As we have become a more and more secular culture, Christian church attendances have generally reduced. It is now reaching the point where an important element of the country’s cultural heritage is coming under threat – ancient churches, notably those in rural areas that are suffering most with shrinking congregations. I am as guilty as any, while I still put “C of E” on forms I am a high days and holidays man.
I visited one such church today and spoke with the churchwarden. It is a fine-looking building, the church being mentioned in the Domesday Book, but the present structure was progressively built and rebuilt from the 12th Century. It is full of history going back to Saxon times, and in my opinion should be preserved.
The responsibility for keeping the church rests the congregation. They already have to pay for the preservation of the building fabric, but for a group Ministry comprising of 5 parishes (with one rector) they have to pay the Diocese £15,000 per quarter. This more than covers the stipend of the rector, but it is also to pay for the Bishop and all his “ecclesiastical servants”. The paying of this stipend is becoming harder and harder. The churchwarden told me that the congregation could be as small as six, although for the Christmas Carol service it would be packed with families. If they cannot pay, then one day the church will have to close, and yet another part of our heritage will have disappeared.
When we look at other countries, the state funds the state church. In Norway the state pays for the entire operation of the Lutherian State Church. In Germany, citizens have a Kirchensteuer of 0.5%, which they elect to have paid to the denomination of their choice. In Britain we have a state church, but no state funding for that church.
I can hear the cries already from UKIP members: “But we want to reduce taxes and government expenditure” and indeed I would be one of those making those noises but for my understanding of what is happening to an important plank of our national heritage. So, I checked up on UKIP policy, albeit the 2010 Manifesto, but without any new policies released, that is the best reference I have. I quote this statement at you “We oppose disestablishment of Church, and believe the Monarch should remain Defender of the Faith – faith being the Church of England”. And while there is nothing specific, our policies have a flavour of wanting to retain our British culture and heritage.
If we support an established Church, then I suggest we need to put our money where our mouth is. The Church Commissioners are able to provide some funding from their operations, so we are not talking a vast sum of money to “run” the church, to pay the stipends of the clergy and essential ecclesiastical servants they may require (but an absolute minimum of them!). Having taken care of that item, it can then be left to the congregations to maintain the fabric of their places of worship, and fundraising efforts for that could extend into the whole community.
It’s not a big cost item, it would help preserve an important element of our heritage, and bears serious consideration, albeit a “second tier” item lower down the priority list.