Churches could serve as banks or even serve beer. We cannot leave them empty | Simon jenkins


For the first time, perhaps in a millennium, less than half of all Britons call themselves Christians. This month’s 2011 census update suggests that the latest figure is down from 60% to 51%, with predictions that next year will be in the 1940s. pandemic did to religious faith, but the trend across the western world is the same. At least in rich countries, religion of all kinds is becoming a minority practice.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, is an ardent evangelical. His Anglican Church has spent a whopping £ 240million since 2017 on a mission to ‘plant’ new churches, apparently to no avail. Vicars are among the most dedicated and public service conscious people I know. They are underpaid and overworked. They will be even more demoralized by predictions that an additional 20% of the faithful are on the verge of deserting their congregations after Covid. Yet the public will see all of this as Christianity’s problem, not theirs. As the retreat continues, some will shed a tear, but few will worry.

They should, for a reason. This ebbing tide will leave an astonishing litter of church buildings on the foreshore. Out of 16,000 English parish churches, 12,500 are listed for preservation, including 3,000 in first year status. Indeed, 45% of all Grade I structures in England are places of worship. No other country has a heritage, even from afar, so splendid or precious. These buildings are not demolished.

Although mostly empty and underutilized, churches have a worrying hold over locals, Christians and atheists alike. The church is their history, their museum, their place of ceremony, their source of comfort in distress. Clergy and volunteers provide a supportive social service, estimated by the National Churches Trust to be worth £ 55 billion a year for national welfare. Many are amazingly beautiful, many more are distant, disheveled and sinister. But they do exist and will not go away. All they can do is fall, as medieval British castles did centuries ago. An abandoned ruin in the center of every town and village in Britain is no fun prospect.

It has to be the biggest challenge ever to tackle cultural conservation in Britain. Over the next five years, it is estimated that around 350 churches are at risk of closure or demolition. Most underutilized churches already share services and a vicar with others. You can share a vicar, but you can never share a church, nor can you “share” a community. His very presence denies it.

At this point, I consider that the problem is no longer for the Church of England but for the country, or rather for each community where these buildings are located. Most people I know are eager to keep their local church, even the 2,000 churches that see less than 10 worshipers per week. with an average age of 61 years. However, wanting to save an empty building for most of the week is not the same as knowing how.

The Anglican faith is in a perpetual state of “consulting” on what to do. A recent report to his synod made the usual suggestions: easier closings and mergers, less clergy, more online services, more lay-run “mission centers”. This elicited a fierce reaction from Save the Parish, which has been raging for three months. But it becomes like a fight on the Titanic.

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

A properly “congregational” church would turn to its community in this impasse. If it was unable to survive and prosper, a local church would transfer to a charitable trust or local authority for new uses. In 1976, the C of E stripped its parishes of control over their property and imposed a tax, a “church share,” on parishioners to support its bishops and overhead. This inevitably crippled local initiative and leadership. I have been told that the picture of a parish church council is that of six people sitting around a table crying.

The public stake is therefore not the future of Christianity but the future of parish churches. Across Europe the problem has been solved. No less than 10 countries, including Italy, Germany and most of those in Scandinavia, allow the state to order church maintenance and levy a local tax for doing so. In six countries, including Spain and Portugal, the tax is optional, but most people still pay it, even in a strongly non-clerical Sweden.

In Great Britain, such a tax does not exist. But demolition is illegal and converting historic churches into homes would be a tragedy. New uses are now slowly being found by the more enterprising parishes (and denominations). Churches are already home to orchestras, theaters, cafes, 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 be opening churches to young people, like in St Mary’s Primrose Hill in London. It is planned to transform post offices in difficulty into common banking centers. Why not use the churches?

These are precisely the services that are being kicked off the main streets as part of the government’s planning reforms. Thousands of village businesses have to close. Pubs now close frequently. Maybe they should merge. Beer was sold in the naves in the Middle Ages.

Usually, any change is met with fierce ecclesiastical opposition and indecision. The answer must be to somehow copy Europe. He is to move underused church buildings into local trusts with an obligation to use them locally as charities or social enterprises. The best agency to oversee such a move would have to be the lowest level of government, civil parish, or city council, with its discretion crucially liberated by the power to levy a possibly optional church rate.

The C of E is unlikely to oversee such a drastic act of denationalization. It must be the government’s job. I feel that many in the church would breathe a sigh of relief if this happened. But then it still claims to be a matter of faith and not of buildings.

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