually, I think it is slightly more complicated than that. When I first started going to a Church of England church, I likewise assumed that its members did not believe things very strongly. I then realised that they actually do—just not in the same things. That is actually really important; it is an aspect of the Church of England that tells us quite a lot about its history.
I heard a well known priest give a talk a few years ago at the Greenbelt Festival about the lessons of the English Civil War. He talked about comparing experiences with an American about the same thing. His view was that the overriding lesson for the Americans from their civil war was that it was important to be right and to win, but that what the English learnt from their civil war was that it was very dangerous to fall out over religion.
Actually, that means that there is a very strong historical and pragmatic reason for the theological diversity of the Church of England. But there is also something very impressive about it. The capacity to hold together in one body people who have radically different understandings of the meanings of central beliefs, not to mention religious practices, is hugely significant. It is really countercultural to those of us who live in the world of politics, where the slightest hint of disagreement or division is leapt upon and held up as a sign of weakness. I find it a very attractive characteristic, but in practice a very challenging one, because it means being in fellowship with people with whom I disagree, sometimes profoundly, over things that matter to all of us a great deal. It also means that I am forced continually to come back to working out what it is that matters most. It is also a constant reminder to me of the possibility, however slight, that I may on occasion be wrong. For that alone I am profoundly grateful to each and every English parish church, and also to the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, for giving us the opportunity to celebrate them today.
I agree how phenomenal it is to have an opportunity to debate the English parish church in the House of Lords. I thank my noble friend Lord Cormack. I freely admit that I came to this debate without a prepared speech. I love churches, buildings and architecture, and my greatest thought is of an awayday when I can escape, look at buildings and enjoy them for what they are. I think it is important to bring us back to one point that should be repeated, which is that we must not forget how unique and priceless is our heritage not just in England but all over the British Isles. It is tremendous to be able to discuss it.
Noble Lords may know that 20 years ago I founded a charity called the Open Churches Trust. Its aim was to keep churches open. About five years ago, I decided that it might be the moment to apply the charity’s resources elsewhere. It was for two reasons. We had the most phenomenal administrator, who I did not feel we would be able to replace, and when we started we found that probably only one or two in five churches were open, but initiatives since we began suggested that our work was, in a way, done.
I came to this debate with an open mind, and I am glad I did not have any prepared thoughts. I completely share the extraordinary views about how churches can be used. That is one of the things that we passionately tried to promote. From the very beginning, we tried to promote the idea that the nave was a place of business. Today, many modern vicars—I am not sure I necessarily approve, but that may be because I am a Tractarian at heart—will bring the church forward in front of the screen. Of course, the purpose of the screen was to keep the nave, where business was done, separate from where the church business was done. Times have moved on. We can see that.
That makes me think how wonderful it would be if we could take that idea further. I was thrilled to hear what was said about using the building for everything from a gymnasium to a school. That was what naves were about. We should have wi-fi in churches because you could have an app, and that app could say, “This is what this building is about”. Also, any wise church will know that by having an app, it has a captive audience because somebody has used the app. Anything we can do to further the use of churches as the centre of the community, and as a place where people feel they want to come to, has to be good.
I shall share with noble Lords my last trip. It is the only thing I have made notes on. I shall not try to follow the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, and speak about Wales, but a lot of the trip was in Wales and although my name is Lloyd I am not Welsh, and I am afraid my Welsh accent is not good enough to do some of the names. However, I started in Tamworth at—again, my pronunciation of this will be wrong; some noble Lord will correct me on this—St Editha, is it? It is an extraordinary building—ruined by six huge 15-storey blocks of council flats along its reach, but a most wonderful building. Here I found something that I would like to share with your Lordships, because it is very important. It is about the contents of the churches and, in this case, the church windows. I am a great lover of Pre-Raphaelite art, which is now recognised in a way that it was perhaps not 50 or 60 years ago. St Editha has some of the greatest windows you will ever see, by Burne-Jones and Ford Madox Brown. I was concerned that the Burne-Jones windows are not protected. That makes me feel that there must be a role, which we might discuss in a moment, for the Government in giving a little help to buildings for which it is perhaps beyond their custodians even to appreciate the value of what they have.
I was very impressed by the fact that St Editha has a bookshop, which keeps the church open. It is doing everything it can. I was unable to talk to the vicar because St Editha does not have a present incumbent, but many things that it was doing there struck me as pretty extraordinary.
I then moved on to—I cannot say “Shrovesbury”; it is “Shrewsbury”, is it not?
