A vicarage does not have to cost the earth

by
14 June 2019

Most tied church housing is a climate-change liability — but these could be sites for prophetic leadership, says Philip Lockley

THE Church of England owns thousands of buildings that are poorly equipped to face the future — and not just the ones you’re thinking of.

The country’s vicarages and rectories — like the 29 million other residential properties in the UK — will require substantial adaptation or replacement in the next 30 years, if our national contribution to global warming is to be effectively ended.

Last month, the UK Government’s independent Committee on Climate Change outlined a plausible path to reaching “net zero” carbon emissions by 2050 (News, 10 May). One of the most important steps on this path is to reduce significantly the environmental impact of every domestic dwelling. All houses will need to be transformed from our current lightly lagged brick boxes heated by burning gas, into triple-glazed, solar-warmed, thickly insulated living spaces that use air flows and ground-source heat to sustain comfort all year round.

Of course, this challenge to “retrofit” or rebuild is faced by every private and institutional home-owner. But the Church of England holds a uniquely dispersed and visible national property portfolio. Its dioceses own at least one house in pretty much every neighbourhood (or district, in expansive rural benefices). And these homes tend to be well-known in their communities, especially when the postal address remains “The Vicarage” or “The Rectory”.

 

WHAT the Church does with its carbon-spewing homes therefore matters. Climate change will not be averted because clergy and their families turn a few lights off and update their appliances: the problem requires large-scale institutional investment, alongside state support, and the co-operation of private and social enterprise.

The Church has recognised the power of what its parsonages stand for before. The evidence remains in most English villages, as today’s “Old Vicarage” is typically the most prestigious house after the Manor. Many such buildings date from Jane Austen’s era of cosy, provincial clericalism. Even more were Victorian status symbols — the Church re-emphasising an incumbent’s importance in each community, from shire village to new industrial town. Wherever a new urban church was thrown up, or a rural Gothic church “restored” in the 19th century, the same architect or practice was often commissioned to design a freshly capacious vicarage near by.

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All this sprawling accommodation caught up with the Church in the final third of the 20th century. After 1970, the twin trends of steeply rising energy costs and drastic falls in the relative value of parish stipends meant that these status symbols were increasingly impossible to heat. Many clergy families suffered health effects from such cold houses — as some had for a generation or more already. I’m not sure that my grandmother ever quite recovered from growing up in the 1920s in a draughty Pennine vicarage, for which there was never enough coal to go in the grate.

By the 1980s, dioceses were gradually selling off many of these mouldy mansions, often building a new vicarage in the prodigious back garden of the old. Memories of this great parsonage sell-off today can be tinged with lament. Most are are now worth multiples of what the Church got for them.

But a further lament may be sung over their replacements: often the cheapest possible block design of family home, brown brick, cavity walls, and ill-fitting windows. Despite being a response to the ’70s oil-shock, these houses were designed as though the fossil-fuel age would last for ever.

Yet it is not as though the Church shied away from setting design standards for its vicarages. Consideration is always given to reception rooms and security. Door arrangements are meant to enable incumbents to answer callers and host visitors without disturbing family life elsewhere in the house. And there is always a spare bedroom with a sink in it, which is supposedly for when the bishop stays — a prospect that appealed to my childhood imagination, as I wondered whether bishops had a special reason for brushing their teeth in private.

 

IT WOULD not take much to redirect dioceses’ attention to parsonage design to address a greater issue: how the houses that they own can be warmed without warming the planet.

We already know how to build “zero-carbon” houses. Every new-build in the country was meant to be one by now: the 2015 Conservative-majority government scrapped this law. Now, as the climate for green politics changes in concert with greater consciousness of actual climate change, the time for inaction is over.

So the Church has an opportunity to lead the way — to build prophetically. It can begin by investing in its own housing stock. And it can encourage other institutions to do likewise — showing a viable, visible way forward together. Church housing trusts have a further part to play, as they continue to respond to the persisting housing crisis. More and more congregations can be hubs of low-carbon living and learning for their areas.

The Church needs to realise that it can say something else about itself. Its vicarages and rectories need no longer be about status, but they can be about humility: that is, how we live close to the earth.

 

The Revd Dr Philip Lockley is Assistant Curate of St Clement’s, Oxford.

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