Regular readers will know that Sherds has a bee in his bonnet about the future of the 40,000-plus places of worship in the UK. Some people are predicting that the number of such buildings still in community use by 2050 will be down by 30 per cent, mirroring a similar decline in the number of pubs in the UK over recent decades (down by 22 per cent to 47,200, according to the Office of National Statistics).
The Church of England (CoE) alone maintains 15,700 churches, of which 78 per cent have listed status. In the past, the CoE could rely on two generous forms of taxation. Tithes were paid in kind in the form of a tenth of everyone’s agricultural produce until the Tithes Commutation Act of 1836 turned this into a cash payment levied on landholdings. This income was used to pay for the clergy, who in turn were responsible for the maintenance of the chancel. Tithes were finally abolished in 1936, though Chancel Repair Liability still applies to owners of land formerly endowed to support the priest. The maintenance of the rest of the church was funded by a Church Rate levied on all freehold property owners in the parish. This ceased to be compulsory in 1868.
Today the CoE relies heavily on voluntary donations for its income. Of the £100m a year that it costs to run the CoE, 16 per cent comes from the income from assets managed by the Church Commissioners and 9 per cent from wedding and funeral fees, gifts, legacies, and trading activity. The remaining 75 per cent comes from worshippers who contribute a generous £750m a year through planned giving or collection plate donations (an average of £62,500 for each of the 12,000 parishes in the CoE).
That huge financial burden is being shouldered by a diminishing number of people. Weekly church attendance was down to 852,000 in 2019 (an average of 71 people per parish, though 50 per cent of churches have fewer than 38 regular attendees). The current rate of decline is 2 per cent per annum, but that number could increase rapidly because many worshippers are elderly.
The Mission and Pastoral Measure 2011
It is against that background that the CoE has just completed a consultation on reforms to the Mission and Pastoral Measure 2011. The main aim of the review was to consider changes that will make it easier to reorganise parishes and close or reuse church buildings no longer needed for public worship. In conducting the consultation, some church leaders were at pains to stress that this did not mean that they wanted to close churches, but there were equally senior voices in the CoE calling for exactly that.
In truth, the CoE is split down the middle between those who, like George Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, wish to preserve ‘the system that has defined Christianity for 1,000 years’ and those who propose the establishment of thousands of new Christian communities led by lay people and based in village halls, cafes, empty shops, and warehouses on edge-of-town industrial estates.
Theology is also on the side of those who, like Stephen Cottrell, the Archbishop of York, argue for ‘fresh expressions’ designed to make worship more appealing to those deterred by tradition and ritual. After all, Jesus did not command his followers to worry about raising the money to clean the gutters, mow the churchyard, or pay for church heating. On the contrary, he offered the Disciples a minimalist and highly practical suggestion: ‘where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them’ (Matthew 18:20). By the same logic, it is consistent with the Gospels to ‘sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor’ (Mark 10:21): that is to say, to sell churches and use the proceeds to help the homeless, the hungry, the lonely, and the sick.
A community resource
Heritage professionals like Sherds will object, of course: ‘You have no right’, we will say, ‘to dispose of a building that was built and paid for by the community as a whole. It is wrong that one generation should make decisions that override the love and care that has gone into cherishing these buildings over many generations.’ Churches are significant repositories of community history; they contain rare and precious objects; they are, in a very real sense, museums at the heart of every community. They are also places of reflection and spiritual sustenance for many more people than those who turn out for Sunday worship. ‘Fine,’ says the churchgoer. ‘If that’s your view, how about contributing to the cost?’
There are two possible answers to this dilemma: sell churches, thus depriving everyone of future access, changing entirely the essential character of the building, and destroying important furnishings and memorials – a desecration as great as that which occurred at the Reformation; or communities can take over the responsibility for the property, perhaps via a charitable trust. But charitable trusts need income: it is a truism of the conservation profession that historic buildings will only survive if they have a continuing economic use. Finding a revenue-generating future for these buildings that will remove the burden of their upkeep from the congregation is one of the most important conservation challenges of the present generation.
Glimmer of light
The Plunkett Foundation (www.plunkett.co.uk/community-businesses-in-places-of-worship) is tackling this issue by promoting the use of places of worship as venues for community enterprise – businesses that trade for the benefit of the local community and are typically owned and run by local residents. Slowly the momentum is building up, and the success of one enterprise inspires others to have a go themselves, so that churches now support many kinds of non-religious activity, including award-winning cafes, co-working facilities, nurseries and playgroups, farmers’ markets, community and Fair Trade shops, post offices, and bookstalls.
There has also been a marked increase in the number of people sleeping in churches, and we are not talking here about rough sleepers and the homeless finding a shelter for the night in the porch. People are paying good money (£49 to £59 per person per night, plus £12.50 for breakfast) for sleepovers in one of 14 redundant churches in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust (CCT). The CCT’s church camping, or ‘Champing’, scheme (www.champing.co.uk) has been running now since 2015, and typically each church plays host to ten overnights a month – 5,150 in total until the end of last year. This year the numbers have nearly doubled to 17 per church per month.
Sleeping on a camp bed in a cold church with a composting toilet and instant coffee for breakfast might not be an attractive proposition to all, but imagine now that the church has a holiday pod stylishly and sensitively inserted into the tower, a transept, or a side chapel, with facilities similar to those of a Premier Inn, Ibis, or Travelodge chain hotel. This sounds like a dream, but just such a scheme is being developed in Hereford Diocese, where an architect has been commissioned to design an ‘environmentally sustainable holiday accommodation pod’ for installation in the nave of rural Turnastone church. If successful, this could lead to similar easily replicable and completely reversible eco-pods being installed in suitable churches nationwide.
The benefits of such a scheme are obvious. A bed in every church in the land would go a long way to solving one of the major factors holding back rural tourism – the lack of affordable overnight accommodation. The church would get an income and would create employment because local people would be needed to service the pods. Visitors would also spend money in the shop, pub, or cafe. The church community would benefit from infrastructure (toilet, kitchen, Wi-Fi) that would enable other uses. With the Slow Ways movement (www.slowways.org) aiming to create walking routes to link every settlement in the UK, this could be the missing element that encourages the ideal of active, low-impact tourism that many local authorities and governments are keen to promote. No wonder the Hereford scheme is called ‘Virtuous Circles’.