'They have an Anglican-centric view of what a church is. They don’t understand our sacred space,' the archbishop said

The people in charge of giving grants to churches to preserve, repair and refurbish buildings don’t understand the purpose of a Catholic church, according to the bishop in charge of worship and liturgy.

Archbishop George Stack, chairman of the patrimony committee of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, criticised the Heritage Lottery Fund during a speech on church design.

Giving the St Bede annual liturgy lecture at Ealing Abbey on Saturday, the Archbishop of Cardiff said that the Heritage Lottery Fund which had benefited many churches in recent years had now changed its policy on places of worship and had no idea of what a sacred space was.

“The ‘Grants for Places of Worship’ … is being swept up into the amenities grants,” said Archbishop of Stack. “Churches are to be regarded in the same way as museums and railways and to be measured in terms of their ‘community use’.

“The nature of sacred space has a meaning all of its own which cannot be quantified or measured in terms of ‘visitor numbers’ or ‘community impact’.”

The Heritage Lottery Fund, which was created in 1994 to distribute lottery money, announced in April that it was scrapping its £25 million Grants for Places of Worship fund next year. Instead, money for churches will come out of its general heritage programme.

According to Archbishop Stack, the Fund’s notion of church use has been influenced by the way in which many rural Anglican churches are being used to accommodate other functions such as post office services and crèches to make them viable.

But the Catholic Church’s approach is entirely different, said Archbishop Stack, who is due to meet with the HLF chairman, Sir Peter Luff. “They have an Anglican-centric view of what a church is. They don’t understand our sacred space,” said the Archbishop after the lecture. He added that he has had letters of support from rabbis who share the Catholic view of what sacred space can be used for.

In his lecture, ‘Constructing Churches for Active Participation in the Celebration of Liturgy’, Archbishop Stack also said that Catholics need to regularly reflect on the meaning and purpose of churches and their contents, and that people needed to be made aware of the significance of the baptismal font, the ambo, presidential chair, altar and confessional.

The archbishop, who is also a member of the Vox Clara Commission of the Sacred Congregation of Divine Worship, said that after the Second Vatican Council, the ordering of sacred space had been changed but what the council wanted was not always understood. “In many places the original re-ordering was more a ‘re-arrangement of furniture’ to accommodate the new liturgy”, he said. But now “the re-ordering of the re-ordering” was taking place in many churches. This did not mean a return to pre-conciliar liturgy, he explained, but instead a set-up which allowed a more prayerful encounter with God and active participation in the liturgy.

Archbishop Stack’s own cathedral in Cardiff is being internally redesigned as part of the celebrations of the centenary of the Archdiocese of Cardiff. He cited a plan given to the architect which could be used for design and re-ordering of any church. This includes:

  • Creating a space for worship which expresses the deepest mysteries of faith in sign, symbol and sacrament.
  • Providing space so that liturgical artefacts and furniture can convey a message about worship
  • Building a narthex accessed through glass doors so that people can see in from the street
  • Having a special baptismal area. Symbols such as the words of the Asperges around the font should convey the baptismal message of death and new life.
  • Use floor designs to create a path towards the ambo
  • Create an altar which conveys the message of Christ’s living sacrifice
  • The presidential chair should be made in the same materials as the altar and ambo to be a reminder that the priest is “in persona Christi”.

Sir Peter Luff has defended the Heritage Lottery Fund changes and said that since 1994 its has distributed £850 million to places of worship, and under the new system, grants of £5 million per application would be available for large projects rather than the £250,000 current cap.

Heritage Lottery Fund said: “Places of worship are amongst the UK’s most important historic buildings and Catholic churches have fascinating stories to share. However, because of their age they can be challenging to manage and maintain. Time and resource stretched congregations have been telling us that they want to access our funding more easily and we have taken steps to address that.

“People are vital to the sustainability of all historic buildings and places of worship are no exception. Under our new approach, applicants will need to engage with people as they did through the Grants Places of Worship programme, the way in which they choose to do this will vary from project to project but will in broad terms be proportional to the level of grant requested. There is no requirement for the activities to happen in the place of worship itself – this can take place anywhere congregations choose. National Lottery funded refurbishment and improvement projects can be tailored to individual places of worship and our new funding approach offers that vital flexibility.”