The Rt. Hon. Sir Tony Baldry on his time as Second Church Estates Commissioner, his current role as Chair of the Church Buildings Council, and his intention to stand for election to General Synod
Earlier this year I was fortunate to go to Washington to help represent the House of Commons at the American National Prayer Breakfast. This was a week-long event, which culminated in a Prayer Breakfast in Washington, attended by President Obama, the Dalai Lama, and some 3,000 people from across the United States and the rest of the world. During the week we were very graciously looked after by members of the US Congress who regularly meet every week in Washington for prayer and Bible study. During our discussions I became very conscious that almost every US Congressman or Senator that I met could tell me to the day, sometimes to the hour, the moment that they had found Jesus. These men and women, important legislators in the most powerful country in the free world, had clearly at some point in their lives had a life-changing experience which had brought them to Christ. There was a bit of me which felt that maybe somehow I had missed out on this. Moreover, when asked when had I come to Jesus, I moved the conversation off down a different direction as it seemed, in the circumstances, rather pretentious to say that, so far as I could recall, Jesus had always been in my life, just as my parents had always been in my life.
A rich religious nurturing
I was fortunate as a child to have a rich religious nurturing. My mother was a Quaker.
So on Sunday morning, it was silent Quaker Meeting for Worship, but in the evenings, a Songs of Praise service, complete with Temperance Band Hymns, the address frequently given by my great-grandfather, and people giving their testament.
At Easter, there would be Easter Cantatas, and as one would imagine, the Harvest Festival Service amongst the market gardeners in the Vale of Evesham was something of a Feast. Meanwhile, back home, I would go to Sunday School at the local Anglican Church on Sunday afternoon, and would happily go off with my father to Evensong on Sunday evening. My father was a Chest and Heart Specialist, my mother a Theatre Sister, who had nursed through the Coventry Blitz, and Jesus was clearly important to them in their everyday lives, so I just took it for granted that he should be important in mine. To complete the broadness of my childhood Christian experience, our nanny, Peggy, was a young woman from the West of Ireland, who had been a TB patient of my father’s. Incredibly kind and devoutly Catholic, Peggy’s room at home was full of statues of Our Lady and various other Saints and, more wondrously, some of them were luminous and shone in the dark. Moreover, my parents didn’t seem to mind if Peggy took my younger brother and me with her when she went down to ‘Our Lady of Peace’ Church when she went to Confession, or from time to time taking us with her when she went to Mass.
I also had an intercessor – a wonderful retired Church of England Primary School teacher, Miss Winch – who, in her late seventies and eighties, kept the local church clean and changed the altar cloths in accordance with the seasons of the Church and the Saint’s Days. It was Miss Winch who taught me my Catechism. It was also Miss Winch who, when I was in my late teens, introduced me to the Anglican Benedictine Monks at Nashdom Abbey, in the late Sixties still a thriving community, saying all the daily Offices.
I went to a Quaker School and while I was encouraged by Quaker values, such as ‘Seek that of God in every Man’, and valued the silence of Quaker Worship, it somehow did not seem complete. So I decided whilst at school to get confirmed as an Anglican. For some time in my last year at school, I contemplated reading Theology and applying to become a priest. For reasons which I can’t now recall I seem to have been intent upon becoming a Naval Padre and on at least two occasions went and spent some days at Nashdom with the Benedictines to think this through. In the end I simply resolved to get on with public affairs in other ways and became increasingly involved in politics, and in due course was elected to Parliament.
A new appointment
Throughout my adult life, I had continued to regularly attend church, but I had not anticipated taken any more active role in the Church of England until one day not long after the 2010 General Election, I was summoned by the Prime Minister’s Parliamentary Private Secretary to a meeting in Members’ Lobby in the House of Commons. There I was told directly, ‘Baldry, you are now the Second Church Estates Commissioner’. Slightly taken aback by the peremptoriness of this announcement, and knowing this to be a Crown Appointment, I responded: ‘…and what does the Queen say about that?’ ‘She has already given her approval’ was the response. That was the Thursday and the first Church Commissioner Questions of the new Parliament were the following Tuesday.
My first Church Commissioner Questions came immediately before George Osborne’s first major set piece Statement to the House of Commons as Chancellor of the Exchequer. The House was packed and I was able to start my answers by observing ‘how good it was to see the House so full for Church Commissioner Questions’!
The nature of the task
When the post of Second Church Estates Commissioner was originally created in the late 1830s, the intention was that they would answer questions in Parliament on behalf of the Church Commissioners. Over the years the role has evolved so that today the Second Church Estates Commissioner speaks in the House of Commons on behalf of the whole of the Church of England.
