Monday, 14 June 2021

Money shortage facing our crumbling churches

EACH year, churches in the Henley area contribute a large sum of money to the Oxford Diocese.

EACH year, churches in the Henley area contribute a large sum of money to the Oxford Diocese.

The cash goes towards clergy’s pay, pensions and training costs.

But while in recent years the size of the demand has been rising, the number of people attending church has remained static or fallen, meaning that donations have shrunk too.

At the same time, the cost of maintaining the fabric of churches has grown as the buildings show their age.

It doesn’t take a professor of mathematics to work out that this adds up to a problem for the Church of England.

The Henley deanery, which is made up of 26 churches, expects to fail to meet the dioceses’s demand, known as the parish share, for the second year running this year.

Last year, it was £50,000 short of the total and this year, it expects to fall about £100,000 short of a higher demand of £606,000.

The Rev Duncan Carter, vicar of Holy Trinity Church in Henley, says his church was paying £17,000 when he joined in 1997 but the figure has increased to more than £39,000 and is due to rise again.

He says: “We weren’t able to pay what we were asked to last year but paid what we could.

“Like other churches, I think the main three things that affect us are the changing patterns of attendance, where a lot of people come but less frequently, the age of our buildings and the Henley demographic which means we’ve got an older community on fixed incomes.

“We’ve got £250,000 worth of repairs over a five-year period to fund. A lot of people think the church is rich or the Government pays for it but it’s all through voluntary contributions of time, money and commitment.”

Mr Carter believes the future of the buildings could be in doubt if the funding problems persist but is confident about the future of the church itself.

He says: “If people want these historic buildings maintained something has to give to make that possible because community resources aren’t being funded by the community at present.

“If people don’t want them then they will disappear but the parishioners will carry on meeting at other places and thrive.”

The Rev Mark Blamey is facing a demand of almost £120,000 for the three churches in his benefice, St Thomas’ in Goring, St Andrew’s in South Stoke and St Mary’s in Streatley but says finding the money is a “real challenge”.

He explains: “It’s very hard to meet the demands levied upon smaller churches in this area, try as we do to get to the figures we need.

“The principle of us subsidising the poorest parishes is fine but in the current economic climate it’s very difficult to maintain beautiful Norman churches.

“It’s not that we’re not doing what we should but there’s only so much one can do. There’s a misconception about how the church communities can meet the sums involved.”

The Rev Graham Foulis-Brown will have to stump up almost £90,000 for his three churches, All Saints’ in Peppard, St John in Kidmore End and Christ the King in Sonning Common.

He has never failed to pay an annual parish share but doesn’t know whether he will be able to do so this year.

“One of the problems is that our commitment is to pay the parish share before we do anything like buy a lightbulb,” he says. “The maintenance of our buildings costs more year on year.

“Bringing in electricians or having a roof check is all very expensive and the parish share is in addition to keeping the roof on the place. Whether or not we can pay the parish share depends on what’s coming up in terms of maintenance issues.”

The Rev Canon Martyn Griffiths, rector of St Mary’s in Henley and St Nicholas in Remenham, says the size of his congregations is healthy but many parishioners are struggling in the economic downturn.

“People’s giving is largely related to their income and we all know that the people in work have been quite pinched because of little or no increase in their salaries.

“A lot of members of our congregation are on fixed incomes because many of them are pensioners. Even if they are on company pensions those aren’t keeping pace with costs.

“Although people are giving generously, we’re just not able to keep pace. We keep being asked for more and more.”

He blames the levels of bureaucracy within the church and the amount of paperwork ministers have to complete.

Canon Martyn says: “If a parish is to have a curate these days there are pages and pages of continuous paperwork that has to be completed time after time, which then needs to be sent to the diocese.

“I had to spend half an hour the other week with a churchwarden counting funerals and weddings over the past year, even though the diocese already had these details.”

Like a business, the church tightens up when it is stretched economically and reduces staff so that more responsibilities fall on those remaining.

At one time most churches would have their own priest but now each minister is likely to look after a number of parishes.

Canon Martyn says: “We’re trying to do a job with decreasing resources. It’s often been seen as the easiest way to go to have a priest looking after more churches.

“We’re not dissimiliar to the rest of the world in that we’ve been doing that for a long time but you get to the point where the whole thing begins to become intolerable for those who are still trying to be a parish priest.

“We’ve been feeling the effects for a long time and it’s getting to near- crisis point.”

Another effect of the financial squeeze on churches is that they struggle to help charities in the way they have done traditionally.

Canon Martyn says: “We’re not saying that the parishes haven’t got to make proper contributions towards costs but those costs are such that we’re having to cut back a lot in the parish.

“We had a target of a percentage of our income to give to charities but we’ve had to move away from that idea to an actual figure.

“That figure has been static for the past couple of years. Everything has had to be cut back or frozen.”

He adds: “I just hope that the synods and senior clergy will listen to what’s going on. Even the church will feel the crisis when the money runs out and it’s getting closer in the parishes.

“A lot of people think the Church of England is terribly wealthy but once we start eating into that capital it’s a black hole spiral.”

Canon Martyn says one of the most pressing issues facing clergy is the maintenance of the churches themselves. St Mary’s dates back to the 13th century and in 2010 a £750,000 appeal was launched to fund roof repairs in the absence of government grants or Lottery funding.

Canon Martyn says churches have partially relied on Lottery grants but these were reduced as money was diverted towards the London Olympics last year.

He says: “I don’t regret the Games in the slightest but it now looks like it will take a long time for that money to come back and it means more buildings will be in more danger of disrepair. A lot of people said when it was first decided that the money for the Olympics would come from Lottery funding that we would see almost the end of a lot of restoration work on important buildings and that’s proven to be the case.

“Not that we entirely relied on the Lottery funding, but it was a major source of funding for a lot of medieval buildings.”

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