IN 2003, the General Synod endorsed proposals from the Church Heritage
Commission for the future development of churches and cathedrals.
The commission defined its objective as: “To use our church buildings to
reach out to the community; to enable each building to fulfil its potential for
wider use; to secure the resources to enable them to do so; and to foster
partnerships taking account of the contribution which these buildings make to
The report noted that it was not only buildings for worship that helped to
define a place and contribute to its character; parsonages also contributed to
Some dioceses seem unwilling to apply these principles. Instead, as the
income of the Church fails to keep pace with the increasing cost of clergy
stipends and pensions, diocesan authorities are trying to raise funds by
selling off church property. This is done with little regard for the value of
these buildings to local communities.
The problem is not new. The fall in size of households, particularly in the
first part of the 20th century, and the fact that “dilapidations” were the
responsibilty of incumbents who were unable to keep their parsonages in good
repair led, almost inevitably, to a large number of sales of rectories and
vicarages. By 1939, about 1300 parsonages had been sold, and a further 2627
were sold between 1948 and 1963.
Now, even though the responsibility for parsonage maintenance has passed to
the diocesan parsonages boards, and with the frequent amalgamation of parishes
into group benefices, a number of parsonages are being declared redundant and
sold — in the period 1948 to 1994 (the latest figures we have), a total of 8000
parsonage houses were sold.
Superficially, this is a good idea. Low-paid clergy are relieved of the
problems associated with living in often large and old houses, and the diocese
is rid of the high maintenance costs they carry. The diocese may also receive
profit on the sale. But we should not underestimate the value to a community of
While some clerics find newer, smaller houses convenient and comfortable,
others find a spacious, older house the ideal base for ministry. The Church’s
ubiquitous presence in our neighbourhoods gives it a role that few other
institutions can match. Key to this is that clergy live in the neighbourhoods
they serve. In many places, the clergy home can be almost as important to
ministry as the church itself, and can offer scope and flexibility for pastoral
In a large house, the hospitality that is a vital part of many ministries
will intrude less on the private life of the cleric’s family than it would in a
small building. One cleric said that his parsonage is “one of the ways that
define the capacity of my ministry. I can do more because I am here.”
Surveys have shown a wide range of activities taking place in older
parsonage houses and their gardens. They include workshops and study days,
holiday play-schemes, retreats, psychotherapy sessions, and open days organised
by the Quiet Gardens Trust.
At Lastingham, on the north Yorkshire moors, the vicarage is a haven for
walkers and pilgrims, where they are offered drying facilities and cups of tea,
while the rectory garden at New Milton in Hampshire is valued for nature-study
visits by local schools. Trent Rectory in Dorset is used for quiet days for
confirmation candidates and summer workshops for the wider community.
Many vicarage dining-rooms have been commandeered for the production of
parish magazines. Meetings of churchwardens in a multiple benefice may spill
into the larger reception rooms, while a parsonage next to the church (as many
older ones are) can give a suitable setting for a Sunday school. Bible-study
groups, Mothers’ Union meetings, and confirmation classes can also be
accommodated in the parsonage at the invitation of the incumbent.
Surveys of pre-1939 parsonages in Norwich, St Albans, Truro, Exeter and
Gloucester dioceses conducted by Save Our Parsonages have shown that about 90
per cent them are used for parish purposes. Correctly managed, this helps to
embody a holistic approach to ministry.
Older houses are valued as much by parishioners as they are by the clergy.
They can offer opportunities to bring the church back into the centre of
community life. In rural areas especially, the spacious parsonage can be a hub
of village activity, and the ministry can touch the lives of people who might
never consider going to church.
In spite of such valuable outreach, some dioceses are reluctant to recognise
the parsonage as a public building. Yet I would argue that ownership of these
houses belongs to the parishes, and that the dioceses should regard themselves
as trustees, managing the houses on parishes’ behalf.
SAVE OUR PARSONAGES estimates that older houses now represent only about
five per cent of the parsonage housing stock of the Church of England. Their
maintenance and heating costs are usually cited as the reasons for regarding
them as a burden rather than an asset. But a properly maintained and
well-managed old house may be no more expensive in terms of annual repairs and
running costs than a new one.
Surveys of pre-1939 parsonages by Save Our Parsonages suggest that the
clergy’s expenditure on heating is surprisingly consistent, and less determined
by the size or age of a house than on personal preference.
Between £500 and £1500 per year on heating was standard in the late 1990s;
and the higher figures were not necessarily from the oldest or largest houses
in the surveyed groups.
Improved insulation can reduce fuel bills in old buildings, and, in some
instances, parishes are willing to contribute to the cleric’s heating expenses
as well as to periodical redecoration of the parsonage.
In Repton, Derbyshire, and Great Tey, Essex, this has been formalised. Small
trust funds have been set up within the parish to help with extra maintenance.
Where extra costs are unavoidable, dioceses should attempt to foster
partnerships, whether with the local PCC or with the wider community, to
maintain the parsonage and its contribution to parish life.
Unfortunately, some dioceses are inclined to cut corners on the basic upkeep
of parsonages earmarked for disposal. A parsonage, reduced to “wind and
watertight” repairs over a number of years, and found (usually on the
retirement of an incumbent) to need a radical and expensive overhaul, becomes
the tail that wags the dog.
A diocese may argue that it cannot afford to spend a large sum on one
parsonage at the expense of others in its care. Selling — often for a depressed
figure because of the condition of the house — is seen as the only solution.
The suggestion by the Church Heritage Forum that the Church needs to
increase its knowledge and raise awareness of the effects of insufficient
maintenance of church buildings should be extended to include dioceses’ care
Older houses offer many routes towards sustainability. Very large buildings
can be divided so that, while parts are retained for clergy and parish use, the
rest can be leased for profitable accommodation. Surplus bedrooms can become
lettable bed-sitting-rooms or flats in the way in which many lay families
subsidise their income.
At Dedham Vicarage in Essex, where the incumbent has created a holiday
flat, income is generated for maintaining the whole house, and is another
opportunity for pastoral outreach. Also, with personal security an increasing
concern for clergy, shared use of buildings has added value.
Apart from the income they could provide, letting schemes would give future
clergy some choice in the matter of housing. The newly formed 14-parish North
Hinckford Team Ministry in north Essex, for example, had exceptional difficulty
in attracting a new Team Rector, partly because the traditional rectory at
Belchamp Otten had been sold.
Several candidates regarded the replacement modern house as an inadequate
base for a vigorous and hospitable ministry in such a large cluster of rural
parishes. The option of the more spacious old rectory (conveniently next to its
church) might have attracted more positive responses.
THE LOSS of a parsonage not only strips the community of a precious
resource, but can turn the feeling of the community against the very people who
should be serving its interests most assiduously — the bishops and their staff.
It is, after all, in the parishes that the Church lives or dies. It is time for
positive thinking about the historic parsonages that still remain in church
Noël Riley and Elizabeth Simon are from Save Our Parsonages, Flat 2,
12-18 Bloomsbury Street, London WC1B 3QA.