May 7, 2019

The Church of England is rich. Fabulously rich, according to its critics. And such wealth sits uncomfortably with all that stuff about camels and eyes of needles. It’s an easy hit. But is it a fair one?

A new book by Guy Shrubsole Who Owns England? sheds some light on this longstanding question. There is a familiar assumption that floats around in the cultural ether, that the C of E is a massive landowner. But it turns out not to be totally true. Roughly, the Church of England owns 0.5% of England. And given that, through the parish system, the church has a presence in every community in this country, this doesn’t sound a lot to me. Especially when compared to the aristocracy, which owns a whopping 30% of it, for instance.

What fascinated me about Shrubsole’s findings was not how much land the church owns, but how much land it has lost – and relatively recently. According to his figures, the church owned some two million acres of glebe land (an area of land within an ecclesiastical parish used to support a parish priest) in 1873. By 1976, this figure had plummeted to 111,628 acres. And Shrubsole does his best to make this sound suspicious. “The mystery of who stole the church’s land is a whodunnit worthy of a Brother Cadfael novel,” he writes.

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It’s an interesting approach. For if there is a question of theft here, it is how the church came by its land in the first place. Glebe was given to the Church of England by Henry VIII as a sort of baptism present at the Reformation. It became the principal endowment of the church. This was mostly land, perhaps four million acres, that was stolen – and I don’t think that is too strong a word – from the Roman Catholic church, along with the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century. Forget Henry’s headline sexual peccadilloes, this theft of land is the really dirty stuff – the original sin of the Church of England.

And this theft shaped our society in many and unexpected ways. For as well as giving millions of acres to the church, a great deal of stolen land was sold off cheap by the crown to aristocrats as a bribe for their support. Little wonder there was no enthusiasm amongst the establishment for the return of the Roman church under, say, Bonnie Prince Charlie: the return of the Roman church would have meant a return of stolen land.

After much digging and a certain amount of guess work, Shrubsole calculates that about 70,000 acres of glebe land are now left in the church’s ownership. So where did the rest of it go? Well, according to Savills, the estate agents, “glebe land is usually situated within a settlement, with a high chance of it being zoned for development”. And this “can make the land very valuable”. Surely there’s our answer.

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Consider St Paul’s cathedral. Just outside there is large statue of Queen Anne, given pride of place in memory of her programme of adding to the church’s glebe land – called Queen Anne’s Bounty. It was around her statue that the Occupy protesters set up their tents in October 2011, barricaded from what was their original target of protest, the London Stock Exchange based in the nearby Paternoster Square

Paternoster Square was private land, and so could be fenced off from protestors. But what many Occupiers didn’t know was that Paternoster Square had been sold to property developers by the church in 1986 on a 250-year lease, the freehold being retained by the Church Commissioners. It says something about the cloud of mystery that hangs over church property deals that even I didn’t know that the Church of England held the freehold to this land – and I was chair of the Cathedral’s finance committee.

The role of the Church Commissioners is to support the clergy, their stipends and pensions. And balancing God and Mammon is an unenviable task. So what happened to the land? Most probably the church diversified its investment. It moved out of land and into other assets.

In purely financial terms, the Church Commissioners have certainly managed their assets well in recent years. The Commissioners have an £8.3 billion portfolio. And in a poorer parish like mine, I probably wouldn’t get paid without it. As a charity, the Church Commissioners are limited by their charitable objectives, and thus are required by law to obtain best value for their assets.

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It is true that the Church of England has not covered itself in glory in the way it has balanced this objective with the management of its land for the greater good of society as a whole. An example of this that still makes most south London clergy froth at the mouth in indignation is the Octavia Hill estates story.

Originally set up out of a sense of Christian duty to provide social housing for the inner city poor, the commissioners decided to sell off the Octavia Hill estates to private landlords, with the inevitable rise in rents and abandonment of their original purpose. That it was the Church Commissioners who trashed an important part of the Christian story in south London is not something easily forgotten or forgiven. Local MP’s Kate Hoey and Simon Hughes called the sale “the end of affordable housing in Waterloo”. And they were right.

Can the church do something to restore its damaged reputation? Last month, it established a commission to address its response to the housing crisis, promising “surplus church land for affordable housing”. And there are already developments underway. At present the commissioners are seeking planning permission for 9,200 new dwellings, 2,500 of them so-called “affordable”.

The Chair of the commission, Bishop Graham Tomlin argues that developers talk too much in terms of building units and not in terms of communities. “As a church we know a bit about how communities work,” he told me. “So the key question is how we build not just how much we build.” That’s true. Which is what made the Octavia Hill decision such a betrayal.

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But it is not just through development that church land can serve the public good. Right by the busy Elephant and Castle roundabout, there is an acre or so of land called St Mary’s Churchyard where the church used to be. Technically it is owned by my parish but maintained by the council. Ringed with gravestones, it can’t ever be sold off or developed.

So it remains as open public space for public benefit; a little patch of green amid a forest of glass and concrete, the dead standing sentinel against the encroachments of high-rise developments that now ring this part of South London. In the age of the Church Commissioners and their set rules on asset management, this is probably the nearest the church will ever get to Winstanley’s famous declaration of the earth as a common treasury for all.

For those who already have it in for the church, reference to its financial arrangements are always going to offer a rich seam of critical material. God is an absentee landlord. The clergy are maintaining their material standing at the expense of the poor – it’s a familiar and longstanding trope.

My own assessment – and yes, my own bias as a clergyman duly acknowledged – is that this picture is not as true as the church’s critics maintain, and not as untrue as the church’s defenders would wish it to be.