November 29, 2010
Our friend Giles Fraser has written an article for the Church Times making a utilitarian case fro the maintenance of Church buildings in England rather than their being ‘sold off’ as ‘too expensive. He writes “As the new National Churches Trust survey makes absolutely clear, the 47,000 places of worship in the UK provide the backbone of civil society.”
While this may or may not be a bit grandiose, he addresses neither the problem of who should pay for the upkeep and maintenance of these buildings, nor the opportunity cost in terms of mission for doing so.
My father is treasurer of a small church. A three minute walk across the fields brings you to either the church in Little Thurlow or the church in Great Thurlow depending on which way you walk. These two pretty village church buildings are part of an eight parish cure currently in need of a Rector. In spite of relatively successful “cure services” where everyone is expected to go to a single service once a month or so, the real desire of the villagers is to have ‘their’ church maintained and used. Last Sunday 15 people were reported present for a ‘Service of the Word’ led by a lay reader.
My middle brother is part of a different eight parish cure. His rector announced last Sunday that he was leaving for a single parish cure in another county. There were seven people present that day including the rector and his wife and retired priest.
I don’t know the ins and outs of financing the maintenance of these buildings. I do know that the Diocese continues to take and distribute the lion’s share of any money collected for all the good work that churches do together such as work in schools, prisons, hospitals and other institutions of society within the diocesan boundaries. I also know that the system is ‘top down’ and pretty dispiriting for those charged with raising the money and keeping the buildings open.
Both sets of villages are assured that it will be ‘a while’ before they can expect to have a rector. Not too many people are looking to do ‘rural ministry’, and when they are, they are more likely to be interested in those places where a single congregation can afford to sustain a rector by themselves.
So back to the buildings. There is no doubt that Canon Fraser is right and that these places of worship are integral to the life and history of the localities in which they are found. Many struggling parishes could manage a lot better fi they were able to ‘keep’ more of the money they raised and were granted more autonomy as to how to spend that money. Nonetheless it is really hard to see how a handful of parishioners can afford to maintain a medieval building, let alone support their clergy. In the age of fast cars it is worth noting that both my parents and my brothers can be at a Cathedral for worship within a 20 minute drive on a Sunday.
I’m glad this is not my problem to solve, but I would have to be thinking along the lines of helping congregations develop a plan to grow in their support of the work they carry out, including the maintenance of buildings. If in, say, five years they were not able to make it, then they would have a number of options for ‘Plan B’—mothballing, closing or selling some buildings. Part of the plan could include merging some of the institutional and diocesan responsibilities with parish expectations.
I’m perfectly certain there are hundreds of ‘reasons’ why such an approach is not acceptable to one party or another, but surely something has to give if the Church of England is to be a vital force that can really serve as “the backbone of civil society’.