Take down the ‘for sale’ signs

02 November 2006


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 community.”

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 this.

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 such buildings.

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 outreach.

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 for parsonages.

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 ownership.

Noël Riley and Elizabeth Simon are from Save Our Parsonages, Flat 2, 12-18 Bloomsbury Street, London WC1B 3QA.

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