THE Church Commissioners are pressing ahead with the sale of a historic set of paintings and are yet to make a decision about the fate of Auckland Castle.

The commissioners, who look after the Church of England’s assets, were at the castle yesterday to listen to views about whether it should remain as the home and office of the next Bishop of Durham.

But of the Zurbaran paintings, the commissioners’ secretary, Andrew Brown, said: “We are certainly pressing ahead with the sale.”

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The set of 13 paintings, which have hung in the castle for 260 years and represent a plea for religious tolerance, are likely to be auctioned in the summer.

A working group, led by Sir Paul Nicholson, the Lord Lieutenant of County Durham, has been given the task of finding alternatives to the sale, which the commissioners hope will raise £15m.

Asked how much the alternatives would have to raise to prevent the sale, Mr Brown said: “Here on January 5, I don’t know the answer to that.

“We are very mindful of heritage. We are sitting in a fantastic building, but our principal objective is to support the work of the Church of England.

“We contribute 16 per cent of the costs of running the Church and we seek to grow that support to improve its ministry and reach throughout the country.

“At the end of the day, our main aim is not the maintenance of heritage. Our main aim is to support the work of the Church of England.

“For all organisations the current economic climate is challenging and the Church is no different, and so the use of the capital raised – at the moment the paintings do not produce an income and they cost to insure – would go to pay the full annual costs of ten priests.

“We are not going to hypothecate, but we do focus on the poorer dioceses.”

The Zurbarans are housed in what is said to be Europe’s first purpose-built art gallery, built by Bishop Richard Trevor. “I think it is a very interesting story and they are wonderful paintings,” said Mr Brown.

Yesterday’s meetings were described as “very helpful and very fruitful”.

Mr Brown said: “The purpose is for the Bishopric and Cathedrals Committee and the Board of Governors to acquaint themselves with Auckland Castle, to listen to local views from within the church and wider as to where the Bishop of Durham should be based.”

A decision on the castle’s fate is expected within months.

About 16 people attended the meetings, including Councillor Simon Henig, the leader of Durham County Council.

He said: “We have made it clear that we believe that both Auckland Castle and the Zurbaran paintings are an integral part of the heritage, culture and economy of Bishop Auckland and the wider area.

“To protect the immediate future of the paintings, we are also maintaining our stance that the paintings form part of the listed status of the buildings.

As such, should the commissioners wish to move them, they would need to seek planning consent to do so.”

Refused access to commissioners’ meeting

A PARISH councillor who tried to attend yesterday’s meeting at Auckland Castle has expressed her disappointment at being turned away.

Valerie Whitby, who is a member of Heighington Parish Council, in County Durham, and a member of the Church of England, went to Bishop Auckland with her husband, John, in an attempt to get into the meeting, but was told it was private and the couple were refused access.

Mrs Whitby said: “We thought that as members of the Church we could go.

“There were about seven cars outside. We spoke to someone from the clergy, who was very polite, and we said we represented the people of County Durham.

“We were very disappointed that we had taken the trouble to go and we were denied access.

It was not as if there was 200 people outside trying to get in, there was just two of us.

“I can understand that we could not speak, but we were disappointed at not being able to go in and listen.”

She accused the Church of England of short-sightedness at not allowing the public to attend the meeting or consulting with the wider community of County Durham, especially Church members.

She said: “We understand times are hard for everybody and people have made great sacrifices.

“It is very disappointing to find out Church members are not being consulted. There should be some kind of open meeting. It is unacceptable that it is all going on behind closed doors.

“Bishop Auckland would be bereft without the castle providing a home to the Bishop.”