AS MANY as 19 of the 31 church buildings in the Benefice of Wigan could be closed, after a review that warned of reserves “under pressure or exhausted” and parishes that were “no longer financially viable”.
While just four have been recommended for closure, 15 have been listed for “review”, with the warning that “sustainability is at risk without significant investment in adaptation or development. . . We will not be able to afford to retain all.”
The Right Buildings Review (RBR) was commissioned by the Joint Council and Parochial Church Councils (PCCs) that make up the governance of Church Wigan, who agreed that “a fair and robust review of all buildings, not just the obviously vulnerable ones, was needed,” a newsletter states.
Beginning in January this year, a team comprising 12 local lay people and one retired priest worked with a professional surveyor. Over the course of nine months, two visits were conducted to each building, which was labelled “retain”, “review”, or “release”, according to whether it was deemed sustainable. In September, recommendations were presented to PCCs. Some labels were subsequently amended. These recommendations are currently under consultation with congregations and others.
It is envisaged that a draft proposal will be agreed by the seven PCCs and Joint Council by March 2024, and that the Bishop will submit a pastoral scheme to the Church Commissioners the following month.
This scheme will be the second put before the Church Commissioners in five years. In 2019, they approved a radical reconfiguration under the Transforming Wigan scheme, which entailed reducing 29 parishes to seven “hubs”, in one benefice. A recent independent evaluation of the scheme reported further decline in both attendance and giving (News, 29 September 2023). The restructuring also reduced the number of PCCs to seven: it is these PCCs that will now consider recommendations for closure rather than the 29 that originally represented the individual churches.
At the outset, Transforming Wigan envisaged the closure of 20 per cent of the benefice’s 33 churches, but only two were closed, and one was repurposed. The delay in grappling with the question was the cause of anxiety, the evaluation reported. One participant commented: “It’s going to all start again. There’s going to be a lot of upset — a lot of animosity. You’re dealing with a fragile and hurt community.” In 2019, the then Bishop of Liverpool, the Rt Revd Paul Bayes, told the Commissioners that there was a “widespread fear or misconception” that there was a “hidden agenda of closing churches”.
Setting out the rationale for the current recommendations, the Right Buildings Review newsletter states that about £1 million a year is spent on the benefice’s church buildings, and that reserves are “under pressure or exhausted”, and parishes are “no longer financially viable”. In 2017, in 11 of the 29 parishes, expenditure exceeded income. Between 2016 and 2021, the deficit between income and expenditure, as a percentage of annual income in the deanery, increased from 2.41 to 20.11 per cent: a factor of 8.3.
Stipendiary clergy numbers in Wigan have been falling since 2011, and have been cut from 24 in 2013 to 15 today; the newsletter warns that both people and money are “stretched out unsustainably over too many church buildings”. The review has calculated that, in total, the 31 buildings can seat 8500 people for worship, but on Sundays normally host fewer than 1500.
“All our church buildings are precious,” it says. “Even those who never take part in worship or contribute to its upkeep feel a connection to ‘their church’. We recognise this and tread with reverence and humility in reviewing them. Nevertheless, we cannot afford to keep all of them any more.”
It goes on to mention the growing number of new worshipping communities, which “often require tables and chairs, kitchens to prepare food, parking, good access and baby changing facilities. . . we need a smaller number of wisely sited church buildings which can fulfil both the ongoing needs of traditional worship and today’s mission.”
The four churches earmarked for closure are St Anne’s, Beech Hill; St Catharine’s, Scholes; St John the Baptist, New Springs; and the Good Shepherd, Bamfurlong. The first two are both in the Wigan Central “hub”, which also contains one church, St Andrew’s, Springfield, marked for review. Closure would leave just one building in the hub.
The review has taken place against a wider struggle to maintain the Church of England’s buildings. In 2020, a report by the Church Buildings Council said that the greatest reduction in the Church of England’s church-building stock since the 16th century was under way, with about ten per cent of the estate cut since 1969 (News, 14 February 2020). In 2021, a consultation on revising the Mission and Pastoral Measure 2011 warned that five dioceses were planning up to 40 closures in the next two to five years (News, 15 October 2021).
The CBC reported that Victorian and Edwardian churches made up a little more than half of the “struggling churches”, and that churches in the most deprived parishes were much more likely to close.
Many of Wigan’s churches were built by the Victorians in response to a burgeoning industrial population. The recent buildings review notes that the Church can no longer rely on “the mill and mine owning benefactors of yesteryear”. Several are Grade II listed, while three were Commissioners’ churches, built with money voted by Parliament under the Church Building Act of 1818.
If the proposals go ahead, the seven parishes in the benefice will still vary in terms of their numbers of churches. Wigan West, Wigan Central, and Wigan North West could have one building each.
The Wigan East (Chapelfields) hub could lose five of its seven buildings. Among those marked for review is St Peter’s, Hindley, one of the three churches that were the source of most of the objections made to the Church Commissioners when the restructuring under Transforming Wigan was proposed. They reported that the loss of their own priest had led to a fall in a “previously thriving” congregation. The TW evaluation noted that the hub was “made up of six parishes over a large geographical spread, overseen by one paid stipendiary clergy”. Between 2015 and 2016, attendance fell by almost 40 per cent.
This week, a spokesperson for the diocese of Liverpool said: “Making decisions about church buildings is difficult, but we owe it to future generations to address this now.” The diocese said that any proceeds made from the sale of buildings would be “invested back into our mission and ministry”.
Read more on this story in this week’s Letters