Saturday 31 March 2018

Simon Jenkins Writes Drivel

Well, it wouldn't be Easter if the Guardian didn't have something running down Christianity, would it? And this year's volunteer for the warm lager-filled chalice is Simon Jenkins.

It's impressive really. Most Guardianistas would normally be arguing for disestablishment, and getting everyone up and fretty. But not Simon. Instead he argues that the Church should be "fully nationalised".

His claims for how this would work appear to be almost entirely drivel, but let's go with it shall we. It's Easter, after all.

Apparently, churches are currently "locked and inaccessible". Very true. Many rural churches are - often for fear of theft. The wild and lovely church of St Joliet in Cornwall, where Thomas Hardy wooed his Emma and then turned the whole experience into a book, has a rather plaintive sign:

"The Brass and other items have been stolen"
See, the vicar and PCC of St Joliet are prepared to leave the place open, for people's spiritual recreation. Even when they were at risk of damage or theft of the valuables. But would Simon Jenkins's putative committee subletting the running of the building be prepared - even be allowed to do that? Nope. The building would only be open if someone were prepared to guard it. And even in a Jeremy Corbyn / Guardian world of unlimited money trees, they wouldn't pay for 12,000-plus full-time guardians (and co-guardians, for safety, and holiday cover) to look after the Church of England's stock. No. They'd need unpaid people to do that. Unpaid people who could do it already, if they wanted to.

Simon Jenkins tells us that one reason why the Church of England should have its buildings nationalised (I assume he doesn't want to nationalise the actual church - firstly you could argue it already is, and secondly it's a heck of a mess), is because "it resolutely refuses to serve the nation". This is expressed, in Simon Jenkins' imaginary world, in the way that "most"of its parishes "refuse to marry or bury outsiders".

This is pure rubbish. There are rules for who parishes of the Church of England can marry and bury. First up, burying. The C of E will bury anybody who lived in their parishes. According to the FuneralZone website, "clergy will lead a funeral service for anyone living within their parish". But to be honest, it's probably better to wait until they're not living within the parish. Likewise on weddings: you can be married if you or your spouse-to-be live in the parish, or if you have a "qualifying connection". You don't have to believe anything, or you can be a tree-frog worshipper. As long as you've got some kind of reasonable connection (and as long as you aren't planning to marry someone within the same genital grouping), you should be fine. I believe quite a lot of people are working on the whole marrying people with the same - ahem - equipment as well. They'll get there.

Let's move onto how this is all going to work. First up, the Church buildings will be "taken into state ownership, and then transferred to local parish or town councils". So the public bodies that generally run park benches and bits of greenery will now be expected to be manage Grade 1 and 2* listed buildings on land worth, generally, millions of pounds. And remembering how much money it takes to keep the buildings in a reasonable state, how will Simon Jenkins pay for this? Oh yeah. I forgot. He writes in the Guardian. Tax.
"Parishes would be legally free to levy a local church tax to pay for the upkeep of their most prominent and historic building. There is nothing novel in this. There is a church tax in Germany, Italy and much of Scandinavia – sometimes with opt-outs if people object."
Thing about Germany is that the taxes don't just pay for the buildings. They pay for the ministers as well. Don't know if Simon Jenkins is so on-board with this. Don't know if anyone else would be, given it's an extra 8 or 9% on the income tax in Germany, for instance. I know I'd be ticking the opt-out.

No, what Simon Jenkins is probably thinking of is more like France. Where the State owns the buildings, but doesn't pay for the ministers. Which is why it has 40,000 plus buildings and only 7,000 priests. Let me share with you a lovely church:

A small, pretty Celtic-Style Church  with a neatly kept churchyard.
Pleherel-Plage Church
Pleherel-Plage Church near Cap Fréhel in Brittany. It's gorgeous, it's well-kept, it's barely ever used for community or Church events. Welcome to Simon Jenkins' world of churches. Immaculate, unused and empty.

But no - Simon Jenkins has some great ideas for how to use our nation's stock of ancient buildings. "Even if chancels remain in religious use, naves, aisles, towers and churchyards should be adapted for other purposes, with some regulatory latitude. This might embrace not just local shops, but creches, libraries, day centres for the elderly, places to collect a pension, pick up a parcel, connect to wifi, meet a friend or have a drink." So villages that have lost their pubs and post offices due to financial constraints will suddenly have the money not only to pay for licensees and post masters/mistresses. But they're also going to find the people to look after the elderly, run the library and keep an eye on your nippers for you.

And some people say it's religious people that believe in unbelievable things.

To quote Simon Jenkins, "We are saddled with these fine buildings."

"Blessed" might be a better word. But you know what, go ahead - take them into state ownership. Those buildings are worth millions. Some are in fantastic locations. Will keep the Church in stipends forever. While the Church can move into school halls and pubs and gyms, keep warm and worship God.

Simon Jenkins, go home. You're writing drivel.

Want a good laugh? Want to laugh at the church? Want to be secretly suspicious that the author has been sitting in your church committee meetings taking notes? Then Writes of the Church: Gripes and grumbles of people in the pews is probably the book for you.

From Amazon, Sarum Bookshop, The Bible Readers Fellowship and other good Christian bookshops. An excellent book for your churchgoing friends, relatives or vicar. By the creator of the Beaker Folk.


  1. Waiting for someone living in the parish to be dead before they have funeral services led for them seems to deny them the opportunity to enjoy their presence at the service to what we have learned to call the full. I concede that it would be best to wait for them not to be living before actually burying or burning the body.

  2. Call me old fashioned, but I do insist that a person has actually died before I will agree to conduct their funeral

  3. I've never thought of Nationalising our Church Buildings, particularly if the Government pays their full value to the parishioners who struggle year in, year out to maintain them, as well as struggling pay their tythes to the diocese to keep the Diocesan staff in work, and for the services they provide.

    Take away that burden and allowing people to use the buildings for commercial enterprises will need adaptions, which will not be agreed by any planning authority, particularly if they're expected to pick up the bills. So, we have the best of both worlds, a huge cash windfall for our benefit and the continued use of the church buildings without actually being responsible for keeping them going.

    I can imagine Council Tax payers coming to see what they now own (through the income tax) and being inspired through an active mission welcome to become supporters of the mysterious faith that so many quirky people profess.

    Off course, why limit this to the CofE, why not nationalise all buildings of all faiths and see where that will get you?

  4. The German system is often misunderstood. It is strictly speaking not a tax at all. The government helps the churches by collecting contributions as part of the tax system. You have to indicate to which, if any, church you belong for this to happen. If you had the same system in the UK, only those who identify as Anglican would make the contribution (e.g., 7% of 16-29 year olds according to the St Mary Twickenham research recently published) which does not sound like a workable solution.

  5. Here's another thing for S. Jenkins to get het-up about while he's doing his Henry VIII impersonation: in Germany, if you don't pay a Church Tax, you lose the right to any of that church's sacraments. Fripperies such as baptism, weddings, funerals. This is why the churches are rich, but empty.

    Is Mr J under the impression that all churches, chapels, bethels etc belong to the CofE for nationalisation purposes? Because the millions of non-Anglicans, who have had to fund-raise in order to build and maintain their places of worship entirely by themselves, might have something to say to that.

  6. Surely that must be the guardian's contribution for April 1st?

  7. I am in the blessed position of not having to maintain one of the two mediæval churches in the town, one currently being in the custodianship of English Heritage. It is closed to visitors for winter and only open weekends and bank holidays Easter to Michaelmas - say 57 days a year? Staffing problems have scotched several attempts to hold events there. If this is Mr Jenkins' future, I fail to see where the improvement lies....

  8. Note 1

    I provided some BTL comments on Sir Simon Jenkins’ article in the Guardian. Like others on this thread I don’t agree with everything he wrote. The son of a very distinguished and scholarly Congregationalist minister, Jenkins has been much influenced by Alec Clifton-Taylor who valued churches solely by a rather limited set of aesthetic criteria. I find this approach rather limiting and reductive, but it also seems to be the prevailing attitude of the Statutory Advisory Committee, which determines the future use of closed churches. Jenkins was a co-author of the Taylor Report on the future of parish churches published last December, which pushed the need for seeking alternative uses. However, alternative uses are not always plausible in those large tracts of the country where churches are remote from the communities they serve and/or which attract few tourists. As such, the Report was not especially useful and something of a disappointment to me. It supposed that most parishes will continue to be viable, and this is simply not the case.

    However, I certainly do not disagree with the general thrust of Jenkins’ proposal, namely the nationalisation of the stock (which I have been advocating in recent responses to draft pastoral schemes and in several other blogs). I have attended services at more than 4,000 churches and have visited several thousand more. I still don’t think many of those in authority really understand quite how desperate the situation is, not only in terms of the absolute numbers of attendees but their demographic profile. More than 95% of congregations will be extinct within the next decade or so, and many will die out before then. The lack of young and even middle aged people almost everywhere is terrifying and, save in a few places, fresh expressions has been a damp squib: the current moves to promote ‘mission’ look set to be almost as successful as the Decade of Evangelism.

    There is a narrow window of opportunity in which the Church (which has dual roles: as the provider of pastoral services and the custodian of the stock) can engineer a settlement with the state so that huge numbers of churches do not become redundant and privatised (i.e., by conversion to commercial or residential use). We are very, very close to the edge. Some commentators may protest that PCCs are doing a great deal to make their church buildings more accessible and friendly, but how many of them can put their hands on their hearts and state, with any credibility, that their church will be functioning as a place of worship in ten or twenty years’ time?

    My proposal is this: all foundations established prior to, say, 1840 would be vested in DCMS, plus certain Grade I and Grade II* foundations established after that date. The Church would be able to dispose of the remainder as it wishes. In addition, the Commissioners (who currently have assets of £8.1bn) would be partially dis-endowed, to the tune of about £3.5bn, with that expropriated amount forming a permanent repairing fund. If the Commissioners’ assets were to exceed, say, £7bn at current values, any excess would be applied to the augment the repairing fund. This cash transfer would be necessary to persuade critics that the Church was not simply sloughing off the responsibility onto the state, and that the stock would not become a charge to the taxpayer (at least initially). In return, the Church would have a perpetual, free right of use to hold worship – and there should be an expectation that worship would continue, whether normally or on a ‘festival’ basis (note that Anna Norman-Walker’s concept of festival churches lacks credibility without satisfactory endowments).

  9. Note 2


    In addition the Church should be disestablished in order to provide additional political ‘cover’ for this bulk transfer. I would not disestablish along the lines of the 1869 and 1914 Acts that affected the Irish and Welsh churches (though elements of those statutes might be borrowed), but would have something approximating to the Church of Scotland Acts 1921 and 1925: the Church of England would be declared a national, and not an established, church. I think this change would also be necessary in order to make the transfer of the stock palatable politically. Note that the Church of Ireland was completely dis-endowed, and that the Church in Wales was partially dis-endowed (losing all of its pre-1660 property under the 1914 and 1919 Acts); it was only massive fund-raising efforts by archbishops Marcus Beresford, Trench and Edwards that prevented the Irish and Welsh churches from falling into destitution. The Church of England currently commands the allegiance of less than 7% of the coming generation: as such its established status is now making it vulnerable to a less sympathetic turn in public policy in the medium term. The window of opportunity for an advantageous settlement may close fairly soon.

