Buildings are not just for the rich

14 February 2020

It is a scandal that churches in deprived areas are being forced to close, says Philip North

Madeleine Davies

The Vicar of St Peter’s, and Holy Trinity, Blackpool, the Revd Tracy Charnock

The Vicar of St Peter’s, and Holy Trinity, Blackpool, the Revd Tracy Charnock

NORMALLY, I spend Easter Monday doing nothing. After the pressures of Holy Week and Easter, I like to have a lie-in, potter about aimlessly, and then enjoy a relaxed meal with friends.

This Easter Monday, however, I shall be celebrating the eucharist at 6 a.m., and then walking 27 miles from the small village of Chipping to the vast urban estate of Mereside, on the edge of Blackpool. Why? To try to raise some cash.

Freedom Church, a new church-plant on Mereside, in Blackpool, has outgrown the community centre and wants to restore the old church hall as the Freedom Centre. It is a brilliant project that will offer an excellent facility to a deeply needy neighbourhood. But raising money, even relatively small amounts, is proving all but impossible. So, farewell Easter Monday, hello walking boots!

 

THE acute pressures of sustaining church buildings in urban areas have been highlighted recently by the report commissioned by the Church Buildings Council on struggling, closed, and closing churches. The data are horrendous, and reveal that 40 per cent of applications for church closure are from the ten per cent most deprived areas.

In recent years, residents of urban and estates areas have been hammered by austerity. Services have been withdrawn, and countless community buildings and facilities in which people can gather have been closed. It is deeply dispiriting that the Church, which should be on the side of the poor, is part of this slow process of withdrawal and abandonment.

There will, of course, be those who point out (quite rightly) that churches are people, not buildings, and that we can do perfectly well without these vast cash parasites. But church buildings play a vital part, especially in urban areas, and it is no surprise that, as the Oxford Movement planted into the nation’s urban areas in the 19th century, it did so with bold and beautiful buildings.

A church building is a sign of the incarnation: a concrete statement that God is present in a community. It is a place of prayer, and the greatest gift that we can offer urban communities is to draw people through worship into life-saving encounter with God. It is a place of openness and beauty — so important in heavily populated areas. And it is a place of gathering, where people of all ages can delight in being together, and so address loneliness and low-level mental-health problems.

And, in any case, if areas of wealth can have church buildings, why should areas characterised by poverty be deprived of them? What message is the church giving by providing richly carpeted, warm, and beautifully maintained buildings for wealthy communities, and semi-derelict, cold, and threatened buildings for the poor? What does that tell us about our priorities and values?

There are some brilliant examples of the adaptation or opening up of urban church buildings. When imagination and creativity are brought to bear, the connections that are made with the community will usually lead to growth.

For example, the Church of the Cross, in Thamesmead, has placed itself at the heart of a vast, brutalist concrete estate by offering hospitality to a huge range of groups and organisations. St Pancras Old Church, Camden, has made itself a wonderful space for arts and music. The parishes of Holy Trinity and St Peter’s, Blackpool, offer unceasing hospitality and care to residents of the most deprived parishes in the country (Features, 1 December 2017).

In many areas, PCCs who have the courage to throw their church building open all day have seen the perceptions by local people of their church transformed, demonstrating that an act as simple as unlocking a door can bring growth.

 

BUT the challenges to this kind of reimagining are vast. Urban churches often lack lay people who have skills in building management or fund-raising. Many urban church buildings are unlisted, and have only limited access to lottery funding, and no VAT relief, which adds to the formidable financial challenges. Land values can be incredibly low, which makes exciting redevelopment schemes all but a pipe-dream. Priests often find it almost impossible to be anything other than building managers, and long for more time to be evangelists.

The parish of Christ Church, Norris Green, in Liverpool (currently meeting in a school), continues in my mind to symbolise all these problems. The Vicar, Canon Helen Edwards, has overseen huge congregational growth, and has a strong vision for a new community church, but is still finding it next to impossible to raise the money, even for a low-cost, prefabricated building. And yet think what cathedrals seem able to fund-raise for new organs!

There is no more potent or depressing symbol of withdrawal than a closed and boarded-up church building. If we are serious about a return to those urban areas we have withdrawn from — as last year’s General Synod motion to establish a loving, worshipping, serving Christian community on every estate in the country commits us to (News, 22 February 2019) — we need fresh will and imagination in the use of our urban church buildings.

Buildings can be fantastic bridges to the communities that we serve, but our urban church leaders need better advice and support, and more sources of funding, if they are to exploit their potential to the full.

 

The Rt Revd Philip North is the Bishop of Burnley.

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