Funding Religious Heritage
Anne Fornerod, editor
Church Times Bookshop £63
IN ENGLAND, church buildings rely on private generosity to a much greater extent than they do among our European neighbours. I remember my shock at being told a few years ago that the Evangelical Church in Germany had received €4 billion in one year from the state-administered church tax.
In the years when I served as Chairman of the Church of England Buildings Division, I thought it likely that, if we understood more about the various European regimes, it might strengthen the argument not for additional state funding, but at least for an exemption from VAT on the repair and maintenance of listed places of worship. Instead, I was told that European rules on the application of VAT inhibited any unilateral UK change.
It was, therefore, with great expectations that I embarked upon Funding Religious Heritage. The book is a collection of papers delivered at a conference organised under the auspices of the “Religare” project on religious diversity and secular models in Europe, funded by the European Commission under the 7th Framework Programme. The editor is French, and there are four papers on the situation in France. There is no German contribution, and Scandinavia is represented by Denmark and Estonia.
Frank Cranmer offers a helpful snapshot of the existing situation in the UK, from which I learnt that Gordon Brown’s attempt to apply a reduced rate of VAT for church repairs was specifically rebuffed at a meeting of EU Finance Ministers in March 2009. This has necessitated the grants scheme that was initiated by Gordon Brown and extended by George Osborne. What the French State does as the owner of all ecclesiastical structures built before 1904 is still unclear to me.
The focus of the papers is the “accentuated heritagization of religious heritage” and the need for “a diversification of resources for its maintenance and conservation but above all for co-ordination among stakeholders”. There are very few illuminating case-studies, and the tone of the collection is that of the heritage administrator in retreat.
The validity of the secularisation thesis is regarded as beyond question, despite the increasing criticism of it in recent years; and the debate about additional uses seems to be at a very preliminary level.
The most stimulating paper is Lisbet Christoffersen’s survey from Denmark, where there are similarities to the challenges faced by religious bodies in the UK.
I was left wondering about the intended readership for this book, priced at £70. It has some value as record of the present state of funding for religious heritage in a sprinkling of European countries, together with Turkey, but there is very little to interest the churchwarden, the diocesan officer, or one of the tens of thousands of volunteers as they struggle with the day-to-day opportunities and challenges of the 45 per cent of Grade I listed buildings in England for which the Church is responsible, and so much else that is a precious part of the inheritance of the whole community.
The Rt Revd Richard Chartres is the Bishop of London.