I was told when looking at this job that I would be able to concentrate on ministry because the major building jobs had been systematically tackled in the last few years. And, yes, a prodigious amount had been done, and at the daughter church we may even be about to return some money to heritage bodies because the work there was cheaper than expected and fully funded.
But I find that one of the two parish churches is just negotiating renewing its heating boiler (for which funding is in hand) and will soon face renewing its main roof (not funded – and the funding stream which enabled earlier roof work has dried up), and the other is developing urgent plans for rewiring, for a new lighting scheme which it seems sensible to tackle at the same time, and for substantial redecoration consequent on both this work and earlier work (towards which accumulated funds will only make a partial contribution).
And this is all in a locally clear version of a nationally recognised context of smaller regular congregations already being asked to meet substantially increased levels of payments to their dioceses whilst the national heritage funding streams which have met the biggest parts of such costs in the most recent past are smaller or more heavily competed for or have indeed ceased to operate at all.
I’ve frequently said that local congregations have rarely contributed the money to build or restore their churches at any point in history. On the contrary, the size of ancient parish churches usually simply reflects the prosperity of the local mediaeval merchant or manored classes, remarkably so in areas with substantial ‘wool’ churches. There is always a good chance that their guidebooks record restoration funded by something like a rich eighteenth century Anglo-Catholic squire or a wealthy nineteenth century Evangelical Vicar. Here both parish churches (one rebuilt in 1880 and the other built in 1910) were largely funded by the same mill owning family.
All of which is background to saying that the Government published a new report after Christmas on the ‘sustainability of English churches’, by which it means buildings rather than Christian communities. The Working Party had two clergy (a Bishop and a Dean) but otherwise consisted of ‘the great and the good’ of the heritage industry, so the main focus is an awareness that three quarters of the Church of England’s buildings are listed and that 45% of Grade 1 listed buildings nationally are parish churches.
Their best shot is that diligence in routine maintenance will reduce or even eliminate the need for unaffordable substantial repairs in the future. They are, of course, half right: poor routine maintenance will certainly increase the frequency of major emergency repairs. But I suspect they are also a little optimistic: significantly expensive projects such as our re-roofing and re-wiring ones will come round however systematic locally funded routine maintenance is.
Their major proposal is that a significant tranche of the more limited Government grant making capacity should be diverted to finance a network of Community Support Advisers (CSAs) and Fabric Support Advisers (FSAs). The CSAs would work with churches to ensure their widest possible use, thus developing a group of people as large as possible who value and are committed to each local church. The FSAs would work with every listed church to ensure a proper maintenance programme is followed through.
I hope that what my last parish in Grimsby and my present parishes around Haworth have been and are doing model at least a good part of what these CSAs and FSAs would advise. My experience of wider community use is that it can reflect a Gospel commitment to the local community and can improve local income streams to increase the chance of routine maintenance being delivered well, but that it simply doesn’t build a wider constituency able to give the substantial amounts which one off major appeals require. My experience of rolling maintenance plans intended to cover major repairs is that most average sized congregations would find the additional level of expenditure involved very challenging even when spread out over a ten year period.
One of their further recommendations is that the law is clarified so that it is clear that local authorities can make grants to churches. This would be welcome at a ministry level – there have been small level grant opportunities for specific pieces of work from which we have been excluded from applying in both Grimsby and now here. But this week’s Keighley News once again reports the extreme position local authorities are now in (Bradford ceasing to fund public conveniences and bowling greens, our local Parish Council worrying about the maintenance costs if it tries to take these sorts of things on) so I can’t see substantial grant making support for local buildings of importance for heritage and for community cohesion coming from this source.
And many more words than the report attempts need to be said about the value of praying in these buildings and what they represent.
The picture was taken on Oxenhope Moor soon after Christmas.