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Commissioners are trying to help cathedrals to weather financial crisis, Dr Poole tells Synod

11 July 2020

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Exeter Cathedral

Exeter Cathedral

CATHEDRALS are facing losses of £28.4 million against annual budgets this year owing to the closures of church buildings during the lockdown, the Third Church Estates Commissioner, Dr Eve Poole, told an informal meeting of the General Synod on Saturday.

She estimated losses of £15.5 million for the C of E’s 42 cathedrals in 2021.

Dr Poole is a member of the C of E’s Covid-19 Recovery Group, whose briefing paper was the subject of questions at the Synod, held via Zoom. She was responding to Anne Foreman (Exeter), who asked whether the Church Commissioners would support “an economic intervention” to safeguard the future of cathedrals and cathedral music.

Dr Poole agreed that cathedrals were in a “very bad” financial situation. The Commissioners had tried to help liquidity by front-loading payments to cathedrals, she said. In March, it had rededicated money earmarked for the Cathedrals Measure to the Covid-response.

The first £3 million had been directed to support the stone masons and apprenticeships, she said, and £1.1 million to support payroll staff. This week, the Commissioners had assigned funding to allow lay clerks to be employed until Christmas; £1 million in match-funding to the emergency cathedral choir fund would keep them on until Easter. The fund, set up by the Cathedral Music Trust, the Ouseley Church Music Trust, and the Choirs Schools Association, pledged to raise £1 million through events including a celebrity virtual choral evensong.

A further £2.5 million was supporting key posts, Dr Poole said.

“We are very well aware that that is not enough,” she said. “The scale and the size of the problem is extraordinary, so we are spending quite a lot of time talking to Government and other funding partners like the Cathedral Choirs Emergency Fund to figure out what else we can do to help.”

The Third Church Estates Commissioner, Dr Eve Poole, answers a question from a Synod member during an informal meeting of the General Synod on Saturday afternoon

Large churches and cathedrals should be eligible for the “build back better” grants announced by the Chancellor this week (News, 10 July), but the details needed to be finalised, she said.

The Dean of Leicester, the Very Revd David Monteith, who chairs the College of Deans said on Monday: “We very much welcome the announcement of funding from the Church Commissioners, which matches the excellent fundraising efforts of the Cathedral Choirs Emergency Fund.

“This has been a time of huge uncertainty for our Cathedrals. . . While this support does not reverse the impact of Covid-19 restrictions, it can help to allay the short-term risks of the loss of these specialist roles, and we hope that the support from the community and the Church Commissioners will be further supported by the Government in its allocation of funding for the arts.”

The Covid-19 discussion was introduced at the Synod meeting by the Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, who chairs the Recovery Group. “When I was in the Department of Health, we planned for a pandemic, albeit for a flu pandemic, not coronavirus,” she said. “The Church of England did not plan for a pandemic. There is much for us to learn about how we responded, as individuals and as a Church.”

The decision to go beyond Government advice at the time and close church buildings even to clergy had been made “in the interest of the common good” and from a desire to fulfil the commandment to love God and to love our neighbours, she said. “We also recognised that this caused hurt and anger for some, whereas, for others, it was reassuring and a relief.”

The same was true of the recent advice to reopen churches, which would “for some bring relief, but for others fresh anxieties. Each of our personal circumstances is different, each church is different, has different resources, each community has different needs. There will be difficult decisions to make in the coming weeks.

“I have a particular concern for those clergy who are shielding either on their own behalf or because of the needs of their household. If a member of the clergy cannot reopen their building yet, they must not be judged as failing or falling short. They need to stay safe. They need to care for those whom they love. We need to learn from their experience.”

Bishop Mullally had been inspired, however, by how churches had “stepped up and stepped out” to respond to the needs of communities, such as by holding online services.

The briefing paper praises the creative and varied responses of churches to the lockdown, including online worship, helplines, grief support, food parcels, phone calls, church illuminations, and outdoor prayer spaces.

National online services had been viewed 5.2 million times, it states. A prayer booklet from Church House Publishing and distributed free to Church Times subscribers in March had since sold 25,000 copies; the Daily Hope Helpline from Lambeth Palace had received 173,000 calls from over 37,000 people, and the weekly Faith at Home episodes had been viewed more than 880,000 times.

During questions, the Coptic Archbishop of London, Archbishop Angaelos, expressed gratitude for the ecumenical support that he had received from the C of E. He said that wise answers to most questions at this time would be: “I don’t know.”

The C of E’s chief medical adviser, the Revd Dr Brendan McCarthy, wished that more people would accept the answer “I don’t know” to questions about the coronavirus. He was responding to a question from the Dean of Guernsey, the Very Revd Tim Barker, on regional responses, given that no cases had been reported on the island since April. Dr McCarthy said: “We don’t know if the situation in Guernsey would remain as it is.”

Enid Barron (London) was concerned that, during the recovery, the Government, “in their efforts to spend, spend, spend, will pollute, pollute, pollute”. Bishop Mullally said that the world had actually faced three pandemics: Covid-19, racism, and climate change. “We have to tackle all three.” The previous Synod had laid the groundwork by setting a target to be carbon neutral by 2030.

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