At the confluence of the rivers Severn and Avon, the Gloucestershire town of Tewkesbury is almost encompassed by water in wet winter months. The Severn brings flood water down from Wales and the Avon expands across flood meadows, that are filled with wild flowers in summer time.
The landscape of lowland that surrounds the town is dominated by the great tower of the medieval abbey church, a building that must have been the dominant feature of the town in times before Henry VIII’s seizure of the assets of the church in the Sixteenth Century.
There is a profound sense of beauty in such buildings, in the stone architecture and the carved woodwork, in the stained glass and the ornate furnishings. No expense must have been spared in the process of construction of such churches; it was process that sometimes lasted over centuries as churches were expanded and enhanced.
In the guide books and parish histories found in medieval parishes, there do not seem to have been many questions as to how the money was found to pay for such work.
The medieval churches derived its income from their local communities, not through voluntary donations, but through the tithes on agricultural produce that were imposed from the Tenth Century onwards. The church built its huge wealth not on the basis of the freely given response of people with money to spare, but through onerous charges on people who would often have struggled merely to survive.
The church embraced the Old Testament principle of the tithe, the ten per cent levy, to its own advantage. Had it followed the New Testament teaching that people should give according to how well they had prospered, the income would have been a fraction of what it was and the buildings would have been altogether more modest.
Centuries on, as the the church becomes an increasingly marginal participant in English society, and where many ageing congregations are without a viable future, if the Church of England had integrity and was committed to Gospel values, it would ask how buildings constructed with money extracted from ordinary people might be returned to the communities whose forebears paid for them. And it is not just the church buildings, the globe houses, the rectories, the vicarages, were funded through levies on common people.
Will the church, now it plays little part in the lives of ordinary people, commit itself to giving their money back? Will it hand its assets to the towns and villages who are the rightful owners of those assets?