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State support is needed to keep churches open

12 April 2024

The Government is unlikely to release funds unless parishes show how vital buildings are to communities, says Lee Coley

GROWING financial challenges mean that parishes throughout England are struggling to meet their churches’ repair needs; rising numbers are at risk of closing as a result.

To begin to address this, it is necessary to embrace their expanded use in areas that align with the Church’s mission. Besides bringing in more funding from various channels, this also maximises the local benefit of these versatile spaces — and adds credence to arguments for increased state support. This comes at a critical moment when these historic buildings face an unprecedentedly widespread risk of closure.

For the Church of England, a significant proportion of annual expenditure, typically between 15 and 20 per cent, is dedicated to building and works costs. Parish Finance Statistics show that, in the five years leading up to and including 2021, £925 million was spent in this area.

This expenditure has been exacerbated by factors such as the soaring costs for steelworks and rising energy costs affecting building expenses. In combination with the inherent challenges of maintaining medieval buildings in line with regulatory standards, this leads to a financial burden that is increasingly difficult for parishes to meet.

This does not diminish the importance of regular comprehensive maintenance, which can significantly mitigate spending on repairs. Given the age and complexity of many of the nation’s churches, however, widespread repair requirements are inevitable. A recent report by the National Churches Trust said that more than 900 churches are on Historic England’s Heritage At Risk register; the backlog of repairs for C of E churches is £1 billion (News, 26 January). These statistics paint a stark picture, demonstrating that new funding channels are needed urgently to bridge the gap.

SINCE many churches are located centrally in communities and offer versatile, uplifting spaces, one area that is increasingly being explored is their potential as venues for hire. In such cases, the use of a church building as primarily a place of worship comes up against financial and community needs.

Over the years, consistory courts have been asked whether proposed uses of buildings — for example, as post offices or pubs — are acceptable: are they both beneficial to communities, and aligned with the Church’s wider mission? Some dioceses have begun exploring apps, such as Sharesy, to advertise churches as venues for hire; parishes are finding significant demand from a broadening range of organisations (News, 12 January).

This comes alongside increasing recognition of the potential for churches to meet a wide range of other community needs. Historically, churches have fulfilled a range of functions in communities, alongside their core purpose as spaces for worship. Although this has been restricted over the years, there is a growing movement to revive these multifunctional roles, recognising churches as community hubs where various activities and services can take place, fostering social cohesion and support networks.

In view of the benefits on a community level for parishes that take this approach, there are some grants that are available to support this work, if PCCs are able to demonstrate the building’s benefit to the community. These functions are also often critical at a time when many public services are under significant strain.

These approaches centre on the philosophy that a cohesive strategy to save churches needs to be grounded in maximising their relevance and connection to the communities in which they are located. This is alongside the Church of England’s traditional function of being present in each community. This is not a new consideration for the Church: the Church Buildings Review Group covered many of the same issues in 2015.

THE extent of the funding challenges faced by parochial church councils means that a new approach is needed. To avoid the widespread loss of churches throughout the UK, the State would need to take responsibility for some of the maintenance costs of church buildings, akin to what was done in 1944 with education. Considering stretched government budgets, it is unlikely that this funding would be made available unless it was understood in the context of the enormous cost to communities if these “anchor institutions” are lost.

This is made even more pressing against a backdrop of strained public services and the cost-of-living crisis, in which churches act as hubs for community-organisation and provide vital public initiatives and support. Highlighting the paired importance both to local communities and to national heritage is crucial to communicating the value that government funding could provide.

If state support is not available, there needs to be further reflection on the purpose of a church building, how it can retain its primacy as a place of worship to benefit from the ecclesiastical exemption, while still being available and central to the community.

Lee Coley is Registrar and Legal Adviser to the Bishop and diocese of Leicester, and a partner at the law firm Stone King.

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