Interview: Becky Clark, director, Cathedral and Church Buildings Division

by
04 August 2017

‘Picking a favourite cathedral would be like picking a favourite child’

I trained as an archaeologist, which is something I still love, and I worked at English Heritage and the National Trust. In June 2013, I became senior cathedrals officer in the team I now lead, running the Cathedrals Fabric Commission for England; so I already knew the lay of the land in Church House, Westminster. I’d seen the Church Buildings and Shrinking the Footprint teams at work, and had huge admiration for them.

 

I now manage the central team at Church House that runs the Church Buildings Council and the Cathedrals Fabric Commission for England, as well as Shrinking the Footprint, the Church’s environmental campaign. We provide expertise on buildings, work to develop partnerships and strategic projects, and act as a central repository for the sharing of stories that inspire people about churches. I’m part of the Archbishops’ Council’s senior management group.

 

It is a big responsibility, and I daresay if it were all mine I’d find it harder to drop off at night. As it is, I see myself as a small cog in the huge machine of the Church of England, which has a vested interest in keeping the buildings open and making them sustainable. My work is to ensure the central team is there when needed, and aligned well with the needs and priorities of the dioceses and cathedrals, and deploys what resources it has in a strategic way. I may get extremely passionate about a particular case, but the national team cannot and should not seek to do everything. We’re a support and a booster to those on the front line.

 

I’m not sure I’d do well in a job where there was an “average day”. Usually, I’m in our London office, although around once a week I’ll be out and about at a site-visit to a church, or in external meetings. Getting out and seeing churches and cathedrals, and meeting teams in the dioceses, is crucial to being able to understand their perspective and concerns. I meet many people, take notes, and then try to put aside time to bring them together.

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Shakespeare says that “no legacy is so rich as honesty”; so, to be honest, I’m not expecting to change the world. That’s not because of a lack of ambition: it’s because churches are places of God and his people, and one individual isn’t the defining factor in that. What I hope to bring is a genuine commitment to rich and lasting partnerships, so that a strong and unbreakable tapestry of support for churches is established.

 

Both preserving and commissioning churches is the role of the parishes and dioceses. Many dioceses are undertaking strategic reviews of their buildings, to work out how to make best use of their available ministry and other resources. My team and I are concerned with offering support and expert advice when needed, either by law (for example, as part of faculty applications) or when a church or diocese asks for help.

 

I have huge respect for deans and chapters. Running a cathedral is one of the most complex jobs I have ever come across. Cathedrals are sometimes described as shop windows for the Church of England, and just think how you’d feel if you had to make every decision with everyone watching. But what they are doing is bringing the Kingdom of God to people.

 

Cathedral congregations have risen 37 per cent in the past ten years. I’m passionate about how we can learn from them and use that to support and resource major churches to emulate their successes.

 

Individuals are still as passionate and generous in their financial support, but society as a whole is not. That sounds contradictory, but I meet people who are willing to give from their own pocket because they love their church. Often, it doesn’t matter if they share the faith; they love the place and what it stands for. But there are fewer of these individuals, for all sorts of reasons; and many are indifferent. The Church as a whole needs to look seriously at why this is.

 

Great and effective worship is about adapting what you have. I fully accept that some environments are difficult — Messy Church can be hard with pews — but creative worship is possible anywhere. I’ve been involved in great worship in fields, in churches with box pews, in Nonconformist chapels with no heating, in the National Indoor Arena in Birmingham [now called the Barclaycard Arena].

 

Churches have been used for all sorts of activities for over 1000 years. Around 40 per cent of people who go into a church each year do so not for worship, but for a social or community activity. This is exactly as it should be. Worship doesn’t just mean liturgy: it means the creation of community, and the sharing of good news.

 

We all share the benefits of church buildings; so, yes, why shouldn’t we all pay to support them? But the renegotiation of relationship between Church and State in the light of major demographic changes, and changes to belief and faith, is complex, and not predicated on a single issue. There’s much to discuss about how these benefits are shared and accessed. In my opinion, we’re not quite there yet, but the people of England have a right to their parish church, and I would hate to see that removed because we couldn’t come to a sensible agreement about how the buildings are funded.

 

I’m currently at the start of an MBA dissertation looking into leadership and performance, with a focus on the Archbishops’ Council. Once I’ve finished it, I might be able to give an intelligent answer to a question about what I’d like to change.

 

Picking a favourite cathedral would be like picking a favourite child: I could never do it. My favourite church is St Mary’s, Wedmore, in Somerset. Two of my best friends married one another there, and it’s the most wonderful heart to its community, as well as being a beautiful historic building. I have so many good memories, from the wedding to dressing up in a white pinny to serve cake at their monthly coffee shop.

 

I was born in Exeter, and moved to Birmingham when I was three. My parents celebrated their ruby wedding anniversary last year, and still live in Birmingham. My father is a Baptist minister; so I grew up in manses, and my mother was a special-needs teacher.

 

Anyone who meets me would have no trouble identifying that I am an eldest child. My brother, Simon, is a children’s author, and my sister, Sarah, is a forensic osteologist and emergency planner. They’re both married to wonderful people; so our family continues to grow. And there’s my house rabbit, Petra. She greets me every day after work, and every morning starts with compulsory cuddles. It’s a hard life.

 

From that Nonconformist background I value the lack of hierarchy, the liberalness, and Christian equality which is emphasised there. It’s still a part of who I am. For me, the point of any church building of any denomination is to be a signal to Christ. Arguably, the historic churches of the C of E are more so, because they were built to be a sign. Their location at the centre of communities and the parish system ensures that.

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I’ve been going to church since I was a baby; so I’m not sure I can pick out a first experience of God. For me, one of the defining moments was being baptised, aged 19, at New Street Baptist Church, in Oxford. Being baptised as an adult was a big, but not difficult, decision, making a public profession of a personal faith.

 

Silence is my favourite “sound”. Not because I am a sociopathic loner, but because I love what you hear when silence is an option. If you’re in the country, then it’s the wind, or the birds. If it’s on the coast, then it’s waves. If it’s in the city, then it’s the hum of traffic. Some people fear silence, but for me it’s liberating.

 

I read to escape and to be uplifted. I Capture the Castle is a beautiful vignette of innocence and coming of age. The Sea, The Sea for its incredible use of language. A Month in the Country as a glimpse into a vanished world. Iris Murdoch said: “Tolerance is connected with being able to imagine centres of reality which are remote from oneself.”

 

Thomas Tallis and Monteverdi are favourites. I also love traditional and modern folk, preferably performed in the back room of a pub that serves real ale.

 

A lack of consideration was the last thing that made me angry. Too scandalous for publication . . . but it was the lack of thought for how a difficult situation should be handled that got me angry, rather than the situation itself.

 

I’m happiest when I’m with my friends. My friends are my estate.

 

History gives me hope. Times are bad, times may get worse, but history shows that no empire is for ever.

 

I pray for guidance and patience. How self-centred of me! But if Kierkegaard is right, and the function of prayer is not to influence God but rather to change the nature of the one who prays, then maybe it’s not so bad.

 

I’d like to be locked in a church with Etty Hillesum. She was a Dutch Jew murdered in Auschwitz in 1943. She was sexually liberated, personally conflicted, and the most incredible observer of people. Her diary and letters speak of sorrow and forgiveness, and a lack of hatred. She says: “If you have given sorrow the space its gentle origins demands, then you may truly say: life is beautiful and so rich. So beautiful and so rich that it makes you want to believe in God.”

 

Becky Clark was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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