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Lords debate the English parish church

20 June 2014

churches conservation trust

In the mix? The Churches Conservation Trust is holding a "Great Church Bake-off" national competition to mark the start of a month-long series of midsummer tea parties at English churches. www.visitchurches.org.uk

In the mix? The Churches Conservation Trust is holding a "Great Church Bake-off" national competition to mark the start of a month-long series of mi...

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] serves".

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 all costs."

A number of speakers warned of the financial challenges faced by thousands of churches that were struggling to cope with rising repair bills.

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 Church.

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 worshipping community."

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 said.

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 was possible.

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 inconvenient.

Several peers urged parishes to think creatively about reinventing their churches rather than just preserve them as a historical monument.

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 building.

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 details.

How Healthy is the Church of England: The Church Times health check (Canterbury Press) is still available from www.chbookshop.co.uk. 


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