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Churches’ doors should stay open

by
26 June 2020

Church buildings: Times of national crisis show that they offer something precious to society, says John Inge

elisa cunningham

OUR churches shut their doors on 23 March (News, 27 March). They have been closed this year for longer than at any time since an interdict in the reign of King John, when Pope Innocent III banned all services in England between March 1208 and May 1213.

This is likely to have very significant long-term effects, good and bad. On the positive side, the closure of our churches has catalysed an extraordinary burst of creativity as far as online worship is concerned. A report, Everybody Welcome Online, observes that the Church has been catapulted from an “Odeon” culture of the 1950s — one film only, like it or lump it — into a “Netflix” culture, in which an extraordinary range of online worship is available at the press of a button. I have been delighted to hear of several accounts of people coming to faith as a result. No one wants to lose what has been gained through this new ministry.

I would proceed to say that the downside is that we are likely to see the closure of many churches because of the financial crisis into which the pandemic has thrown them. Some people, however, feel that this is good news, perceiving it as a kairos moment, which will enable us to abandon all the buildings that they see as millstones around our neck.

One of our archdeacons in Worcester diocese, the Ven. Nikki Groake, in a piece published on the ViaMedia website, “We can’t Go Back . . . to Preserving Bricks and Mortar”, yearns for congregations and weary wardens to be “released to be church, rather than being burdened with the responsibility of preserving bricks and mortar”, so that “the new life we have seen emerge in lockdown might blossom and flourish”.

Ranged against this approach, presumably, are those who, like the 500 clergy who signed a letter to The Times pleading for clergy to be allowed to live-stream from their churches, feel that even observing worship in churches, rather than at kitchen tables, is an important spiritual gift. Are they mistaken? I agree with Bishop Stephen Cottrell, who has observed that we have spent too long telling people off for loving their church buildings. Rather, we should fan that love into a fuller faith.

 

THESE fault-lines have been around for ever: it’s just that the pandemic has exacerbated them. As lead bishop on cathedrals and church buildings, I was asked to chair a group that produced a report on church buildings in 2015 (News, 16 October 2015). That report speaks of “the burden and blessing which our nearly 16,000 places of worship — three-quarters of them listed — constitute”.

Whether people see them as a blessing or a burden tends to divide people along lines of church tradition. The question of church buildings’ being open for prayer puzzled some, who pointed out that God listens to prayers wherever they are said. That is true, of course, but it is also the case that some, especially those whose devotional life is more sacramental, find prayer in churches helpful.

That is not idolatrous: Professor Sarah Coakley suggests that buildings in which “prayer has been valid”, as T. S. Eliot puts it, are “more like people than stone or brick, because of their vibrant association with the folk we and others have loved. They are not so much haunted as ‘thin’ to another world in which past, present. and future converge.”

Elsewhere, Eliot wrote:

. . . wherever a saint has dwelt, wherever a martyr has given his
blood for the blood of Christ,
There is holy ground, and the sanctity shall not depart from it
Though armies trample over it, though sightseers come with
guide books looking over it. . .

The number of people who look to holy places to provide comfort and grace tends to increase dramatically in periods of national crisis or mourning, such as the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. People flocked to churches then. and they would do so again, as they have done after local tragedies such as the Soham murders.

It is sad that our churches have not been available during this pandemic. It has mattered to many people very much. and they need to be there in the future to be focal points of community in times of need. I would like to see more churches continuously open for prayer than have been in the past, not fewer.

I hope that we shall be able to avoid polarising the argument into either blessing or burden. To be fair to Archdeacon Groarke, while correctly observing that “not every church building is beautiful, many are not fit for purpose, they are often in the wrong places where settlements have moved”, she also acknowledges that “prayed-in places are undoubtedly holy. It is important to have sacred space where we can gather, celebrate the sacraments, reflect amidst beauty. Buildings where key life events have been marked hold special significance and will always be places of pilgrimage.”

 

OUR churches are one of the most precious parts of our inheritance, spiritual as well as cultural. They are, in fact, everyone’s heritage — and the Church of England has done a magnificent job of caring for them on behalf of the nation. If this crisis does anything, it will, I hope, precipitate a recognition that we can no longer be expected to do this on our own.

It is worth remembering and reminding others that, in terms of finance, the Church of England is the least established Church in Europe. In every other country — east and west — the government takes much more responsibility for the maintenance of churches. State aid is not necessarily a panacea — the State takes responsibility for the upkeep of church buildings in France, and the Church there is not exactly thriving — but we need much more help.

I was a member of the group that produced the Taylor review, commissioned by George Osborne when he was Chancellor, to look into the unsustainability of church buildings (News, 22 December 2017). In that group, I had to keep on pointing out that many of the 16,000 buildings for which the Church of England was responsible would never be “self-sustaining”. When we met, it was said that the Government could afford no more. In the past few months, we have seen government expenditure mushroom. What would be needed to secure the future of our churches would be a drop in the ocean by comparison.

Some churches undoubtedly need to close, and the pandemic will have hastened their demise. In many more cases, though, I hope that we shall be able to work not only with government but also with local communities, as is being suggested in this diocese, to designate some churches as “heritage buildings” that are open for prayer and occasional offices, but in which regular services do not generally happen. Many communities would be prepared to assist with that, since they are, after all, their “memory palaces”, which could not, if they were Grade I or II*, be put to alternative use.

 

OUR wonderful churches offer something far more profound than their architectural merit, which is unique and hard to define. It is perhaps best captured by novelists and poets.

What the novelist Susan Hill writes of cathedrals could equally be said of parish churches: “Where else . . . is such a place, where the sense of all past, all present, is distilled into the eternal moment at the still point of the turning world?” She asks another rhetorical question, which amplifies the point: “But surely there are other places that will serve the purpose? To which people may come freely, to be alone among others? To pray, to reflect, to plead, gather strength, rest, summon up courage, to listen to solemn words. What are these other places? To which the pilgrim or the traveller, the seeker, the refugee, the petitioner, or the thanksgiver may quietly come, anonymously, perhaps, without fear of comment or remark, question or disturbance.”

A church is “a serious house on serious earth”, as Philip Larkin put it. The fact is that there are no other such places, and, however infrequently public worship takes place in them, they offer something very precious to our society. We shall lose that at our peril.

 

Three priorities:

  • Sustain and nourish the creativity that the pandemic has generated, without creating an unhelpful polarisation between that and valuing what church building can offer.

  • Seek more help from Government: our parish churches are everybody’s heritage.

  • Involve local communities on questions concerning the future of church buildings, and encourage them to cherish them as the “memory palaces” they are.

 

Dr John Inge is the Bishop of Worcester.

Read the articles in our special post-pandemic issue here.

Hear more from the writers of the post-pandemic issue and submit your own questions at an online seminar on Thursday 9 July, 5.00-7.00 p.m. Information and tickets here.

 

Recommended reading

England’s Thousand Best Churches by Simon Jenkins (Penguin, 2000); Parish by Andrew Rumsey (SCM Press, 2017) (Books, 21 July 2017).

A Christian Theology of Place by John Inge (Routledge, 2003).

Praying for England: Priestly presence in contemporary culture by Sam Wells and Sarah Coakley (Bloomsbury, 2008).

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