While the next Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, faces congregations which have been shrinking for decades, the value of the Church of England's property portfolio continues to soar. The Church owns shares and property worth £5.3 billion, including the Hyde Park Estate of 2,000 homes around Bayswater, plus a Bayswater hotel, the Royal Lancaster.
But there is also a more obvious Anglican property empire — the COFE's 16,000 churches, 42 cathedrals and thousands of church halls and vicarages — though not all of them are earning their keep. In 2011, 17 redundant churches were sold off, seven of them for conversion to residential use.
Such sales are controversial and can be problematic: often the architectural features have to be expensively protected as part of gaining planning permission.
St Anselm's in Kennington has approval for 17 new homes. Some are likely to be sold privately available on the open market, though buyers might be discouraged that others will be reserved for well-vetted ex-offenders. The new flats will be on adjoining land belonging to the church. There will also be a restaurant called The Clink.
"The church is very tall so we are splitting it into two storeys," says Andrew Borge, the project director. "There will be the restaurant on the ground floor and then we will worship on the first floor."
Highgate Road Chapel in Kentish Town is an independent Christian evangelical church that opened in 1877. In recent years, it was in a poor state of repair. "We sold one of our buildings for £2 million and that was converted into 14 flats," Pastor Andrew Hill explains. "Most of that money was spent rebuilding the old Sunday School Hall as a new chapel." Hill believes the alternative of gradual deterioration would not have been welcomed by the community.
Most churches sold for homes are in remote rural areas with falling populations. "A deconsecrated church is usually cheaper than a barn," says Alex Coppock of Communion Architects, which specialises in ecclesiastical conversions. "However, you might spend £40,000 on the purchase but then £200,000 on the conversion. There will often be complications — public access and maintenance of any graveyard, and what do you do with the bells?"
St Andrew's Church in Star Road, Fulham, has rebuilt its Victorian extension, creating 10 flats. The profits are being used to fund renovation work and create a community centre.
"My advice is to be bold and imaginative about what it is possible on the site," says its canon, Guy Wilkinson. "That is possible while retaining the historic character. But be aware of the risks. If the site is sold to a developer and they undertake the project, the reward is reduced but so is the risk. Also, be aware that this will be a long and bureaucratic project, with the Church bureaucracy as well as the planning bureaucracy."
Where to buy
The Church Commissioners maintain a list of churches which are available for sale. Updates are available from Jeremy Tipping on 020 7898 1595 or via email at email@example.com.
Those currently available include Birch St Peter, in Birch, Essex, with a 110ft spire, and Merston St Giles, a tiny 13th-century church in Merston, near Chichester. But don't expect to get planning approval for conversion for these — both buildings are considered too precious and are likely to sell to conservation charities.
Staverton St Paul, however, just north of Trowbridge, Wiltshire, dates from 1826, with a porch and vestry built in the 1860s. It has a three-bay nave, is built of dressed limestone with slate roofs and occupies an elevated position looking over the River Avon. Conversion is possible — if you can deal with burials in your garden. Call Chris Dawson on 0117 917 2045.