I apologise, but I was told in Shrewsbury that it was “Shrewsbury”. There I visited St Mary’s. It is a very interesting place for stained glass, now run by the Churches Conservation Trust. I was very impressed by the fact that they said that they had more visitors to the church than when it was a church—although there was something slightly sterile about it, I have to say. However, they had a break-in and one of their Dutch windows was badly damaged. You begin to think again that we must work out what we are going to do to protect the treasures within these buildings, which people do not necessarily immediately understand. There was an eccentric vicar at St Mary’s in the 19th century, who collected glass from all over the world. It is therefore, of course, a treasure trove of glass that is not specifically English or British.
I contrast that with a church that I went to in Gresford, All Saints’ Church, in Wales. How wonderful it is when you find that a diocese has a dedicated scheme to make churches available and open, as its diocese has. Here comes the mea culpa: a volunteer said, “Would you like to come and see the mural of the mine disaster?”. Now, I freely admit that I am afraid that I did not know that there had been this catastrophe at Gresford. Nor would you realise today, really, that it had been a mining community because the mining has long since ceased. I saw one of the most moving pictures that I have seen outside the Stanley Spencer memorial chapel in Burghclere. It is a much smaller picture than that, a tribute by a local artist to those who had died—of whom I admit I had no idea.
I suddenly thought, “That is what these buildings should be about”. I come back to the idea of an app or something: if there has been such an app, would it not have been wonderful if somebody like myself had actually known about it? Now I have come away with something that I have learnt, and that is entirely due to the volunteer who showed me around.
If there is any one thing that I would suggest to the Government, it is only a thought but it might work: through the National Heritage Memorial Fund something could be created that draws attention to the works of art in buildings and churches, and ensures that they are somehow protected. It may well be beyond the resources of many churches to do that. A simple thing like protecting the glass of the church in Tamworth could save a Burne-Jones window of incredible importance. Goodness, a Burne-Jones watercolour sold for £15 million. What is that glass worth? Who is looking after it? Who realises what it is?
Finally, I saw four kids playing around outside in the rather empty market square in Tamworth. They were following me around, and I said, “Do you know that that window in your church is by Burne-Jones?”. While they thought I was terminally mad, or on some strange thing, I managed to say, “Why don’t you come in and have a look?”. Their reaction when they saw something in their own town which they had not even dreamt of seeing makes me feel that we must fight passionately for the future of our parish churches.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow my composing colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd-Webber. I agree wholeheartedly with everything he said, especially about protecting works of art. One encouraging little point is that tomorrow morning I will be at King’s College, Cambridge, with Stephen Cleobury and a couple of hundred local children, recording a small piece only for an app. The whole purpose is that when the Tour de France starts in Cambridge, a series of pieces will have been created with local institutions and people will go round Cambridge listening to the app that is relevant to that particular place. So that was a prophetic idea from the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd-Webber.
We heard about bats. I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, for instigating this debate, and in particular for focusing on bats. I am afraid that I do not agree with the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, that we need not worry about them. My experience in the country in mid-Wales is that they are a real problem, and I will be very interested to hear what the Minister thinks might be done to tackle the problem of bats in Wimbledon and elsewhere.
An extraordinary amount of wonderful art has been created for English churches, and English parish churches. I think, for example, of an amazing man, Walter Hussey, who was dean of St Matthew’s in Northampton. He commissioned Britten, Henry Moore, John Piper, Gerald Finzi, Marc Chagall, and even one Lennox Berkeley. On moving to Chichester he commissioned Leonard Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms”. That was a man with great vision. Sometimes, of course, that takes money, but it is amazing what can be done when local people are brought together and raise funds, and composers and artists will do things for the love of the area they live in.
One thinks of festivals and how churches have been important to them, such as Aldeburgh and its parish church, where Britten and Pears are buried. There are performances there every year and in Blythburgh and Orford—stunning East Anglian buildings. Moving to Norfolk, there are wonderful churches such as that of Cley next the Sea. Just down the road is Stiffkey. Noble Lords will all remember what happened to the rector of Stiffkey, Harold Davidson. Unfortunately, he was defrocked for consorting with ladies who were, you might say, already defrocked. He then decided to raise money by exhibiting himself in a barrel, and finally by getting into a cage with lions. The unfortunate Harold Davidson met his end being eaten by the lions. That is rather an unusual story, and fortunately not typical of most of the parish churches we have heard about.
There is something terribly important about creativity and religion, whether you have great faith or are an atheist. Hearing a marvellous piece of music or even just local children creating sound has an extraordinary, transcending quality. Some of the people I know who are most devoted to English churches are, in fact, atheists. They are passionate about them. We can all get an extraordinary sustenance from the communal coming-together, making music and worshipping—or not worshipping; just savouring that extraordinary calm that you get in an English parish church.
