FOR one lunchtime last Thursday, one of the more traditional
national institutions, the House of Lords, was moved to consider
the state of another - the English parish church.
Peers lined up to express their enjoyment of the 16,000 parish
churches that cover the nation, and to sound notes of caution over
the various threats that face them.
The debate was begun by the President of the Prayer Book
Society, Lord Cormack. He told the House that the parish church
"comes closest to the soul and history of each community that [it]
His praise was echoed by Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, who quoted the
chief executive of English Heritage, Dr Simon Thurley: "The parish
churches of England are some of the most sparkling jewels in the
precious crown that is our historic environment."
Lord Ahmad went on: "There are few sights that evoke the true
Englishness of our great country than that of a parish church."
Lord Berkeley of Knighton agreed: "We can go for a drive
somewhere and look up in a book a wonderful church to sit in, be
with ourselves, and think of God, or our place in society or in
humanity. That is a staggering privilege, and we must protect it at
A number of speakers warned of the financial challenges faced by
thousands of churches that were struggling to cope with rising
English Heritage estimates from 2004 suggest that of the £175-
million cost of maintaining parish churches each year, £115 million
was raised by parishes themselves.
The Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Revd Graham James, said that no
other country in Europe provided less state support for its
religious buildings than the UK, despite its Established
One particular threat to the parish church was the bat, several
peers said. Lord Cormack said that he had heard of one instance
where a priest had to shake bat droppings out of her hair while
celebrating the eucharist.
"Churches [. . .] were not built as nature reserves. The smell,
the mess which has to be cleared up, puts an intolerable burden on
parishes, and in some cases is making the buildings unusable. . .
The impression is that the bats matter much more than the
Bishop James said that work to protect churches from bats was
taking place, but agreed that it remained a serious problem, and
that bat droppings could even pose a health risk.
"It is always odd to me that our parish churches seem to be
treated much more as barns than as houses. They are places where
people gather to worship and to eat - not just the sacrament of
holy communion, but more socially as well - although I doubt any
other eating place would be allowed to be so unhygienic."
Advice from Public Health England states that there is no risk
to health from bat droppings or urine. Lord Ahmad, for the
Government, said that there was a bat hotline that churches could
call for information. He also explained that church buildings
helped maintain habitats for endangered bat species, and cautioned
against hasty intervention to force them away.
"I look back to my Church of England education, and remember a
hymn: 'All things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and
small. . . The Lord God made them all.' Perhaps we can reflect on
the conservation of bats in that light," he said.
Lord Redesdale said that he could not support calls to cull
bats. "If they cause some damage, it is probably acceptable because
of the threat that bats are facing, and churches are a refuge," he
The Christian conservation charity A Rocha UK said in a
statement that bats were not a menace to churches, and insisted
that "peaceful co-existence" between the animals and worshippers
The Anglican Society for the Welfare of Animals echoed this, and
said that God required Christians to be responsible stewards of the
environment, including protecting animal life, even when it may be
Several peers urged parishes to think creatively about
reinventing their churches rather than just preserve them as a
Lord Redesdale said: "I do not want to denigrate the work of
English Heritage in ensuring that we preserve the historical nature
of churches, but we should recognise that they are living
buildings, and have to move forward to meet certain needs."
Lady Wilcox said that the "splendour" of the parish church
building should not lure us into "misguided preservationism". Lord
Lloyd-Webber, the musical-theatre impresario, had a novel
suggestion to reinvigorate old churches - installing wifi internet
to enable smartphone apps to explain the heritage of each
Lord Mawson suggested that churches needed to be used more
often, for more functions, by more people - and to become income
generators. Entrepreneurial ability was needed, and if that was not
present in the clergy and congregation, partnerships must be built
with sympathetic local businesspeople, he said.
Lord Mawson will be among the speakers at the first in a new
series of public debates to be held in Oxford this autumn on "The
Future of the Church of England". The event, on 9 October, is
organised by Professor Linda Woodhead and the team behind the
Westminster Faith Debates, in conjunction with Ripon College,
Cuddesdon. Visit www.faithdebates.org.uk/church-of-england for more
How Healthy is the Church of England: The Church Times health
check (Canterbury Press) is still available from www.chbookshop.co.uk.