THE greatest reduction in the Church of England’s church-building stock since the 16th century is under way, a new report warns.
Since 1969, just under 2000 church closures have taken place: about ten per cent of the estate. The analysis notes that churches in the most deprived parishes are much more likely to close — “the very places which may be missional priorities”.
The report, Struggling, Closed and Closing Churches, has been produced by Guy Braithwaite for the Church Buildings Council (CBC), which advises churches and dioceses on care, conservation, and development of church buildings. It looks at the Council’s casework between 2004 and 2018.
Proposals for the closure of a church are normally initiated by a PCC resolution, which is submitted to the Diocesan Mission and Pastoral Committee, before a recommendation is made to the bishop. The CBC has to prepare a report (Church Buildings Report) on the building. It also produces survey reports to inform discussions about the future of churches.
On average, the Council issues 37 reports a year, the majority of which are Church Buildings Reports. Of those churches, just under half close within five years. Between 2004 and 2018, it produced a total of 552 reports, while 340 schemes or orders closing a church became effective (an average of 23 a year, varying between 12 and 35).
CHURCH BUILDINGS COUNCILWorship at St Peter’s, Bryn, in Liverpool diocese, ceased in 2016, owing to the poor condition of the building, which is now considered uneconomic to repair. A scheme has recently been made providing for the church to be demolished, the proceeds going to the provision of a new church elsewhere in the benefice’s area
While noting that this has been a “piecemeal” process, the report says that the Church is “going through a major rationalisation of its church-building stock”. “Nothing of this order to reduce building stock has occurred since the sixteenth century.”
The parish system appears to have “a very large degree of natural or instrinsic resilience, such that many churches withstand major challenges and long periods of decline”, it says. “Many experience a resurgence or retrenchment.” But the Council’s casework points to “a major structural change taking place in slow motion”.
The analysis of the period 2004 to 2018 suggests that struggling churches (“where there is a concern as to their sustainability as local centres of worship and mission”) are more likely to be found in the north of England and London, and that actual closures follow the same pattern, except that London no longer bucks the north-south trend.
The smallest parishes produce disproportionately few struggling churches or actual closures, while the largest — typically with populations above the deanery average, and with more than one church — produce disproportionately many.
While the data is not conclusive, it suggests that struggling churches are more likely to be urban than rural: 70 per cent of those considered for closure were in parishes characterised as more than 90 per cent urban.
The report observes that, while many rural communities face challenges in terms of the pool of potential worshippers, “a remote rural church may be the sole public building for the area and a key aspect of identity.”
Churches in the most deprived parishes are “far more likely to struggle . . . and even more likely to close”. Forty per cent of closures were in the most deprived ten per cent of parishes in the country.
Analysis also indicates that the higher the listing grade, the less likely the church is to struggle or close, and that, as a result, the Church’s estate is becoming “more concentratedly listed”. Victorian and Edwardian churches made up a little more than half the struggling churches during the period.
Noting the withdrawal of the Heritage Lottery Fund’s Grants for Places of Worship, the report warns that “it is likely that a greater proportion of listed churches, or simply more churches altogether, will consider closure.”
CHURCH BUILDINGS COUNCILSt Agnes’, Easterside, in York diocese, one of the ten per cent most deprived parishes in the country. A report was issued by the CBC in 2011, but only now is closure being actively considered. Built in the 1960s and unlisted, it has structural defects
Closures are not necessarily something to oppose, the report emphasises: “An upbeat attitude accentuating the scope for turning struggling churches around is not always the appropriate response. . . Setting unrealistic expectations where they are not warranted will not help anyone’s case.”
Neither are they inevitable. Over the past 15 years, the number of benefices has fallen by 1008 — a response, in part, to the decline in the number of stipendiary clergy — but few pastoral reorganisations entail a closure. Of those that do close, about 60 per cent are either vested for preservation or given a “sensitive” new use (the most popular new use is residential, followed by worship by other Christian bodies, and “civil, cultural, or community use”).
The 15 dioceses generating the fewest closures were all in the Canterbury province, with the exception of Newcastle. Manchester generated 41 reports — just over ten per cent of its entire stock of consecrated churches. It also topped the list for closures: 25 (or 6.4 per cent of its stock).
The report notes that a higher number of closures may indicate “a greater willingness . . . to consider and address provision or over-provision of church buildings”.
A survey of dioceses found that the lack of people making use of a church was the most prevalent underlying case of struggle, followed by a lack of volunteers. Most also cited unaffordable repairs and maintenance concerns.
“The system appears to be reactive rather than proactive,” the report says. “It is striking that the potential of a strategic approach has yet to be properly exploited by dioceses. . . Many indicate no intention to do so in the near future”.
This, it says, “begs the question as to what a strategic approach at diocesan level should be based on. What is the ideal or correct number and distribution of churches in a diocese?. . . It may be possible to derive a set of principles on which a sustainable parochial church network could be planned. . . It would be helpful it there was an overall vision for the historic churches of the Church of England.”
The report warns that, if the current rate of closure continues for another generation, “or if it accelerates in any significant way, then a challenge of a different order will be faced. This might be seen in historical terms, comparable to other major events or monuments in the long history of the Church. Such a perspective may help focus the minds of leaders and policymakers on the pressing need to address an issue which may fairly be described as a matter of national significance.”
In 2015, the Bishop of Worcester, Dr John Inge, who chaired the Church Buildings Review Group, warned that “thousands of closed churches would send out a very powerful message: that the Church and the Christian faith have had their day in this country” (News, 4 December 2015).
CHURCH BUILDINGS COUNCILSt Thomas and St Oswald, Pennywell, in Durham diocese, is one of the ten-per-cent most deprived parishes in the country. It continues to provide vital mission in challenging circumstances, the CBC says. The teenager responsible for the arson attack that led to the windows being blocked now attends the church youth group
This week, the Bishop of Burnley, the Rt Revd Philip North, welcomed the CBC’s report, which notes that “there appears to be a concentration of struggling churches in areas of marked deprivation — the very places which may be missional priorities”.
He said: “Urban areas have suffered from ten years of austerity, with countless services withdrawn and places of assembly closed, and it is dispiriting that the Church appears to have been part of this pattern of slow abandonment.
“Church buildings play a vital role in urban areas as oases of prayer, as physical signs of the presence of Christ, and as places where people can gather for a wide range of activities. Yet the challenges of maintaining such buildings, a responsibility often falling to small congregations, are vast. . . I hope that we can bring some real imagination to bear in the way we manage and sustain urban church buildings.”
A spokesperson for the C of E said that the report offered “just one side of the story, and does not include churches that have been built and planted during this time. The Church of England remains committed to ensuring there is a church and worshipping community in every community, and the Church Buildings Council provides tools to support deaneries and dioceses with strategic reviews of church buildings,
“As a nationwide organisation we still have a national presence in 16,000 buildings in England; this is a reach not achieved by any other church or organisation/business with national reach.”
Read comment on the story from the Bishop of Burnley