FULL marks to the Guardian headline-writer who produced “England’s churches can survive — but the religion will have to go” over a piece by Simon Jenkins on the crisis in rural churches. That will get them reading.
It was provoked by an earlier column by Giles Fraser, which wanted all the emptying rural churches closed down — a suggestion that I first heard from the Evangelical Canon Robert Warren in the early 1990s.
No, Jenkins said, keep them going, just not for Christians: “Like millions of people, I don’t go to church, but I do go to churches — 85% of the public visits a church every year. We regard them as the community’s ritual forum, its museum, its art gallery, its concert hall, its occasional retreat for peace, consolation and meditation. Many in the church view us as freeloaders (though I always leave money) and cannot see why they should give us such delight when their proper business is prayer, not heritage custody.”
Jenkins’s view is that, if only the buildings were handed over to respectable unbelieving members of the upper-middle classes, such as Guardian columnists, they would have no economic problems.
“If unwanted church buildings were handed over to parish councils, it is more likely that new people would step forward and take responsibility for them. The chancels could be allotted to local worshippers of all faiths. Screens could be rebuilt and naves and aisles put to new uses. At this point it becomes justifiable to levy local rates to maintain church fabric, as happens in Germany — and indeed in Britain with gardens and squares.”
What’s interesting about this proposal is just how deeply secularised it is. For a start, it assumes that people will more happily spend money on high cultural pursuits like architectural preservation than for religious motives; and I just don’t think that’s true, or even that there is any reason to believe it. The income last year of the National Trust was about £170 million, less than a quarter of the Church’s. Quite probably the same people give to both. Why would they suddenly start giving more if the churches were kept open by the National Trust rather than the Church?
Then there is his remarkable claim that “the city of Norwich” sold off half its medieval churches as redundant, whereas “the city of York” kept its open. Unless I am completely nuts, neither city owned any churches. The respective dioceses did. So, one group of churches passed out of the Church’s ownership, and there, he says “the buildings today present a sad spectacle, converted into houses and shops and warehouses”; another group was retained by the Church as “accessible and in some public use” — and this is an argument for getting rid of the Church’s part in caring for the buildings.
This is just silly kneejerk secularism. Of course the only future for most of these buildings is as festival churches, which for most of the time have secular uses, as is already being done. But the whole point of a societal — rather than a congregational — Church is that it can run itself for the benefit of outsiders.
THE coverage of the end of the synod on the family is puzzling, because the story was unprintable. It’s clear now that the liberals got what they wanted, partly because of the immediate claims by the conservatives to have triumphed, since the last thing you do if you have really won such a bitter fight is to rub it in, but mostly because of the exuberant opacity of such things as Cardinal Nichols’s press briefing.
Yet it can’t make a newspaper story, because there’s nothing comprehensible to quote. This is an unusual triumph of media management, comparable perhaps to the persistence of the Anglican Communion.
Meanwhile, from Singapore comes news of an intriguing partnership between commercial and church interests, from The Times: “The founder of one of Singapore’s evangelical ‘megachurches’ faces 20 years in prison for using £23 million of church funds to bankroll his glamorous wife’s career in pop music.
“Kong Hee, whose City Harvest Church claims to have a congregation of 22,000, was found guilty of criminal breach of trust for diverting S$24 million (£11 million) to support the musical career of Ho Yeow Sun. He and five other church officials were convicted of using another S$26 million to cover up the embezzlement.”
The story is notable for the scale of the rip-off, the dreadfulness of the resulting music (which is on YouTube), and the brazenness of the excuse. “Kong wrote on his Facebook page: ‘My last guiding principle is DEVOTION. When we love someone, we are willing to make sacrifices for the person we love. Devotion delights in making sacrifices to God.’”
Apparently the delight is even greater when it is other people’s money that is being sacrificed.