All ends have to have a beginning, and the beginning of the end for the Church of England started at the beginning of the 20th century. The outrage had nothing to do with vicars, rectors, fathers, priests, vergers or even church wardens. A decision was made by the church hierarchy to sell off most of the parsonages, vicarages, deaneries – call them what you will, in the United Kingdom.
Previously, the Church of England had been the largest landowner in the UK. This was because not only did the church building itself (and often the land it was built on) belong to the Church, but its attendant graveyard as well, and, most importantly, the vicarage where the parson and his family (if he had one) lived, and the parson wrote (or copied) his sermons while his wife busied herself with the teacups.
The history of vicarages is almost as old as the Church itself. But in the 21st century, with political correctness at its apogee, it was suddenly found repellent that a mere priest should live in such a large, rambling house, difficult to heat, in need of constant repair, and occupying super-valuable land which could raise a fortune. This last was the most important. The house itself, or the land it stands on, was said to be worth a fortune. At a time when Anglican congregations up and down the country are dwindling downwards, sometimes to one old faithful and her cat, the hierarchy disovered it was broke, and needed the money. Thus the Great Sell-up began. The archbishops believe that ends justify the means, and that all that has happened is that the Church is solvent again, and that the vicarages have passed into grateful private hands. This is not true. The church itself may still stand and see services celebrated inside it, but with the selling off of the rectories, the very heart of the English church established (for personal reasons) by Henry VIII has been gravely affected.
Take a stroll round Britain, especially the villages. You can see that at least one large old building does not now fulfil its true function. You will assume that there must have been good reasons for this drastic change, and that those responsible in the Church knew what they were doing. It is very likely that the hierarchy is not at all unpleased with this relaxed approach to what has been (and it still goes on) a continuous and wholesale riddance of valuable assets ever taken by any national institution. In a less offensive way, the selling-off of the rectories finds its equivalent only in Henry’s and Thomas Cromwell’s 16th century ‘Reformation’, by which they meant the confiscation of Roman Catholic property, or its destruction.
But in fact the origins of the sell-out can be traced back to the 1838 Parsonage Act, which ‘allowed the freeholder to sell a parsonage, subject to consents’.
Rectories were impractical, but usually beautiful examples of the architect’s art. There was much wasted space, the house is not ‘suitable’ to today. It will probably have a garden, with a lawn to mow, and what modern churchman has the time available to mow a lawn? The house is immodest. It could be turned into six comfortable flats. It is a house that does not give out the right signals (poverty) of Christ’s Church. Etc. Etc.
How very strange then that the Church calls parsonages ‘unsuitable’, when they are exactly the kind of houses people rich enough to buy them want to live in. The obvious message mysteriously relayed to us by the church hierarchy is that it holds its heritage very low indeed in its scale of priorities. The next message is that the hierarchy does not recognise that the traditional rectory has had through the centuries a very important function, particularly in any rural community. It was not just ‘the vicar’s house’. At the centre of the village, close to the church itself, the rectory or parsonage gave the Church a high profile, as well as providing a home for a large family, and a centre of village social life. Tea parties in the rectory garden; jumble sales in the rectory garden; an occasional children’s party in the house. Most vicars kept the front door open for anyone who needed his advice or help. Like the post office, the village police station, and the pub, the vicarage was a symbol of English community life, no matter if the villagers were churchgoers or not.
These important houses are still exactly where they always were, in the physical sense. They remain at the heart of the village, while the squire’s hall or castle is always outside it. But they are now as implacably private as any Englishman’s castle.
A rector is Gloucestershire has written: “Sadly, over the last thirty-six years, nearly all the parsonage houses in the Cirencester Deanery have been sold, and only very few have been replaced. Coberley (his parsonage) was thought to be safe, but a similar blow is poised to fall here. Cowley was sold as a farmhouse; Colebourne, Readcomb, North Cerney, Begendon, Daglingworth and others, however . . .” How the very names of these villages ring out like bells through the centuries – though clearly not heard by the hierarchy of the doomed English Church.
Between 1900 and 1914 (war years included) 251 rectories were sold – seventeen per year. Between 1919 and 1930, 58 were sold per year. Despite depressions, 1300 more were sold before 1939. And strange things were happening to prices: the rectory at Asheldon in Essex was sold with about 40 acres for £800. But the next time it passed hands the price was £25,000. After the Second War, a further 651 houses were sold in the years 1945 to 1950 – 105 per year. The Government was Socialist.Between 1948 and 1963, 2,627 were sold – 175 a year. The Government was not Socialist. In 1959 Archbishop Fisher, a great supporter of the sales, talked again of ‘easing the burden of those freezing passages and those awful cellars’.
Thus we find that between the turn of the century and 1963, 5000 parsonages had been sold off. Of course new, much smaller houses or flats had to be provided for the clergy. In 1978 the magazine Country Life reported that in the ten years since The Pastoral Measure, which provided for the sale of ‘redundant’ parsonages, well over 2000 has been sold. It was noted that the definition of the term ‘unsuitability’ kept changing. In the year ending March 1977, the record number of 348 parsonages was sold. But did these massive sales improve the finances of the Church? A report from the Church Commissioners said that the high cost of building new parsonages ‘is increasingly a matter for concern’.
I am not surprised. In the year ending March 31, 1978, 316 ‘redundant’ or ‘unsuitable’ houses were sold at an average price of £25,764 each, a total of £8.1 million. In the same year, the purchase of 102 replacement houses was approved, at an average cost of £28,832 each, including the cost of relairs or alterations, with a total of £2.9 million. Construction of 83 new houses was approved, at an average cost of £35,337 each, excluding the value of the land. This totalled another £2.9 million: so £6 million was spent on 185 houses to replace 316 sold for not much more. It is hardly surprising that the Church authorities had to admit an apparent blindness to the value of money.
The lunacy does not stop there: in 1979, 302 parsonages were sold at an average price of £34,450, but the average cost of building new ones was £40,430. One year later, 211 more were sold off at an average of £53,930 each, but new ones excluding site value averaged £61,300 each. This was ‘regarded with some concern’ by the Commissioners.
In the early 1990s various experts calculated that only 5% to 10% of pre-1939 parsonages remained in Church ownership, but other experts reckon that this figure is below 5%, probably 2%. In response to questions about this, the Church Commissioners are vague.
The Old Rectory by Anthony Jennings