Justin Welby’s push for net zero could force churches to close and leave congregations shivering in the pews, clergy have warned.
The Church of England is proposing to cajole vicars into replacing traditional boilers with green alternatives, a move likely to pile excessive costs on parishes when some are already close to collapse.
Those that insist on a gas or oil replacement will be faced with a lengthy and bureaucratic process.
It means churches whose boilers break down and cannot afford a climate-friendly alternative could go for months without heat.
Bankrupt struggling parishes
Worried clergy have said that the rule, which will be presented at next month’s General Synod, would hit rural churches hardest and could bankrupt struggling parishes.
It echoes increasing concern across society about the costs to ordinary people of carbon-reduction targets.
The Church of England’s drive to reach net zero by 2030 is more aggressive than that of the Government, which has an overall target of 2050, with a pledge to ban gas boilers in new buildings from 2025 and to prevent them being sold at all from 2035.
In November Archbishop Welby likened climate change to the rise of Nazism, although he later apologised for the comparison.
The new proposal comes amid warnings about the future of the parish, fuelled by the pressures of the pandemic.
A leaked document last year suggested that the Church of England might need to do away with the current grassroots model to stay financially viable.
Church attendance outside London has declined 40 per cent over the past three decades, and countryside parishes are increasingly struggling to pay their priests.
Father Marcus Walker, rector at Great St Bartholomew’s in London and part of the Save The Parish campaign, said: “This is a policy designed by people who won’t actually have to implement it.
“It will increase the difficulties of those struggling to keep their parishes open and it will certainly tip some over the edge.”
The Church of England says that replacements for fossil fuel boilers should include heat pumps, biomass boilers, or an electric boiler run on renewable electricity.
Heat pumps are considerably more expensive to install, more expensive to run, and would be unsuitable to spacious, poorly insulated buildings such as churches, according to experts.
Mike Foster, CEO of the Energy and Utilities Alliance, applauded the church for trying to tackle climate change, but added: “It is potentially misguided advice at this stage, partly because swapping a traditional gas boiler for a heat pump is going to mean an upfront cost far in excess of what a replacement boiler would be.
“Parishes are not awash with cash, so how on earth can they afford to put in heat pumps?”
According to government figures, the average cost of replacing a fossil fuel burning boiler in a domestic home is roughly £2,500 compared with £10,000 for installing a heat pump, while the running costs for a heat pump are about £200 higher per year.
Biogas is not carbon neutral
Mr Foster said waiting for hydrogen to be blended into the gas network, expected to begin next year, would be the most viable option for reducing carbon as it would not necessitate equipment change.
Meanwhile biogas is not carbon neutral.
“My advice to any vicar is to replace what you’ve got with what you’ve got,” he said.
The Church of England allows vicars to apply to their archdeacon for permission for non-major changes to their church, including a like-for-like boiler replacement.
However, if the General Synod adopts the new proposal, named GS2245, to get permission for a replacement gas or oil boiler they will have to apply for a Faculty, a process which requires extensive documentary preparation and often legal and architectural advice, akin to making a planning application to a local council.
Decisions frequently take months to come back.
Father Walker said: “When a boiler goes down it will take forever to get a new one in.
“Will churches have to close over the whole winter or ask parishioners to worship in freezing conditions?”
“This is going to hit rural parishes the hardest – it’s going to make life really difficult.”
Becky Clark, the Church of England director of churches and cathedrals, said: “The Government has made clear that it intends to phase out the installation of new fossil fuel boilers, so these changes are intended to be in line with that aspiration and allow parishes to prepare for a lower carbon future.
“While most of these proposals would make it easier to gain permissions to carry out work in church buildings, like-for-like replacement of fossil fuel boilers would require an extra step.
“Although green alternatives to fossil fuel boilers are likely to be cheaper in the longer term, short-term funding is on the list of topics parishes need addressed and the national teams supporting parishes with their buildings are aware of this need.”