At Cheltenham we had, for concert venues at the festival, Gloucester Cathedral and Tewkesbury Abbey, but perhaps I remember even more fondly the concerts in Wynchcombe and the local surrounding area, where local people came. It is this thing of outreach—bringing the local parishioners in. Funnily enough, even those of us who have perhaps strayed from the faith in some ways go back to our local churches to be baptised and married and to bury our dead. It is a fulcrum—a lever on which everything turns. What is so extraordinary in this country, as the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, said, is that we have so many fantastically beautiful buildings. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, that we cannot put everything into mothballs, and we may have to concentrate on the greatest. Let us be realistic. But it is vital that we precisely do that.
We are privileged in this country; we can go for a drive somewhere and look up in a book, like the one by Simon Jenkins, a wonderful church to sit in, be with ourselves and think of God, if that is what we want to do, or our place in society or in humanity. That is a staggering privilege, and we must protect it at all costs.
My Lords, I shall speak briefly in the gap, first to say how grateful we should all be to the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, for introducing this debate, which has turned out to be extraordinarily entertaining and enlightening, and in my case very reassuring.
I shall take a few minutes to use my parish church to exemplify some of the points that have come up. I speak from the position of being that atheist to whom the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, has just referred, but I am also a trustee of the parish church in Thaxted, in Uttlesford, in north-west Essex. It will be known to those who are connoisseurs of the English parish church, because it is one of the finest; it has four stars in Simon Jenkins’ book. It is also huge. It has a massive nave, and in mentioning that I think of the uses which the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd-Webber, and others have reminded us that naves of churches have been put to in the past and should be again. Thaxted parish church gives the community a wonderful opportunity to use the nave in a wide variety of ways.
Thaxted is also the home of a very well known and widely respected music festival, founded by Gustav Holst, who lived in Thaxted for a number of years. Indeed, one of the great tunes from “The Planets” was subsequently named for Thaxted. The church has in it one of the only two surviving, untampered-with Lincoln organs, built by Henry Lincoln. The other is in Buckingham Palace. The parish of Thaxted managed to raise well over £300,000 from various sources to have the organ restored, and it is just about to be recommissioned. It will be a great resource for the parish and for musicologists throughout the country.
It also has some wonderful medieval glass, which needs to be preserved, just as the Burne-Joneses do, to which the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd-Webber, referred.
The church has an extraordinary history of Christian socialism, which goes back to the parish priest in the early part of the 20th century, Conrad Noel, who believed in a very active Christianity. That came from a deep socialist conviction, which he turned into reality. In fact, for one brief moment there were riots in Thaxted because he flew the red flag in the church.
The church is also the source of one of the greatest revivals of the English folk tradition. Every year outside my window, Morris dancers come from all over the UK and beyond to dance in the streets—and we see Thaxted as it used to be, with a market square, rather than a main road running through it. All this points to the fact that the church is, has always been and must remain a vital community asset. But it is very difficult to allow it to evolve in the way in which many noble Lords have stressed that churches must evolve. It is difficult partly because money is needed to do so, which is always a problem, but also because, I am sorry to say, there is an ageing group of people, of whom I am one, who are prepared to give their time and energy to get some of the work done that is needed and to raise funds for that.
I have one request to make to the Minister. It is to do with the fact that Thaxted, an extremely beautiful medieval town, is now the focus of a great deal of rather predatory development interest on the part of private developers. Some of that predatory activity will be fought off by a community that is not too keen on it, but some of it will be successful. Does the Minister consider that it is important and necessary for developers who wish to develop places such as Thaxted—and there are many of them all over the country—to realise that the church is a critical part of creating a strong community and a focus for a community that is growing through that development, and that they should therefore be not only encouraged but required to contribute to the church’s capacity to evolve its buildings, to create new amenities and to allow the community to make better use of some of these wonderful spaces?
That is all I have time to say, but I hope the Minister will take it seriously.
My Lords, I, too, wish to speak in the gap. I welcome this debate although I am afraid that I missed the opportunity to put my name down to speak in it.
The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, has a number of strings to his bow. Churches are one of his passions and he is president of the Prayer Book Society, which reflects a particular approach to the Church of England, of which I am a member. That leads me to my first point, which concerns the endless paradoxes embodied in English parish churches. I think it is part of the English tradition of tolerance that we can believe what we like, although I am sure that the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury would not put it quite that way. However, he made a very interesting remark in a previous debate when he said that the Church of England is everywhere. Indeed, people connected with the Church of England are involved with food banks and work on the ground everywhere. The Church of England knows more than any other organisation in the country about what is happening on the ground. It is, of course, concerned with theology, doctrine and fundamental belief but it is also defined by its church buildings.
