Church Buildings Review

Society Submits Response to the Church Buildings Review Report

The Society of Antiquaries of London is a registered charity and the senior national Learned Society in Britain concerned with the study and understanding of the past. Founded in 1707, the Society is charged by its Royal Charter of 1751 with ‘the encouragement, advancement and furtherance of the study and knowledge of the antiquities and history of this and other countries’.

We therefore recognize that understanding the past is relevant to present and future generations; that the tasks of safeguarding, protecting and disseminating knowledge about heritage are important for the world of today; and that research and debate about, as well as respect and appreciation for, the material remains of the past created by all peoples in all parts of the world are fundamental to our understanding of ourselves. Church buildings, as the report carefully states, occupy a special place within this context.

The Review Group’s Report is very welcome, in view of its updated look at the problems posed by 16,000 church buildings in the care of the Church of England, the first such review since the late 1980s. Thanks to Government and Lottery support, many church buildings are in a reasonable state of repair, and there are some answers to the problems posed. There is time to implement some of the solutions that the Report suggests, so long as the momentum generated by the Report is sustained.

It clearly makes sense that all of the staff at national level that deal with church buildings, should blend their skills into a single team, answering in due course to a new statutory commission. This should encourage as national an overview as appears possible, and provide the needed leadership in this area, particularly as the Review concludes that solutions to the problems of church maintenance, repair and retention should continue to be sought on a diocese by diocese basis. There is surely scope, however, for a more robust national delivery of certain initiatives. Examples might be templates for “festival” churches (surely the CCT have been doing something akin to this for years?), or legal frameworks for setting up diocesan trusts. It is hard to escape the view that if dioceses had a local answer, it would be being implemented by some, if not all. Recent initiatives by Lincoln, Norwich and Exeter to create local diocesan ‘trusts’ to care for effectively redundant churches depends heavily on finding an endowment, and many charitable bodies are chasing that same goal. 

For many years Government, through English Heritage grants, recognised the need for financial support aimed at congregations – and the report points out how small some of these now are - who were and still are shouldering the burden of curating significant parts of the nation’s heritage. Responsibility for providing an element of support from public funds has shifted to a great extent onto the lottery, since the only regular ‘large grant’ scheme is the HLF Grants for Places of Worship. Its existence is vital, but this income from gambling is an uncomfortable source of support for some parishes, and the scheme is also considered complicated by congregations as well as being anomalous among its grant schemes by HLF.  The 2015 and 2016 UK-wide Roof Repair Fund is a big step in the right direction, and its existence needs to be built on by the Report’s recommendations more concertedly. In addition to roof repairs, perhaps Government could be persuaded of the need for a similar UK-wide scheme to deliver planned maintenance, as possibly the only way in which the corner could be turned between major cyclical repairs and a more preventative approach for the upkeep of listed church buildings.

State care in some form for churches is practised in most other European countries, and is by implication in this report (at recommendation 1) a goal to be aimed for. This Report could do more to pave the way for the case to be made. The Report makes it clear that the CofE no longer has enough people in churches outside the suburbs interested enough to volunteer to manage these buildings for religious use, occasional community use and as monuments for everyone to visit if they wish. And it seems unlikely that new local trustees will come forward for church buildings without the backing from a larger organisation able to organise regular maintenance and major repairs, to take the role occupied by the diocese now.

The Review Group has recommended a Statutory Commission of the Church of England to oversee all its work with buildings, which is welcome, but this would simply replace existing National Church bodies and not be investigative. The Chairman of Historic England has suggested that an independent Royal Commission should thoroughly investigate and report on the future of at least listed places of worship. Although the Review Group has not seen fit to recommend such an overarching review, a Royal Commission would seem a good way forward, even if it might take some years to complete, and could have more political clout to persuade Government that the current burden on parishes is too onerous. When the Chancellor states in his budget speech that “One of the best investments we can make as a nation is in our extraordinary arts, museums, and heritage”, it is time to press the point home.

The Society's statement of values, which were agreed by Council earlier this year, guide the Society's Policy Committee in all areas.