This problem of church buildings occupies my mind every now and again. It may seem like a single, simple issue – ‘pull down all the churches with tiny congregations! Turn them into places for the homeless and dispossessed, or into shopping malls!’ Many churches have indeed gone down this road, and are continuing to do so, and if they are in places where that meets a need, then it’s a good solution.
Although I have sympathy with this, it ‘s more complicated. Anglican congregations have to raise the money they need for their buildings, the ‘share’ (pc name for church tax) they pay to the diocese (for clergy stipends, pensions etc) and everything they want to do locally. Unlike, for instance, the Lutheran church in Germany, we do not get any government help. Very small congregations are carrying crippling costs, and struggling to pay their dues. It’s a constant battle just to keep going, to keep mending the church building, to pay the share and then to find ways of doing everything else.
There are of course grant-making bodies and some, like English Heritage, look favourably on helping to care for historic churches. This is a great help, but fundraising takes vast amounts of time and expertise and many places do not have someone with those qualities, so it tends to come down to the vicar, who has to learn fast.
People who are not sympathetic towards the church will think this is all ridiculous and the quickest answer is to close down the whole lot … but as I said, it is not as simple as that.
For a start, many of these churches are ancient. In the past we’ve looked after 4 centres of worship, 2 of which were medieval. Being village churches, congregations were not large.
So the first question is, what can we do with these buildings, which are part of our historic landscape and part of our national heritage, which congregations can’t afford to look after?
Would local non-church-goers be prepared to pay to keep the building watertight? If so, what for?
To raze them to the ground would be iconoclastic – but is it the pragmatic solution?
Another aspect is that many small congregations are fed up with the burden, and many vicars don’t want to spend their time shoring up old buildings, but feel they should be getting on with the pastoral work which is supposed to be their primary job, getting out and about and working with the community. So much time goes on buildings that it is impossible to stick with pastoral priorities.
I think the Church of England has been dodging this issue for decades. We have whole diocesan departments dedicated to helping us keep the building going, with stringent regulations which drive vicars and church councils bananas.
So some of us continue to ask, is it really worth it? And if not, what’s the solution?