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Parishes are warned off signing up to the national burial survey because of Mormon links

09 July 2024


PARISHES should be told not to sign up to the National Burial Grounds Survey because of the risks, including of the data being sold to the Mormon Church, the General Synod agreed on Sunday.

Voting in favour of a motion brought by the Archdeacon of Blackburn, the Ven. Mark Ireland, members asked that the Archbishops’ Council work with the College of Archdeacons to address multiple concerns about the survey.

Announced in 2021, the National Burial Ground Survey project aims to digitise all burial records and survey and map all churchyards in the Church of England (News, 3 September 2021). The project is to be delivered by the Church of England in partnership with AG International Ltd (formerly Atlantic Geomatics). Consent from each PCC is required in relation to all elements of the project, including the scanning of parish registers. It aims to create an online plan of every churchyard and parish church, and an online photo of every tombstone and memorial plaque, free to all parishes through the Church Heritage Record.

The scheme was relaunched in February, after the Archbishops’ Council renegotiated terms. Introducing his motion on Sunday — a following motion after discussion of the Archbishops’ Council’s annual report — Archdeacon Ireland welcomed the recent changes.

In 2021, he warned that the actual scanning of records was to be undertaken by one of AG’s partners, FamilySearch, which is owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Mormons (Comment, 1 July). The project would give the Mormon Church “preferential access to every churchyard and all our registers and records”, he said, which would enable them to use this data “for theological purposes that are completely contrary to the teaching of the Church of England”. Its aim was to baptise people after they had died into the Mormon Church, with the help of a relative.

Sam Atkins/Church TimesThe Archdeacon of Blackburn, the Ven. Mark Ireland, moves his following motion after discussion of the Archbishops’ Council’s annual report

While recognising that Atlantic Geomatics was no longer formally a partner of FamilySearch, he warned the Synod that AG would still have copyright ownership of the images collected, with the right to sell this data to third parties, including the Mormon Church.

Another concern was “data creep”: it would not only be burial records that were scanned, but also every baptism and marriage register, and every monument in the church. This data could be sold on to other parties. “Privatising parochial records, and giving a private company the exclusive right to sell on personal data for profit is wrong,” he told the Synod.

There were also safeguarding implications: baptism registers held information about children, including material that was “highly sensitive in the case of looked-after children”. His motion had been seconded by four other archdeacons and indicated a “deep disquiet” among them.

The Archdeacon of London, the Ven. Luke Miller, a member of the Archbishops’ Council, opposed the motion, warning that the Synod lacked background information on which to make a decision. He argued that there was “a real concern and commitment” from the Church Buildings Council to working with archdeacons.

He spoke of a “wonderful and fruitful” relationship with county record offices, which was now under some threat because of the increase in interest in genealogy. “Bodies which are in some senses connected with the Mormon Church dominate this field,” he said. “It’s almost impossible to have any genealogical data which is not in some senses connected with them.”

The agreement with Atlantic AG now only granted rights for five years, although there was no agreement on how records could be used commercially. These were public documents, he pointed out.

Speaking in support of the motion, the Bishop of Blackburn, the Rt Revd Philip North, said that Archdeacon Ireland’s motion reflected a “fair degree of frustration”. He had been unable to get answers to his questions for two years, and the motion was a good example of the Synod’s ability to hold the Archbishops’ Council to account.

Archdeacon Ireland said that he had for years been asking for a copy of the legally binding document that he was supposed to be telling parishes about, but it was still not available. He hoped for a more transparent and open conversation.

Caroline Herbert (Norwich), who has worked in libraries for more than 20 years, urged the Synod to support the motion. The records belonged to the Church and contained personal data such as addresses and dates of birth. They arguably fell into the category of sensitive personal data.

The Archdeacon of Liverpool, the Ven. Dr Miranda Threlfall-Holmes, supported the motion on the grounds of transparency, suggesting that the information made public by Church House, and dioceses, failed to convey that parishes may have concerns about the survey, or need to debate its implications.

Members voted in favour of the motion, to applause.

That this Synod

1. Regret that the Annual Report of the Archbishops’ Council does not refer to the relaunch of the National Burial Grounds Survey (NBGS) despite this being a significant piece of work in 2023;

2. Welcome changes made to the NBGS since its previous launch, in particular that

a. Atlantic Geomatics are no longer formally partnering with FamilySearch, an agency of the Mormons (Latter Day Saints)

b. The financial offer to parishes has improved, saving parishes an estimated £1.5m a year in subscription fees

c. The management of data under GDPR is much clearer, with the recognition is that the consent of each PCC is required;

3. Express its deep concern about other outstanding issues, in particular

a. Commercial use of the data — giving AG International Ltd copyright ownership of the images collected and the right to sell this database to third parties for profit, which could well include the Mormon Church

b. Data creep — the NBGS seeks to film all parish registers, not just burial records, including current Baptism registers

c. Safeguarding — baptism registers hold information about children, including material that is highly sensitive in the case of looked-after children, vulnerable children whose address may not be known to a parent who is abusive;

4. Request Archbishops’ Council to consult with the College of Archdeacons to address these issues, and request that parishes are not asked to sign up until this consultation has taken place.

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