Resist calls for £50m a year for churches, NSS urges minister

Posted: Wed, 31st Jan 2024

Churches trust also calls for churches to host NHS services.

The Voice of Hassocks, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons (cropped)

The National Secular Society has urged the government not to spend public money on churches when there are other solutions "with considerably less burden on taxpayers".

The NSS's action follows recent calls for public funding of "at least £50 million" a year to go towards repairing churches, and for public services such as the NHS to operate out of places of worship.

In a letter sent this week to Secretary of State Lucy Frazer, the NSS said the Department for Culture, Media and Sport should "take a robust approach" in scrutinising church assets when making decisions on funding, and "minimise unnecessary burden on the taxpayer" where religious institutions have the assets to fund their own repairs.

CofE spends millions on evangelism and refurbishing bishops' homes

In a report published this month, the National Churches Trust (NCT) said "additional ringfenced annual public funding of at least £50 million" is required to "help keep the UK's church's open".

The NSS said that while heritage buildings of "architectural, cultural and historical significance" should be preserved, the government should not create a situation whereby the Church of England and other religious institutions "become over-reliant on funding from taxpayers despite having clear means to maintain their own buildings".

It highlighted that Church Commissioners for England, the charity which manages the CofE's funds, had an income of £148.5 million at its last reporting period, while its investment fund assets were valued at £10.3 billion.

The NSS said that despite money for church repair being "clearly available", the Church Commissioners spend millions of pounds on activities which do not preserve buildings. This includes evangelism, "social justice and diversity matters", and refurbishing the housing and offices of bishops and archbishops.

The CofE additionally holds around £5 billion in dioceses' assets, £1 billion in cathedrals, and an estimated £1-10 billion in Parish Church Councils, as well as receiving support from charities.

The NCT said the CofE's new 'Buildings for Mission' programme will provide £6.2 million for minor repairs and maintenance, and £2.8 million for 'church buildings support officers'. The NSS said this is "exceedingly paltry" considering the billions the Church holds in assets, the millions it spends on evangelism, and the millions the NCT is asking the British public to give to churches every year. It added that there is already "considerable public money" going to places of worship.

The NSS added it is "wrong in principle" to expect the British public to contribute millions towards maintaining churches when most no longer attend church services, especially when the Church "contributes so little of its own wealth". Less than 1% of people in England regularly attend church services, and just 12% of Brits belong to the CofE. The 2021 census revealed most people in England and Wales are not Christian.

Churches trust: churches should be used for NHS services

The NCT suggested the government "ask all local authorities and public bodies such as the NHS to engage with faith groups and make more use of churches and church halls to host public and community services, helping to upgrade facilities where needed".

The NSS warned this would "undermine the secular nature" of the NHS and other public services, and inevitably "cause tensions between local communities and the church's own agenda". Additionally, such arrangements would have "clear potential" to result in "unacceptable inefficiencies at a time when NHS funding is already in a crisis", it said.

The NSS added that the suggestion to use churches for public services is "an attempt to shift the high burden of maintaining churches on to the public rather than the denominations which own and primarily use the church".

NSS: "Wholly unjustifiable" to expect public to foot the bill for churches

NSS head of campaigns Megan Manson said: "It is true that many churches have historical, architectural and cultural value, and so there is a public interest in maintaining them.

"But there is no business case for public spending when the Church of England, and other wealthy denominations, are unwilling to take on the bulk of the financial burden themselves for the buildings they own and are responsible for.

"There is already huge public anxiety about funding of public services, not least the NHS. Expecting the public to foot the bill to maintain religious buildings at such a time is wholly unjustifiable.

"The government must therefore ensure churches are contributing their own wealth before raiding the public purse.

"And it must ensure that our secular public services are not threatened by the imposition of religious agendas."

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Tags: Disestablishment, Public services