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How we let the buildings win

25 January 2013

Ancient churches are in good repair; not so the ministry, says Neil Patterson

One of six: St Lawrence's, Weston-under-Penyard

One of six: St Lawrence's, Weston-under-Penyard

SIXTY years ago, all except the smallest country parishes had their own incumbents, and town parishes had multiple curates to minister to large populations. Although it is difficult to provide a figure, ten per cent of the population could be considered churchgoers in the 1950s.

More reliably, about two-thirds were baptised and a quarter were confirmed in 1950, and the national Church indisputably conducted most marriages and funerals.

Things have changed, in spite of the best presentations of the Church House statistics department. Rural incumbents like me are fortunate to have as few as six parishes, and urban colleagues if they have only one. Regular attendance is somewhere near two per cent, baptisms (all ages) stand at 21 per cent, and confirmations at no more than four per cent. Funerals are falling to- wards a third, and marriages a quarter. And, as we are all constantly made aware, there is no money to spare for anything.

The enormous exception is the churches themselves. Only a small minority of parish churches in England (about 20 a year, out of 16,000) have closed in the past 60 years. The majority are not only open, but in good repair, and in many cases with improved facilities. This is a good thing, of course, and a cause for thankfulness and pride for those who have worked tirelessly to make it so. But my question is, of all the strengths the Church of Eng-land had c.1950, did we ever consciously choose that the health of the church buildings should be our priority?

In an ideal world, of course, everything would have endured; but if we accept that, historically, some shrinkage was likely, was there ever a strategic sense of what it should be? In my six villages, for example, I cannot help thinking that if two or three of the churches had closed, but we were still able to have two full-time clergy, then there might be more Christianity in the area. It is necessary to explore why this might have been the case, and I have three overlapping answers.

THE first is that, in spite of decades of mission theology, there are and have been very many Anglicans for whom the lovely old place where they worship really is more dear to them than the vicar, or the Sunday school, or (definitely) the diocesan communications officer. So it has been easier at every juncture to raise money to restore the church building than anything else.

Years of worshipping in a particular church build up a deep devotion to conserving that place for oneself and future generations. Medieval stone has a beguiling power.

The second is that church buildings are politically legitimate recipients today of heritage money. While most of the population probably do not care whether there is anyone worshipping inside, they would be disappointed if the landmark disappeared, in the same way as they expect the preservation of castles and historic houses, the fabric of England.

Finally, there is an institution that mediates these concerns to the Church, the faculty jurisdiction. It almost deserves an English Heritage listing itself, for preserving the life of the 17th-century church-court system. It imposes on clergy and churchwardens a strong legal structure of obligation in respect of the care of buildings, which is not paralleled in any other areas of their responsibility.

IN MY diocese, as in many others, Mission Action Planning has been adopted as a vehicle for parish development. Among their many other burdens, only one of my six PCCs has even considered this properly.

By constrast, four of the parishes have recently been obliged to prepare Statements of Significance and Need. Beneath the legal structure, the faculty jurisdiction - the Church's alternative to listed-building consent - unwittingly prompts long negotiation between parishes, dioceses, planners, and heritage bodies, each with their own particular interest. There is now a real need for diocesan advisory committees (DACs) and Chancellors to be as flexible as possible in applying the rules (made, we should not forget, by the General Synod). The de minimis list of works not requiring a faculty varies across dioceses, suggesting a flexibility that is not always used.

In this diocese, the DAC has recently decided to require all applications affecting the fabric of a church to be accompanied by Statements of Significance and Need, setting out the historic and cultural status of the building and justifying the new proposal respectively. The national policy is that these are required only for large changes. While the compilation of these documents is indisputably a good thing, giving churchwardens and PCCs a deeper understanding of their building's history, I am doubtful that it is the best occupation for a small group of volunteers.

For those reluctant to comply, two implicit threats are often held over the Church. The first is that the whole faculty system may be abolished, and listed churches subjected to secular planning controls. The second is that the continuing receipt of English Heritage grant money is conditional on parishes' treating their historic buildings as a priority.

These are real threats, but we need to know that we can call this bluff; for the most significant threat now to the conservation of almost every historic church is not ill-planned maintenance, or vandalistic reordering, but the collapse of the worshipping congregation to a level where the church must be abandoned.

For all those in the heritage industry, this is perhaps enough of a counter-threat to encourage greater flexibility. For those of us responsible for the buildings, it is even simpler: whatever ancient stone and art they hold, if the worship of God in them ceases, they are no longer churches at all. 

The Revd Neil Patterson is Rector of Ariconium, in Hereford diocese.

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