Slide Shows on Cathedral and Church Architecture - by Michael G Hardy

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The Future for England's Churches

Some Personal Opinions by Michael G Hardy

 

The future for our historic churches has always been decided by the amount they are used, the way they are valued as historic buildings, and, of course, the amount that people are prepared to pay for their upkeep.

The single largest cost to the Church of England is the pay of the clergy. For this reason, in the cost-cutting days in which we live, there is increasing pressure for dioceses to cut the number of clergy, the easiest way for them to make financial savings. However fewer clergy obviously has a significant impact on the Christian work of the Church of England as a whole, more of their duties are passed to volunteers, if they are available. This can have a great effect in cities, towns, villages, and the most isolated rural areas, meaning that the clergy has a much lower profile throughout our general lives than they used to. It is often said now that we hardly ever see policemen around, surely the same can now be said for our clergy. To consider only the rural areas, only forty years ago this country could afford a policeman and a clergyman in most villages, so why should that not still be so, in what we are always told is such a prosperous country.

Each of the 13,000 parishes in the Church of England contributes a parish share to its diocese. The totals of these contributions roughly equates to the pay and housing of the clergy. Each parish then has to pay its own running costs. The parish share and running costs are proportional to the size of the church membership, its congregations, and the services and events it organises. All this will be funded from collections, other contributions and other means of fund-raising, which many parishes now do in quite an organised way to try and ensure regular income.

However the other cost to individual parishes is the regular maintenance and upkeep of its church, and all its furnishings and fittings. Obviously churches vary a great deal, and the cost of their care can be at complete extremes:

  1. At one extreme are modern church buildings which have been established in recent years in the suburbs of expanding towns, and possibly with a large congregation. Such churches can even be built with virtually industrial methods and materials which require a very small amount of maintenance, and hence minimum cost per member of the congregation.

  2. Another perhaps more average church could proudly stand in the centre of a large village or a small town and have a reasonable congregation. The church itself might have medieval origins, but have been expanded and partly rebuilt in the 19th century, and well cared for since then. In this sort of case, the maintenance and occasional repair costs could be quite high per member of the congregation, but there is usually a large body of other local people who were prepared to give financial support for the upkeep of their Parish Church.

  3. At the other extreme we could find a vast medieval building in a remote village whose population has been declining for many centuries. Many churches like this may well have had restoration in the 1800s, but are now once again in need of much attention. Churches like this might have a tiny congregation, but often all highly devoted to keeping their church open. Vital repair costs for the type of skilled craftsmen needed to keep the weather out and the church walls standing are of astronomic proportions for the few parishioners that there are. This type of parish will have to share a vicar with many other churches. I know one who has to spread their time across 13 churches over a substantial area. It is obviously only possible to give any of the individual churches a fraction of the attention they deserve, but those churches will often have a few local  people who are able to find remarkable sums of money with various ways of fund-raising.    

  4. Another case could be a large Victorian City Church. The church could be a vast building, originally funded by a benefactor who brought in one of the famous Gothic Revival architects to build a spiritual home for the increasing population that were attracted into the cities by the coming of new industries. Such a church could now only have a tiny congregation, as the parish could now be largely occupied by people of other faiths, or the parish may be mainly occupied with commercial buildings. Such a building could need attention through suffering vandalism as well as the passage of time, and the congregation could well be getting on in years and not well off, and unable to contemplate the costs of keeping their church in order.

The common factor in all the above four cases is that the PCC of each of these churches is alone responsible for their upkeep. Nearly 15,000 churches and chapels (of various denominations) in England are listed, which together undoubtedly form the most important part of the nation's history and heritage. The Church of England has about 11,500 listed churches, out of a total of around 16,000. Roughly half of these date from before the Reformation (i.e. mainly over 500 years old), and a similar number from after it (i.e. mainly less than 400 years old).

