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General Synod digest: Churches Conservation Trust

24 November 2023

Geoff Crawford/Church Times

The Third Church Estates Commissioner, Canon Flora Winfield

The Third Church Estates Commissioner, Canon Flora Winfield

THE General Synod approved payment to the Churches Conservation Trust (CCT) of a fixed sum of £4.8 million for the funding period 2024-27, as approved by the Church Commissioners.

The CCT is jointly funded by the Commissioners and the Department for Media, Culture and Sport (DCMS). It makes provision for church buildings no longer required for regular public worship, but with highly listed heritage status and unique character, to be kept in public use for a range of activities, including occasional worship and community and charitable events.

The Trust currently looks after 357 closed church buildings; 73 per cent of these were classed as “Very good” or “Good” in the broadly positive Estates Review undertaken by the CCT, which rated, in each case, the state and condition of the building. It praised a “positive direction of travel assisted greatly by external grant funding support”.

Introducing the debate, the Third Church Estates Commissioner, Canon Flora Winfield, spoke of the unique funding arrangement between the Church Commissioners and the DCMS, saying that the Church’s funding unlocked almost twice as much from the Government. “In an era of constrained public spending, this long-term commitment is particularly welcome,” she said.

More than one million people had visited one of the CCT churches, and some, such as Holy Trinity, Sunderland, had gone from being “at risk” to winning regional and national awards. There were many examples of partnerships with bodies such as DEFRA and wildlife trusts, and the buildings made a positive contribution to environmental health and well-being, Canon Winfield said. The CCT was able to share its expertise with parishes and dioceses, allowing them collectively to respond to their communities.

She thanked Synod members who had contributed to an independent, strategic, financial, and governance review: “Your wisdom has been invaluable.”

The fixed sum of £4.8 million equates to £1.6 million per annum for the funding period 2024-27. It contains within it an additional amount of up to £0.9 million, in the event that the Commissioners’ share of net proceeds arising from the disposal of closed church buildings exceeded £0.65 million in any calendar year during that period. It represents a 6.6-per-cent increase compared with the previous triennium: an additional £100,000 per year to allow for some element of cost inflation.

Peter Harris (Southwell & Nottingham), in a maiden speech, said that the buildings were an essential part of the life of the Church and the community. He wanted to see even more of its work centred on community support: “As the Church of England, we don’t do enough to work directly with the churches.”

Stephen Hogg (Leeds) acknowledged that he had not been convinced three years ago that the Trust’s internal and external reporting was good enough, but he was now “an enthusiastic supporter“ of its work and direction. “I believe CCT is at a pivotal point in its journey. I don’t think it’s enough money, but that can be addressed if a more flexible form of funding can be sought.”

Julie Dziegiel (Oxford) described the buildings as “a huge blessing, but maintenance is incredibly expensive. It’s right that government funds assist in [their] upkeep.”

Andrew Gray (St Edmundsbury & Ipswich) described himself, like Stephen Hogg, as “another convert” to the Trust’s work: “Three years ago, it wasn’t in good shape or in a happy place.” He welcomed steps such as the appointment of a new CEO and financial director. He urged the Synod to approve the funding order, and find ways to work with the CCT to help it to develop a strategy for future needs.

The Revd Marcus Walker (London) was delighted to support the proposal, although he considered that increasing the amount only by half as much as inflation was going to be very difficult, given the number of dioceses where closures were being considered: five dioceses had each identified 40. How many were the CCT expecting to be handed over? Might enabling it to go into parishes to help them survive be “money worth spending”?

Canon Winfield described the church buildings as “sacramental signs in the landscape . . . such important signs of God’s presence in every community”.

The motion was carried by a show of hands. The Order will now be laid before Parliament. An explanatory memorandum to the Synod said that the money would not be paid in advance of need, and was provided “on the understanding that the Trust will continue to make every effort to generate income from other sources as well, to maximise their effectiveness and outcomes”.

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