Church Buildings Division speech to General Synod
Location: General Synod, Church House, Westminster
As Chairman of the Church Buildings Division I am very grateful to Synod and to the Dioceses of Ripon and Leeds and Lichfield for the opportunity to sketch some of the recent progress in a campaign which is relevant to every community in our country. Our churches and cathedrals offer an interface between the Church and the People of England which has huge missionary potential.
When I was Bishop of Stepney in the East End I vividly remember visiting a Church which presented a doleful aspect. As I walked round with the Churchwarden noting the damp and the peeling stucco, he said – “You know Bish, I think it’s only inertia that keeps us going.”
The picture today is very different. At the end of last week I re-visited St Paul’s Old Ford in the heart of Eastenders territory. When I first knew this church it was out of use with a dangerous structure order on it. Today thanks to inspired leadership from a member of this Synod, Prebendary Philippa Boardman supported by the local community and in partnership with heritage agencies, the growing congregation has a repristinated sanctuary and a specially built ark within the cavernous church is home to a variety of organisations whose aims are in sympathy with this outward looking church.
There is a gym with services for local people who need physiotherapy as well as a charity “Into University” which gives access to higher education to young people from families with no experience of college and university life. There are other services housed in St Paul’s and a thriving cafe. It has become once again a community hub in a way that has enriched worship and opened channels of communication between Church and Parish. For God love is not an emotion but self giving, and self giving is the sort of participation in the mission of God which is most persuasive.
St Paul’s is in the inner city but there are many rural examples. In January the Bishop of Hereford re-opened St Leonard’s Church in Yarpole near Leominster. It’s a mediaeval church with a substantial detached bell tower. It had been cluttered and underused.
As so often in rural areas other local services were contracting. The temporary building in the pub car park housing the community shop was under threat. The solution has been to re-establish the shop and a post office at the West End of the Church leaving the nave clear for worship and other communal activities while preserving the handsome chancel decorated by Giles Gilbert Scott in the 19th century. Andrew Johnson, chairman of the village working group commented, “We have created an amazing new centre to the village, ensuring the future of the church and shop, essential in keeping a village alive.”
No one is suggesting a wholesale conversion of churches to secular uses. The worship of God is primary and we also recognise our responsibility to care for the best of the past. But churches that are involved in their communities in a multi faceted way; who are looking to serve; can also experience spiritual regeneration.
There is widespread appreciation of the role of our churches and cathedrals as community hubs and treasuries of English art and culture.
That is why an influential committee of MPs, the Public Accounts Committee, called last month for direct assistance to a number of Cathedrals from public funds to assist them to offer free public access. Such assistance is of course almost universal among our partners in the European Union.
We are fortunate in the Staff and membership of the Cathedral Fabric Commission. Frank Field MP, the Chairman, has set out an impressive record of achievement in the recent publication “Creativity and Care: new works in English Cathedrals”. At the same time several Cathedrals are developing ambitious plans with local partners to regenerate their urban settings, drawing up plans in conjunction with local authorities and community groups.
The Division as a whole continues to work with our partners in English Heritage and the Lottery to preserve the best of what we have inherited. The knowledge and commitment of the staff to this work under the leadership of Janet Gough is second to none.
Key to the strategy of the Division is Churchcare, our website for church buildings. I hope that you will visit the site if you have not already done so. Its development has been greatly assisted by the Ecclesiastical Insurance Group to whom we owe a large debt of gratitude.
But an important part of the work is building capacity throughout the church. Last October the Division ran its first induction day for new DAC members. The Gloucester DAC Chairman and Secretary displayed considerable histrionic talent in the role play exercise. There is a further induction day on 18 March for the Northern Province.
English heritage has been particularly helpful in setting aside £1.5 million to assist with the funding of historic buildings support officers based in Dioceses. Usually half the cost of the post is covered by English Heritage and there are 12 such officers in post and more Dioceses are exploring how to make use of the fund.
In the UK we have had a free market in religious ideas and anti-religious ideas since we ceased to be a confessional state in 1828. Christian faith relates to British citizens and to the State in a variety of ways and the State should not be expected to subsidise one faith rather than another. Mission and evangelism is our business but the MP’s recognized the significant community role of our cathedrals in education, culture, tourism, the local economy, the preservation of traditional craft skills and very significantly as a base for voluntary effort. The same could be said for many of our parish churches as well. We are the custodians of country wide infra structure which would take billions to replicate and which has huge potential at a time of financial stringency.
