MOSQUES and gurdwaras, as well as Churches and their buildings, are suffering heavy financial losses, a Zoom briefing on the effect of Covid-19 on religion revealed on Tuesday.
The briefing was organised by the Religion Media Centre (RMC). Key contributors included the Bishop of Manchester, Dr David Walker, who, as chairman of the Church Commissioners’ board of governors, has played a prominent part in devising the C of E’s strategy. His own diocese was projecting a budget shortfall of £1 million even before the pandemic. Parish giving in general has fallen by an estimated £40 million (News, 1 January).
Pressed by the moderator, the Church Times columnist Andrew Brown, on the dilemmas of closing churches that were no longer needed — one solution to mounting financial pressures — Dr Walker acknowledged that greater streamlining of the multi-level closure process was needed in a Church that had “the engine of a lawnmower and the brakes of a super-tanker”.
Sheer numbers alone did not represent when a church should close, and this was not going to be a retreat from the countryside, he asserted, referring to one “perfectly financially viable rural church” in a village with a population of 102. More likely closures could be the large, mid-Victorian churches built to serve populations that no longer existed.
He spoke of the replacement, some years ago, of dilapidated church buildings in east Manchester which were “a huge drain on resources” with one new building and a new way of doing church. This was “an eminently sensible sort of change”, he suggested.
The broadcaster and campaigner Andrew Graystone questioned how the Church justified having £8 billion in its reserves. Why not give it all to the poor? It did, Dr Walker said: the subsidy helped to sustain the very poorest parishes. “We can do it because we have these funds to back us up. It can be seen as money well spent, according to the purposes of Queen Anne’s Bounty” (the original source of the Commissioners’ funds).
Covid-19 had accelerated pressures that were already in the system, the Bishop said. Two tranches of money had come from the Church Commissioners: a £75-million advance, allowing dioceses to borrow money in the short-term; and a £35-million sustainability fund, to be used to offset the harshest deficits.
While only one diocese is estimated to be running a surplus, most have a deficit. But any reduction in the overall number of dioceses, or the creation of more smaller ones, was not under discussion, Dr Walker said.
No official national figure of the likely losses from the pandemic has been confirmed, but Dr Walker suggested that giving losses were closer to £50 million. A true figure would not be known until late February, when all the parish payments were in. Giving was hardest hit, and churches also had to continue paying fixed costs while buildings could not be hired out or events take place.
The Roman Catholic Church was encouraging giving online, Dr David Palmer, a former treasurer in the RC diocese of Birmingham, said. One problem was that priests were not eligible to receive income support. Missing fees from weddings and Christmas and Easter offerings were another, and many volunteers were at risk because of age: “I can see a huge backlog of administrative work to hit us in 2021.”
But, although money was tight, it was not the driving force, he said. “It is one constraint, but social interaction is a greater area of concern. There is only a certain amount one can do on Zoom. It is about maintaining community.”
Mosques were heavily dependent on the collections taken at Friday prayers, a London imam, Usama Hasan, said. These were forbidden to be taken during sermons, and the practice of going between the rows of worshippers at another point could no longer happen. Most mosques were having to hold two services because of social distancing, and the only option was a collection on the way out.
This prompted real questions of survival, Mr Hasan said. But he also noted new opportunities for fund-raising, arising from talks and activities online. A greater number of women than were normally able to attend Friday prayers, because of the space allocated to them, were now joining in these. People would also be energised to get involved with new activities such as foodbanks and baby banks (supplies for newborn babies), inspired by churches in the community. Twenty-five per cent of mosques were now running foodbanks.
Gurdwaras were decentralised, which made it easy for them to act in the pandemic; but it meant that they could not easily pool resources, Harmeet Singh Gill said. They were experiencing the “double whammy” of a massive decrease in funds and an increase in need. One London gurdwara was giving out between 3500 and 4000 meals a day.
“We have struggled,” he said. “It is hard to adapt and cut costs. Many smaller ones in particular have struggled because they rely on [the income from] birthdays and anniversaries. Many are assessing the long-term viability, especially in smaller towns.”
Bhervinder Singh, from Birmingham, said that income during the Covid-19 period was down by between 50 and 70 per cent, because main events could not take place. The strict tiers imposed had affected New Year celebrations, and the cancellation, postponement, or limited attendance at weddings had made a big difference.
Donations were also down because of unemployment. “We are seeing a lot of crowdfunding pages being set up,” he said. “Here, in Birmingham, we raised £50,000 for building work that started before Covid; so now we are struggling.”
Ninety-nine per cent of gurdwaras were funded through direct giving by congregations and from donation boxes, and Sikhs gave ten per cent of their earnings. “We are finding donations in letterboxes and under the door from the older, the first generation. Some can’t go online to make a donation so they bring it in cash. Between 60 and 70 per cent haven’t been able to make those contributions,” he said.
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