It is difficult to put a figure on the total cost of church repairs done each year, as it has to be drawn from all the separate accounts of each PCC. However it is generally estimated at 150 million, although that sounds rather low to me as it is an average of under 1,000 per church. But we have all seen appeals for roof and stonework repairs, which are seeking many tens or even hundreds of thousands. Grants are available to churches having to tackle restoration projects, from various bodies, some of them are listed on the page: Historic Church Organisations. However in total they can only hope to provide a small fraction of the funds needed to get and keep our historic churches in the best possible order. To me, this is what they deserve, and it is our duty to pass them on to future generations in the best possible condition.

I am pleased to say that there is now a growing feeling throughout experts in the country that there has to be official state aid for the repair of listed church buildings (as there apparently is in other countries such as France). It must be possible to devise schemes where individual churches could opt for turning their attention to the Christian work they want to do, without being constantly distracted by worrying about fabric repairs. This could be administered by a suitable body (inevitably a new bureaucracy) in liaison with all concerned parties, but obliged to keep these listed buildings in the condition they deserve at the taxpayer's expense. Before you shout - NO, NOT MORE TAX - Just consider that 150 million is only 2.50 for each head of the population. Even if that figure is doubled to be more realistic, is 5 per year per person really too much to safeguard the precious heritage that is for ever coming under more threat ?  Even if some people are not interested in our historic churches, they must be able to realise that we all have to pay taxes for things that we are not individually interested in.

The Church of England itself have long been against using state money (despite being the established church of the state) so they could maintain their independence. However an increasing number of people at all levels within the church are now beginning to realise that this type of intervention is becoming inevitable, as the cost of repairs carried out by true craftsmen rises, congregations fall, and the increasingly global economic pressures means that people are unable or unwilling to make contributions.

The Church of England have also now recognised that funds for repairs to the fabric of churches can be treated differently to the funds for their own Christian activities. This is clear because they have agreed to accept money from the joint English Heritage / Heritage Lottery Fund Grant Scheme for repair work. This decision is at the national level, but it is still up to individual PCCs to decide whether to apply for HLF funds.  Quite rightly though, the CoE will not make use of funds from the National Lottery for their own Christian activities.

I have to mention the question of church redundancies under this topic. Around 370 CoE churches were already redundant by 1960. The most accurate figures I have cover the 20 year period from 1969 to 1989 when out of 1261 redundant churches, 696 (55%) were put to alternative use, 297 (24%) were demolished and 268 (21%) were preserved. Incidentally in that period 391 new churches had been opened. The Churches Conservation Trust (formerly Redundant Churches Fund) is the statutory body that looks after the finest redundant churches, and does splendid work in caring for them and making them available to visitors. They now have over 320 churches and are funded by a combination of money from the state and the church commissioners (actually from the proceeds of the redundant churches that they sell off). There are other organisations that care for redundant churches, most of them on a fairly local basis, such as a group of medieval churches in a large town or city. There is one other national organisation though, the Friends of Friendless Churches who care for a number of churches across the country, sometimes having the courage to take them on as complete ruins, and are now the statutory body for redundant churches in Wales.

However, to me, the very idea that a medieval church can be sold off and converted into a home is completely unacceptable. Such a building was provided many hundreds of years ago by benefactors for their local people, and I find it impossible to accept it can later be sold to be an individual person's private property. I would categorically always want such buildings to be preserved as more 'public' property with public access being available. The case for later churches, such as Victorian ones, is essentially no different, but there are obviously many instances where pure preservation is impractical, but surely some sort of community use must be sought above all else. The obvious border line falls around the Reformation to me, so any church with origins of around 500 years or more would have to be preserved in the public domain.

Another issue is the sacred burial grounds of churchyards, although they always have stringent conditions attached to them, I find the idea of them being sold to private owners as completely unbelievable, and not responsible behaviour for what is supposed to be a civilised society. Even tombstones can fall into private hands within two months unless the next of kin happen to see the appropriate notice in a newspaper and ask to remove them.

The Church of England's view and further details on the issues involved in church redundancies can be seen on their web site at www.cofe.anglican.org/rcsale/ and at www.cofe.anglican.org/commissioners/redundant.html . The Church of England web site even has a list of some of its current redundant churches for sale on www.cofe.anglican.org/rcsale/rclist.asp

 

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This page last modified on 15th December 2005