How can churches can be better cared for and used for the common good?

by 17th Dec, 2015

Here are some figures that are difficult to balance. Only 5% of people regularly attend church. Over 75% of Church of England churches are listed buildings and the Church of England is responsible for nearly half of the Grade I listed buildings in England. Taking these figures down to a local level, in the Diocese of Hereford around 20 people attend a service regularly and the average age will be over 65.

When church congregations are this small, how can the Church of England carry out its duty of care to the significant buildings it owns?

It’s a question that is being considered by the Church of England at the moment and some ideas were put forward by the Church Buildings Review Board in a new report.

One of the headline ideas is considered so radical it made national news. It concerned the creation of so-called Festival Churches. These are churches where services are only held on holy days and holidays, such as Christmas and Easter, and are available for weddings and christenings. The rest of the time, the church building would be made available to the local community to host village shops, post offices, food banks, community and digital hubs, school spaces, arts venues and other similar activities.

The question of how to preserve historic places of worship is also receiving attention from elsewhere: the Open University is running a research project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council looking at community-led design practices in the context of historic places of worship. As part of this project, Alex’s was recently invited to share his experience of conservation with a participative perspective gained from Communion’s church re-ordering work. He took part in a focus group with other architects and experts working in the area such as community engagement experts and heritage management professionals and support professionals such as Historic England support officers and Heritage Lottery Fund development officers.

Festival Churches and community-led initiatives can make for innovative and intelligent uses of a space and keep a church at the heart of its local community. They can also help to preserve significant buildings for future generations.

We are proud to have worked on two flagship examples of the principle in practice: St Peter’s Church in Peterchurch and New Bridge Community Centre, St Andrew’s Church in Bridge Sollars.

We are delighted that both buildings are fulfilling their brief. They are hubs in their local community and are being preserved for future generations. As such they have to be applauded.

However, it is important to strike two notes of caution when it comes to proposing this as a potential solution on a wider scale.

Preparing both buildings so they were suitable for successful community use in the ways proposed took significant injections of capital. In St Peter’s case it was gained via Herefordshire Council and funding that was available to set up Sure Start Children’s Centres. In St Andrews’ case it was the Heritage Lottery Fund. Would such capital be available if the principle was rolled out across all church buildings?

There is no doubt that balancing the needs of significant church buildings with wider cultural shifts in relation to church attendance is difficult. There is also no doubt that making some buildings available for wider community use has a great deal of merit. Both St Peter’s Church and New Bridge Community Centre rely on the hard work and dedication of teams of volunteers to keep the buildings running and the effort involved should not be underestimated. But it is always inspiring to see people putting in so much effort to ensure these projects happen. It is also true that when such projects are a success the benefits for these culturally significant buildings and the lives of the communities they serve are huge.