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Churches could double as banks, or even serve beer. We can’t leave them empty | Simon Jenkins

Illustration of church stain glass windows with the message: Hope, Repair, Community. Show caption ‘Though standing mostly empty and underused, churches have an eerie hold on local people, Christians and atheists alike.’ Illustration: R Fresson/The Guardian
Opinion
Contributor image for: Simon Jenkins

These mainly listed buildings sit at the heart of almost every community – we are squandering a precious legacy

Fri 31 Dec 2021 10.00 GMT

For the first time, possibly in a millennium, fewer than half of all Britons call themselves Christian. This month’s updating of the 2011 census suggests the latest figure is down from 60% to 51%, with predictions that next year it will be in the 40s. No one yet knows what the pandemic has done to religious faith, but the trend across the western world is the same. At least in wealthier countries, religion of any sort is becoming a minority practice.

The archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, is an ardent evangelical. His Anglican church has spent a phenomenal £240m since 2017 on a mission to “plant” new churches, apparently to no avail. Vicars are some of the most dedicated and public service-minded people I know. They are underpaid and overworked. They will be further demoralised by predictions of another 20% of worshippers poised to desert their congregations after Covid. Yet the public will regard all this as Christianity’s problem, not theirs. As the retreat continues, some will shed a tear but few will worry.

They should, for one reason. This ebbing tide will leave on the foreshore an astonishing litter of church buildings. Of 16,000 English parish churches, 12,500 are listed for preservation, with 3,000 in Grade I status. Indeed, 45% of all England’s Grade I structures are places of worship. No other country has a legacy even remotely as splendid or precious. These buildings are undemolishable.

Though standing mostly empty and underused, churches have an eerie hold on local people, Christians and atheists alike. The church is their history, their museum, their place of ceremony, their source of comfort in distress. Clergy and volunteers supply a supporting social service, gamely put by the National Churches Trust as worth £55bn a year to the national wellbeing. Many are stunningly beautiful, many others are aloof, dishevelled and grim. But they exist and are not going to vanish. All they can do is fall down, as Britain’s medieval castles did centuries ago. A derelict ruin at the centre of every town and village in Britain is not a fun prospect.

This has to be the greatest challenge ever to face cultural conservation in Britain. In the next five years, it is estimated about 350 churches face closure or demolition. Most underused churches already share services and a vicar with others. You can share a vicar but you can never share a church, any more than you can “share” a community. Its very presence denies it.

At this point I regard the problem as no longer for the Church of England but for the country, or rather for every community where these buildings are located. Most people I know fiercely want to keep their local church, even the 2,000 churches that see fewer than 10 worshippers a week with an average age of 61. Yet wanting to save a building that stands empty virtually all week is not the same as knowing how.

The Anglican faith is in a perpetual state of “consultation” over what to do. A recent report to its synod put forward the usual suggestions: easier closures and amalgamations, fewer clergy, more online services, more lay-led “mission hubs”. This has provoked a ferocious backlash from Save the Parish, which has been raging for the past three months. But it is getting like a fistfight on the Titanic.

At the heart of the argument is precisely the debate that consumed the church in the 17th century and spawned nonconformity and local independence. Do England’s parish churches belong to their congregations – their communities – or to a national corporation of grandees with 42 diocesan bishops and bureaucrats in tow? In Britain, it is currently the latter. There is an “established” church answerable to the crown. The Westminster parliament is the only one in the world with priests as ex-officio members – other than Iran.

A properly “congregational” church would look to its community in this bind. If unable to survive and prosper, a local church would transfer itself to a charitable trust or local authority to put it to new uses. In 1976, the C of E stripped its parishes of control of their assets and imposed a tax, a “church share”, on parishioners to support its bishops and overheads. This inevitably crippled local initiative and leadership. I was told the image of a parochial church council is of six people sitting round a table weeping.

The public issue is thus not the future of Christianity but the future of parish churches. Across Europe the problem has been cracked. No fewer than 10 countries, including Italy, Germany and most of those in Scandinavia, enable the state to order the upkeep of churches and levy a local tax to do so. In six, including Spain and Portugal, the tax is optional, but most people still pay it, even in strongly non-clerical Sweden.

In Britain there is no such tax. But demolition is unlawful and converting historic churches to houses would be a tragedy. New uses are now slowly being found by the more enterprising parishes (and denominations). Churches are already hosting orchestras, theatres, coffee bars, post offices, village shops, libraries, art galleries, yoga classes, playgroups, campsites, farmers’ markets and even breweries. As austerity shuts down urban youth clubs, we should open churches to young people, as at the successful St Mary’s Primrose Hill in London. There is a plan to turn ailing post offices into joint banking hubs. Why not use churches?

These are precisely the services being evicted from high streets under government planning reforms. Thousands of village shops must be closing. Pubs are now frequently shutting. Perhaps they should merge. Beer was sold in naves in the middle ages.

Usually any changes face fierce ecclesiastical opposition and indecision. The answer must be in some way to copy Europe. It must move underused church buildings into local trusts with a requirement to put them to local use as charities or social enterprises. The best agency to oversee such a move should be the lowest tier of government, the civil parish or town council, its discretion crucially liberated by the power to levy a possibly optional church rate.

The C of E is unlikely to oversee such a radical act of denationalisation. It must be the government’s job. I sense many in the church would heave a sigh of relief if it came to pass. But then it always claims to be about faith not buildings.

  • Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist

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