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Imitate President Macron’s national fund for village churches, say UK charities

22 September 2023

Appeal for ‘robust’ approach to tackling UK church closures

iStock

A Romanesque church in rural Provence, one of the 10,000 churches eligible for government support

A Romanesque church in rural Provence, one of the 10,000 churches eligible for government support

A UK equivalent of France’s new national fund for restoring small communities’ church buildings, whose creation was confirmed by President Macron last Friday, is urgently needed, charities have said this week.

The French scheme was first announced in June by President Macron, who proposed a national subscription fund to “solicit the generosity of all” in the upkeep of the thousands of religious buildings that were “the pride of our countryside and small towns”. Last week’s announcement confirmed that donations would be eligible for a 75-per-cent tax deduction, with a target of €200 million over four years. Churches in communities with a population below 10,000 would be eligible.

Under the 1905 law that established France as a secular state, the State — in the form of parish councils — owns all churches built before 1905, and is responsible for their upkeep. Last year, a report for the French Senate drawing on “pleas from distraught mayors” warned that thousands of the 40,000 pre-1905 churches, many dating from the Middle Ages, would have to be sold or demolished unless government officials allocated resources to maintain them, Catholic News Service reported.

Only those churches listed as historic monuments — 10,500 of them — are eligible for financial assistance from the Ministry of Culture for restoration work. In June, the French government announced plans to grant the status to more religious buildings, particularly 19th- and 20th-century ones.

In the UK, the upkeep of church buildings falls largely on congregations and communities. The Listed Places of Worship Grant Scheme (LPWGS), set to run until 2025, enables applicants to apply for a grant to cover VAT costs incurred when carrying out building repairs, while grants are also made by the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

On Tuesday, the director of Friends of Friendless Churches (Features, 15 September), Rachel Morley, said that there had been a “substantial fall” in national annual investment in places of worship, excluding cathedrals. The National Lottery Heritage Fund’s dedicated stream of funding for places of worship had ended in 2017. The amount distributed had since fallen by almost two-thirds to £10 million.

The UK “urgently” needed something similar to the French scheme, she suggested. “Our governments and church leaders need a robust and effective approach to tackling the issue of church closures and decay. The conversation around churches has essentially been the same since the middle of the 20th century, with the whiff of inevitability of decline, and piecemeal solutions that take us round in circles.

“With the proposed changes to the Mission and Pastoral Measure in England, and the increased rate of closure, greater support for churches is now critical. A permanent, dedicated fund with a straightforward application process is essential if we are to change the fate of our most vulnerable church buildings.”

Churches constituted the biggest proportion of built heritage in England and Wales, she noted. “The burden of caring for thousands of the nation’s most important and oldest buildings falls on a tiny proportion of the public, who are, for the most part, volunteers.”

The deputy CEO of the National Churches Trust, Karl Newton, said on Wednesday that more than 900 churches were on the Historic England Heritage at Risk Register, with more in a perilous condition in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

“With no consistent funding for church buildings from the UK Government, or denominations,” he said, “congregations do much to find the money needed to help churches fund urgent repairs. But, at best, they only raise around a third of the money from their own resources; churches in poorer areas struggle to even raise this amount locally, as they have far fewer resources to call on.

“As President Macron — the President of a country with strict separation between religion and the state — recognises, historic churches are vitally important heritage and also serve as local community hubs. A national fabric-repair grant scheme is urgently needed for the UK’s churches. Without proper financial support, more churches will close.”

On Tuesday, the Bishop of Ramsbury, Dr Andrew Rumsey, co-lead bishop for church buildings and cathedrals, said: “It’s encouraging to hear in President Macron’s announcement an imaginative response that recognises the unique place of historic church buildings in national heritage.

“Whilst Anglican church buildings and cathedrals have benefited in recent years from, for example, HM Government’s Culture Recovery Fund (News, 19 October 2021), there is an urgent need for a new funding landscape that can help secure and sustain this remarkable legacy — our primary source of local memory and artistry, as well as ongoing community service.”

In 2017, the government-commissioned Taylor review concluded that churches should prepare to rely less on government funding, and called for a “cultural shift” in which communities contributed to their upkeep (News, 21 December 2017). A subsequent report for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport noted the “paucity” of evidence for such a shift (News, 17 January 2020).

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