Should buildings be a priority for the Church?

Caroline Wyatt
Religious affairs correspondent
@CarolineWyatton Twitter

Image caption,
St Mary Newington was bombed during the Second World War

Millions of people will attend church services this Christmas - over five million in England and Wales alone for the main denominations. But what about the rest of the year?

Can the Church of England sustain its almost 16,000 church buildings in the face of declining and ageing congregations, especially in rural areas?

Consultations within the Church of England are continuing over the fate of its buildings, many of which are listed.

It has proposed that some should become "festival churches" - used mainly for Christmas, Easter and weddings to ease the burden on rural vicars. They often serve three or four churches - although some can even serve up to ten churches in the most extreme cases.

At St Mary Newington in south London, Canon Giles Fraser's congregation is of all ages - and full of enthusiasm. But he is a leading critic of the focus on buildings, saying that the Church of England spends too much time and energy saving steeples rather than souls.

His own church was, as he puts it, re-designed by the Luftwaffe in the Second World War. The surviving tower next to the modern church is listed - and crumbling. It will require £275,000 of building work to keep it safe.

Giles Fraser argues that the Church should exist to take care of people not porticos, and that the sheer number of buildings (and their maintenance) has become a millstone around the Church's neck.

Few become priests in order to manage buildings, although that is the fate of all too many vicars, who need to find grants or raise funds from their local community to keep a solid roof over their congregation's heads.

Burden and blessing

The Church of England has described the number of its buildings - many of which boast glorious architecture from all periods - as both a burden and a blessing.

Image caption,
Canon Giles Fraser thinks the church should focus on people, not buildings

While rural churches may be much loved by their local community, they are often not so well attended: around a quarter of them boast a congregation of fewer than ten people a week.

And while the countryside is home to the majority of Anglican churches (some 57%), it is also home to just 17% of the population.

So although people in countryside parishes are more likely to go to church, the upkeep of their buildings can be a greater financial burden.

There are also other issues facing rural parishes, such as the shortage of clergy and lay officials willing to serve in rural communities.

But the rector of St Nicholas church in Rattlesden in Suffolk, Reverend Christopher "Tiffer" Robinson, says that is no reason to abandon smaller countryside churches, which he believes are often the lifeblood of their local village.

"While so much of the rest of society counts things in terms of population or numbers, and says 'there aren't many people there so we'll withdraw from there', in the Church we don't think in those ways," he says.

"People who are in small villages are just as important to God as those who live in more populated areas. That means that we are here for the whole community, and not just the people who come on Sunday."

His congregation agrees, seeing their parish and their church as a community that has been there for them throughout their lives, especially at difficult or happy times.

New uses

The church buildings review group says churches should be open to new uses, as many already are - hosting food banks, offering help to the homeless, acting as village shops or rural post offices, or even as arts venues.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Canterbury Cathedral is a World Heritage Site

Church buildings:

  • The Church of England has around 16,000 churches. There are 42 mainland cathedrals, plus one in Peel on the Isle of Man and the Diocese in Europe's cathedral in Gibraltar.
  • A survey in December 2014, found that 80% of people in England considered churches and chapels to be an important part of the country's heritage and history. People value their local church and 74% considered it an important part of their local community. 60% of people believed that repairing and maintaining historic church buildings benefits people who do not attend.
  • Three church and cathedral locations are World Heritage Sites: Durham Castle and Cathedral, Canterbury Cathedral, St Augustine's Abbey & St Martin's Church, and Westminster Abbey and St Margaret's Church.
  • More than £130m is currently spent on repairs to Church of England buildings per annum.

Source: Church of England website

Another idea is to turn some into so-called festival churches - to rationalise the times that rural churches hold their services, and lighten the load for overstretched vicars.

The report was led by the Bishop of Worcester, Rt Rev John Inge, who says they are not suggesting turning country churches into bingo halls but uses that serve the community.

"There will be those who will feel worried about new things happening in churches," he admits, "but frankly it's a matter either of them being used more, and more widely, or of them just becoming mausoleums. And I don't think anyone would want that."

He says England's rural parish churches are "the jewel in the crown of our national heritage", and a precious part of what it means to be England - their spires and towers dotting the landscape.

Image caption,
There has been a church at the site of St Mary Newington since medieval times

"They're standing, as they have done for centuries, for the Christian faith, for the worship of God, and the service of community. And long may they continue to do so."

It is not yet clear what will happen as a result of the consultation being held by the Church of England. It has sold off churches that are no longer viable at a rate of 20 to 25 a year for the past two decades.

But for many people, the buildings themselves remain a vital part of England's heritage - and for others, a beacon of hope in times of trouble - even if there are vicars who might occasionally pray for an act of God to liberate them from the expense of maintaining their Grade 1 listed building.

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