However, because it is a Crown Appointment, one is not accountable to the Prime Minister; one is not accountable to the Archbishops. This requires some careful navigation in trying to ensure that the machinery of Government in Whitehall and the machinery of governance of the Church of England understand each other and do not miscommunicate.
Steep learning curve
I came to the task confident that I understood reasonably well the workings of the machinery of Government and Whitehall. I had, after all, been a Member of Parliament for nearly three decades. I had served in the Private Office of the Leader of the Opposition. I had been a Minister in four different Departments of State under two different Prime Ministers, and I had chaired a Parliamentary Select Committee.
I had, however, to begin with no experience or understandings of the workings of the governance of the Church of England, Lambeth Palace, Bishopsthorpe, Archbishops Council, Church Commissioners, House of Bishops, General Synod – how did they relate to each other – and who spoke for the Church of England ?
On one occasion, early in my term, I recall what seemed like almost a day negotiating with William Fittall the answer to a single Written Parliamentary Question to the Church Commissioners.
I quickly realized that there was an enormous amount about the workings of the Church of England of which I had no proper knowledge. So, for example, to my shame, I had hitherto thought that ‘Forward in Faith’ was a general exhortation, like ‘Praise the Lord’, and I hadn’t previously come across Conservative Evangelicals. It was a steep learning curve.
Church Buildings Council
Having decided not to contest the 2015 General Election, it meant that when I ceased to be a Member of Parliament, I also ceased to be Second Church Estates Commissioner.
Not long after I had made public that I intended to stand down from Parliament, I was approached to see if I would be willing to put my name forward to be considered for the Chair of the Church Buildings Council. During the last five years, I had had a fair amount to do with the Church Buildings Council on matters as diverse as the legislation to scrap lead being sold for cash, to prolonged negotiations with DEFRA and Natural England over the damage done in churches by bats, and I think at last convincing everyone that churches are not ‘Field Barns’ but Places of Worship and that bats are an issue that has to be resolved and not avoided. So, remembering my mother’s advice to take on such tasks with a good heart, I agreed.
The Church of England has 16,000 churches in England. The majority of these are listed, and the majority of churches, for understandable historic reasons are in rural areas occupied by one-sixth of the population. The challenge is how to make sure that these church buildings are, so far as is possible, a blessing and an enhancement to the ministry of the Church, and not a burden.
I now start every conversation on church buildings with the assertion that ‘there is no one size fits all solution’. But by the same token I am not sure that present arrangements are sustainable. For example, the Diocese of Exeter has approximately 600 churches, almost all of them of medieval origin, a very large proportion listed, but some 200 of those churches, i.e. approximately one-third of all church buildings in the Diocese, have weekly congregations of fifteen or fewer. The challenge is ensuring that we can keep churches open, cared for and maintained without there being such a financial burden as to undermine the mission of the Church elsewhere.
I was extremely grateful that the Chancellor of the Exchequer in his last Budget gave me what seemed to me to be a leaving present of a further £40 million for church roof repairs, and together with the £15 million given by the Chancellor last year for church roof repairs, that is £55 million. I cannot recall any other Government at any time that I have been in the House of Commons having given so much for church repairs in such a short period of time.
General Synod candidate
As Second Church Estates Commissioner, I was ex officio a member of the House of Laity of General Synod. I intend to stand later this year in my own right for election to General Synod. My campaign logo will be ‘XX’ to represent 20 years, because I think that the Church of England probably has no more than 20 years to re-establish ourselves as the national Church of England.
I am fed up with being told that we live in a post-Christian society. I am not sure when it was said that we stopped living in a fundamentally Christian society. Clearly the Christians of early England weren’t daunted by the size of the pagan population that they confronted and by the same token I don’t think that we should lose heart by aggressive atheism or secularism.
For the Church of England to thrive, we have to recognize that the Anglican Church has always been a broad church. Forms of worship which might speak to one person’s condition may not touch the soul of another. I have to confess that I still sometimes feel a little uncomfortable when exchanging ‘the Peace’ and I don’t think there is ever going to be any way in which I am going to be raising my arm when singing hymns, but that doesn’t matter – what matters is that every part of the Church of England should flourish and thrive irrespective of background and tradition, and there should be mutual respect amongst us all because collectively we have a sizeable task to confound those who would want us to remain a post-Christian society.
A full version of this text can be found on the author’s website, www.tonybaldry.co.uk