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Sixteenth-century parsonage

08 February 2013

Our parsonage house dates to the 1560s, but the diocese now wishes to sell it, and replace it with a modern house that is easier to maintain. Is there any way to raise funds and bring the house up to modern standards? It is close to the church tower; so I am sure it will be difficult to sell, and thus may be attractive only to us.

THIS letter highlights the struggle for working resources over valuable assets. The value of your parsonage house to local people is undoubted - and not predominantly for its financial value. It is close to being as foundational to your history as the church itself.

Of the two points of view ex-pressed in your email, that of the diocese is undoubtedly about stewardship. Old houses, often dreaded by clergy whose stipends are inadequate for heating draughty old houses, are often of disproportionately high value. The British do love their historic houses. And old vicarages often have large gardens. Dioceses are constantly being challenged to make better sense of their finances and put people at the top of the list; so houses are often sold.

Over the past couple of decades, the legal requirement that the Church Commissioners should build up an appropriate pension-pot has resulted in dioceses' having to find clergy salaries and contribute to their pensions. In the past, that was all covered by the Church Commissioners' funds.

So all sorts of creative approaches are considered, but parishes now have to contribute all or some of their clergy salaries, and contribute to the administrative cost of the diocese. Numbers of clergy have fallen drastically, as those who retire are not replaced in the overall numbers. It is not only a question of suitable candidates: the Church could not find money for many more.

It is some time since dioceses took over ownership of all clergy houses, in order to maintain them to a better standard than that managed by parishes. Although there was no consideration at the time that these might become assets ripe for disposal, we have moved in that direction. Most dioceses are selling financially valuable vicarages and replacing them more modestly, as there are few ways to recoup value from these assets by other means. And this is all to meet the challenges of maintaining church life and reaching out in mission. As in the case of your church, we may regret this. We love what has been ours, and what represents the solidity of our locus of faith.

Is there anything you can do? I do not know of a programme or grant stream to defend ancient vicarages. But that does not mean that there isn't one. You might see if the Architectural Heritage Fund has ideas, or might be able to help you set up a "Friends of X Parsonage House" fund in order to buy it from the diocese. You would still be charged with its maintenance, and the diocese might still use the funds to buy another house for your vicar. Would you keep the house for a curate, or something else?

It is a conundrum about which you might gather a group of like-minded people - perhaps including a representative from the diocesan property department - to brainstorm the possibilities and likelihoods. It would be good to hear of a parish's coming up with an innovative idea in the face of the financial pressures we are all living with.

Send your questions and issues to maggiedurran@virginmedia.com.

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