This leads me to the many interesting points touched on by noble Lords who hold eminent positions in the world of theology—notably my noble friend Lord Griffiths and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich. Somebody touched on the church and state and the establishment and the English way of doing things. In France, the Roman Catholic tradition does not allow that space. It creates a type of socialism on the opposite side which is anti-clerical. We have never had that tradition. We believe in fuzziness.
I invited a former Archbishop of Canterbury to address the TUC in Brighton a couple of decades ago. I am sure that some people in the Church of England would be horrified at the prospect of not having the cutting-edge doctrine that they would like to see. We are talking at cross purposes. Just as in the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, you have to have people who are clear about the doctrine, and then, at the other end of the scale from one to 10, you have to have people who do not care very much at all about the doctrine. That is the nature of the beast. It is not like the Roman Catholic Church, which in some respects has more difficulty than we have in the Church of England with the theory of evolution. The contrast between the two non-conformist speakers as regards God and mammon was interesting. I need more time to think about tail and the dog, the baby and the bathwater, and so on.
A friend of mine at the TUC, who was known to be an atheist or agnostic, died. We were a bit surprised that she had a Church of England funeral. There was the vicar and the coffin, and about 50 of us attended. Before the service started, the vicar read out a letter from Miss Nicholson, sent just before she died. It said: “Dear vicar, I am an atheist—perhaps an agnostic—but under the Act of 1551 I am entitled to this funeral and want you to carry it out”. The “births, marriages and deaths” idea is what keeps a lot of people together, even people who do not think that they are members of the Church of England. There is a huge tapestry and I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, tabled this debate.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, for his success in securing this debate. It is, as he said, a counterpoint to a debate he secured a short time ago about cathedrals. Perhaps there is a rolling sequence here—first, cathedrals; then churches. Now what? What is his next trick? I suggest that if the noble Lord is in any doubt about what he might raise, perhaps it might be something that appeals to a slightly broader audience than even today’s—rural cinemas, for example. I am worried about them and perhaps we may get together on that one.
More generally, it is always a comfort when the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, is in his place. I feel happier in the House of Lords when I see him sitting opposite, with his avuncular style and ability to anticipate the trends and fashions of the day. I am a little surprised that he is not sporting his MCC tie, today of all days—given the test match taking place. That is a bit of a blot on the discussion. However, when he is there the sun will rise. It may not always shine but it certainly rises. Larks will sing, choirs will raise their voices in wonderful places, and all will be right in the world. I do not know why I got into that but it seemed appropriate, given that we are all traipsing down memory lane, recalling churches we have visited and books we have read about them.
I should also say that I live in Little Missenden in Buckinghamshire—a small village of about 100 houses. We have a Norman-Saxon church, St John the Baptist, which, according to the records, was founded in 975. As it says on the website—we have a website—it has been a place of Christian pilgrimage for more than 1,000 years. I recommend it to those who might want to visit, not least because we have a wonderful festival every October for the wall paintings of St Christopher and St Catherine that were uncovered in 1931. It is a place with whitewash and bright vermilion drawings of these extraordinary figures, which reflect faith in a different time but offer continuity, because they are, in some ways, very modern. While I am in local tour mood, I should say—because it was mentioned by my noble friend Lord Griffiths—that the house in which I live was used to film some of the scenes of “The Vicar of Dibley”. I claim no credit because it was before we moved there. Perhaps this is a point for the next debate but Dibley Manor, as it would have been, attracts a lot of visitors who come and gawp at us through our windows—which is a bit surprising sometimes.
That, for me, is context, but it is not really an explanation of what I want to say today. I find myself in a slightly difficult position because, although we have lots of variations on English religious practice, I do not think we have any other of these in the room: I am a Scottish Presbyterian by background and I am married to a Catholic. So I am probably not the best person to respond to all aspects of the debate. Rather than try to dig into the question of faith—I will certainly be turning to fabric later—I thought I would research who else has been talking about faith, in particular about churches. I found two reports from two of our most advanced think tanks, Demos and ResPublica, which have not been mentioned so far and rather surprisingly were not on the list of material that was circulated in the otherwise excellent Library note.
The Demos report is largely authored by Stephen Timms MP, who I think is well known to many people as being very interested in issues of faith. It is quite a recent report which has researched religious activity. Interestingly, it found:
“Religious people in the UK are more likely than non-religious people to volunteer regularly in their local community, to feel a greater sense of belonging to their local community … and to have higher levels of trust in other people and … institutions”.
They are more likely than non-religious people to take “decision-making roles in committees”, and to go into jobs such as being a councillor or a school governor.
Religious people who feel religion is important to them are also more likely than those who said it was not important,
“to be civically engaged and to give to charity via their places of worship.”
