Interview: Caroline Spelman, Second Church Estates Commissioner

10 July 2015

"I am open to whatever God is calling me to do"

My constituency is the Meriden Gap, famous as the green lung between Birmingham and Coventry. The name comes from Meridian — mid point — and there’s an obelisk in the centre of Meriden village which marks the centre point of England.

 

It’s a diverse constituency: rural, urban, suburban, high-density housing, and a council estate of about 40,000 people. It’s also famous for car manufacturing: Triumph motorcycles were made here once, and now Jaguar Land Rover are doing really well, and employ a lot of local people.

 

You have to work hard to stay accessible and connected, by offering surgeries and making sure you understand what people want, then think hard how changing policy can help them. Private Member’s Bills are a way of introducing your own legislation, and I’ve drafted Bills about adoption, palliative care, the reform of blight laws, and Green Belt protection.

 

As Second Church Estates Commissioner, I’m the go-between between the Church and Parliament. For example, my predecessor, Sir Tony Baldry, brought through changes in the law to enable women bishops.

 

I was appointed as I am a senior backbencher of the governing party, with a long-standing commitment to the Church. I hope to help it navigate the challenges of modern society and give it a fresh voice to proclaim the gospel for our times.

 

Just like a Secretary of State, I answer questions on the floor of the House once a month. People can table questions they want to put, ranging from the persecution of Christians in the Middle East to the sustainability of church buildings. I have researchers at Church House helping me, who are an amazing goldmine of information.

 

Churches are an important part of the constituency fabric; so all MPs will have some engagement with them, not least because some churches will hold hustings. They’re the go-to place for aspiring electoral representatives.

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I’m just finding out how much time this role takes! But it varies — so if there’s a Synod on, as I’m automatically a member, it will take most of a week; but it can settle down to one day a week. And it has to be combined with other things; so it’s not a set day. For example, I spoke on the debate on education because I wanted to raise the issue of church schools.

 

I’m open to whatever God’s calling me to do in this new role. It’s one I have always wanted to do, as I can see the Church needs help if it is to thrive and be there for future generations. I’m very conscious that church attendance is in decline. I attend a thriving church, but there are many that are not, and my generation’s got to find a way to reach the next generation for the Church to thrive. That’s clear.

 

Church schools are a very successful part of what the Church does, because parents are attracted by the ethos. Across the country, 80 per cent of church schools are "Good" or "Outstanding". That speaks for itself, but I want to talk about the other 20 per cent, and what the Education Bill means for them.

 

The Church of England is a broad Church, with all shades of political opinion represented in it, so it offers political neutrality — which is why hustings are often held in churches at election time. I hope churches across the country will offer to do this for the EU referendum.

 

I think there is a clear overlap between faith and policy in our approach to helping the most vulnerable, which I do individually and corporately. I helped set up a charity called Welcome, to help people with substance-abuse problems get a job and hold it down. The employment agency Capita told me they had difficulties in rolling out the New Deal under the last government because of "hard-to-reach" clients who didn’t complete the eight weeks in post for the employment agency to be paid for getting them the job. My local authority were having problems with this group, too, and so I set up the charity with one other person in a church hall.

 

It now employs 24 brilliant, skilled people full-time, and has a rolling client list of 500, and does all the triage for the NHS on drug and alcohol abuse. They’ve set up a café in inner-city Birmingham to give a first taste of work to people who are ready to start, so they have something on their CV, because you need a job to get a job. What it’s achieved is remarkable, and could be replicated elsewhere. And substance abuse touches all sections of society.

 

As a Christian, for me it absolutely goes to the heart of Jesus’s words. When I was hungry, did you feed me? When I was naked, did you clothe me? When I was an addict, did you help me? You’ve got to go a long way upstream to understand how the individual got into substance abuse. They need the tools to get clean and sustain themselves, so they can cope with work. Now we have a lot of volunteers who are former addicts who have a great heart to help others. They speak volumes to others who have these problems.

 

Planning laws are very strict in this country, because the balance has to be struck between conservation and development, including housing. One of the greatest challenges for the Church, other than engaging with a younger congregation, is the need to find sustainable economical and productive uses for its redundant churches. There are 16,000 churches, the majority of which are Grade I and II* listed; so the challenge will be to provide imaginative solutions, providing the surrounding community with a hub of facilities and resources to draw people in.

 

Obviously, as a previous Environment Secretary, I’ve always been passionate about climate change. Now, with positive signs coming from America and China, there’s a serious chance that the talks in December will be successful.

 

I realised as a child that I must decide for myself who Jesus is, and I did. I grew up in a Christian family. My dad was church secretary and my mum taught in Sunday school. My mum had a breakdown when I was 11, from which she never fully recovered, eventually succumbing to dementia; but my family stayed strong, and my sister and I share our faith. I wandered away a bit in my teens, but was sure enough about my faith to get confirmed while at university, where I made good Christian friends whose faith I knew I shared.

 

Life is tough, and my faith has pulled me through some hard experiences. God’s promises have kept me going, as well as the support of fellow Christians. My faith is less black-and-white than when I was young, but asking "What would Jesus do?" has been a good guide.

 

My husband is my soulmate, and we have three grown-up children. We worship at Knowle Parish Church, a lively church in my constituency. I like going on holiday with the family — anywhere, frankly, as long as we’re together.

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I’m happiest in my garden on a summer’s morning — however many weeds there are to dig up.

 

I love music. I play the piano, and sing in the Parliament choir. It can move me to tears, and in worship I sense God’s presence in the sublime music written for the Church. Until recently, I was chairman of the choir, and I love the act of singing together as human beings.

 

I love the big choral works. We’re now rehearsing the Coronation anthems, to celebrate the Queen’s being our longest-reigning monarch, for a concert that we are giving on 25 November. Hubert Parry’s "I was Glad" makes my hair stand on end. I just hope we shall sing them well enough. But I’ve got an eclectic taste: I like all music. You can’t have had teenage children and not be au fait with what they’re listening to. At the Conservative Christian Fellowship’s 25th anniversary recently, I was in Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, singing modern worship songs with the Trinity Gospel Choir, and that moved me deeply.

 

I don’t often get angry, but I do when I see injustice, and I’m determined to tackle the trafficking of people in the iniquitous form of modern slavery.

 

I’m grateful to the teachers and friends at my school, who were so kind to me when my mum was ill, and those who stuck with me through the ups and downs of ministerial life. And I’m grateful to my mentors, who include Gillian Shephard — who even the PM calls "Auntie Gillian", if she will forgive me.

 

I do pray, sometimes just arrow prayers when time is short, sometimes longer prayers, especially at night when "my heart instructs me," as David said in the Psalm; and with prayer-fellows every Wednesday in Parliament for the last 18 years. I pray for the needs of the nation, and for those I love.

 

If I got locked in a church, I’d like Peter as my companion, because he is the disciple I can most relate to. And, being a practical fisherman, he might be able to break the lock open.

 

Caroline Spelman MP was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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