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State-owned churches are not the answer, Sir Simon            

27 April 2018

The cold hand of secular authority cannot replace the stewardship of a living, breathing community, says Edward Dowler

SIR SIMON JENKINS provoked heated debate on Good Friday when he argued in The Guardian that church buildings should be taken into state ownership and then passed over to parish or town councils, who could levy a church tax to maintain them.

Freed from suffocating church control, they could happily become multi-purpose buildings: “crèches, libraries, day centres for the elderly, places to collect a pension, pick up a parcel, connect to WiFi, meet a friend, or have a drink”.

Even if it were the case that local councils and taxpayers were, as Sir Simon seems to suppose, itching to liberate C of E congregations from responsibility to maintain their historic buildings, how desirable would this be?

Not far across the Channel from my own archdeaconry, in a country where the state has responsibility for church maintenance, the city of Rouen provides an interesting case study. A stunning 1970s church dedicated to St Joan of Arc sits in the centre of town on an integrated site with a sumptuous food market. Designed to evoke an overturned ship, and with stunning restored 16th-century windows, it buzzes with light and life.

In contrast, however, the two enormous Gothic churches of Saint-Maclou and Notre-Dame (Rouen’s cathedral) tell a very different story. Grey and unkempt, with parts falling off them both inside and out, they speak of dereliction and decay, despite having what, in Anglican terms, would be regarded as large congregations.

SIR SIMON is surely correct to argue that, to have a future, many church buildings will need to be opened up for a range of community activities that complement the core purpose of Christian worship (Comment, 6 October 2017). But this cannot be achieved by the sort of “big state solution” that he advocates. Guardianship by the cold hand of secular authority cannot replace the stewardship of a living, breathing community that, in line with the original purpose and consecration of these buildings, gathers in them day by day and week by week to seek the Lord’s face, and to offer him the sacrifice of praise.

When churches are warm, have reasonably comfortable seating, lavatory facilities, and kitchens, new groups of people will naturally come to use them, and organic (rather than state-imposed) development will occur. So, perhaps two things are particularly necessary.

First, funding and help is needed for PCCs to maintain and adapt their buildings, as the vast majority are very keen to do. In this context, the pilot scheme set up in the aftermath of the Taylor review is a welcome move in the right direction (News, 6 April). It has included the provision of dedicated advisers, and a measure of financial support — albeit very limited, at £1.8 million.

Second, the presupposition in some quarters that church reordering should be viewed as a “harm” that needs to be outweighed by some resulting benefit should surely be reconsidered. As Sir Roy Strong has argued forcefully, if church buildings are to survive, adaptation and change will be as necessary in the future as they have been in the past. Such adaptation — within limits, of course — can be viewed as a positive good: part of the unfolding narrative of a building and a community within the providence of God.

This is not a call for iconoclasm. In my own experience as a parish priest, the original character of the two Victorian churches for which I had responsibility was greatly enhanced by what was, in retrospect, a fairly ruthless drive to declutter them, strip away unnecessary accretions, and restore them to something like the vision of their original architects — who did, in fact, know what they were doing.

Thus restored, the buildings had the ability not only to host a range of cultural, social, charitable, and at times commercial activities, but to breathe and to sing as places of worship: their character as sacred spaces was enhanced, not undermined.

THERE is no zero-sum game between extending the use of churches by the community and their use for Christian worship. Without the heavy, unused, cumbersome furniture and accumulated clutter of different kinds, the essential features of these buildings will again stand out. Their dimensions and orientation will be able to speak more clearly to all comers of the plenitude and majesty of God.

Standing out in greater relief, wall paintings, icons, statues, and Stations of the Cross will provide a clearer focus for the prayer of visitors and pilgrims. And, for the worshipping congregations, the gifts of the word and sacramental life will be given renewed emphasis by the increased prominence of the font, the altar, and the lectern.

It can be hoped and expected that such developments will lead to a refreshed, renewed, and increasingly God-centred worshipping life, which will, of course, ultimately be needed if Sir Simon’s baneful predictions are not to become a reality.

The Ven. Dr Edward Dowler is the Archdeacon of Hastings in the diocese of Chichester.

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