So far so good with my research; I am sure I have lost noble Lords already in my tract. It was interesting that the research also found that those who belonged to religious organisations or felt they belonged to it—this was particularly a UK issue, not so much a European issue, because they did research across Europe as well—were more likely to base themselves on the left side of the political spectrum. They were more likely to “value equality over freedom”, less likely to have a negative association towards living next door to immigrants, but slightly more likely to say those on benefits should have to take a job, rather than be able to refuse. There are lot of mixed messages there; I do not quite think it fits with the standard UKIP pattern, or that of the left of centre. I thought noble Lords would like to know that.
Although religious people might be more likely to volunteer, they are also less likely to have a meaningful interaction with people from backgrounds different from their own. Efforts to encourage greater mixing between people of different backgrounds in pursuit of common goals should be picked up as part of an issue to do with religiosity.
That was the Demos, new-left/centre thinking. I then turn to the report from ResPublica, Holistic Mission. As I am sure noble Lords will be aware, ResPublica describes itself as an “independent, non-partisan think tank”, developing,
“practical solutions to enduring socio-economic … problems”.
It starts with a bit of blast. It says, quite unashamedly,
“Britain needs both new and renewed institutions … We are now in the UK at a point of institutional miscarriage. Both state and market have failed us. The NHS has been implicated in massive scandals of appalling care and resultant coverups. Our banking system has been the province of vested and rent-seeking self-interest. In the UK, social mobility is stagnating and inequalities are both rising and embedding; all of this despite massive expenditure by the state and vast amounts of contracting out to the private sector”.
You know where they are coming from—at least I think you probably do. Phillip Blond is well known for being a bit of a polemicist. My point is that, in the research ResPublica has done—there is a lot more of the type I just mentioned before we get to it—it decided, in looking at the need to,
“create, recover and restore new transformative institutions that can genuinely make a difference to people and their communities”, that the church can fill this gap. It says,
“the Church has the potential, the experience and the capacity to become one of the foundational enabling and mediating institutions that the country so desperately needs … the Church has a wealth of in-depth and varied experience across most fields and in many areas”.
We have heard a number of those. The areas it mentions range from,
“helping women recover from prostitution, to mental health, to work experience and training to homelessness and drug addiction and prisoner rehabilitation”.
So the point of the research is that the church is already doing a lot and it wants to do more. But—there is always a “but”— the church has to make itself fit for purpose. The report says:
“If the Church is to fulfil its purpose and its potential, it has substantially to upgrade its internal and external structures. It has to adapt to governmental demands for accountability and standards, while at the same time allowing its localities to innovate and create”.
The Government, too, have to work hard with the church in order to create the opening, the incentive and the encouragement.
My researches leave me somewhat perplexed about what think tanks are doing but I think that there is a theme, which this debate has also picked up. There is a feeling that the church’s enduring mission has relevance today; that the facilities, the people and the resources there could be deployed in a more creative way; and that possibly there are ways in which we could see a new compact or a new arrangement established for developing help and social context.
I want to conclude with a few questions for the Minister, drawn mainly from the documents in the Library report. There is reference to a DCMS Select Committee report which dealt with heritage more generally but also picked up questions about English churches and cathedrals. The first point it makes is that,
“state support for all places of worship through general taxation would not be readily understood by the public and would at present be inappropriate”.
A number of questions have been raised about whether the state should be involved either directly or indirectly in supporting places of worship. This is more generally stated for all places of worship but it would of course include parish churches. Can the Minister update us on what has happened since that recommendation was made?
The second point made is that faith groups have a responsibility for making sure that the buildings they use for their faiths are maintained. Many suggestions are made but one is that parish councils could be approached for support, perhaps showing imagination in how buildings could be used. Obviously parish councils are part of the apparatus of representational democracy, and again I should like the Minister to say whether he feels that there is a role for parish councils in that work.
The third point, which has been picked up by a number of noble Lords, is that, although significant funding is now going into churches, not just directly through English Heritage but through the generous support for repayment of VAT incurred, about a third of the total amount of money required—this is picked up in a number of papers—is not available and has to be raised by the individuals who use these facilities. That seems not only to be a big gap but a gap that will be worryingly larger in future years. Elsewhere in the papers, it is disclosed that the majority of the congregations who currently regularly attend parish churches are ageing and are not being replaced by a younger generation. Therefore, who will be responsible for filling this gap, which is currently about £60 million a year for the maintenance and repair of our churches?
