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Share the cost of church upkeep, survey suggests

14 April 2022


A sign outside All Saints’ Hovingham, north Yorkshire, last month

A sign outside All Saints’ Hovingham, north Yorkshire, last month

CHURCH buildings are still loved and wanted by their communities, and the majority of people in those communities believe that they should receive state funding to keep them in good repair, a new survey suggests.

The report, The Future of the UK’s Church Buildings, published on Monday by the National Churches Trust, found support for government funding for church buildings even from those who were not religious.

More than half (54 per cent) of the 1250 participants in the consultation, which was open between November 2021 and February 2022, said that central and devolved administrations should be responsible for the maintenance of church buildings, as well as heritage bodies and congregations. Thirty-six per cent thought that local authorities should be responsible; and nearly 80 per cent thought bodies such as the National Heritage Lottery Fund, as well as congregations, should share the financial burden for repairs.

Some suggested that the Church Commissioners should take on Grade I listed churches and fund them directly, to save congregations from the burden of their maintenance.

One respondent said: “As an atheist, I have no personal interest in churches for religious purposes but I still think they fulfil that use for many. However, I also believe these should be centrally funded as open community assets — a multipurpose resource available to the majority and not just a handful of a slowly shrinking religious few.”

There are more than 900 churches on Historic England’s “Heritage At Risk” register, and Claire Walker, chief executive of the National Churches Trust, said this week: “The Church of England alone estimates that it will need to find £1 billion to pay for the upkeep of its churches over the next five years.”

Most people in the UK, the study suggests, are unaware of how churches are funded, or who pays for their repairs, which is frustrating for churchgoers.

One respondent said: “Non-churchgoers expect the church to be there and have no concern or knowledge at all of the cost of (for example) installing toilets, providing adequate disabled access . . . the inevitable structural repairs. . . Often I find that people think we [the Church in general] are quite rich and that the local church is subsidised by the central church and/or by the Government.”

Several respondents suggested that a central body to apply for grants would be more effective, and would be more easily understood by the wider public. Several suggested a single charitable foundation, a “National Trust for Churches”, as a way of bringing together different funding streams for church repairs.

“There are many organisations working towards preserving church buildings,” one respondent said. “They all do great work but would perhaps be more effective, and almost certainly more supported, if there was a single national body for England, say a ‘National Trust for Churches’.”

Despite concerns about financing and repairs, church buildings were still seen as an asset by 88 per cent of respondents; just 12 per cent saw them as a burden. (A few, including some clergy, saw them as both.)

The study also asked whether the move to online worship during the pandemic had reduced the need for church buildings. Nearly 80 per said no.

One said: “Our congregation has increased with the use of online services as they make access easier for those who find it difficult to attend services in church buildings, but I cannot stress how joyful those of us who can attend services in our local churches again are to meet together.”

When churches were threatened with closure, there was support for the building’s becoming a community asset, although most, 79 per cent, wanted them to continue as a place of worship. Support to keep churches open remained, even among those who did not class themselves as religious: “Churches are part of the fabric of our history and important symbols of Western civilisation,” one correspondent said. “Ecclesiastical architecture must be maintained to preserve it — it would be a tragedy not to. Once it is gone, it is gone.

“People can seek comfort, moments of peace, and interaction with others at a church that welcomes them regardless of their views. I am not religious, but attend church and have been made most welcome.”

Ms Walker said: “Our consultation shows that people really value church buildings. That’s because they are the ultimate all-purpose building, available for everyone to use. Churches are places for worship and reflection, vitally needed community centres, and are packed with history and heritage.”

The trust would use the findings to continue to discuss with those in the Government and the heritage sector how best to keep churches open and of benefit to local communities.

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