A recent report from five government departments entitled “Churches – Realizing the Potential” embraces not only Church of England buildings but those belonging to our Oecumenical partners and to other faiths as well. We all owe a debt of gratitude to Anne Sloman of the Archbishops’ Council and now Chair of the Church Buildings Council for her pertinacity in lobbying Ministers and Civil Servants in advance of this report. With me in tow we had an instructive series of meetings with senior ministers and their teams. We discovered that almost all the constituency MPs among them had a positive story to tell from their own part of the country about a church that had opened itself up to the wider community. What was harder for them to discern was the aggregate potential of our 16,000 church buildings. There was appreciation and support from across the political and faith spectrum. Andy Burnham at that time Secretary of State for Culture media and Sport was the minister charged by Gordon Brown to co-ordinate the Government response. The report identifies sources of funding which are already available for churches working to enhance their role as community hubs. I was especially grateful for the enthusiastic endorsement and practical help of Sadiq Khan then in the Department of Communities and Local Government. Other people however recognized his abilities and he was soon promoted. This points to one of our challenges, the need in the face of a constant churn of ministers and civil servants to make the case over and over again to those responsible in the relevant departments.
Where members of Synod in particular can help is in response to the disturbing comments from a number of those we met – I can see the case you are making but why don’t we hear about it from our own constituencies. Our affections are understandably engaged by the particular churches we know and support but it is vital that we all inform ourselves and participate in the national campaign to complement the huge efforts of worshippers and tens of thousands of volunteers by a level of public funding commensurate with the public benefit which flows from our churches. MPs as we all know take more notice of the evidence of their post bag than any number of press releases from central bodies.
Just now we have a particular challenge. As we struggle to maintain the community’s inheritance of listed churches and cathedrals it has always seemed bizarre that we are charged VAT on such work. The extent of VAT is of course a Brussels matter. In France where the State is responsible for the upkeep of all ecclesiastical buildings before 1904, my information is that the VAT charge is a simple book keeping exercise where no money changes hands. In our different circumstances it was a considerable extra burden. I am not making a party political point but it is impossible to ignore the personal role of Gordon Brown in devising a scheme, the Listed Places of Worship Grants Scheme, which is legal under Europe regulations but which has the effect of repaying the sums levied under VAT. Since 2001 more than £100 has been returned to local Churches and Cathedrals throughout the UK- £81 million has gone to England.
The scheme is due to expire however in March 2011 and we need your help to ensure that it is renewed. You will be hearing more about this topic in the debate that follows.
Churches are first and foremost a witness to God and a base for mission. And the opportunities are very great. We are building on the astonishing fact confirmed by recent research by Opinion Research Bureau that 85% of the population of Great Britain had visited a church during the past twelve months for a variety of purposes.
We are also building on the work of tens of thousands of volunteers and we ought to celebrate their achievements. Thank God for the noble army of churchwardens. If each one only spends five hours a week on buildings matters – that is 20,000 working days per annum given for love. They are supported by the goodly fellowship of members of church councils and DACs and by the glorious company of those who welcome visitors and organise the volunteering that operates out of church buildings. We all have stories to tell. One of my own most recent experiences is opening a day care centre for the children of children at school so that the young mothers can share the care for their children without having to abandon their studies. This project was only possible because of the willingness of the local church community to share their building.
But that is only one side of the story. Some of our volunteers are close to exhaustion and there is a question mark over the sustainability of their achievements and our capacity to make the optimum use of what we have inherited in a context where the responsibilities attached to the maintenance of buildings are increasingly complex.
Of the making of many reports there is no end and most of them lie bed-ridden in the dormitory of the soul. We need your help. The Church Buildings Division working hard at the limits of its modest resources and you support for the campaign is vital. You will find in your places some crucial facts which should help you to confute gainsayers in the lounge bar of the Pig and Whistle and to convert the wider community to a cause which brings benefits to social cohesion.
Our long term aim remains a more symmetrical relationship with public funders as we care for 45% of all the grade one listed buildings in the country and thousands of other community assets. We are aiming at a 50-50 split on repairs with the cash targeted at the most needy places. What is wanted is nothing short of a new financial settlement with both central and regional government which reflects the significance of these community assets. We are looking for recognition and representation on Regional Development and Cultural bodies. In present circumstances however with such a pressure on the public finances, our immediate aim must be the renewal of the Listed Places of Worship Grant Scheme.
I am looking forward to the debate that follows and to developing our campaign. Make no mistake about it – the obstacles we have to surmount are formidable. The walls of Jericho did not fall just because the Israelites passed a resolution. This is going to be long campaign to surmount prejudice and ignorance and we shall fail unless we develop a united voice, unless we re-iterate our case with proper pride and confidence in what we have achieved. The active enthusiasm of members of Synod is vital if we are to succeed.