The Church of England has nearly 16,000 buildings, three times more than Tesco, but they are empty most of the time. With their maintenance now an urgent issue, radical reinvention may be required
We Britons are famously obsessive about our heritage. Our attachment to stately homes, castles and cathedrals sometimes verges on the fanatical. And yet almost half of all the Grade I listed buildings in England are in the hands of a single organisation – the Church of England, which is mildly bemused as to what it should do with them. It has 15,700 buildings in all, compared with, say, Tesco’s 3,376 UK stores.
Those church buildings are almost always empty: a quarter of them have an attendance of 16 or fewer. Some churches enjoy bulging congregations, but even they come together only for a few hours a week. The crisis is so acute that the church is now selling about 20 churches a year. It is not, of course, only the C of E: last autumn the Catholic diocese of Salford announced it was selling about 60 churches and losing half of its 150 parishes.
There are almost 42,000 Christian buildings in the UK, of which 930 are on Historic England’s “at risk” register. So each denomination is having the same emotive, and fascinating, debate about what to do with its real estate.
Until now there has not been much urgency to the debate because the decline in worshippers was gentle and never uniform. The buildings are generally sturdy and resilient and no generation wanted to be the one that finally made a clean break with these sacred spaces. But there is now a sense the issue cannot be ignored any more. The Church Buildings Review Group has recently published a report into the vexed question, and it is clear that the status quo cannot continue.
Congregations often have to find six-figure sums to fix a roof or a bell-tower. Devout, but invariably elderly, worshippers have to become fundraisers, amateur architects and project managers. Many say that it feels like trying to inflate a punctured tyre. The problem is most serious in rural areas, where 57% of churches serve only 17% of the population. The heavy lifting falls on parochial church councils, whose main contact with the wider community is the rattling of a collection tin for the upkeep of their spiritual home. Most congregations want to serve, but end up begging. They feel, as Nick Spencer, research director of Theos, a Christian thinktank, eloquently wrote in his book, Parochial Vision, that “the Church of England is made of stone. Having started life founded on the Rock, it has become one.”
The irony is that those most in favour of saying farewell to the churches are a vocal section of committed worshippers. There are plenty of Christian radicals who think that our attitude to real estate verges on the idolatrous. These iconoclasts would happily leave behind the burden of ancient stones and get on with the church’s real mission. They make the point that “church” is a verb more than a noun: it is something to be done together, not an object one patches up.
It is not a new argument, of course. Christians believe Jesus tore down a temple and rebuilt it again in three days. There have been house-churches (a few people meeting in an upper room) since the very beginning. The radicals’ argument goes that our buildings are now too big, too hard to heat, and are both unsettling to outsiders and uncomfortable for insiders. It is time to invite the nation to save these ecclesiastical beauties and for committed Christians to put down roots elsewhere.
There are plenty of examples of evangelism flourishing once the millstone is left behind: there are warehouse churches, skate-park churches, bakery churches, garage prayer-rooms, churches that meet in pubs, that meet in houses and so on. “Fresh Expressions” is the generic label for these innovative places of prayer.
But between the ostriches who want to retain the status quo and those radicals who want to lead an exodus is an interesting, and fertile, ground. In its report, the Church Buildings Review Group recommends nurturing what are called “festival churches”: buildings that become essentially village halls, venues for fruit and veg markets, for concerts, for classes and so on.
These innovators, who have done stunning things with churches in recent years, position themselves as traditionalists. “The idea that churches should only be places of worship is quite a modern view,” says Matthew McKeague, head of regeneration at the Churches Conservation Trust.
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