Lords debate on English Parish Churches

On 12 June, the House of Lords debated the Motion to Take Note moved by Lord Cormack

“That this House takes note of the importance of the English parish church”.

St Swithun, Compton Beauchamp

The noble Lord noted that almost exactly two years ago he had a similar opportunity to speak about the importance of English cathedrals, here.  Many of the speakers in the debate declared a personal interest in aspects of the life of the English Parish Church, reflecting the extent and variety of its influence: Lord Cormack, (Con), National Churches Trust as well as local groups; Baroness Wilcox, (Con), Chair of the Diocesan Advisory Committee for the Care of Churches in the diocese of London, and an oblate of the CSMV, Wantage; Lord Mawson (CB), a non-conformist minister and director of the agency One Church, 100 Uses;The Lord Bishop of Norwich,  who commented “standing here dressed like this is probably a visual declaration”; Lord Lloyd-Webber, (Con), who  founded the charity Open Churches Trust; and Lord Mawson, (CB), a non-conformist minister.

Reference was also made to the Demos report, largely authored by Stephen Timms MP, (Lab. East Ham), well-known to many as being very interested in issues of faith; and indirectly to the Rt Hon Douglas Alexander MP, (Lab. Paisley and Renfrewshire South), Shadow Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs through Lord Ahmad’s quotation of “All things bright and beautiful”, the words of which were composed by his great aunt, Cecil Frances Alexander, (a.k.a. “Mrs Alexander”).

Introducing the debate, Lord Cormack suggested [Col.  542] that

“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”.

The debate which lasted over two hours and included references to many of the churches with which their Lordships were associated, and the issues of importance to the CofE, of which financial issues, maintenance of the country’s Grade 1 listed buildings; and, inevitably, bats were extensively covered, the Lord Bishop of Norwich giving a summary of the more important facts and figures relating to the Church.

In addition to the significant contributions made by John Betjeman and Nikolaus Pevsner and also the popular book by Simon Jenkins, their Lordships recalled examples of inspirational and infamous clergy, including the rector of Stiffkey, Harold Davidson  and his unfortunate end in a lions cage, (but not Dr Edward Drax Free), as well as fictional characters from the Vicar of Dibley to “Rev” Adam Smallbone.

Against these commonly-aired themes, a number of other issues were raised which would merit further consideration: Lord Mawson’s assertions on the training of the clergy; particularly in relation to their entrepreneurial and financial management skills; a lack of clear focus and positive activity by the churches; and the extent to which churches in general have turned their backs on business and enterprise and do not understand it, [Cols 550 to 553].  Lord Lloyd Webber made some interesting observations on the further use of technology, [Cols 562 to 565], and Baroness Wilcox’s observations as DAC Chair on the importance of the use of church buildings, in addition to the more familiar issues of the historical, architectural, artistic and academic importance of church buildings, [Col 556 to 559] .

Responding to the debate for the government, Lord Ahmad quoted Dr Simon Thurley, the chief executive of English Heritage, who said:

“The parish churches of England are some of the most sparkling jewels in the precious crown that is our historic environment”.

However, there will be some raised eyebrows at his comment, [Col. 573],

“[I]t 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”.

Nevertheless, he concluded, [Col. 577],

“[t]he 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 Motion was agreed.