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Wide variation in cathedrals’ assets, figures show

01 December 2023

Deans ask how levels can be made more equal

Alamy

The Manger, a digital art installation by Luxmuralis in the nave of Peterborough Cathedral last week

The Manger, a digital art installation by Luxmuralis in the nave of Peterborough Cathedral last week

CATHEDRAL assets vary so widely that the richest cathedral holds 70 times more than the poorest, figures published in a written answer to a question at last month’s meeting of the General Synod have shown.

The Bishop of Sheffield, Dr Pete Wilcox, who chairs the Mutuality and Transparency in Finances Group, had asked what account the Church Commissioners had taken of the disparity; and the Dean of Peterborough, the Very Revd Chris Dalliston, had wanted to know what use would be made of the figures in supporting cathedrals in the financial challenges that they faced.

The figures date from 2020. Norwich topped the league table, with net assets of £73.5 million. Salisbury was the next highest, at £62.5 million, closely followed by Durham and Canterbury at 62.3 and 62.2 respectively. Lincoln (57.6), York Minster (50.7), Winchester (49.7), St Paul’s (42.4), Chichester (38.0), and Lichfield (32.7) completed the top ten.

Manchester, with assets of £1.1 million, is the lowest in the table, with Bradford only slightly higher at 1.3. Wakefield (2.2), Truro (2.3), Sheffield (2.4), Derby (3.3), Blackburn (3.5), Portsmouth (5.1), Newcastle (5.6), and Chelmsford (5.7) also make up the bottom ten.

Cathedrals were disendowed when the Church Commissioners were established in 1840, so that funds could be directed to the national Church. Roughly half of the 42 are in dioceses that post-date disendowment. Those with the largest reserves tend to have property assets reflecting their historic location, or earlier investments around their property portfolio.

The Cathedrals Measure 2021 was designed to foster greater transparency in governance and day-to-day operations. Deans have welcomed what they describe as the next stage of the Synod’s movement towards that transparency, pointing out that it builds on earlier work highlighting the wide range of historic endowments attached to the dioceses.

The Third Church Estates Commissioner, Canon Flora Winfield, suggested in her written answer to the Synod: “The figures do not appear to give an overall indication of the financial strength of our Cathedrals: for example, many of the indicated assets are tied to historic buildings that require additional money to maintain.”

Options being considered in advance of work on how to direct grants in the next triennium (2026-28) could include how best to take the level of historic assets into account, she said. “The Bishoprics and Cathedrals Committee is working with cathedrals to enable long-term planning on sustainability, as well as short-term grants for operational support.”

The figures needed to be understood and not read in any simplistic way, Dr Wilcox suggested on Monday. “The overall economic configuration of the Church of England is very complicated; so it was really helpful when the equivalent league-table of assets was brought into the public domain,” he said.

“It triggered a very important conversation about neutrality and transparency. My fundamental commitment is that all parts, all communities of the nation should have an equal access to the mission and ministry of the Church of England, including stipendiary ordained ministry, and that must mean an equal access to financial provision for how we get there, and how cathedrals fit into that overall picture.”

None of the previously approved disbursements had been in any way means-tested, nor had there ever been any attempt by the Commissioners to enable those cathedrals that had been endowed less well to manage their financial situation, Dr Wilcox said.

“The first step towards managing the inequalities is to bring them into the public domain. To understand how very different the financial and demands facing cathedrals can be would probably require a separate league table of cathedral costs, particularly maintenance costs, because the big medieval cathedrals will inevitably be more expensive bits of fabric than the 19th-century so-called parish church cathedrals.”

Dr Wilcox described the Cathedrals Measure as “a fresh attempt to ensure that cathedrals are rising to to their full potential as centres of worship and mission for the Church of England. We want every penny that the Church is going to invest to be well spent for the gospel and the Kingdom of God, and cathedrals play a hugely important part in that respect.

“The situation facing the cathedrals is perhaps less urgent than the situation facing the dioceses. We probably have more time to ponder how they play into the overall economy of the Church of England, and how any inequalities between them can be mitigated.”

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