Old rectories and vicarages (collectively known as parsonages) are more popular with private buyers than any other type of house. But not with the Church of England. It has been selling off its traditional working parsonages as a matter of policy ever since the Second World War, to the delight of private buyers, with such determination that it has now lost at least ten thousand of these fine houses, argues Anthony Jennings.
The 43 diocesan offices are now responsible for the maintenance of parsonages, but in legal terms they remain in the ownership of the incumbent, though archdeacons are reluctant to tell you that. So how can the bishops sell them? The incumbent can veto their sale while in office, but it is during an interregnum that those traditional parsonages that remain become vulnerable.
Old vicarage in Bury, Lancashire
by Ingy the Wingy (creative commons)
How do the dioceses seek to justify their sales of such valuable assets? Some are sold off because parishes are being combined and a parsonage is no longer needed. This may be seen as the most legitimate reason. But why, even then, is it necessary to sell? Why not keep the 'redundant' parsonage, in case it becomes needed again, and let it out, earning income, as Save Our Parsonages (SOP) has been urging for many years? The dioceses claim that they do not have the resources to manage property, but it is something that agents are well versed in and can easily handle.
Maintenance is another problem, they say, and indeed the maintenance recommended by the quinquennial inspection is not always carried out. The poor state of repair of the house is often later used as an argument for selling. The result is a depressed price in the marketplace.
There are various other reasons given. Traditional parsonages are costly to heat. Large gardens are hard work. The clergy are embarrassed to live in better houses than those of their flock. But the modern houses are often too small for parish and community purposes, and far worse built. Finally, they argue that the parsonage is a private house, and the vicar should not be disturbed. But it is well settled in law that 'a rectory ....is a house ......to be used for spiritual, pastoral and procedural duties' (per Lord Denning MR).
Of course the Church should be cost conscious and efficient, like any organisation. But look at the statistics. In 1983 308 'unsuitable' houses were sold at an average price of £63,930. But 76 new parsonages were built in their place, at an average cost of £76,199, and 105 houses were bought at an average cost of £60,306. In other words, the unit cost of the vastly inferior replacement houses was rather higher than the sale proceeds of those fine houses which are nowadays selling for millions in private hands. And the Church gains no benefit at all from this financial bonanza.
Traditional parsonages are usually situated at the heart of the community and are not only symbolically central to village life but of great practical use for PCC and parish meetings, pastoral care, fetes and garden parties (raising money for the parish), and so on. Where they still exist, such use is widespread, as SOP surveys have consistently shown. That hardly makes them 'unsuitable'.
Not only that, but SOP casework clearly demonstrates that the 'great parsonage sell-off' has damaged the relationship between parish and diocese. Churchwardens and PCCs understand and represent local concerns, but their wishes are ignored and there is often no prior consultation. The parishes do not even get any benefit from the money raised from these sales. Except to the extent needed to finance a new parsonage, if any, it is whisked away to centralised diocesan accounts, to be spent in ways which are never revealed, so that the aggrieved local community is not only impoverished but sees no tangible advantage.
How has all this come about? The history of the post-war Church is one of powers being progressively taken from the parishes, which have been pressurised to conform to diocesan policy. A strong facet of bureaucracy is a drive to impose uniformity, and one manifestation of this is the 'Green Guide' which regulates the design of 'suitable' new parsonages, too cramped for parish gatherings, their gardens too small for fundraising purposes.
Allied to this is the Church 'mind-set' about heritage. There is a surprisingly widespread view that old buildings have nothing to do with 'today's Church', and that they are a burden to be cast off. Diocesan officials fondly declare that tradition plays no part in the mission. This attitude is surely out of date and out of step with wider public opinion, which increasingly values heritage and history. Beyond the confines of the diocesan office, in the parishes where most of the real work of the Church is done, it is understood that the fine buildings of the Church are vital tools for its mission. And the mission is about the needs of the community, not the diocesan head office.
It is not even as though the Church is unaware of 'heritage' issues. The Church Heritage Forum's statement 'Building Faith in our Future' declares: 'a Church which sells its church buildings is selling its own history and forfeiting its future.' But parsonages are not even within its remit. The Church is still remorselessly discarding the traditional parsonages that give it its identity in our towns and villages up and down the country.
SOP is based on three core arguments for saving traditional parsonages. The 'mission' argument is that a house with both symbolic importance and practical space, raises the profile of the Church and promotes the Christian message. The 'community' argument is that the traditional parsonage, with its social activities, strengthens the life of the community as a whole. The 'heritage' argument is that rectories and vicarages play a vital role in Church culture, and if a 'heritage' building is sold to a wealthy layman, its raison d'etre is lost. The profile of the Church just shrinks a little more, and congregations tend to decline, as our case studies have shown.
We hope you will join us.
Anthony Jennings is Director of Save Our Parsonages, and a committee member of the Patrons Consultative Group. He is the author of a number of books including The Old Rectory, the Story of the English Parsonage (Continuum 2009). His address for correspondence is: Flat Z, 12-18 Bloomsbury Street, London WC1B 3QA, email:firstname.lastname@example.org
April 3rd, 2012 - Posted & Written by The Editor