Monday, 15 November 2010

Is it time the Church of England visited Gamblers' Anonymous?

This article below from yesterday's Sunday Times has caused serious raised eyebrows at The Georgian Group as we've been trying for the last four years at least to persuade the Church Commissioners to consider the future of Bishops' Palaces a little more carefully than simply trying to flog to the highest bidder buildings that have been in Church ownership for up to 800 years.  We have got somewhere with Hartlebury Castle (ex Bishop of Worcester) and may yet get somewhere with Rose Castle (Bishop of Carlisle) but probably only because they aren't especially attractive to commercial bidders, so the Church Commissioners have been forced, reluctantly, to look at other less rapacious options. But Auckland Castle (pictured) may be different.

The reality is that these palaces are being sacrificed to plug the gap left by horrendously ill-judged investments by the Church Commissioners over the past twenty years. Basically they have come unstuck speculating (aka gambling) on the property markets and are trying to get a comparative pittance back selling their longstanding assets, but of course the whole policy is cloaked in the righteous language of getting the bishops closer to the people. That is disingenuous, tendentious nonsense; the 'palaces' are in fact excellent community resources, aside from being repositories of collective treasures, such as the unique Hurd Library and Keene Chapel at Hartlebury.

The Commissioners revert to the knee-jerk notion of selling off the Palaces every time a Bishop retires, as Durham did this summer; the money raised would be a convenient though in practical terms a nugatory fig-leaf. In our view, if the Church is to dispose of these unique buildings, they ought to be vested in charitable trusts (as seems possible at Hartlebury, if the necessary funds can be raised), so that the ensemble of contents and buildings is kept intact and the option remains of reusing them for future Bishops should the policy and attitude of the Church change.

From the Sunday Times, 14 November 2010:

The Church of England is planning to sell or redevelop one of the most venerable and imposing bishop’s residences in the country. Auckland Castle, the 800-year-old home of successive bishops of Durham, could be turned into an upmarket hotel or flats. An estate agent has already been approached and the church commissioners believe the plan could raise millions of pounds to help church activities.

Valuable paintings kept at the huge property in Bishop Auckland, 12 miles from Durham, may also be auctioned. For 250 years, 12 remarkable paintings of Jacob and his sons by the 17th-century Spanish artist Francisco Zurbaran have hung in the castle’s long dining room.

Both Sotheby’s and Christie’s have been sounded out and have indicated that the paintings could be worth £20m.

Zurbaran is often called the Spanish Caravaggio because of his religious subject matter and style. The paintings are the most precious objects in any of the 43 English bishops’ homes.

Local residents oppose the church’s plans. However, the church will be guided by two of its commissioners — Andreas Whittam Smith, the founding editor of The Independent, and the Tory MP Tony Baldry. Both favour selling the paintings and redeveloping the castle.

“The simple equation in my head is how much money can be raised to be used for the clergy,” said Whittam Smith. Baldry added: “The commissioners work to support the ministry of the church across the country. We are not custodians of great works of art.”

The castle, which also includes a private chapel, is regarded as too big for a bishop to occupy, although future bishops could live in a flat on the premises.

Baldry described the castle’s running costs as “ludicrous”. He said: “The issue is whether it is a practical and reasonable cost to maintain a bishop in a building built for a very different era.”
He said the public would still have access to the substantial castle grounds after any sale.

The church has already decided that two of its other castles, in Carlisle and Worcester, are no longer suitable for bishops to live in. The bishop of Worcester has already left, but neither property has yet been sold or redeveloped.

At Bishop Auckland the favoured option is to turn much of the castle into a hotel along the lines of paradores in Spain or pousadas in Portugal. These are usually former palaces or noblemen’s homes that have been converted to upmarket hotels, where the art is usually kept as a feature. Flats are another possibility, as are commercial premises.

The sale of the paintings is opposed by Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, and Chris Higgins, the vice-chancellor of Durham University. The local MP, Helen Goodman, is also against the move and wants more access for the public to visit the castle and see the art.

Critics say the church commissioners are trying to push through the sale of the art and the castle while it is unoccupied. The last bishop of Durham, Tom Wright, who opposed the sale, stepped down in August. His replacement is some way off.

The commission has taken the unusual step of hiring a public relations firm, the London-based Chelgate, which specialises in crisis management. Whittam Smith said: “We’ve gone to them to protect our reputation because we are expecting flak over any sale.”

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