Adios to the Landed Clergy

Gill Barron investigates England's vanishing glebe lands.

Stealing land is difficult to do. You can't exactly roll it up like a carpet and carry it away. But theft is a matter of ownership, and the undercover transfer of ownership of land is, in fact, incredibly easy in a country where the records of who owns what are a jealously guarded secret.

The enormous advantage to landowners of there being no compulsory register of their holdings is a subject that The Land has returned to over and over again; in fact every time that successive Tory governments have attempted to privatise the Land Registry. This threat has been going on for years, but now, according to the Chancellor, it is really going to happen, and soon. Quite regardless of the enormous body of public opinion set against this disastrous move, George Osborne will flog off a national asset which brings in £119 million pa clear profit to the Treasury every year.1 Much more crucially, the partial, but vital data it already holds about the very fabric of the nation will be handed to the highest bidder, and any chance of a universal, transparent, democratic record of landholdings will be lost for ever.
The need for a fully-functioning, and compulsory, register of who-owns-what is vividly illustrated by the case of the Church of England's enormous, and untraceable, landholdings, originally acquired through a Royal landgrab. When Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, in a clearly premeditated run-up to evicting the Catholic church from England altogether, he took possession of a loosely-estimated2 four million acres of prime farmland. He sold some of it, hastily and cheaply, to various of his henchmen, to raise money for his wars. So that was the first slice gone from the original four million acres. But he quickly realised that his new Protestant Church of England would need ongoing upkeep. At a time when virtually all income was derived from owning land, whether as produce or rents, this was the only way to ensure the continuing prescence of the Church's army of indoctrination3 across the nation. So he endowed it with the (unquantified) remaining lands, to enable it to support itself. Let's assume he sold a million acres — then the new Church got three. No-one knows, exactly.

It has never been any secret that in Britain, Church and State are one. The monarch is, constitutionally, the head of both. So closely do they work together that the Prime Minister is always a Church Commissioner, and the Monarch appoints two more of them, and also appoints the Archbishops, who in turn are part of the unelected backbone of Government. Twenty-six bishops sit in the House of Lords, as of right. Recent, feeble attempts to remove the hereditary peers from this half of Parliament never questioned the entitlement of these Church mouthpieces to stay put. They are so deeply embedded in the Establishment as to be untouchable.
It has always been in the State's interest to protect the Church, to secure its social influence and political support in return. Henry VIII's endowment passed on the unsold remains of monastic and parish land to the parish that contained it, and these acres, known as "glebe" became the source of income for the personal support of the parish priest. As St. Alban's diocesan website4 explains:

"Before 1978 an incumbent could keep the rent from the glebe land in his parish and indeed, sell the land and use the proceeds to supplement his stipend. Now all income from glebe land is shared by all parishes in the diocese. In 1978 the Endowments and Glebe Measure 1976 came into effect. This Measure transferred the ownership and management of glebe land from incumbents to the Diocesan Boards of Finance (DBF). From 1978 onwards all income arising from glebe land has to be used towards the payment of stipends ... In this way, many parishes where there was no glebe land benefit from the land now held by the DBF and all clergy are paid the same stipend. Before the Measure came into effect some clergy who owned a lot of glebe land had incomes far in excess of those clergy who had little or no glebe land."

This sounds fair, and rationalises a messy situation. The key is in the earlier quote: "to keep the rent ... or sell the land". That bygone incumbents (rectors, vicars etc) were allowed to flog off the Church's capital endowment to line their own pockets is extraordinary. So is the lack of any apparent effort to quantify the remaining acres in the run-up to the Glebe Measure in 1976. Sloppy housekeeping? Cover-up? All we can be sure of is that a lot of glebe land had quietly vanished away in the years since Henry VIII. The only record – or milestone – we have between Henry's time and 1978 is the Returns of Owners of Land in 1872, which gives a grand total of land owned or controlled by the Cof E and its clergy of 2.13 million acres.5 That's 870,000 of the original three million acres gone already. Working out, even approximately, how much more was lost in the years between 1872 and 1978 is going to be tricky, but, hell — someone has to do it.

