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Put churches to community use if they are to survive, says new research

15 November 2022

Timur Alexandrov

The circus rig at St George’s Chesterton

The circus rig at St George’s Chesterton

CHURCHES must improve the way that their buildings are used by the community, a new report published on Tuesday says.

An audit of the use of church buildings and church halls in the diocese of Ely was carried out by the Cambridge Judge Business School, part of the University of Cambridge. The resulting study, Reimagining Churches as Community Assets for the Common Good (REACH Ely), found that one third of church buildings in the diocese cost more each year to run than they were able to raise. It suggests that the future survival of rural churches lies in their ability to serve the wider community.

The researchers examined community attitudes to the church in order to “understand how those perceptions and values could be used both to support the long-term sustainability of church buildings and help the church succeed as a Christian presence in every community”.

Of the 334 churches in the diocese, 73 per cent provided information to the researchers. Of these, three-quarters were based in rural areas, reflecting the make-up of the diocese. Just 19 per cent of the churches reported being financially solvent.

Dr Timur Alexandrov, a research associate at Cambridge Judge Business School who prepared the report, noted that, before the pandemic, churches were increasingly offering community activities, ranging from “blood donation to debt counselling, and coffee mornings to concerts”.

National lockdowns had been a “serious disruptor” of the use of church buildings as community spaces, the report said. Of the churches that had been open during daylight hours before the pandemic, more than half reported that they were still open today. However, 15-25 per cent of churches said that were undecided about whether to resume the full range of community activities they had hosted or run before the pandemic.

“Churches want to work in collaboration with communities,” the director of the research group, Dr Helen Haugh, said. “I was surprised by how innovatively church buildings are being used. For example, one [St George’s, Chesterton] is used as a space for a circus troupe to practise in — they needed a high ceiling!”

The churches profiled ranged from All Saints’, Rampton, a church in a small village with a regular congregation of just seven, to Christ Church, a large Evangelical church in the centre of Cambridge

Among the recommendations in the new report are emulating activities that attract high footfall, such as forming partnerships with local schools, and hosting mental-health services.

The head of church buildings in the diocese of Ely, Geoffrey Hunter, said that the research, which was sponsored by the Benefact Trust (formerly Allchurches Trust) and Historic England, had “discovered some real secrets of success for rural churches. . .

“The project has revealed a hunger for change, with many churches planning for their futures. Through a combination of videos, guidance, and practical tools, we will be helping to replicate the success stories, so more of our churches can look forward to a sustainable future as community assets, loved and supported by all.”

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