England’s churches can survive – but the religion will have to go…The buildings are beautiful, but too many remain empty. They will regain their focus only if they convert to a communal role.
England’s biggest, most plentiful, most beautiful buildings are its churches. They are also its emptiest. There are some 16,000 churches in total, and every now and then their owner and janitor, the Church of England, utters a howl of pain. This month a church report points out that more than a quarter of churches have fewer than 20 worshippers on a Sunday – fewer than 10 in rural areas. Help, it cries, opening its mind (at last) to a future for local churches as everything from farmers’ markets to digital hubs, and even to naves as “champing” sites.
Every few years the church gets itself into a mess over how to use its churches. Like millions of people, I don’t go to church, but I do go to churches – 85% of the public visits a church every year. We regard them as the community’s ritual forum, its museum, its art gallery, its concert hall, its occasional retreat for peace, consolation and meditation. Many in the church view us as freeloaders (though I always leave money) and cannot see why they should give us such delight when their proper business is prayer, not heritage custody.
I have on my wall a picture of a Georgian tithe-collector squeezing cash out of a protesting Quaker merchant. The tithe is to maintain the vicar in the style to which “heritage” has accustomed him, and the merchant wants none of it. When the medieval church stung the nation’s taxpayers to erect grandiose buildings, it offered no exemption to unbelievers. Nor when the Victorians rebuilt these churches was there any relief of tithes. Today’s churches belong to all of us for the simple reason that all of us paid for them in the first place.
The Church of England switched only recently from being the Tory party at prayer to being stoutly leftwing. Bishops used to oppose every reform of parliament and every widening of the franchise. They still claim the right to sit ex officio in the House of Lords. This very week the bishops may wield their unelected power to vote down George Osborne’s budget measures, passed by a democratic Commons. The Church of England is happy to revel in its heritage when it suits.
None of this alters the fact that the church cannot afford to maintain what is the greatest legacy of England’s local culture. In every village and town, the service of religion is overcapitalised, while all other local services are undercapitalised. Post offices, banks, schools, pubs, shops and libraries are closing, even where demand should be increasing with the building of more houses. If people must travel elsewhere to find these facilities, why should religion retain a unique base in every community?
There is no way old churches are going to be pulled down, and precious few could reasonably be turned into houses. Even Osborne might balk at ordering graveyards to become executive estates. So there these buildings stand: magnificent, forlorn and largely empty.
The obvious answer is steadily to convert them to communal activities that are needed locally, but are currently vanishing from the map. If unwanted church buildings were handed over to parish councils, it is more likely that new people would step forward and take responsibility for them. The chancels could be allotted to local worshippers of all faiths. Screens could be rebuilt and naves and aisles put to new uses. At this point it becomes justifiable to levy local rates to maintain church fabric, as happens in Germany – and indeed in Britain with gardens and squares.
The reality is that the network of parish churches must be the nation’s grandest unexploited social resource. This network may be failing in its original purpose, but that does not obscure its potential. The essence of most churches is their beauty and physical prominence. They are the physical embodiment of local England and should recover their status as the community’s social and cultural focus. This will never happen while they retain their aura of religious exclusivity.
In the 1970s the city of Norwich sold off half its 32 medieval churches as redundant. The buildings today present a sad spectacle, converted into houses, shops and warehouses. In contrast, the city of York held on to its churches and, with considerable difficulty, kept them accessible and in some public use. York showed it could be done.
Far more people enjoy visiting parish churches than choose to worship in them. More still might make use of them, as retailing and other services dwindle around them. At present the stimulus to enterprise depends on the energy, or lethargy, of Fraser’s “benevolently aimless” clergy. But, as he implies, it is unfair to expect men and women trained for one profession to perform a quite different one, as charity administrators, building surveyors, social workers and postmasters – though many priests I know pride themselves on their diverse talents.
The secularisation of churches has been a long time coming. The reason is because the nationalised Church of England, so avid to reform others, is so averse to reforming itself. It wants public money for its upkeep yet closes its doors to other faiths. Much of the time, it just closes its doors. If the National Trust can find thousands of volunteers to keep properties open, why cannot the church?
I can stand in the churchyard of St Mary Abbots in Kensington and see round me the ghosts of ancient government. There is the old vestry office, the school, the parish hall, the police station and the almshouses. It was a one-stop shop of a local welfare state.
We once thought that we would never again need such communal services. In Beeching’s day we thought the same of the railways.