The Church of England fears that it could be forced to sell off some of its prized cathedrals in order to stave off bankruptcy - and is seeking to pass news laws to prevent that happening.
At the General Synod of York - the CoE’s equivalent to Parliament - bishops were presented with a report detailing the financial difficulties of diocese including Exeter and Peterborough, both of which are centred around historic cathedrals.
Under UK law, any organisation, the Church included, which is unable to pay its debts and is declared insolvent can be forced to sell off assets in order to pay creditors. Church leaders are concerned that this could include its cathedrals.
So worried are leading bishops about this threat that they have asked the Synod to pass a new law preventing the sale of cathedrals in insolvency proceedings. Ecclesiastical laws - ie those passed by the Synod - are binding in all courts, and effectively give the Church a means of putting itself above the general secular laws of the land.
The Church’s iconic cathedrals, perhaps the most visible symbols of its heritage, carry a considerable financial burden to run. Exeter cathedral alone is believed to cost £1.5 million a year. Despite being one of nine CoE cathedrals (out of a total of 42) to charge an entrance fee to visitors, its finances have been in a perilous state for some time.
Over the years, as congregation numbers have dwindled, many former Church properties have been sold off. But the idea of its cathedrals being turned into concert venues, bars, clubs or redeveloped as flats the way some of its former church buildings have been is a step too far for the CoE’s authorities.
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On the other hand, critics point out that the Church of England is one of the country’s wealthiest organisations with a highly active and successful investment arm. Church Commissioners, the body which manages the CoE’s investable assets, sits on a portfolio that was worth £7.9bn in 2017, and had enjoyed an enviable 17.1% return in 2016.
This raises a couple of questions. First, if the Church of England is sitting on all of this wealth, why are some of its diocese and cathedrals in such financial difficulties? This is down to Church organisation, which effectively runs each diocese as a subsidiary company at arms length from the national organisation.
But many will still ask why it should be allowed to excuse itself from insolvency rules while it clearly has the means to cover its debts. Rather than asking the Synod to rule on making the CoE a special case, perhaps it should be looking to reform its own financial structures if it wants to keep its prized assets solvent.
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