“Church buildings are too expensive to maintain — they should be sold off.” That was the title of a debate organised by The Spectator magazine this week. The commentator and journalist Rod Liddle and the comedian Arabella Weir proposed the motion; Jonathan Glancey, the architecture correspondent at The Guardian, and I opposed it.
To be honest, I found it hard to take seriously the idea that anyone might propose such a motion. Was it a joke? Was that why they had a comedian proposing it? Sure, there are a handful of redundant churches that might be sold off to make space for another car park or block of flats. But, as the new National Churches Trust survey makes absolutely clear, the 47,000 places of worship in the UK provide the backbone of civil society.
Even if we ignore for a moment the fact that these buildings cater for the spiritual needs of millions, ignoring also their immense historical and architectural value, it is clear that our places of worship are at the heart of communities throughout the country. Church buildings are where people go for concerts and plays; they meet for counselling and coffee mornings; they support services on issues such homelessness, debt, and drug-and alcohol-misuse.
These are places where you can learn about parenting, or housebound parents can meet others as they take lively kids out for a play date. This is where the youth club meets and the Brownies. At the last election, one sixth of us voted in a church building.
How much does all this cost the taxpayer? Not much at all. The state supports religious buildings to the tune of £25 million a year. That is much less than a mile of motorway. This money helps with urgent repairs to the finest of these buildings, but the vast majority of the funds needed to maintain them come from church communities themselves. It is something about which we ought to be proud.
During the past year, 85 per cent of the adult population visited a place of worship for one reason or another, the National Churches Trust survey says. Churches, mosques, synagogues, and gurdwaras do not represent a minority sport or a specialist interest. They are the beating heart of the big society. This is where much of our community activity flourishes, and it is not about the market, nor about the state.
The survey paints a picture of the activity that goes on in church buildings as making a massive contribution to the life of our nation in general, and to many millions of people in particular. We must tell this story as often as we can.
The Revd Dr Giles Fraser is Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral and Director of the St Paul’s Institute.