St Alban's diocese (one of the few, out of 43, which make any public statement of their land holdings) admits to owning about 3,000 acres of farm land; proceeds from the sale of glebe land are reinvested either in more land and buildings or in quoted investments. The income generated from the glebe land itself comes to about £450,000pa.4 Salisbury diocese is another: "In comparison with many other dioceses, Salisbury has a small glebe estate, some 1800 acres, mainly of farmland without buildings". The income is not mentioned. Spot-checks on other dioceses' glebe holdings, (Carlisle, York, Norwich, Canterbury and Exeter) yielded nothing; most do not even mention the word "glebe".

Yet from St. Alban's and Salisbury's admissions, we may broadly surmise that 3,000 acres is a feasible average land-bank; and perhaps £450,000 a year a median income. There are 43 dioceses in the Cof E (not counting the 44th, which is "the rest of the world"). So – 43 times 3,000 acres is 129,000 acres. Forty-three times £450,000 is £19.35 million a year. This is guesswork, true, but in the absence of publicly available records we are forced to guess. This country-wide income from land rents is peanuts compared to the covenanted payments from churchgoers – latter-day tithes – on which parishes mainly rely; but even so it must be remembered that this land was originally a free gift from the King, so its capital cost is nil, and its rental value in perpetuity is unimaginably vast.5

Back to the "lost land" question. The calculation above yields 129,000 acres, and the Church Commissioners (as described in a later article) admit to owning some 105,000 acres. Let's round it up to a tidy quarter of a million. Which is around an eighth of the 2.13m acres found by the Returns of 1872. The other seven-eighths amounts to around 1.8 million acres. That's a lot of slippage. Given that the Church is the State, and the State is, in theory, the People, it smacks of the usual casual thieving of the "family silver" practiced by the various arms of the Conservative Party, who have always been keen on "privatisation".

No big surprise there, then. Syphoning off national assets for private gain has always been the way this country is run, or rather, fleeced. But this is where the Land Registry comes in, or should do; its importance is only now being generally realised, just as we are about to lose it into the hands of the very same vested interests who have so long profited from its secrecy and loopholes. If we had had an effective, impartial, and compulsory land registry from the beginning, every transaction of public land into private ownership would have been available for scrutiny; many would have been common knowledge. Probably, far fewer of those back-pocket deals for parish property between Revd. X and Farmer Y would have taken place. Even the Bishop had no way of knowing what his clergy were up to. Land looks the same, whoever owns it.

Now that the Cof E is making most of its land-based income not from agriculture (via tenant farmers) but rather by turning its acres over to urban enterprises such as shopping malls, housing estates, and so on, the capital value of the remaining glebe is massively amplified by the "betterment" of planning permission. The wealth of the Church of England, including its "charitable" arm, the Church Commissioners, is ballooning; even as demand for its services falls away like melting snow.6
As one commentator put it in 1993, "The church's failure is so enormous that it now treats the country's heartlands as mission fields, and not the thriving parishes they once were."7 Twenty-three years later, the situation is very much worse. In March this year, the Telegraph reported that the Cof E has five times as many buildings as Tesco's, but unlike Tesco's they are almost always empty.8 What to do with all this real estate and colossal worldly wealth? The first step must be to call for a proper inventory - every diocese, and the Church Commissioners, to catalogue their property within these islands in publicly accessible form at the Land Registry.

The registration of all land ownership must be made compulsory. At present no-one can be sure who owns what, so there is no way the land could ever be shared out fairly. Secrecy is power. Landed interests of all sorts will fight to ensure that we never do find out where they hid all that family silver. Without public ownership of the Land Registry, we just don't stand a chance.

The Church should remember it is constituted as a charity, intended to benefit the people as a whole, not just itself. But if the people have largely outgrown the need for it, it may be time to consider dissolving its assets and returning the proceeds – including all the land it hasn't so far managed to lose – to a common bank to be used for the common good. God, wherever he or she is nowadays, would surely approve. 



1. Editorial, The Guardian 25 May 2016 the-guardian-view-on-the-land-registry-sell-off-hands-off-this-national-asset
2. Cooper, JP Land, Men and Beliefs. Hambledon Press 1983. More on this in the following article.
3. Literally –  ‘indoctrination’ derives from ‘doctrine’, meaning the official teachings of a religion.
4. Nye, David: Whatever happened to our glebe land?
5. Cahill, Kevin: Who Owns Britain? Chapter 12: The Church of England. Canongate 2001.
7. Gill, Robin: The Myth of the Empty Church Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge (SPCK) 1993 p. 278
8. Only 1.4 per cent of the population of England now attend Anglican services on a typical Sunday morning.