The Church of England prepared a briefing note for this, and it is interesting that its “asks” were quite targeted. Again, perhaps the noble Lord can respond to its points. I think that some are covered in his briefing notes and he should be able to respond directly. A couple of them have been mentioned already. One is to encourage agencies, such as VisitEngland, to include parish churches in their campaigns and initiatives. That would seem to produce an easy win-win. Church visits are said to be very valuable and the tourism economy is not to be ignored. I would be grateful if the Minister could respond to that. Providing brown heritage “Historic Church” signs to all rural and out-of-the-way parish churches seems to be another easy win. Again, that would help to signpost people to these wonderful resources and would not be very complicated to arrange.
The church has picked up on the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd-Webber, regarding help to install wi-fi so that the church can reach the 21st century along with others. This, the church says, would assist churches in providing professional services to all who seek them. I think that it was part of the rural broadband initiative, which is administered through the DCMS, and it is something that might be picked up.
Another point raised in the debate is the need for the National Heritage Memorial Fund to pick up on church treasures to make sure that those which are important to us in a more general historic and heritage sense are not lost in some other concerns about church or faith groups. They are important for us all.
Finally, the English Heritage note picked up a couple of points on which I think it would also be useful for the Minister to respond. One point that it makes concerns planning and relates to changes in the demography, to which I have referred, and in church usage—and we have heard about the extraordinary things that can be mounted in churches. However, there are problems with planning in some areas. Will the Minister think about how one might accommodate the flexibility that will be required as we go forward in order to make sure that these spaces are used, and used in a way which is contemporary and appropriate for those who wish to operate within that locality?
A number of points were slightly off piste, as it were, but are important. We need to think about the question of bats. There are two quite different issues: first, the need to make sure that our natural environment is protected; and, secondly, the impact of the bats. The glis glis is another problem. It is local to Little Missenden but is spreading out. It was until recently a protected species and caused tremendous damage. However, now that they are now longer restricted it has been possible to make some progress.
I hope the Minister will be able to respond to the question of how he is going to train the bell ringers who are going to maintain our music in the countryside, as the noble Lord asked us to do.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Cormack for bringing this important debate to the House. I join with all noble Lords in paying tribute to his enduring contribution in promoting our national heritage. I have a great fondness for my noble friend, not least because I happen to be his Whip and perhaps can exert greater influence over him than others in your Lordships’ House.
This has been a wide-ranging, enlightening and informed debate, as ever. We have talked about bells and budgets, buildings and bats, and hymns and history. This reflects the importance that the parish church has in our society today.
Before I turn to the role of the parish church, on a personal reflection, perhaps I may refer to what the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich said about how this Government should fully acknowledge what they get back from the Church of England. I, for one, as a Minister of this Government, can certainly qualify that fact because my own primary and formative education was at an establishment called Holy Trinity, which is as Christian as the right reverend Prelate’s attire. So I can certainly lay testament to that issue.
It is right to talk about the importance of the role of faith in society. For example, a Christian has the right to wear a cross at work, and we took steps to allow local authorities to continue to hold prayers at the beginning of meetings, should they wish. As other noble Lords have said, the Prime Minister used his Easter address to speak about the importance of Christianity and Britain’s status as a Christian country. He spoke passionately about being confident and standing up to define the values of responsibility, hard work, charity, compassion, humility and love—we have heard a great deal about these recently—Christian values that he identified as being shared by people of every faith and, indeed, none: the values of every faith; British values; indeed, the values of humanity.
Turning to the role of the English parish church, as many noble Lords have said, there are few sights that evoke the true Englishness of our great country than that of a parish church. Indeed, my noble friend Lord Cormack reflected upon this in his opening remarks, as did the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich and my noble friend Lord Lloyd-Webber in their contributions. We have been through a journey through England today. I was scribbling notes furiously. As my noble friend Lord Lloyd-Webber said, it is only when we embark upon our travels domestically and nationally that we realise the real strength of our heritage. This is reflected in our churches across the country.
The Church of England is responsible for 16,000 parish churches, 12,500 of which are listed as being of historic or architectural interest, and the oldest surviving parish church is St Martin’s in Canterbury, which dates back to around 590 AD. No other body has greater responsibility for England’s built heritage. An insight has been provided into rural parish churches, but as my noble friend Lady Wilcox demonstrated, there is great strength in our urban-based churches. That point was also well made by the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, in her contribution. To quote Dr Simon Thurley, the chief executive of English Heritage:
“The parish churches of England are some of the most sparkling jewels in the precious crown that is our historic environment”.
The noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, talked about the importance of our new developments, and used the example of Thaxted parish church. It is right to reflect upon that, and her suggestion is certainly one that I will take back to DCLG. It is important that, when local plans for future developments are drawn up, they are reflective. Indeed, I recall from my years of serving on a planning committee that the word “sensitive” was often used in relation to the local environment. Being sensitive to the local parish church is an important part of that.
