A DEBATE on a report by the Church Buildings Review Group was the first time the Synod had to address the issue, the Bishop of Manchester, Dr David Walker, said as he chaired the debate. Legislation was likely to follow that would enable more detailed debates in future groups of sessions. This debate, he said, was an opportunity “to get a feel and a sense” of what the Synod wanted to address in the report.
Opening the debate, the Bishop of Worcester, Dr John Inge, who chairs the Church Buildings Review Group, began by saying that much of the media reporting about the report had “unfortunately . . . focused largely on the ‘festival churches’ proposal and completely misunderstood it, perhaps wilfully in some cases, to mean that festival churches would remain closed except for Christmas and Easter and other festivals.
“The intention, of course, is exactly the reverse: that some of the legal requirements relating to parish churches should be removed from these particular churches so that they can remain open throughout the year and used by the local church without them being an intolerable burden.”
The Bishop acknowledged that “those who imagined that the report would produce a magic bullet to solve all the challenges facing the Church in its custody of nearly 16,000 church buildings will be disappointed.” But, he said, this was because “we do not think that such a bullet exists, and we are cautious about a one-size-fits-all approach.”
The review group did not “underestimate the challenge our buildings pose”, he said, “but neither do we want to minimise the potential for good and for the gospel which most of them represent.”
A “Dr Beeching-style” approach to cutting churches would be a mistake, because “thousands of closed churches would send out a very powerful message: that the Church and the Christian faith have had their day in this country.”
“It should be noted that, in financial terms, the Church of England is the least established Church in Western Europe,” he said. “We welcome recent government funding that has been received, and hope that significant help will be assured in the future.”
Sir Tony Baldry (Oxford), who chairs the Church Buildings Council, said that the aim must be to make church buildings blessings, not burdens. But there were many challenges to this, in particular the “significant numbers” of listed churches that served very small villages. Most of the C of E’s churches were in rural areas, where just one fifth of the population lived.
“We have to find a balance — between those who want to keep every piece of heritage and artefact, and those who argue [that] the millions spent on maintaining church buildings would be better spent on people, and we can equally well serve God in tents.”
The Revd Simon Talbott (Ely) feared that the idea of festival churches was simply “avoiding the hard choices that exist”. He warned against storing up problems for the future.
The Archdeacon of Gloucester, the Ven. Jacqueline Searle (Gloucester), said that, in her diocese, faculty simplification had been warmly welcomed by struggling incumbents and churchwardens. She also fed back some of the conclusions of a recent buildings review, which included the possibility of creating a new property department to lift the burden of buildings management from small parishes.
The Revd Peter Kay (St Albans), a rural incumbent with three Grade I listed churches, brought two amendments about “missional opportunities”, and asking for a strategy of investment in community facilities.
Some were struggling, but “for many normal village churches, there are enormous missional opportunities of a type we have not seen in generations.” Given the close of other “social gathering-points”, such as pubs and shops, church coffee-mornings and toddler groups could take on “new significance and weight within the life of the community, and provide opportunities to connect and bring people into the life of the Church”.
Limiting this was a lack of facilities. “If a church building has a loo, kitchen area, and decent heating, and at least some flexible space, there are all sort of ways we can use our buildings to advance the Kingdom in our communities.”
He would like to see the Church’s central bodies consider how they could enable this.
Canon Sally Gaze (Norwich)spoke to her amendment to invite the Simplification Task Group to consider how to “relieve the burden on incumbents of multi-parish benefices”.“We love our buildings, but that can make us reluctant to admit how close we are sometimes to drowning,” she said.
One option could be that the interested parties in a multi-parish benefice could decide that just two of the eight buildings under the responsibility of the incumbent remained with him or her; the others could be cared for locally with the support of the diocese.
The Revd Jonathan Alderton-Ford (St Edmundsbury & Ipswich)spoke to an amendment concerning the “many unlisted churches in strategic locations doing vital work in their communities”. Given that the Church “saves the Government £3.5 billion in social welfare each year, I think they can afford the rebate”.
The Revd Gary Waddington (West Yorkshire & the Dales) echoed the plea for training. The “land of heritage-outcomes-speak” was difficult to navigate.
The Revd Timothy Goode (Southwark) supported Mr Kay’s amendment. He was “disappointed that the report made no mention of a desire to make buildings physically accessible to all as an aid to mission”. There was a need for financial support to enable this.
The Dean of the Arches, the Rt Worshipful Charles George QC,said that it was “extraordinarily unsatisfactory” that the Church had had to “limp by with occasional grants and a lack of assured funding”. There was “plenty of scope” within legislation for wider use to be made of open buildings, but the option was “simply not being taking up at the moment”.
He expressed caution about the proposal to enable PCCs to transfer maintenance and care to other bodies.
Mr Kay moved both of his amendments, which were accepted by Dr Inge and clearly carried.
The amendments from Canon Gaze and Canon Alderton-Ford were lost.
Prebendary Stephen Lynas (Bath & Wells) urged the Synod not to “delude themselves” that everyone in the Church loved and understood their buildings. In contrast, the Bishop of Gloucester, the Rt Revd Rachel Treweek, warned the Synod not to ignore the emotional ties that people had to their buildings. “When something connected with the past is radically changed in the present, it can imply that it is being diminished. Identity is threatened. Objectors to closure often experience something similar to bereavement.”
Wendy Coombey (Hereford) said: “We should never underestimate the feeling of failure for the person who, after 800 years, is the person who walks away from a church building.”
The Revd Andrew Yates (Truro) spoke about St John’s, Penzance, in the most deprived part of Cornwall. The building had previously been open for use for just two hours a week. It was now open for 30, thanks to the installation of a soft-play area. “Already there have been enquiries about baptisms and weddings, and a steady stream of people coming into the sanctuary to light candles,” he said.
Phillip Blinkhorn (Manchester) said that he was “surprised” to see the example of Manchester in the report. “If we were held out for managing closed churches well, I hate to think what is happening elsewhere,” he said. “We asked other dioceses what their strategies were, and the majority response was ‘Good luck. Let us know how you get on.’”
The Revd Christopher Robinson (St Edmundsbury & Ipswich) challenged the Synod: “The solution to the problem of rural ministry is not to see it as a problem at all, but a mission field to which God has called us.”
Replying to the debate, Dr Inge paid tribute to the Government for the support it had given to church buildings. “Today’s [budget] announcement is a very good step . . . and in the present climate it is remarkable,” he said.
The Synod approved the motion as amended:
That this Synod, acknowledging both the blessing and the burden of the Church of England’s stewardship for so many historic buildings and the missional opportunities pro- vided by our buildings, whatever their age:
(a) welcome the report from the Church Buildings Review Group; (b) commend it for discussion in dioceses, deaneries and parishes;
(c) invite the Archbishops’ Council, the Church Commissioners and the Church Buildings Council to work together on the detailed implementation of the proposals in the report so as not to enable the Business Committee, in the case of those proposals which require legislation, to schedule the start of the relevant legislative process by July 2016; and
(d) invite the Archbishops’ Council, the Church Commissioners and the Church Buildings Council to develop a strategy to inspire, encourage and support churches and their dioceses to invest in their facilities to serve their communities and provide opportunities for mission.