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Future of historic churches debated at V&A

13 September 2019

‘The vast majority are sitting empty or virtually empty’


St Peter’s, Belmont Village, near Bolton, Greater Manchester, is providing a postal service after the closure of the local post office. A travelling sub-postmaster visits once a week and offers a full range of services. The church also opens for coffee and full English breakfasts on a Friday morning

St Peter’s, Belmont Village, near Bolton, Greater Manchester, is providing a postal service after the closure of the local post office. A travel...

A SIGNIFICANT transfer of the country’s 16,000 churches out of the hands of the Church of England to “the local community” was the most radical proposal on the table at a debate hosted by the Victoria and Albert Museum last week.

Convened to mark the 50th anniversary of the Churches Conservation Trust, the panel explored the question “Who should be responsible for the care of historic churches?”

The journalist Sir Simon Jenkins, author of England’s Thousand Best Churches, met several objections to his insistence that “until we move the churches out of the hands of the Church of England and into the hands of the local community, nothing is going to happen.”

“The vast majority are sitting either empty or virtually empty,” he said. “This is outrageous, a misuse of a historical building.” The question, he said, was: “What can the Church do for most English people if they don’t want to come and pray?” They should be transferred to a local trust, charity, authority, or parish council.

Among those challenging the claims was a churchwarden in the audience who said that it was the “absolute mantra” of the C of E that “every parish church belongs to everyone who lives in the parish”. Most were in “pretty good heart”, she said.

A representative of Historic England warned: “You cannot possibly hope for rural communities which have been depopulated by 95 per cent since the Industrial Revolution to remain financially responsible for some of these extremely expensive buildings.” The marketing of churches was “pathetically poor”, he said. Donations could be as low as 5p per visitor.

The Revd Sally Hitchiner, an assistant curate at St Martin-in-the-Fields, London, suggested that it might be necessary to “give up the dream” of a church in every place. “If you can’t find 20 people in a tiny village to sustain their local church who are religious, I don’t think you can find 20 people who would want to sustain it who are not religious, either.”

She was in favour of rationalisation: “Where are the multiple churches which are in easy walking distance for people who want to go to them? Why do we need every single one of them to continue to be distinctly and strictly religious? . . . Our greatest hope is for them to genuinely serve their local communities.”

Nick Berry, a director at OMI Architects, which works on church reordering and repurposing projects, highlighted the enormous costs entailed in such work, often funded either though large congregations of young professionals, or substantial grants.

“People do care about their churches and want to see them survive,” he said. But “communities won’t be able to take on this funding side of things. . . These buildings are far more expensive than anything else to look after. . . It’s basically a national responsibility for that to happen.”

Sir Simon criticised a “defeatist” attitude that saw church buildings as a “drag”, arguing that within two miles of every English parish church there was probably a millionnaire who could be tapped. The problem was that the Church regarded it as a “defeat” if a church was not used for worship.

Ms Hitchiner concluded the debate by suggesting that “survival” was the wrong aim for the C of E. It must be “generous” and consider how best to serve the community. “Sometimes that may be through our religious practices, sometimes that may be releasing whole buildings to be able to serve the community in the way that seems best to them.”

A recent government review of the funding of churches and cathedrals advised that they should be prepared for reduced reliance on government funding, and called for a “cultural shift” under which communities contributed to their upkeep. A number of pilot projects are under way (News, 6 April).

In 2015, the Church Buildings Review Group argued that, by European standards, the Church bore “an unusually heavy financial burden of maintaining part of the nation’s built heritage”. It envisaged “the imaginative and sensitive reordering of buildings” in which churches would continue to be places of worship but host other activities, too (News, 16 April 2015).

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