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NCT calls for national debate on future of church buildings

05 November 2021


THOUSANDS of churches have closed in the past decade, and hundreds more are earmarked for demolition or closure across the UK, the National Churches Trust (NCT) has warned, as it called for a national debate on the future of church buildings.

The number of churches of all denominations open and being used for worship has fallen from about 42,000 to 39,800 in the past ten years, research from the Brierley Consultancy shows; closures have been particularly frequent in inner-city areas. A further 350 churches in England are at risk of closure or demolition in the next five years. In Scotland, churches have been closing at a rate of 15.6 per cent a year since the beginning of the century.

More than 900 churches are on Historic England’s Heritage at Risk Register. There are churches that are unable to fund-raise adequately for essential repairs or to adapt their buildings to serve their communities better, the NCT has warned.

It has launched a campaign to highlight the community and economic benefits of churches, and to encourage people to have their say on the future of church buildings.

It has also updated the figures that it released last year in its report The House of Good, which set out churches’ financial value to society (News, 23 October 2020). On the basis of data from the Treasury, it now estimates that the social value of churches to the UK is about £55.7 billion.

The NCT’s chief executive, Claire Walker, said: “For every £1 invested in a church, the return is over £16. That’s four or five times more than would be expected in other spheres of investment.

“As The House of Good makes extremely clear, running foodbanks, youth services, and mental-health counselling is what happens in church buildings all the time. Churches provide a vital, ready-made support network to help communities to level up.

“Church buildings are a unique national asset. It would be a huge mistake to let them decay when they provide around £55 billion of economic and social value to the UK each year.”

To kick-start the debate on the future of churches in the UK, the charity has published a “manifesto” featuring contributions from the director of Visit England, Andrew Stokes; the editor of The Oldie, Harry Mount; the Roman Catholic Bishop of Salford, the Rt Revd John Arnold; the transgender poet and performance artist Jay Hulme; the Conservative MP for Rother Valley, Alexander Stafford; the director of Myriad, the centre for church multiplication, Canon John McGinley; and the Chief Executive of Making Music, a charity for amateur musicians, Barbara Eifler. They each set out their hopes for the future of church buildings.

Mr Mount called for “great compromise” to secure the future of churches, particularly those in the most rural parts of the UK. He suggested that naves could be converted to residential use, or to serve as offices or cafés, while access to the chancel was guaranteed for worshippers. Bars would be allowed in church buildings as a last resort.

“So many churches are in the last-chance saloon — better that they should become holy altars with saloons attached than disappear for ever,” he said.

Churches that have embraced adaptation include the Finnish church in Rotherhithe, south-east London, which has opened a sauna; a church in Plymouth which houses the public library; and another in London which opened a laundrette.

The vice-president of the National Churches Trust, Michael Palin, said that, despite the closures, there was still hope for churches to be adapted and survive.

“The UK has over 39,000 church buildings. The restrictions of Covid-19, resulting in reduced funding and fewer worshippers, has clouded the future for many of them. Yet churches remain a vital and much-loved part of the UK’s history and heritage, and we can’t let them fall into neglect and disuse.

“There is hope. More and more churches are adapting to the modern world and the needs of their communities, providing not just spiritual comforts, but a range of valuable services to local people, such as foodbanks and youth clubs.

“We must build on this, and encourage people of all sorts and from all backgrounds to find hope and relevance in their local churches.”

Comment: Church buildings help the UK to level up

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