Cathedrals face cash crisis
A cash crisis, caused by an acute drop in American tourists visiting the UK, will soon force many of England's 42 Anglican cathedrals to bolt their doors to the public for part of the week as they lay off staff reports the Observer.
In an attempt to avert the crisis, the Assocation of English Cathedrals is to hold urgent talks this month with the Church Commissioners - the financial arm of the Church of England.
The association says a decline in the levels of contributions from visitors, coupled with a sharp rise in health and safety costs over the past couple of years, has created a multimillion-pound debt.
The Very Rev Gordon Mursell, Dean of Birmingham and secretary of the association, said: "I don't know one cathedral that isn't facing a critical financial situation."
"Anglican English cathedrals are virtually required by statute to be open all the time - it's one of the things that makes them unique and helps them play a part in the wider community - but we can see a situation where that will have to change," Mursell added.
His comments echo those of Peter Luff, Conservative MP for Mid-Worcestershire and chairman of Worcester cathedral council, who warned in Parliament last week: "A crisis is looming in cathedral funding."
Luff said that "the triple responsibility of maintaining a living heritage of music and liturgy in cathedrals, maintaining the built heritage ... and offering witness to the Christian faith is proving an intolerable burden for many cathedrals."
Bradford cathedral is estimated to be more than £4 million in the red, while around 20 others are said to be running up debts.
Cathedrals in smaller cities such as Leicester, Wakefield, Derby and Blackburn are struggling to survive, while the likes of Ely, Winchester and Lichfield - which are of huge architectural and cultural importance to the nation - are finding it increasingly difficult to meet maintenance and renovation costs.
But David Burrows, the administrator of Chester cathedral who also sits on the association committee, said that even those cathedrals that were not in apparent financial trouble were still struggling.
"I would say that over the past two to three years around half of English cathedrals have been running a deficit. But this only tells part of the story. Quite often work that needs doing just doesn't get done, as a cathedral will look to balance its budget. Most cathedrals have what is called a 'maintenance overhang' as a result," Burrows said.
It is estimated that the average cathedral costs about £850,000 a year to service and maintain, of which about £300,000 comes from donations and a further £200,000 from commercial activities like gift shops and restaurants. About £200,000 comes from property and investment, with the remainder made up of various grants.
Visitor numbers have plunged as American and, to a lesser extent, Japanese tourists have stayed away from the UK because of concerns about terrorism. Smaller cathedrals such as Leicester are thought to have suffered particularly. The spread of foot and mouth disease is also though to have played a part, while poor returns on the stock and property markets have hit a number of cathedrals.
At the same time, cathedral administrators also point out that costs of keeping cathedrals open have soared.
"There's been a huge hike in the cost of running cathedrals," Burrow said. "The cost of health and safety is becoming so much more expensive. We have to meet data protection, child protection obligations. We have to meet equal opportunity requirements. Most cathedrals are looking at putting in risk management strategies. The bureaucratic side of life has placed a signficant additional financial burden on cathedrals."
Last year Chester, which ran up a £200,000 deficit, was forced to axe three staff to cut costs. "You can tell there is a serious problem when an English cathedral starts making people redundant," Burrows said.
Many other cathedrals have also had to axe staff to the extent that they can no longer function around the clock.
"It's a real possibility that a number of cathedrals will soon have to be closed for some of the time each week,' Burrows said.
The association is to hold talks with the Church Commissioners on 22 January, but the organisation is aware that asking for cash injections may make it unpopular at a time when smaller parishes are also feeling the pinch."
"We don't want to be seen as a priviliged group asking for money. People would say, 'Why the hell should they get any?'" Mursell said.