Church Buildings Commission FAQs
Information to frequently asked questions about the Church Buildings Commission
What is the Church Buildings Commission all about?
The Diocese of Norwich, which covers Norfolk and Waveney in Suffolk, contains a vast wealth of history and heritage in its church buildings, arguably more so than any other Diocese. However, care of ancient buildings is not a core purpose of the Christian Church, but rather incidental to the use of buildings as centres of mission, worship and community. The Commission is an opportunity to think about the future of our church buildings in the widest possible terms, balancing competing interests and resources.
Who owns the Churches?
This is a technical question and has been the subject of debate in recent years. Legally, ownership of a church is generally vested in the incumbent (Vicar, Rector etc) and held on trust by the PCC(Parochial Church Council) for the parishioners. This means that churches and churchyards are not owned or directly controlled by either the Bishop or the Diocese.
Will the Commission decide what is to happen?
The Commission itself cannot make decisions, it is being set up to explore a wide variety of options and will make recommendations to the Bishop of Norwich and the Bishop’s Council of Trustees.
Who can have a say, and when?
During the period of the Commission’s work, a dedicated email was set up and comments were welcomed from anyone with an interest in church buildings. Particular groups were also approached directly for comment.
Who is responsible for the upkeep of Churches at the moment?
At present it is the Parochial Church Council who bear this responsibility. Some are small and yet care for a grade 1 or 2 star medieval building with precious few resources to do so.
Why are you looking at this now?
Small groups of local people have been trying to care for ancient buildings for a very long time. The availability of grants has recently reduced, in some places congregations have dwindled, and there is a backlog of necessary repairs. In addition, the government commissioned the Taylor report (published in 2017) and in appendix 5 showed that state/government support for religious buildings was lower in the UK than almost any other country surveyed.
What options will the Commission be exploring?
The Commission will explore any and every option it is able to do so. We will not shy away from difficult recommendations but will be aware of the place of the Church of England as the established Church as well as the many demands placed upon local church communities for mission, worship, community engagement and maintenance of historic buildings.
How much does it cost to maintain a medieval Church?
Excluding major repairs, insurance is the biggest cost associated with the building, although this is usually less than the contribution a PCC needs to make to the Diocese towards the costs of the post of their Vicar/Rector/Priest in Charge. Full buildings insurance can easily reach over £3000 per annum, and so many PCCs have to make choices about the level of cover and excess.
Every five years each church has to have a formal inspection by an architect, surveyor or other qualified person and those surveys estimate the cost of necessary repairs, often exceeding £250,000. In a village with, for example, a total population of 50 and a church congregation of less than 5, this is a huge sum of money.
Will you involve local people in decisions?
The Commission team consulted widely and spoke to many local people. The Commission team itself will not be making decisions, but making recommendations about how to approach the difficult issue on how to finance church buildings in the future.
Anyone with an interest in the church buildings could contribute via a dedicated email which is : email@example.com.
This email address is now closed. (July 2023)
Surely the Churches are important to tourism in Norfolk?
They are indeed, although of course, primarily they are centres for mission, worship and community rather than tourist attractions. Some churches do derive significant income from tourism and for many years there has been an encouragement for churches to be unlocked and open as much as possible to welcome causal visitors, whether to enjoy the building, to pray or simply to find some peace and quiet. However, tourism is not uniform across Norfolk and Waveney and there are some churches which are rarely visited.
What if some have to be closed, will they just go to ruin?
Churches have been part of the landscape in Norfolk and Waveney for centuries and there have been times of vigorous repair and adaption (for example during the Victorian era) while at other times the situation has been less positive.
If there is no one left to maintain a building, no heritage body prepared to fund it and no obvious use, some of these heritage assets may need to close. Once again, we emphasise that the Commission cannot make decisions, only recommendations and closure would be a last resort.
Why can’t the Church of England just pay for their upkeep?
Each PCC (Parochial Church Council) is an individual charity neither controlled nor funded by the ‘Church of England’. There are a variety of endowments nationally (some wealthy) almost all of which are restricted in what they are able to fund, usually clergy stipends (salaries) or for Bishops/Cathedrals. The amount of regular assistance from the national church to the Diocese has been gradually reducing and needs to be targeted at communities of greatest deprivation.
So what other uses could the Churches be put to?
There is no assumption in the Commissions’ work that churches will be put to other uses, although clearly, that is a possibility as a part of the Commission’s recommendations. Redundant churches are, and have been, used for a variety of alternative uses. For example, in Norwich there is the Norwich Historic Churches Trust which cares for 18 decommissioned churches which are used variously as an arts centre, artist studios, antiques shop and even a puppet theatre. But these sort of options are only usually possible in densely populated areas. In the county, there is the Norfolk Churches Trust which cares for 13 redundant churches and the Great Yarmouth Preservation Trust.
Even if a Church is reused in one of these or one of many other ways, care of the local community will transfer to another parish, and access to existing grave spaces would be preserved.