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Smell the coffee

29 November 2019

OUR two-part investigation into the workings of the Strategic Development Fund (SDF) earlier this month has, we hope, helped to inform the debate about the splashing of large amounts of cash on a relatively few projects. We have been encouraged by the thoughtfulness and energy that we encountered. As the SDF has matured, there are signs of a greater diversity in the projects funded. New attendance figures suggest the need to continue attempts to attract more worshippers. We continue to be surprised, however, that grant-givers should conclude that the solution is to create more churches. The legacy of centuries of demographic change and ecclesiastical division is a country littered with church buildings — expensive and mostly empty (although size is not a good yardstick of congregational health). More worryingly, it has led planners to take a coffee-franchise image of the institution. If the management decides to make changes that are uncongenial to the existing clientele, they are expected to find somewhere else to go. If the franchisees in a particular town or city are deemed not to be attracting a decent share of the market, the management reserves the right to start a new branch on their doorstep.

Given the quality of most church coffee, this is a surprising model to adopt. Nor does it help to switch to a different beverage: the Church likes to talk about old and new wineskins, but this does not translate directly into buildings. Examples of unaltered churches that function splendidly can be found as easily as draughty barns that congregations would like to abandon. Those planning the Church’s future need to concentrate on the nurture of the people it wishes to attract, and of its existing congregations. A better model would be the school, about which the C of E knows rather more. The education system acknowledges that schools can fail, but its duty of care for all pupils everywhere means that early intervention is now standard. In a church context, the Chelmsford Turnaround project is a good example of this.

The school model suggests that churches simply need a lot more money — not just the glamorous start-ups but all of them. It is acknowledged that the welfare of children is too important to be compromised by underfunding. The same must be true for congregations and parishes. For some churches, as for some schools, it is perhaps too late, and dioceses should plan for a kindly death, always hoping for a resurrection. Many, though, would respond well if the burden of maintaining their buildings were eased, and there were funding for the second half of the great commission: loving their neighbours. There are very few churches in this country that aren’t engaged in this vital and God-ordained ministry. There ought to be none. All are aware of the scale of hunger and their limited supply. If the term “resource church” is to be more than a PR gloss, we need to see serious sums of money flowing through them into the ministry and mission of neighbouring parishes.

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