Government urged to help faith groups as Westminster Abbey faces £12m shortfall

Pic: Parliament TV

By Christopher Lamb, 9 July 2020

The government needs to help places of worship hit financially by Covid-19, according to an influential peer who says the role of religion is crucial in the post-pandemic world.

Lord Black of Brentwood, a Conservative, raised the loss of church income in a House of Lords debate today, calling on the government to make the issue a “strategic priority”.

Coronavirus restrictions have dealt a bitter blow to the balance sheets of religious groups that receive little or no state funding with some churches and mosques fighting for survival.

During the debate, Baroness Butler-Sloss, who sits on the Council of Reference for the Westminster Abbey Institute, revealed that the abbey will have a £12m shortfall this year, and £9m the next. As a result, she said, the abbey was stopping Sunday services at St Margaret’s, the House of Commons parish church.

Yet despite the financial difficulties, a nationwide poll suggests that people are turning to religious faith with one in four tuning into a religious service online during lockdown.

Speaking to the Religion Media Centre, Lord Black, said: “I think religious groups, churches, places of worship will have a hugely important spiritual, cultural, historic and economic role in the post-Covid crisis.

“Churches are engines of economic growth because of tourism and cultural activities but, more important than that, I think society is going to be changed as a result of Covid and many people will have looked to their spiritual side, and I think are going to want greater support from people of all faiths in this period afterwards.”

He added: “Churches are the places, of course, where we go to pray but they are places also of quiet reflection where we can gather. People are really going to want that as we move out of this terrible emergency and that’s one of many reasons why the government needs to recognise the vital and essential role that we play.”

Lord Black served as press secretary to the former Tory leader Michael Howard and as director of communications to the Conservative Party, and today is deputy chairman of the Telegraph Media Group. In February he was elected master of the Guild of St Bride’s, Fleet Street, known as the “the journalists’ church”.

He urged the government to look at the Sunday congestion charge, introduced by the mayor of London, which he says “will put an intolerable price on worship”, and wants ministers to realise that “churches and other places of worship are in real difficulty as a result of the crisis”.

During the debate, peers pressed Lord Greenhalgh, the communities minister, to consider a number of measures to help places of worship. Baroness Sherlock, a Labour peer and an Anglican priest at Durham Cathedral, asked whether the equivalent of a “small businesses grant fund” could be considered for places of worship, and Lord Shutt, a Liberal Democrat, suggested Gift Aid, which increases the value of donations, be doubled.

Lord Greenhalgh, whose brief covers faith groups, said there were a “range of government-backed financial packages” available for places of worship including a funds made available to charities. He told Lady Sherlock that the small business fund proposal was being considered.

“Churches and places of worship play a crucial role in the cultural as well as spiritual and moral life of our country,” he said in reply to Lord Black. “We should support as a priority the long-term sustainability of those places of worship where possible.”