Seeking a Sustainable Future

Becky Clark


  Evershot, Dorse parish church
  Evershot, Dorset: parish churches from the focal point of countless villages and towns throughout the UK, tresured by both the wider community and their congregations. (Photo: Jonathan Taylor)

'Crumbling cathedrals', ‘Church in crisis’. ‘Ageing congregations put future at risk’. – All of these headlines have appeared in UK media over the past year, and all of them have accompanied articles which sought to suggest that the very existence of the Church of England as we know it is at risk. All were overly dramatic and, in the way of headlines, only really there to get people to read the full story. Nevertheless, all contained a kernel of truth.

The Church of England is the major player in English religious heritage, having within its ambit over 16,000 churches and innumerable vicarages, church halls, churchyards, burial grounds, and associated green spaces. Over 12,400 CofE churches are listed and 45 per cent of all England’s Grade I listed buildings are churches. Almost by accident the CofE has become the single largest manager of built heritage in the UK, and by and large it is doing its best to look after it.

At a local level, parishes retain responsibility for the care of their buildings, but this situation is becoming rarer. In France the state takes responsibility and in several other European countries both funding and administration have been centralised. England however has always resisted this approach, and arguably the nation is the better for it. To take away local responsibility is to take away local engagement and ownership. No matter how well-meaning, a large piece of centralised organisational machinery can never hope to understand the needs and wants or the hopes and dreams of every local community. That challenge and privilege must stay locally entrenched. This being said, it is not enough to state this principle and then leave them to flounder.

Deals with government (latterly via arm’s length bodies such as Historic England) have meant 40 years of continuous state support for the care of historic places of worship. Largely, this majored on the heritage significance of churches, but issues of community cohesion and social and economic input were also part of the deal. Churches, especially historic ones, were felt to be too valuable to be lost, and irreplaceable once gone. National money supported local care and ownership. It was a virtuous circle in which churches, when in good repair, could offer support of all kinds to the people of their community, in turn helping to build and develop the sorts of places that people wanted to live in. It wasn’t perfect and it didn’t help everyone, but for the most part it worked.

Sadly, we are now in a position where such funding simply no longer exists. The ‘bonfire of the quangos’ in 2010 led to English Heritage making significant changes, eventually resulting in its split into two organisations, with heritage protection legislation and listing ending up with the new Historic England. As part of seeking to minimise duplication, the Repair Grants for Places of Worship scheme was transferred wholesale to the Heritage Lottery Fund (now the National Lottery Heritage Fund) in a move that some senior people at HLF have latterly come to see as a mistake. Core funding of capital repairs was never part of HLF’s brief, and moreover, it was giving up a state-accepted responsibility to a nonstatutory body. We all had reason to rue the original decision when, after five years, HLF wrapped up what was by then called the Grants for Places of Worship scheme into its general funds, bringing to an end dedicated money for places of worship capital repair and restoration work. Churches will, from now on, be applying for HLF money using their standard criteria, competing with all other forms of heritage.

  St James', West Hampstead, London
  St James', West Hampstead, London welcomes the wider community through its doors with its new Sherriff Centre, which includes a post office, cafe and play area. (Photo: Katie Garner)

It stands to the credit of the government that, in difficult times, it sought to help. The Listed Places of Worship Roof Repairs Fund was announced by George Osborne in 2014 and, over the coming two years, awarded £55 million to places of worship. Cathedrals, Catholic and CofE, also benefitted from the First World War Centenary Cathedral Repairs Fund, worth £40 million. Both of these have had a huge impact, but among all the good news stories was the certainty that short-term pots of money were not enough to solve the underlying problem.

The Taylor Review of English Cathedral and Church Buildings Sustainability was commissioned in April 2016, reporting to the Chancellor and Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. Its aim was ‘to examine the funding and sustainability of listed Church of England buildings, and consider how to ensure that the thousands of listed church buildings, many of which define our towns, cities and villages, are conserved for future generations.’1 This was the government asking for ideas about a long-term solution, one which didn’t limit the definition of churches to either their religious, community or potential commercial use, but accepted a multivalent position, where overlapping uses and groups of people worked together for a sustainable future. It was a hugely exciting opportunity.

The entire report is available online and is worth a read for anyone who either cares about the future of churches, or who questions why so much time and money has been put into them over the years. It seeks to answer the obvious yet provocative question: ‘Why doesn’t the Church of England look after them itself?’ It draws out examples where extended use of church buildings, alongside their purpose as places of worship, has brought in new communities to help with the collective task of caring for the place.

The Taylor Review makes several recommendations. Key among these is the importance of strengthening the resource which supports the development of sustainable churches. In this instance, resource means people. Historic England and the Church of England have known for years that support officers working at diocesan level can help projects succeed, ideas flower, and finances appear. Taylor picks this up and re-imagines it as two roles in each diocese: one looking at community development and action, the other focusing on building maintenance. These two are to work together in a dance devised to fit their local surroundings, balancing the necessary work between them, managing a small pot of grant cash for repairs and acting as gatekeepers to a larger national pot for major works, as well as advising on where else might the funding come for the really large or ambitious ideas.

At the heart of this proposal is a return to the point about local ownership and care. Taylor accepts the crucial nature of the parish relationship. This is about supporting that relationship and helping it to work, not taking powers away.

The upshot of the review is the government’s investment in a £1.8 million, two-year pilot of these recommendations. Greater Manchester and Suffolk (the local authority areas, rather than the dioceses, as this will be an all faiths pilot) will each appoint two officers who will work with a project manager based at Historic England. They will work with faith groups within their area, predominantly but not limited to the Church of England dioceses, to identify key areas for them to focus their efforts on during an 18-month trial period. The pilot areas were carefully chosen: one north, one south; one mainly urban, one largely rural; both with existing strategic approaches to church buildings into which the pilots can fit.

  A library in the bell tower of St Peter's, Peterchurch, Herefordshire
  A library in the bell tower of St Peter's, Peterchurch, Herefordshire (Photo: Church of England)

We will have to wait until 2020 to see exactly what the pilot schemes achieve. Training and evaluation are built into the scheme, so we will have a very good record of what this is. There are, of course, other models that could have been attempted but the CofE, working with Historic England and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, is trying this one. We already know that having good people on the ground doesn’t just give better access to key resources through expertise and availability, but also helps to boost the confidence of parochial church councils, church friends groups, local history societies and others to try out new ideas.

Churches can be post offices and cafés. Churches can be a social care centre one day and the village shop the next. Churches can be doctor’s surgeries, refuge centres, night shelters and food banks and they can do all this while still remaining churches. Churches are places of care and sanctuary, worship and joy. They should be open, they should be welcoming and they should be the opposite of a private members club with unspoken rules on who can join.

The Taylor pilots will not please everyone, but they acknowledge the unique place of religious heritage and in particular the parish church in English life. They accept a shared responsibility for supporting their local
care and development and with the right assistance, churches can secure and continue to grow their offering to the people of England. A sturdy roof and a warm building is just the start.

1http://bc-url/taylor-review pg.10

Historic Churches 2018


BECKY CLARK is director of churches and cathedrals at the Church of England and secretary of the Church Buildings Council and Cathedrals Fabric Commission for England Cathedrals Fabric Commission for England. She trained as an archaeologist and has an MA in Heritage Management from the Ironbridge Institute and an MBA from Warwick Business School. Becky previously worked for English Heritage in the planning policy team and chief executive’s office. She is treasurer of the Society for Church Archaeology.


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