London (CNSNews.com) – As Britain becomes increasingly secular, the government has announced a step towards helping preserve hundreds of historic churches for the future – and humanists are unimpressed.
Weekly attendance at Church of England services is now officially just below one million, but England’s state church still has 12,200 buildings which have been officially listed as of special historical or architectural significance.
These places of worship often require major costs for their upkeep. Over the decades, shortfalls in funding, leading to leaky roofs and unheated naves, have occasionally attracted headlines in the British press.
In rural areas, some historical churches reportedly have only a handful of congregants left. Struggling parishes have tried a variety new ways to generate income, from letting out their halls to concerts to becoming post offices for the local village.
The latest major independent review of the situation, last December, found that churchgoers, philanthropists and charities provide most of the funding, but that a variety of government programs had also provided an average of some $161 million between 2014 and 2016.
With major government funding for listed places of worship ending after 2020, much of the debate has centered around the level of support that will be available after that.
Late last month, the government announced it would be starting two pilot schemes in the fall, as recommended by the recent review.
Funded expert advisors will be based in two locations, Manchester and Suffolk, to help historically listed places of worship, of all faiths, to develop new income streams as well as to better direct repairs.
The two-year trials are expected to cost $2.5 million and will include a fund for minor building repairs. The government and the Church of England said the trials would be used to evaluate future funding models.
The December review recommended that while churches should strive to be financially self-sustainable, a little over $92 million a year should be provided a year for major and minor building repairs, as well as a network of advisors.
It also recommended that the government clear up a gray area in the current law over whether local authorities can give funding to places of worship.
The Church of England said in a statement the issue had not been cleared up yet but that it was working with the government on a legislative solution.
Reaction to the announcement was muted but it drew fire from the National Secular Society, as well as the main association for British humanists, which questioned the need for government money.
Richy Thompson, director of public affairs and policy for Humanists UK, said that while it was essential to maintain Britain’s architectural heritage, “religious groups that claim they can’t afford to maintain it themselves” should not be simply given money.
“This is a church facing almost complete generational wipeout,” Thompson said. “It would be perverse if it is able to sustain itself due to state intervention.”
Becky Clark, director of churches and cathedrals for the Church of England, responded in a statement that places of worship did not exist solely to serve faith communities.
Churches operate food banks and night shelters, and provide focuses for entire communities on important days, as well as in times of crisis, she said.
“They serve a purpose not duplicated elsewhere, and the buildings being open and available is crucial to sustaining that,” Clark said. “They are also part of the history of the country, the oldest buildings still in use for their original purpose.”