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Drastic reform is the only way to save England’s churches

4 April 2016

Are England’s historic churches too big to fail? The Church of England has 16,000 parish churches. Among them are nearly half of all Grade I listed buildings nationwide. Many are managed by small rural communities, and a significant number have fewer than 10 people to make up rare Sunday congregations. Year on year the most vulnerable churches creep closer towards dilapidation and redundancy.

Good news, then, that the Chancellor has announced the formation of a church buildings task force to look into the sustainability of England’s historic churches and cathedrals.

The initiative appears to be predominantly an Anglican concern, though other denominations will find the outcomes applicable. Red-blooded Anglicans are voracious for committee reports of any kind, but this stands out in two important respects. First, it is being announced and delivered by the government and not the Church itself. Second, it is explicitly concerned with the funding models that might be needed to prop up the maintenance of the country’s historic church buildings.

Both of these points are badly needed, particularly by parish churches, which are more numerous, more vulnerable, and more easily overlooked than the country’s cathedrals. The UK is the only major European government to absolve itself of direct involvement in the care of its historic churches. Some key grant programmes using public funds are accessible to churches, but these are often competitive and are far from automatic.

The present ‘model’ of church building management is diffuse and inefficient. The decentralisation of the CofE has led to every one of the 16,000 parish churches in England operating its own unique system of management. 16,000 committees, 16,000 separate systems of fundraising and finance, 16,000 different approaches to maintenance and repair.

Last year an in-house Church Buildings Review concluded that the burden of maintenance was too much. It recommended that some buildings could be allowed to exist on fewer than the current legal minimum of six services per year necessary to qualify as a place of worship. Struggling parishes should also be allowed to transfer the duty of maintenance responsibility to another body.

There are various success stories of churches brought back from the brink, but the greater trend is one of staged withdrawal from the active use and care of rural church buildings. It is this slow-motion crisis that the government appears now to be recognising.

It can be expected that one of the models the task force will consider is the Churches Conservation Trust. The CCT takes on historic churches that are declared redundant by the CofE: they have around 345 such buildings in England, and almost all are of exceptional quality and importance. They are maintained on as little as £2,000 per church, per year.

A huge benefit of the CCT is not simply how cost effectively the Trust is able to operate – on a tiny fraction of the sums required by the CofE – but the contribution they make culturally. CCT churches are more reliably open and free to enter than many of their functioning Anglican counterparts. Many have revived local community involvement, and frequently invite innovative uses, from church camping (‘Champing’), to circus schools.

To achieve the same quality of management and public access as the CCT for all the country’s churches, change must be major and structural. A convincing case for drastic reform is desperately needed, but will come up against a Church that has been consistently reluctant to accept change or to relinquish control.

This task force can’t be expected to deliver such a dramatic level of reform. The prospect of keeping England’s ancient churches safe for future generations, and opening more up for the public to enjoy, will remain elusive for now. But by taking the debate outside of the Church, and looking directly at the sustainability of these buildings, we may see the beginning of a more practical discourse.

Lead image: used under Creative Commons licence (CC BY-SA 2.0)