Although it is clear that some church buildings may have to be sold for conversion into other uses, we must try to let churches respond to this crisis on a deanery and diocesan basis, with one ear open to current potential and partnership; and one eye open to the unknowable future. We need to summon not Dr Beeching, but Capability Brown.
I listened to last night’s short debate on The World Tonight (BBC Radio 4) between Giles Fraser and Sir Tony Baldry, in which they went over some of the arguments about church buildings. I have just seven points to offer (most of the short). I write from the viewpoint of a vicar responsible for a small and poor church in an over-churched deanery, over whose church the spectre of closure or amalgamation has hovered regularly in past years and decades.
- The unavoidable reality that nettles must be grasped
The problem is simple and clear: the Church of England is responsible for the maintenance of a vast number of church buildings, to standards of safety and comfort unknown to our forebears. Many of these are now in poor repair, geographically isolated or very sparsely attended. As a Church we have neither the financial nor human resource to care for all of them adequately. They are now the nettle in the room (actually, one of a clump of nettles); and we are in urgent need of grasping it, however intense the pain will be. So the cry goes up from many that what we need is a significant programme of church closures, with a new concentration of church life and mission in a smaller number of more central and better-resourced Minster Churches that will serve larger areas and (thus runs the theory) be more attractive and effective centres from which to do business with God and humanity. Giles Fraser likens the process to that carried out by Doctor Beeching who filleted the railway system in the 1960s, removing apparently insignificant stations and branch lines from Chorlton-cum-Hardy to Chester-le-Street. This would free us from the need to pour millions of pounds into the vast abyss of maintaining lesser and insignificant churches, a practice which seems particularly questionable in a time of national austerity. It would also, claims Fraser, enable us to shift our attention from buildings to God.
- Care of buildings and worship of God are not inimical
Now, I absolutely agree that not every church building can be maintained and cherished in perpetuity; I absolutely see the sense of freeing Christ’s Pilgrim people from buildings that shackle them and weigh them down. But I feel that a number of reservations are worth setting down, beginning with Canon Fraser’s presentation of the choice as being between buildings and God.
These two are not in irreconcilable opposition. I am conscious of biblical ambivalence about tents and temples, and Saint Peter’s response to the Transfiguration with the suggestion that he should build three little chapels, like an over-eager Victorian church planter, was not his finest. Nevertheless, church buildings do provide more than a roof over the heads of worshippers. Even when they accommodate much more than worship (and I know of no parish church that does not now also enable a range of community activities to take place within it), they are a hallowing of an often-harsh landscape, a punctuation and orientation of our lives and land, stone oases that are much more than simply historical monuments.
Thus the many who lavish time, love, money and labour on these buildings do so not as an alternative to worship, but as a means to it, one not to be dismissed by the highfalutin. The clearing of gutters and arranging of flowers, the polishing of pews and all the rest of it are one key in which prayer may be offered to the God whose story is told in the glass and stone of a thousand village churches, whose devotees are more than janitors in the fight against wood rot and gravity.
- Closing churches does not of itself create a pilgrim people.
- A pilgrim people has a bigger carbon footprint.
I was not long into my curacy before I became an enthusiastic advocate of the Buses not Buildings mantra. Worshipping with under 20 people in a slightly dilapidated Victorian church, it was clear to me that if this building had a positive and fruitful future, it must be as a channel of much-needed resources into a needy community. It should continue to offer quiet space for prayer and worship, but its days as a parish church were surely over. As one of a Team of four churches, its few regular congregants could easily walk or be driven to worship elsewhere in the town, no doubt rejoicing that such a good use had been found for the former church. But (despite witnessing the phenomenon on those Sundays when united worship for the whole team took place in one of the church buildings) I had completely failed to remember that many people’s inability or unwillingness to up-sticks and worship elsewhere would leave many simply worshipping nowhere, leaving fallow all that they might have contributed to church life, thus weakening even further the fragile links between the church and some parts of the community. We therefore see that supporting a small church in decline may make rather better sense than at first appears to be the case.
- Any church closure must not be the imposed act of an overbearing centre, but rather the fruit of local conversations at deanery and diocesan level.
- Even when Ministry is centrally provided (Minster model) there may well be a role for individual church buildings which precludes any need for closure.
My own church of St Andrew’s, Croydon has been happily squatting on a street corner for the last century and a half, and now finds itself eyeballing the post-war flyover that bisects the town just a few yards away, providing a frequently furred artery for dense traffic and consigning the rest of us to an often-stinking subway.
The church was built for the servants of those grandees who attended the much more fashionable church of Saint John the Baptist, now Croydon Minster, — very much a Greater Church to our lesser. St Andrew’s has never attracted particularly large numbers. Thirty years ago, there were about 70 adult communicants on a Sunday. These days I am relieved if we have 40. But with those 40 there will be 15 children or more. And during the month there are also those few who come to the Community Café, or Messy Church, or who belong to the other Christian denominations who make use of our building on Sunday afternoons, and with whom we seek to form not simply a contracted relationship of provider and hirer, but a genuine sense of gospel partnership.
I acknowledge that history has been good to us. The church recently sold a couple of church halls and with the revenue renewed and reordered the interior of the building, creating a new worship space west of a central screen and, east of it, social spaces (in the former Chancel and Lady Chapel). These are now used for a variety of community activities, some organised by the church, others not. A small charity (www.thehive-croydon.org) was established to oversee much of this work and to strengthen partnerships, particularly with our local schools. We were blessed in being able to avoid withdrawal and conversion into a coffee house and, under the leadership of my predecessor, were able to reimagine our work and purpose, retaining a visible presence in the community, in a building that not only offers architectural variety, but stands to proclaim the Christian gospel to much passing traffic. Our arrangements for the care and evangelising of the parish envisage a priest (myself) whose stipend comes from two sources and who consequently works part-time as vicar of the parish and part-time as chaplain to the neighbouring Church of England High School.
Such arrangements as ours were made possible through the sale of our historic property, and I daresay that many at the time thought it irresponsible to give this surely unnecessary parish another chance at leading a fruitful life within the deanery. But we have survived, and we firmly believe that we have a part to play. It is almost certain that our future will involve working collaboratively with one or more churches in the deanery, perhaps with ministry offered from one central church. But I am clear that we have something definite to offer our deanery partners, and despite our modest financial and human resources, we are still more productive alive than dead. I believe we may reasonably look forward to the sort of both-and future of survival as a discrete community within a larger whole that appeals far more than any centralising through take-over.
I see, of course, that what works in south London will not necessarily work in Cornwall or any other rural setting. In these contexts I’m interested to read the material on Festival Churches. This seems a very promising way ahead, one that allows communities themselves to respond on a deanery by deanery basis rather than after the issuing of a one-knife-cuts-all directive from what we seem to have begun to call (with just a slight whiff of jack boot) The National Church.
- Of the future, we know nothing with certainty
We cannot know what our future is, or predict all of the consequences of any action that may seem wise and necessary now. No doubt the closure of so many small railway stations and branch lines appeared very sane and strategic in the 1960s. But in our current ecological condition we would give anything to have them all back. In the same way, I would not give Dr Beeching carte blanche to close churches just because they are small or ill- attended or isolated. In years or decades from now, such local outposts as our constellation of parish churches may be exactly what our nation or civilisation needs for reasons as yet unimaginable. Sending for Capability Brown rather than Dr Beeching may prove the better way.