There is one sure way to save our ailing churches – give them away
The Guardian, by Simon Jenkins
There is no way it looks good. Two thousand medieval churches in England have fewer than 10 worshippers, and 8,000 more can barely muster 20. More Muslims go to mosques than Anglicans go to church. Yet almost all are listed as historic. These lovely buildings are simply emptying. Doors are locked. Grass grows in churchyards.
More than 900 churches are now on the English Heritage “at risk” register, with 159 added last year alone. In 2013, the former archbishop of Canterbury George Carey warned that the Church of England was “a generation away from extinction”.
Yet it is trapped in its own coffins. England’s churches tower over every community in the land, yet barely 2% of those communities profess any link to them. The rest see them as sanctuaries of a dying sect, a gaunt, empty presence lurking in their midst. At the present rate, they must one day collapse into ruin.
Anyone coming fresh to the Church of England’s predicament sees only the proverbial frog in boiling water. There is no way it can cope with its architectural inheritance. The church’s legendary wealth can only just pay for its clergy, who spend much of their time racing round seeking builders to patch roofs.
Britain’s railways in the 1950s were in a similar plight, with empty trains rattling through a beautiful but deserted countryside. When Dr Beeching reported in 1963, there was no way anyone could see his rural lines reviving. It was not profitable passengers they lacked, it was any passengers at all.
Cathedrals have also become art galleries and concert halls, theatres and conference venues, social centres and schools
Likewise the Church of England plainly needs to dispose of a large swath of its capacity, probably at least half. But unlike the railways, its buildings cannot be demolished. So it agonises not over how to dispose of them but how to fill them. Given that half are rural, it is like praying for a revival not of the church but of the entire middle ages.
Last year, the bishop of Worcester, John Inge, faced pleas from some rural vicars that they were “close to drowning”. In a report he proposed a conversion of hundreds of buildings into “festival churches”, used by local communities for the rest of the year. But Beeching-scale closures, he said, “would send out a very powerful message that the church and Christian faith have had their day in this country”. Somehow, empty buildings sent no such message.
As a result, most church effort goes not into managed retreat but into proselytising best practice. Ideas bloom for “reaching out”, embracing ethnic minorities and “engaging” with non-worshippers. Under the present archbishop, Justin Welby, as under Carey and Rowan Williams, Anglicans seem happiest in evangelical mode, with their backs to the wall.
A recent critique of this approach, by the Guardian’s Andrew Brown (That Was the Church that Was, with Linda Woodhead), points out that a decade of sustained evangelism has not “registered even a pimple on the chart of decline”. Only the urban lonely seemed to respond to the evangelists’ appeal – as long as they were lonely.
Yet there is an extraordinary exception to this trend: the 42 English cathedrals. In the last century it was widely thought they would deteriorate, stuck in ageing city centres without specific parochial commitment. Their decline matched that of local churches, but their gargantuan repair bills presaged hopelessness.
Rector Sarah Lunn at Long Marton church, Cumbria. Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian
With the turn of the 21st century, something happened. From declining by some 5% a year, cathedral attendance numbers began to rise. Today, service attendance has grown by almost a third in a decade. This is quite apart from the boom in tourist visitors, now some 8 million a year. Cathedral revenues have doubled in 10 years and fundraising has proved an invariable success. Ten cathedrals now charge for entry and more could do so, relieving the call on central funds.
Whatever churches were getting wrong, cathedrals seemed to be getting right. Explaining this paradox has become an Anglican cottage industry. Cathedrals are semi-autonomous fiefdoms. Their deans and chapters can be ferociously introverted, dynamic and entrepreneurial. They are relatively free from the bureaucracy that grips the church’s national establishment and its enslaving meetings culture.
Attendances have risen most of all at evensong, congregations clearly drawn by music. Cathedrals have also become art galleries and concert halls, theatres and conference venues, social centres and schools. Canterbury holds sumptuous degree ceremonies for Kent University. St Albans is a one-stop shop to rival the local high street. Blackburn has initiated the comprehensive rebuilding of the town’s “cathedral quarter”. These institutions took the reins of David Cameron’s debilitated local government.
The appeal of the modern cathedral goes deeper. The religious thinktank Theos reports that a sixth of atheists and a quarter of lapsed Christians still visit cathedrals. They appeal to the “marginally” religious, those who decorously call themselves agnostic – if only when challenged. The sociologist Grace Davie wonders how many of the new “worshippers” are really worshipping. She sees cathedrals as places of “vicarious religion”. They are anonymous, where people can come and go without pressure or welcome, let alone having to hug strangers.
Visitors can “hide behind a pillar”. They need not pray or sing. They can listen to music and contemplate a sublime building without, as Brown puts it, “all that banging on about Jesus”.
I would go further. Cathedrals present themselves, like castles, as the great memorials to the nation’s past. The two dozen pre-Reformation survivors are, to me, the most beautiful things the English ever created. They are museums of medieval architecture, art, sculpture, stained glass and woodwork beyond compare. Filled with sunlight and music at the end of the day, they offer an irresistible experience. The key here is that a wider community of the unaffiliated, even the unbelieving, has come to see cathedrals as something it “owns”. If biscuit tins are any guide, half of England owns Salisbury Cathedral.
Whether this can be replicated at parish level must be doubted. But this issue of ownership surely can. As long as parish churches are seen as shrines belonging to a tiny minority of the community, any hope of wider commitment is pie in the sky. Struggling local churches must be secularised, desanctified. They must be vested in an endowed local trust or parish council that literally owns them, so they become community assets, for whose upkeep local rates can be levied, as with public parks and gardens. There will be many spills along the way. But these buildings cannot be demolished or nationalised. There is simply no alternative.
The railway parallel suggests nothing is for ever. Years after the Beeching cuts, many of his branch lines have been brought back into use by the boom in rail tourism, . There are now some 200 “heritage” railways in Britain, most on Beeching lines. But it took voluntary effort, imagination and, above all, ownership to bring this about. If Britain one day really does see a Christian revival, “heritage” churches will have been preserved and at its service. For the time being, there is no point in pretending.