My noble friend Lord Cormack said that parish churches are fundamental to the life of communities, particularly in rural areas, but also in our cities. The Government fully acknowledge the essential role they play in our social and cultural life. Church buildings are important cultural venues. ChurchCare estimates that nearly half of the UK’s church buildings are used for arts, music and dance activities. The noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, asked about Wimbledon, whose name I carry. I am pleased to inform him that St Mary’s church in Wimbledon not only has music of a Christian kind, but also music of an Indian kind. Indeed, the hall is often hired out for festivities held by every faith in the community. That reflects the pivotal role of parish churches in our towns and cities across the country.
The noble Lord, Lord Griffiths of Burry Port, talked about the diverse uses made of church facilities, while the noble Lord, Lord Mawson, talked about social enterprise. Parish churches have helped to shape our own identity. They remind us of the values of peace, charity, trust, service to others, humanity and social justice. The right reverend Prelate also underlined them. My noble friend Lord Redesdale talked about the vital role played by volunteers. Noble Lords will realise that he is not in his place right now, but he has a very good excuse. He is part of our rowing team and even now he is out on the Thames rowing, I hope, the Lords to victory over the Commons. Along with our colleagues, we wish him well.
Parish churches also offer significant resources: buildings, organisational capacity, skilled volunteers and experience of reaching marginalised and excluded groups. The role of welfare was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Mawson. Churches up and down the country have a pivotal role to play, and I shall come to it in a moment. According to the Church Urban Fund figures for 2013, some 54% of Anglican parishes run at least one organised activity to address social needs such as loneliness, homelessness, debt, low income, unemployment and family breakdown. Let us cast our mind back to the recent floods. A great example of this work is reflected in the fact that many parish churches, along with their multi-faith partners, contributed to the response in practical ways through the provision of storage, providing shelter and refreshments, rest for volunteers and workers involved in the emergency operations, as well as acting as clearing houses for offers of accommodation. St John’s church in Surrey opened up a free café in Egham High
Street for those affected by the floods so that they could access hot food and drink and be given community support. Indeed, many church volunteers worked within communities to distribute sandbags to families who had been affected by flooding.
Several noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Mawson, talked about the need for churches to change. Although I could give several, I can think of no better example than that of the Church of St Peter and St Paul, Algarkirk, in the diocese of Lincoln, and thus in my noble friend’s patch. The church congregation wrote to say that the church had been locked every day except for Sunday worship until the summer of 2012. The church had suffered vandalism, lead theft, and a general deterioration of the building and its interior, as well as an accumulation of clutter in the churchyard. The parish took the decision to open the church, and since then it has welcomed visitors from all over the world. A big clean-up was held and a programme of events and activities established. The church is being used for book swaps as there is no local library. The atmosphere in the church has improved immeasurably and a huge repair and conservation project has been embarked upon. This demonstrates the diversity of the role of the churches, which are recognising that they have a wider role to play.
Several noble Lords raised the issue of church funding, in particular my noble friend Lord Cormack. At present, the Government provide funding to the sector through a number of means, including the Listed Places of Worship Grant Scheme, where a budget of £42 million is guaranteed until
Turning to bats, I will share a confession with noble Lords. This is one of those issues about which, when I sit down as a Minister for my briefings, I have very limited knowledge. I certainly remember bats of a cricket kind, and my memories of bats in childhood also refer back to Batman and Robin. Being the younger of two brothers, I always ended up playing Robin, but took some consolation from the fact that Robin was often called the Boy Wonder—I leave the rest to your Lordships’ assessment. As for bats specifically, most medieval churches will have bats, and Norfolk churches seem to have particular problems in this respect. In fact, historic buildings, especially churches, play an important role in helping to protect the conservation status of native bats. In a changing landscape, churches can represent one of the few remaining constant resources for bats, thus giving them a disproportionate significance for the maintenance of bat populations at a favourable conservation status. If churches wish to undertake works to address this problem, they can call the bat helpline—I am sure noble Lords will rush to it—where advice is given for free on timing and on whether investigation may be required. Under this service, 202 visits were made to churches last year.
I know there were different opinions about bats, but I am also mindful that noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, talked about music in churches, while the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, talked about the role of the church beyond the faith of Christianity. I look back to my Church of England education and remember a hymn:
“All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small …The Lord God made them all”.
Perhaps we can reflect on the conservation of bats in that light.
I am pleased to say that many places of worship may be able to secure funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund for conservation or repair works. This could include, on a serious note, bat surveys or mitigation works as part of a wider project. Defra has funded a three-year research project to develop bat deterrents for use in churches and English Heritage is now funding the development of a toolkit for churches based on those research results. This will be available by early 2015.
