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Churches: ‘so much good will, so little funding’

THE SYNOD called for financial support from the Government for church buildings, after a debate on Thursday morning of last week.

Churches were first and foremost a witness to God and a base for mission, said the Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Richard Chartres. But they often had an education role, were the key to social regeneration in their locality, and were a base for volunteering. Some also attracted tourists into the local economy. The Church had not only to care for them, but develop their potential.

Research in 2005 had shown that 86 per cent of the population of Great Britain had visited a church during the past 12 months for a variety of purposes. "We are also building on the work of tens of thousands of volunteers, and we ought to celebrate their achievements."

But volunteers were close to exhaustion, and there was a question mark over the sustainability of their achievements.

The Church Buildings Division had put the subject on the agenda in Parliament and in Government. The all-party Historic Churches Group was a sign of fresh interest. And English Heritage was about to launch a campaign, "Inspired", to highlight church buildings and their need for funding.

The Bishop was glad, he said, that English Heritage had also recognised that help in making church buildings more accessible and more able to serve community needs should also be on the agenda.

Grants from English Heritage and the Heritage Lottery Fund had been invaluable, but, while building costs had risen by 70 per cent over ten years, other grants had lagged behind. The Royal Opera House had received £23 million last year, but the 16,000 parish churches and 42 cathedrals had received no more than £26 million.

"Occasionally we get blasts from MPs about cathedral entrance charges. York was attacked recently in the Commons. Why can’t cathedrals be free of entry charges like museums? It is a measure of how much work we have to do that there are some people who are still gripped by the fantasy that we are supported like museums, instead of being the most disestablished Church in Europe."

The Buildings Committee was asking for a 50/50 split from public funds, with the cash targeted at the neediest places. He was also asking for a network of 10,000 activists to present the Church’s case.

Timothy Allen (St Edmundsbury & Ipswich) said his church had spent £200,000 on the latest round of "routine" maintenance, without getting a penny from the state. Churches needed to be adapted for community use sensitively. "On occasion, English Heritage err on the side of excessive preservation."

Roy Thompson (York) wanted the Bishop of London to "bang on the table till the cups wobble" in the Treasury to get the Government to realise what a bargain it had in the Church’s stewardship of this national heritage.

The Revd Dr John McPake (Church of Scotland) said the Kirk spent one third of its income on its buildings. Without state help, there would be "major problems".

Cynthia Bunch (Lincoln) spoke of a wide range of secondary uses — including that of housing a class of schoolchildren more cheaply than in a mobile classroom.

The Archdeacon of Suffolk, the Ven. Geoffrey Arrand (St Edmundsbury & Ipswich) noted that the Department of Culture, Media and Sport had undertaken an inquiry into heritage. He hoped it would include a review of church buildings. The sum of £25 million was "totally inadequate". Many grant-making bodies could not fund churches in use for worship.

Jennifer Bate (Carlisle), a churches tourism officer, said that there was no mechanism to cost volunteers’ time fully. Statistics in Cumbria showed 19 per cent of visitors to churches were seeking a quiet place. It was hard to attract funding for church-based initiatives where the regional tourist board was run by commercial members.

The Bishop of Southwell & Nottingham, the Rt Revd George Cassidy, chairman of the Churches Main Committee, said that statistics from Southwell & Nottingham showed the extent of community involvement. Keep figures, he urged. This was a united approach from all the Churches.

The Revd Jonathan Alderton-Ford (St Edmundsbury & Ipswich) wanted the benefits of the Listed Places of Worship scheme extended to all churches; and a reduction in VAT on new building.

Canon Mark Bonney (Salisbury) said that the works departments of several cathedrals had formed the Cathedrals Workshops Fellowship. Government funding was vital for the future availability of skills.

The Revd Susan Booys (Oxford) was proud of the people of Dorchester Abbey, who had worked for five years to fund an almost £5-million project there, with a real commitment to the education of the young and the encouragement of modern craftspeople.

The Archdeacon of Westmorland and Furness, the Ven. George Howe, said that the Central Church Fund was keen to hear of the imaginative use of church buildings. Carlisle diocese, with its ecumenical partners, was surveying all church buildings for potential.

The Revd Chris Lilley (Lincoln) said that partnerships should also be with other public buildings in the town or village. Village halls, he said, were very vulnerable, and some were facing closure, while others were better than the church hall.

Brian Newey (Oxford) said that volunteers in the churches made a real impact on the social life of the village. It was very encouraging to know of new roles for churches when there were still some congregations who didn’t even want to move a few pews.

The Revd Jonathan Clark (London) said that inner-city church communities, large or small, were always poor. If they had to spend money on their buildings, there was less to spend on their work in the community.

Tom Sutcliffe (Southwark) said that the Government had done more than its predecessors to support church heritage, but it had "criminally neglected" the live performing arts, compared with Europe, and especially the German-speaking countries. What went on culturally in church did something to compensate for this lack of publicly backed arts.

The Dean of Durham, the Very Revd Michael Sadgrove, said that the Church had its own system of control over its buildings, but it was essential that this was properly supported. If not, there was a danger the Church would lose its exemption from secular planning law. "We can’t risk the statutory work not being done properly through lack of resources."

John Higginbotham (Leicester) said government support was "very erratic". Often "a much trumpeted boost is followed by a reversion by stealth. . . The Government must face up to its responsibilities so that we can concentrate on our own."

The Archdeacon of Bournemouth, the Ven. Adrian Harbidge, said that the Church set an example. At Christ Church Priory, a grant had been secured for a wall when the church could show that it had a photograph of every single stone in that wall and could identify from which of the four quarries used for the stone each stone had come, and so whether it was lying in the wall correctly.

The motion was carried by 220 votes nem. con. It read:

That this Synod:

(a) recognise the work and the achievements of tens of thousands of volunteers in caring for the churches of England;

(b) support the recommendations of the Church Heritage Forum report Building Faith in our Future and encourage its widespread dissemination;

(c) invite the forum to take forward discussion of the recommendations with public bodies and agencies at every level, from the local to the European , and invite dioceses to do the same with public bodies and agencies in their own areas;

(d) call upon HM Government to increase the financial support available for the care, maintenance and repair of church buildings, and to continue the Listed Places of Worship Grant Schemes for the reimbursement of VAT beyond the end of March 2008 if the issue of VAT on such repairs has not by then been permanently resolved in the context of European Community discussions; and

(e) urge parishes to make full use of the Scheme and any other financial support available from Government sources for the upkeep of church buildings.

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