A “DR BEECHING-style” approach to closing churches would be a mistake, the Bishop of Worcester, Dr John Inge, said this week, 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.”
Opening a debate on a report by the Church Buildings Review Group (News, 16 October) on Wednesday, Dr Inge, who chairs the Group, said that it did not “underestimate the challenge our buildings pose, but neither do we want to minimise the potential for good and for the gospel which most of them represent.”
Contributions from parish priests articulated both narratives: buildings were described variously as a “tyrant”, a “burden”, "symbols of faith" and the means to "advance the Kingdom".
Dr Inge 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 report proposes a change in the law to enable “new flexibilities” for parishes and dioceses in how buildings are used and cared for.
Dr Inge sought to correct the impression given by some media reports 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.”
He said that journalists had “completely misunderstood” the proposal — “perhaps wilfully, in some cases”.
The review group’s proposals were for “a more strategic approach to the use of church buildings nationally, and in the dioceses as part of mission plans”, and required “securing more assured financial support for listed cathedrals and church buildings in the long term”.
The report recommends that the Church should lobby the Government for more money to support listed churches and cathedrals.
It was announced on Wednesday that the Listed Places of Worship Grant Scheme would remain open for the lifetime of this Parliament, and that the Listed Places of Worship Roof Repair Fund would be open for a second round.
Dr Inge welcomed the news, and expressed his hope that ”significant help will be assured in the future. These buildings are effectively everyone’s heritage, and they are the jewel in the nation’s crown, as well as being flagships for the gospel.”
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”.
Responses from parish priests were varied. The Priest-in-Charge of All Saints’, Milton Ernest with Pavenham and Thurleigh (three Grade I churches), the Revd Peter Kay, said that some rural congregations were struggling, but the majority were not.
“For many normal village churches,” he said, ”there are enormous missional opportunities, of a type we have not seen in generations.”
Given the closure 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 not the age or number of people in the church. or their willingness, but a lack of facilities, he said. “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 was supported by the Team Vicar of Caterham, the Revd Timothy Goode, who expressed his concern that many churches were inaccessible to those with disabilities.
“Given that the Church now joyfully acknowledges and celebrates the extraordinary gifts of the disabled through ordination and other ministries, I am concerned that the missional aspects of our buildings . . . are being undermined by a Church that has cut the disability budget by over half, while expecting disabled priests to minister and lead in church buildings that disable rather than enable,” he said.
The Priest-in-Charge of St Pol de Lion, Paul, in the diocese of Truro, the Revd Andrew Yates, described how St John’s, Penzance, a church in the most deprived part of Cornwall, was now open for 30 hours a week (up from two), 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.
“As a result, we are having all sorts of important conversations with that community — conversations that we wouldn’t have if we didn’t have that play area.”
The Team Rector of Newton Flotman, the Revd Sally Gaze, a rural rector with seven medieval churches and three ruined churches, asked for “more ambitious options” to relieve the burden on incumbents of multi-parish benefices.
She repeated the Winnie the Pooh and the honey pot analogy (News, 16 October) used recently by the Archbishop of Canterbury.
“Buildings are sometimes the servants of the Church, and sometimes on top, a tyrant,” she said. “I am acutely aware that we are spending too much time beneath our honey pots.
”We love our buildings, but that can make us reluctant to admit how close we are sometimes to drowning.” The report, she said, had not offered “credible alternatives” to those in her position.
The Bishop of Gloucester, the Rt Revd Rachel Treweek, said that she welcomed the report, but warned the Synod not to ignore the emotional ties that people had to their buildings, and the way they had always been.
“When something connected with the past is radically changed in the present, it can imply that it is being diminished,” she said. “Identity is threatened. Objectors to closure often experience something similar to bereavement.”
Church buildings were the fabric of rural life, a laywoman from Hereford, Wendy Coombey, said. “They are also symbols of faith, and 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.
”Church buildings are one of the symbols of a sustainable rural future, and we should never lose sight of that.”
The Vicar of (Christ Church) Moreton Hall, Bury St Edmunds, Canon Jonathan Alderton-Ford, said that unlisted churches doing “vital work” were missing out under current funding policies.
MPs that he met, he said, were “bewildered” by the Church’s strategy, “which seems to be to pour resources into churches where nobody goes, because they are in the middle of a field, but to neglect the ones that do wonderful work”.
Sir Tony Baldry, who chairs the Church Buildings Council, told the Synod that the aim must be to make church buildings blessings, not burdens. But there were many challenges: in particular, the “significant numbers” of listed churches that served small villages.
“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,” he said.
The report notes that 91 per cent of listed churches are in rural areas that are home to just 17 per cent of the population.
Church attendance per capita is about twice as high in rural areas as in urban ones, but a quarter have fewer than ten people attending. Nationally, a quarter of the Church’s 16,000 churches have a weekly attendance below 16.
The Synod voted to endorse the report, which will now be discussed in dioceses, deaneries, and parishes.
The Archbishops’ Council, the Church Commissioners, and the Church Buildings Council will start work on the implementation of the proposals, including the preparation of legislation and the development of 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”.
In 2013, the average spending on each church building was about £10,000; in total, parishes spent £157 million on repairs and maintenance. One pound in every six spent by the parishes went towards building work.