Suppose a public body owned tens of thousands of acres of real estate across England, mostly in prime residential areas. Suppose it showed little inclination to rationalise its holdings in any tough-minded way, but drifted on, barely able to maintain the property it owned. Would there not be a strong case for HM Government to step in and reclaim some of these assets from the inertia-bound body?
Such a body exists. She is called the Church of England. There can hardly be a reader who within a few minutes’ walk from his own doorstep could not identify acres of land with a crumbling building in the middle of it, often of no architectural interest at all, which is locked and empty for most of the week or, when open, used to only a fraction of its capacity.
That all Church lands and buildings are ultimately the property of the Crown is surely beyond dispute. Unless Henry VIII reigned in vain he must be judged to have seized from Rome the ownership and control of the Church’s fixed assets in England. Nor is it plausible to contend that the English Church was thereafter implicitly privatised and handed back to her own clerical hierarchy. The monarch became and remained supreme governor, and Parliament gained its own authority over the Church regulation. So far as the things that are Caesar’s are concerned, the human organisation we call the Church of England holds her material property and exercises her secular powers on sufferance from the Crown. What the Crown giveth, the Crown may take away.
For ‘Crown’ read ‘HM Government’. The evolution of constitutional monarchy since Henry VIII’s day has seen the assumption by Parliament from the monarch of almost all powers relating to government and administration, as well as effective possession of the instruments of government and the property that goes with them.
Very well, then: as the Church’s requirements and resources diminish, and as parts of her immense and sprawling property port-folio languish unexploited, it may be time to start thinking about returning them to their owner of last resort: the state.
To venture into this territory is, I realise, to enter a minefield of ancient wisdom and dignified expertise. Sir Patrick Cormack MP will have a view. Lord St John of Fawsley will have a view. But though constitutionalists may wrangle until the cows come home, there remains to most of us something clear and elemental about what Henry VIII did. He seized lands and buildings from Rome and licensed a reconstituted Church hierarchy to take the reins, subject to God and the English monarchy. His successor, who these days is really Parliament, is free to take all or any of it back.
A case can be made for doing so in the interests not only of secular England but of the Church of England herself. As regards her own property, the Church is now grotesquely overstretched. She owns about five times as much land and buildings as she needs or can keep in good repair; and many within the Church know that. The looming presence all across the land, in every neighbourhood, town or village, of an imposing church on a generous piece of turf gives a vastly exaggerated impression of the power, influence and active membership of that organisation. All three are but a shadow of what they were in Henry VIII’s time. Without disrespect to the good and enthusiastic work still being done within the Anglican Church’s dwindling flock, it is hardly a caricature to describe the outward and visible presence of Anglicanism — its property — as a sort of huge husk.
Husks are expensive to maintain. I served on the judging panel of the Georgian Group last year, choosing winners in a range of categories, one of which was the restoration of Georgian churches. We heard a lively argument in a case where an architecturally outstanding church in sad disrepair in a now impoverished neighbourhood had needed tremendous sums spent on it. But at least one clergymen felt his calling was to his parishioners and their needs, not the restoration of important buildings; and he felt that Church funds should follow his calling.
Reading the Gospels, it is hard to think that Jesus would have urged a different conclusion. For how much longer can a shrinking Church spend her shrinking income on fine buildings for which there is declining religious demand?
I propose a radical solution: the Network Rail solution. The state should reassert ownership and control over the Church’s physical network, her permanent material assets: land, buildings and works of art. All should be placed within the control of a quasi-governmental but free-standing body whose governors would be appointed by the Anglican Synod, arts and heritage organisations, the world of business and the Secretary of State. Let us call it Network Faith. It would own the bricks and mortar and real estate of the Church, just as Network Rail owns the tracks of the railways.
The Church in her ministry, like a rail company franchisee, would negotiate with Network Faith for the leasing of such of these assets as were genuinely needed, on a church-by-church, cathedral-by-cathedral basis. Many could be franchised for peppercorn rents; and in keeping with modern, multi-faith England, other faiths, tendencies and sects should be free to express an interest in particular leases.
Shouldn’t the Catholics get a few of their cathedrals back? In London the Methodists deserve something nicer than Methodist Central Hall. And ghastly old Victorian urban churches, neo-Gothic piles, would make very nice mosques: rip out the pews, paint the interior white and put carpets down. Network Faith would be non-profit-making and self-financing, cross-subsidising the maintenance of important buildings from income raised by the disposal or commercial leasing of redundant properties of no heritage value.
Such a reform would allow the Church of England to relinquish important buildings for which she has little modern use, without being accused of neglecting her heritage. Network Faith would take responsibility on the nation’s behalf for the buildings’ upkeep. It is unrealistic to suppose that charities in the mould of the National Trust would be able to take on redundant churches as the Church sheds them — they would soon be swamped.
In many cases new uses could be found for important old buildings; but there’s an awful lot of naff 20th and gloomy 19th-century stuff which should be demolished to make way for housing. Others would make good yuppie apartments. Some (look at the success of St John’s, Smith Square) can be turned into auditoria, antiques emporia or carpet warehouses. The Church of England needs the faith-based equivalent of the Beeching plan, but (timidly though she tries) she finds it hard to reach and impose cruel decisions like this, because every congregation, however tiny, wants to keep its church. So the decisions should be taken out of the Church’s hands.
I started this column with tongue partly in cheek. As I finish it, I may be serious.
Matthew Parris is a political columnist of the Times.