How can Church of England historic buildings survive? asks Simon Jenkins as Bishop warns of closures
Congregations have shown great adaptability in the pandemic, and churches could again be at the heart of British life
We all know the future. It is online, home delivery, click and collect, view on demand. It is goodbye high street; farewell butcher, baker and Bricklayer’s Arms. But is it also goodbye church?
Normally Christmas is bumper season, not just for toyshops and turkey farmers. Three times more Britons – 2.3 million – go to church on Christmas Day than on any normal Sunday. Families who never attend parish church all year don their Sunday best and troop to a carol service. Teenagers party before midnight mass. It is churchgoing’s Black Friday.
Christian worship in Britain continues to plunge, down over the past decade by between 15% and 20%. Barely 2% of the nation regularly go to their Church of England parish church, and a third of them are over 70. Only Pentacostalists have shown any buoyancy. Lockdown 2020 brought incipient disaster, with Boris Johnson putting churches on a par with steamy nightclubs and sweaty gyms. This was despite the clergy pleading that empty churches had been socially distancing for years.
That said, lockdown has not been all bad news. Dynamic churches have turned the online boom to their advantage. Zoom praying, livestreaming and social media posting have soared. Almost 17,000 services and events were added to the website A Church Near You in 2020, according to church figures reported in the Church Times. Questions about churches to Amazon Echo’s Alexa rose from 75,000 in 2019 to more than 250,000 this year. The church’s Easter social media content was seen 3 million times, and the Time to Pray podcast has had 200,000 downloads so far this year. Only holy communion was a challenge, met by some churches via drive-in services in the open air.
Many parish churches have become film sets with production companies attached. My local vicar has seen her meagre attendance at daily morning prayers more than double on Zoom. Sunday services and Sunday school are posted on YouTube to be viewed on demand by double her normal turnout. Sermons and prayers can be recorded at home and interspersed with choir-sung hymns, pictures and children’s readings. Remembrance Day was prepackaged with a video of poppy fields and visits to war memorials.
The Church of England statistician Ken Eames accepts that no one can tell the true value of such online “worship”. It stands to reason that not having to dress up and travel to church is a huge convenience, especially for families. There is no social commitment to place, but so what? Eames says that Covid “may have permanently changed the way attendance is recorded in future”, and wonders “when, if ever, churches will return to normal”.
The question of what is normal could clearly be traumatic for the church. Churches are in the same bind as other institutions in the local high street. Why drive and park when you can surf and click? According to the Archbishops’ Council, 2,000 Anglican churches now have congregations of fewer than 10 people. The 2015 Inge report on the subject found that nine churches grouped round Asterby, in Lincolnshire, were serving a total population of just 1,319. Now these worshippers can choose online between high or low church – traditional, ardent or uncommitted – and in their own time.
The clerical response to this is fierce. A church is not an event but a family, and at a time such as this it is a boon to its community. Some 90% of churches have been involved in food banks and deliveries, in caring for vulnerable and elderly people, in organising visits and phone conversations. The local church is a neighbourhood bond and a bulwark against loneliness. As Archbishop Justin Welby said last week, in normal times it answers to the “human hunger for touch and affection”. You don’t get hugs online.
Every community needs supportive institutions, but it is odd when they represent such a tiny minority, and one seen by most people as based in a cold, inconvenient building quite alien to their daily lives. Many churches have indeed found a new purpose during lockdown, and deserve the nation’s thanks. But if the internet does meet a sizeable share of the demand for religion in Britain – as it does in the US – this will only worsen the plight of its oversupply of buildings.
Online shopping has transformed the way we acquire goods and services. Shops and offices have had to review their use of space – mostly downwards. But some 70% of England’s churches are listed and undestroyable, including 45% of England’s Grade I historic buildings.
Churches cannot be left to collapse like medieval castles, to become picturesque ruins. They were built as the most prominent feature of Britain’s local ceremonial and collective life. They are testaments to history and works of art. We are stuck with them for ever – and church lovers will say, thank goodness.
Somehow these structures must recapture their traditional role in the local community. Some are already showing imagination. They are finding new uses as social enterprises, as post offices, cafes, bookshops, concert halls, farmers’ markets and even campsites – sometimes with the chancel still in use for worship. As pub numbers plummet under lockdown, there must be scope for ex-churches to become social hubs for the neighbourhood, as Nottingham’s pioneering Pitcher and Piano has done. If the church really means to serve the village “family”, it may occasionally be as the Archers’ Bull rather than St Stephen’s.
I am sure most churches will struggle on as they are, but thousands must soon succumb to high street disease. The opportunity should be grabbed. Turning these buildings from a towering liability to a community asset should be a challenge to every town and village in the country.
Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist
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