    Jenkins is obviously inspired by the French experience. Many European countries support their churches by means of grants or levies (there is a useful survey of this at the back of the Taylor Report); France is an outlier in that the public sector controls everything built after 1905 (the situation is different in Alsace-Lorraine where the German system, inherited in 1919, prevails). Central government controls the greater churches, and local government (i.e., the communes) controls the lesser churches. The authors of the loi de separation (Combes, Briand – the rapporteur, and Waldeck-Rousseau) claimed all the stock is that they considered it part of the patrimony of the people. The same ideology informed the attitude taken by Gladstone to the Irish church or Lloyd George and McKenna to the Welsh church. Actually, they were right: most parish churches are, effectively, the patrimony of the people, and in England their upkeep – even that of proprietary or manorial churches – was a compulsory charge to all tithe payers (even after commutation from 1836, rentcharge remaining payable until 1977) and all rate-payers (until 1866), whilst the costs of reconstruction were frequently borne by voluntary subscriptions or the proceeds of church ales. The great weakness of the French approach is that the ministry of culture is very much a Cinderella department, whilst the communes (essentially the pre-revolutionary parishes under another name) are frequently too small or anti-clerical to maintain their churches effectively, or at all. The reason why I would vest the stock in DCMS with the £3.5bn endowment is that central government alone will have the economies of scale to procure resources and materials at preferential rates that hard-pressed local government – and certainly tiny PCCs – will never have.

  10. Note 3


    Naturally, the Commissioners would protest the asset stripping. However, it should be noted that the Commissioners’ assets have waxed in proportion to the declining asset base of the dioceses. After the fiascos of the Lovelock years the Commissioners pressed to be relieved of future pension accruals. Their lobbying led to the Pensions Measure 1997, with the dioceses becoming liable for future accruals after 1 January 1998. When the 1997 Measure was passed stock markets were frothy and there were positive real interest rates: this was perceived as the new normal. Since 2000 stock markets have been alternately frothy and depressed (their performance being mediocre in the aggregate), whilst interest rates have been in negative territory in real terms (unprecedented in the entire history of interest rates); thus dioceses have enjoyed scant compounding on their assets. In the meantime the Commissioners’ responsibilities have been effectively reducing: Synod regularly congratulates them on their stellar performance, but in the situation I have described, how could they fail to succeed? The dioceses pay their way via the parish share (often >70% of diocesan budgets), but this is simply not viable in view of the progressive demographic collapse of congregations. Dioceses have therefore had to liquidate historic parochial endowments (which they can appropriate under the Endowments and Glebe Measure 1976 – note the coincidence with the abolition of tithe rentcharge in the Finance Act 1977) and reduce pastoral provision by forming ever larger benefices. So, when I argue for dis-endowment to the tune of £3.5bn, which I am really saying is that the historic endowments of the faithful should be returned to the parishes in order to keep Christian witness alive at the local level. And I am saying that it should be effected via a more general settlement that will make the position of the Church more secure in financial terms and less vulnerable to attack from its increasing number of enemies.

    Thus deprived of their often crushing liability for the maintenance of historic buildings (for which they are not necessarily called, and are certainly not trained) clergy could concentrate more upon mission. The aggregate funding basis would be reduced as a function of the proposed dis-endowment, which may well mean there are less stipendiary (though not necessarily fewer SSM/NSM) clergy, but there will have to be fewer stipendiary clergy anyway as the parish share system disintegrates as a consequence of the demographic collapse. Better therefore to push the issue now rather than encourage people into paid ministry that may not pay at all in the future. Or is it really that the authorities are well aware that everything will collapse, but that they believe it is necessary to preserve the assets so that they will be supported in retirement? They can cut a little here and there knowing that relatively few people will notice just how much is being cut (since not everyone is an insane as I am in travelling around the country). So churches must close so that the clergy who have served them might live. Whilst this is the natural response of any besieged bureaucracy, I would suggest that most attendees would rather their church be maintained for future use than current or past clergy (whose value added is often highly variable) be maintained.

    As Lampedusa noted, everything must change so that everything can stay the same.

  11. 'So the public bodies that generally run park benches and bits of greenery will now be expected to be manage Grade 1 and 2* listed buildings on land worth, generally, millions of pounds' rude and generally inaccurate comment about Councils who already manage vast numbers of assets, some listed. The key issue is funding and unless Churches come with a dowry and ongoing funding, most LAs unlikely to welcome additional responsibilities.

    1. So here's the minutes of a recent Husborne Crawley Parish Council meeting, for comparison with looking after a million quid's worth of real estate. If you mean County Councils, one word - "Northamptonshire". Borough councils? Maybe. But they'll want some officers.


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