THE Church of England should ask the Government to find more money to support listed churches and cathedrals, a report has recommended.
The Church Buildings Review Group, which was set up under the Reform and Renewal programme earlier this year, and chaired by the Bishop of Worcester, Dr John Inge, set out the proposal in a report released on Tuesday.
Although the report noted "conspicuous success" in recent years in securing state funds for church buildings, it urged the C of E and the Government to find new ways of funnelling money into maintaining the 16,000 churches under the Church’s care.
"By European standards, the Church of England bears an unusually heavy financial burden of maintaining part of the nation’s built heritage," the report says. "Early confirmation that the listed Places of Worship Grant Scheme will continue at a realistic level of funding beyond next April is the most immediate need. Thereafter, we believe that Church and Government representatives should explore ways in which more assured support for listed cathedrals and church buildings can be provided for the long term."
The Grant Scheme currently brings in about £42 million a year through VAT refunds on repairs to listed churches. In addition, the Heritage Lottery Fund gives about £25 million a year, and one-off government funds for cathedrals and the roofs of listed churches have brought in £50 million so far (News, 21 March 2014, 20 March).
Nevertheless, more than three-quarters of the C of E’s churches are listed, and 45 per cent of England’s Grade I listed buildings are the responsibility of the Church. The issue is especially acute in rural areas, where 91 per cent of churches are listed, but where just 17 per cent of the population lives.
In 2013, the average spending on each church building was around £10,000; in total, parishes spent £157 million on repairs and maintenance. One pound in every six spent by the parishes went towards building work.
Since 1969, the number of church members per church building has fallen from 96 to 59. Despite this, a survey in 2009 suggested that 85 per cent of the population visited a church or a cathedral each year.
The report has no simple answer to the vexed question how to look after the C of E’s churches. "The main responsibility, both for strategic planning and developing new initiatives, must remain within dioceses. There can be no one Church of England strategy," Dr Inge wrote in the introduction to the report. Apart from the growth of the Church, "there is no single solution to the challenges posed by our extensive responsibility for part of the nation’s historic heritage." Some churches would always have to be closed, but if too many were shut the message sent out "would, presumably, be that the Christian faith has had its day in this land".
In general, responsibility for churches should stay at parish level, and if that is not possible, diocesan level, the report says. But it suggests that more flexibility is needed in the laws governing church buildings, so as to reduce the burden on laity and clergy alike. "The imaginative and sensitive reordering of buildings, including many that are listed, has enabled churches to continue to be places of worship while hosting village shops, post offices, food banks, community and digital hubs, school space, and arts venues," the report says.
PCCs should be allowed to transfer the care of a building to another body, if the diocese consents, the report says.
It also suggests administrative reorganisation: the two buildings teams at Church House should be merged, and a new Church Buildings Commission for England created by combining the functions of three existing committees and bodies.
A consultation has been opened into these; and the first meeting of the new General Synod next month will include a debate on the future of the Church’s buildings.
Read the full report here
Cash and congregations fall short in Cumbria
A SURVEY by the Churches Trust for Cumbria has suggested that 18 per cent of the 650 churches, of all denominations, in Cumbria consider their financial position to be "very serious", and a further 30 per cent are concerned that they could become unviable within five years.
Just one in five of the churches that responded to the survey opened more than once a week; 14 per cent were used monthly, or less frequently, for worship.
Some 48 per cent of churches in the report were locked throughout the week, although this figure fell to 34 per cent for Anglican churches. Eighty-five per cent of Methodist churches, on the other hand, were closed except for Sunday worship. One in three of the churches in the survey did not have a lavatory.
Congregations are continuing to decrease, and the average congregation consists of 20 people. When a church holds only one service a week, more than half of the congregation is over 70 years of age.
Bryan Gray, chairman of the Churches Trust for Cumbria, said: "If we want church buildings to remain a central and essential part of our communities, everyone needs to get involved.
"We need more volunteers — not just those who attend church — and recognition from local government, community organisations, and businesses that churches are a fundamental part of our Cumbrian communities.
[They]are integral to Cumbria’s heritage, and, together with the local school, shop, and pub, help to create and sustain communities."
To stem the decline, the diocese of Carlisle has teamed up with local Methodists and the United Reformed Church to create ecumenical Mission Communities — local churches from all three traditions working together to try to create critical mass rather than disperse their effort separately.
The report recommended that churches strive to open their doors during the week so as to attract more tourists, joggers, and cyclists; reorder their layouts by including cafés or bookshops; and try to create a Friends group to look after the building.