OPINION: Why is Guernsey living in the past?

Deputy Peter Roffey questions whether ratepayers should be forced to pay for the upkeep of our historic church buildings

Guernsey's oldest church, St Sampson's, needed £45,000 worth of repairs and maintenance this year. (30279398)
Guernsey's oldest church, St Sampson's, needed £45,000 worth of repairs and maintenance this year. (30279398)

IT HAS been a vexed question for as long as I can remember. To what extent should ratepayers in Guernsey be expected to support the Anglican Church?

Is it fair on those who don’t hold that faith? Is it even sustainable to expect everybody to chip in towards the bills of one particular religious denomination in a world which is far more secular than it was a couple of generations back? Why should non-religious folk help to meet the costs of the Anglican Church? Isn’t it even more unfair towards those of a different religious persuasion, who may already be paying to maintain their own church and pay their clergy?

At first glance it does seem to be a very weird arrangement to someone who isn’t involved in any church. Particularly when we are talking about the Church of England, yet in England itself such laws were consigned to history many decades ago. So why is Guernsey living in the past, with everybody forced to chip in to support Anglicanism whether they want to or not?

Well there was a States committee set up years ago to look at this very question. Frankly, they laboured like an elephant to create a policy mouse, so we can’t really look to their report for any coherent answers. So let’s start from first principles.

What are the usual arguments put forward in favour of the current legislation? As far as I can tell there are four main ones.

1. Anglicanism is the established church.

2. Even those islanders who are not regular church goers want them to be there to use for major rites of passage such as marriages, christenings and funerals.

3. Our parish churches are some of the most important ancient monuments in Guernsey. They are fine buildings, dating back nearly 1,000 years, and their maintenance is going have to be supported somehow.

4. The rectories belong to the parishes and it is quite normal to expect the owners to maintain buildings.

Let’s look at those arguments one by one.

Yes, it is the established church, but so what? Why does that mean those who aren’t members should pay for it? In fact, I could pose the more fundamental question of whether it is even appropriate to have an ‘established church’ in the 21st century. But I don’t want to be side-tracked into a long discussion of the merits of disestablishmentarianism.

Do all ratepayers really want to use the parish churches for weddings and funerals? I don’t think so. Of course some do – and they can and should be charged an appropriate fee towards the upkeep and running costs of that building. But certainly most people of other faiths won’t want to use the parish church for their major rites of passage. And as to the growing secular population, you just have to look at the growing demand for alternative wedding venues and for humanist funerals. So I don’t think this argument holds water.

The point about maintaining the parish churches as very important historic buildings is, to me, by far the strongest argument. Even if it may be harder to argue when it comes to Torteval. It would be tragic if these monuments to our ancient Norman heritage were allowed to fall into disrepair just because today’s congregations were unable or unwilling to maintain them.

I’m not sure that makes the current set-up correct though. At the very least I feel we could look at a twin track approach with the congregation responsible for routine upkeep. That would leave the taxpayer (centrally, not parish by parish) to provide grants for more-major repairs.

The system where the ratepayers have to pay for the upkeep of the parish rectory is perhaps the most perverse and the hardest to defend. The argument is that the parishes own them. So the solution of the committee looking into these matters was to give those parishes the right to sell them off if they wanted to. But while they remained parish property the ratepayers were jolly well going have to pay for their repairs and upkeep, even though these buildings generated absolutely no rental income for the parish.

This was a very bad solution. On one hand, I can’t see many parish meetings voting to flog off their rectories and leave their rectors homeless. On the other hand, the current situation is quite wrong to my mind. Indefensible in fact. So the choice provided was far too dramatic and binary.

I do have a suggested solution. I have no real issue with the Anglican Church having continued use of the traditional rectories, and no great desire to see them sold off, but clearly it is the church itself which should then pay for their upkeep.

What about the argument that the owner is responsible for repairs? Fine, then the parishes should gift the rectories to the CoE, so that it could both own and maintain them.

There should be two clear covenants attached, though.

The first is a duty to maintain those properties. The second is that if they should ever no longer be needed to house Anglican rectors then they would revert to the parish. That way, if they ever became surplus to requirements the ratepayers would benefit from the proceeds and not the church.

Of course, if the church declined to take on the ownership and the associated costs of maintaining the rectories then much of the moral onus on the parish to provide them would evaporate.

I am mindful that throughout this column I have frequently used the term ‘parish’ and that has a dual meaning. On one hand it was originally an ecclesiastical term but today it is also a secular political term.

Therein lies the root of this conundrum. At one time this double meaning really wouldn’t have existed because the religious parish and the secular parish were almost one and the same.

In those circumstances, the current system ofr paying for the established church probably seemed very natural.

That is no longer the case. The unified meaning of ‘parish’ had disappeared by the 20th century, let alone the 21st. The UK had the good sense to realise this donkey’s years ago and it is high time Guernsey did too.

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