Church buildings should revert to places of congregation, comfort and enterprise – through liberation from the church
Lonely this Easter, depressed, in need of company or just escaping Facebook tyranny? Why not go to church? Or rather go not to church but to “a church”, one where no one preaches or expects you to pray? The number of beautiful but deserted churches in England is turning from an Anglican anguish into a national scandal. There are 16,000 Church of England churches in England alone. A quarter of them have fewer than 16 worshippers at even intermittent services. For all the efforts of dedicated wardens, most are locked and inaccessible. What is to be done with them?
The familiar litany of declining Anglican worship continues, with Sunday regulars down almost a third since 2000 and hovering at 750,000. This is less than 2% of the population. England has slightly more active Catholics, but Catholics and nonconformists too are declining, with Christian worshippers overall likely to be overtaken by Muslim ones within a generation. The parish mosque will be more used than the parish church. These churches comprise almost half of all Grade I-listed buildings in England. They are glorious survivors of the art and architecture of the middle ages, unequalled in Europe. They are where Thomas Gray’s “rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep”. Their walls and steeples dominate every town and village in the land.
Every now and then the Church of England declares its buildings need to “reach out” beyond worshippers to the local community. They try. Some enterprising soul sets up a coffee bar, a post office or bookstore. There is a doctors’ surgery in Portsmouth, a therapy centre in Ipswich, skateboarding in Malmesbury. But the heart is rarely in it. Why bother when the Church of England owns and controls everything?
The Church of England is Britain’s oldest “nationalised” service industry – courtesy of Henry VIII –, yet it resolutely refuses to serve the nation. Churches were built on the tithes and taxes of everyone, and in return supplied everyone with a modicum of education and welfare. The state now performs those tasks. Churches have gone from being beacons of a universal faith to the domain of a minority sect. Parish churches remain symbols of local identity, yet they cater for a tiny proportion of the population. They are not available for other forms of worship. Most refuse to marry or bury outsiders. When I ask people if they ever use their local church, time and again the answer is: “That is not for me.”. As Philip Larkin said, a church is: “A shape less recognisable each week / A purpose more obscure.”
Nothing will change unless everything changes, and it is clear that everything should. Otherwise most churches will eventually become like England’s castles: ruined echoes of a distant past. Church buildings should be “renationalised”, taken into state ownership, and then transferred to local parish or town councils. They might in turn set up local trusts. These secular bodies would be responsible for subletting churches for community use, which would of course include for Christian worship in whole or part. All denominations would be encouraged to cohabit.
The crucial difference would be that parishes would be legally free to levy a local church tax to pay for the upkeep of their most prominent and historic building. There is nothing novel in this. There is a church tax in Germany, Italy and much of Scandinavia – sometimes with opt-outs if people object. The irony is that the very exclusivity of the Anglican church is what denies it the civil support available to churches across Europe. Many English councils levy garden taxes. Why not church ones?
About 90% of England’s listed parish churches are in villages and small towns. These are places from which pubs, shops, police stations and GP surgeries are now fleeing. Their buildings can at least make way for houses. No one can dispose of a historic church – and rightly so. The sensible answer must be for churches to try to offer some of the community purposes that high streets have abandoned.
Church buildings should revert to what they were when built – places of congregation, comfort and local enterprise. Even if chancels remain in religious use, naves, aisles, towers and churchyards should be adapted for other purposes, with some regulatory latitude. This might embrace not just local shops, but creches, libraries, day centres for the elderly, places to collect a pension, pick up a parcel, connect to wifi, meet a friend or have a drink. We are saddled with these fine buildings. At least we should try to use them.
If only by virtue of their location, churches should be at the beating heart of each community – but a secular heart as well as a religious one. Anglican conservatism shows that this will only happen if the church no longer owns these buildings. What surprises me is that Anglicans are so terrified of losing their hold on stones, bricks and mortar, when local taxpayers could liberate them from such burdensome responsibilities.
As a non-worshipper but lifelong enthusiast for churches, I find their emptiness and neglect not just sad but socially irresponsible. It intrigues me that the one type of church that has not suffered a decline in attendance is the English cathedral. As I have highlighted previously, cathedral attendances have surged by almost a third over the past decade. No one knows quite why. I think the truth is that even nonbelievers seek somewhere quiet, beautiful and yet somehow busy, where they can sit anonymously, undisturbed with their thoughts.
Local England is blessed with thousands of such places. Historic churches are its crowning glory. But they belong to everyone, of all faiths and none. They should be nationalised, localised and secularised, in that order. England’s churches should be liberated from England’s church.
• Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist