Church of England ‘lost £8bn’ in rush to sell off historic parsonages

Taken today from the Telegraph.

England’s vicarages and parsonages are almost as iconic as its churches. But campaigners say they may be all but gone after a 70-year process of selling-off which began after the Second World War and has seen thousands of vicars ejected from the historic buildings and moved into private houses.

What’s more, they have raised concerns that many modern priests have no interest in living in the properties – leaving them vulnerable to being sold.

Campaign group Save Our Parsonages estimates that 8,000 such houses have been sold by dioceses since the Second World War, causing the Church of England financial loss because of the growing value of property.

The group says young recruits have less interest in living in rectories and parsonages because they want more of a private life and feel guilty about living in a grand house.

One current case is in the diocese of Bath and Wells, where the Grade Two listed East Coker vicarage, built in the 19th century, is under threat of sale.

Amelia Bennett, 72, a member of the local parochial church council, who farms and runs a riding school in the area, said the vicarage first came under threat two decades ago, and a plan to lease the building to the local community was drawn up – but it never came to fruition.

It has frequently been used for community and fundraising events by the parish.

She added: “It’s a beautiful architectural set-up, we’ve got lovely almshouses and we feel it really belongs to the village, it doesn’t belong to the diocese”.

Anthony Jennings, director of Save Our Parsonages, which supports parishes who are trying to save local rectories from sale, said the rate had declined in recent years, raising concerns that some of the dioceses were simply running out of buildings.

“We’re dealing with two or three cases at the moment – in the past it was 10 at any one time. Two or three years ago the rate started to slow down,” he said.

Mr Jennings estimates that had the church hung on to its buildings, it would now have a portfolio worth £8 billion, assuming that each of the 8,000 houses sold, which are in-demand because of their Victorian architecture and good size, would now be worth an average of £1m.

The vicarage at East Coker, Somerset Credit:  Jay Williams

“I think quite a few of the younger clergy also take the view that they shouldn’t be living in big houses.

“They feel some kind of guilt that they’re living in a better house than everybody else, which is ridiculous, because everyone knows it’s a parish parsonage and not their house.

“One quite worrying issue is this issue about privacy, because the dioceses are trying to push this idea that it should be a private house. Our idea is about community.

“While a parsonage was once the centre of the community, it no longer is because the dioceses say they should have their privacy.

“In the past everyone knew where the vicar was and now they wouldn’t, because he’s on a housing estate,” he said, adding that he believed there was “quite a lot of support” for the change among clergy themselves.

In East Coker the nearby church is home to the ashes of T.S. Eliot and his wife Valerie, and one of the poet’s Four Quartets is named after the village, so Ms Bennett hopes that the connection could save the vicarage.

Eliot’s ancestor is believed to have left East Coker to travel to America in the 17th century.

St Michael’s Church at East Coker, Somerset, where the ashes of TS Eliot and his wife are interred under the floor in a corner of the church Credit: Jay Williams

“I have written to T.S. Eliot America to see if they may be interested in pursuing this,” she said. “I wondered whether they might be interested in making it into an Eliot centre.”

In a letter to Mr Jennings seen by the Sunday Telegraph the Venerable Anne Gell, Archdeacon of Wells said the decision to sell the East Coker building “has not been taken lightly”.

“I recognise that this decision is very difficult for some to accept, and regret that,” she added.

A spokeswoman for the Church of England said: “The priority of the Church nationally and locally is to serve the community. Sometimes the diocese and parish decide to replace clergy housing to this end. Each case is decided on its merits locally.”

A spokeswoman for the diocese of Bath and Wells said: “The Diocese of Bath and Wells is seeking to sell the current vicarage at East Coker on the recommendation of the Rector and the parochial church council (PCC).

“This will allow them to provide a more modern and manageable home for the new associate priest they are seeking to appoint to the Coker Ridge benefice, and allow that person to concentrate on working alongside the Rector and PCCs to further the ministry and mission of the church across the benefice.”

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