A central and pivotal role of the church, and indeed of all faith communities, is in social action. The Government fully appreciate that faith communities make a vital contribution to national life, something which has continued for centuries. The church is a primary example of this. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich talked about this, as did the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, in one particular respect. I am sure I speak for all noble Lords when I say that we want to see a few cakes and scones make an appearance this way—we will hold her to that.
The Government want to help develop further effective working relationships between people of different faiths. Across our great country, people from different faiths are working hard not just in countless churches but in mosques, temples, gurdwaras, synagogues and in charities and community groups to address problems and challenges in their local communities. We are doing so because practical co-operation between faith groups is crucial to our society. It is about people from different backgrounds coming together, not just sitting around sharing scones, tea and perhaps samosas but working together for the common good and tackling shared social problems, from improving our green spaces to challenging homelessness, but also to confront and stand firm against the rise of the ugly face of extremism.
We have therefore invested more than £8 million in the Church Urban Fund’s Near Neighbours programme, which is using our country’s celebrated parish system. I pay tribute to the Church of England in this respect. We are putting our money where our mouth is, not through a top-down intervention but by using the existing infrastructure of the Church of England parish system to build productive local relationships between people of different faiths in areas of high deprivation. Again, I use the example of the floods, where the Near Neighbours scheme was a great example of communities working together.
Every area in which Near Neighbours works has active parish churches that are seeking the good of these communities. Local vicars are in place to provide support and expertise for local people, including those who are involved with the programme. In addition, through the Together in Service programme launched last year, we are further strengthening social action around the country. We are investing £300,000 in this programme over two years and there are 25 projects currently running.
We also continue to fund the important work of the Inter Faith Network for the UK in linking and encouraging interfaith dialogue across the country. I am pleased to say that there were more than 350 events across the country last year during Inter Faith Week.
The noble Lords, Lord Mawson and Lord Griffiths, talked about churches transforming themselves. We have heard from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich and the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, examples of churches opening their doors, changing their nature, welcoming communities—social action in cities, towns and villages up and down the country, communities coming together through the church at a time when society needs them to do so. Local parish churches, alongside other places of worship and non-faith-based community groups, act as a key point of contact for many local people.
As the nation emerges from this recession, I fully acknowledge that there are still people in need and I can think of no better institution than the parish church to continue working to address poverty as well as enhancing community relations at a local level. I have no doubt that the English parish church will continue to rise to the challenge and do what it is good at doing.
A number of questions were raised. If I have missed any, I will of course write to noble Lords. I always listen to the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, with great intensity and attention. In his vibrant contribution he talked about funding. I have already talked about the various funding schemes in place. I hope he is reassured that I will take back his suggestion on the heritage fund. We have also announced, as I mentioned, £20 million for the repair of cathedrals. That is a recent example of the Government listening and supporting the sector. Of course, we are using the English parish system to administer the Near Neighbours programme.
The Christian parish church in England plays a key and pivotal role. It acts as an example to other communities—indeed, to other faiths. I hope and I know it will step up to the challenge in ensuring that it brings its Christian message of hope through its social action, through its architecture and, as my noble friend Lord Lloyd-Webber suggested, through its acts to build a society based on love and respect, which celebrates our history and our music with an exemplary ethos of service to the community, driven by an unstinting desire to serve humanity. The noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, said that the presence of the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, guarantees that the sun will rise. Thanks to your Lordships’ contributions, the sun has truly shone on this debate.
My Lords, I am exceptionally grateful to my noble friend the Minister for his extremely generous and wide-ranging response. I hope that he will allow me to come and see him to talk a little more about the bats because it is a very serious problem, particularly in rural areas, that we need to get a grip on and get the balance right.
I thank all noble Lords from all parts of the House who spoke. They made telling contributions, many of them passionate and some extremely moving. What united everybody who spoke in this debate is the recognition of the unifying force of the parish church, its evolving place within a changing community and how, all over the country, these buildings provide a focus and a purpose for the communities they serve. I have had the privilege of being a church warden of three different churches—one in a quite large village, one in a small village, and St Margaret’s, Westminster—for a total of 35 years. I fully appreciate what we can and should do. We can never completely exploit the infinite possibilities that these great buildings bring to our society.
This has been a useful debate. I said at the beginning that we were going from the great international affairs covered by the G7 Statement to something much more truly parochial. We had contributions from all parts of the House that proved to me that the single Peer who said, “Oh, why do you want a debate about that?”, did not in fact speak for those here today. I thank all noble Lords for taking part and for recognising something that is to me of incalculable importance. I again thank the Minister.