If the more apocalyptic forecasts are to be believed, the only people going to church in Britain in ten years’ time will be the Archbishop of Canterbury and Sir Cliff Richard. Well, so be it. God moves in a mysterious way, and perhaps this mystery incorporates a supreme indifference to the spectacle of human beings worshipping at the shrines of B&Q and Tesco on Sunday mornings, rather than in the pews of the local church.
But that presents all of us — not just churchgoers — with a problem. Those churches are usually magnificent architectural specimens (13,000 of the Church of England’s 16,000 parish churches are Grade I listed). They contain stunning wood and stone carvings, stained glass, sculpture, brasses and marbles. The vast majority are the oldest buildings in their locality. As such they are prime repositories of local and family history. They were the places where generations of our ancestors celebrated people being “hatched, matched and dispatched”.
You can be supremely unconcerned about the fate of the Church of England, the Church of Rome or the Church of Little Green Men from Mars — yet still be worried about how we are to conserve (and, if possible, breathe new life into) these ancient glories. Because one thing is certain: the dwindling faithful in the pews can’t shoulder the task by themselves.
This is a good week to contemplate this problem, because a report by English Heritage suggests that all need not be doom and gloom. Its “Cathedrals Fabric Survey” offers compelling evidence that England’s grandest places of worship — the 61 cathedrals — have turned a corner. Some Â£250 million has been spent on repairing them over the past 18 years. More than a fifth of that comes from the State, via English Heritage itself.
The result is increased visitor figures and a much-enhanced aesthetic (and possibly spiritual) experience for the millions who step inside. The cathedrals have also been welcoming impressive new art: everything from sculptures and murals to spectacular light shows, such as the amazing illuminations around Durham Cathedral a couple of weeks ago. That adds a contemporary dimension to their otherwise medieval ambience.
More needs to be done. For instance, York Minster and Canterbury Cathedral need to find Â£25 million between them to tackle major repairs. But by and large our generation has done its bit to preserve these ecclesiastical whales. It’s the minnows that now need urgent help. Allowing parish churches to sink into dereliction might be an act of passive neglect, rather than wanton destruction. But it would still be a crime against Western civilisation of a similar magnitude to Henry VIII’s demolition of the monasteries.
Unfortunately, the experts reckon that the parish churches need Â£150 million of repairs every year to stop them crumbling into kingdom come. Clearly neither the public nor private sectors will stump up that sort of dosh on the off chance that it will be “good for the soul”. Restoring parish churches just to stand empty and largely unused isn’t a socially or politically acceptable option today.
How about conversion, then? Many have already been turned into apartments, offices or even (in Dundee) a car wash. But such transformations often do a disservice to the nobility of the architecture and the history of the buildings as a community focus.
This last point is surely fundamental. It’s strange — perhaps a coincidence, perhaps not — that so many churches are falling into disuse and disrepair at the same time as hundreds of pubs are closing across Britain (more than 4,000 in the past ten years). It does make you wonder about cause and effect. Is communal life in Britain fragmenting at such an alarming rate because institutions that were once socially binding — such as pubs and churches — have become ossified or too narrow in their appeal? Or are such places closing because 21st-century British people don’t go out and mingle — except in shopping malls, where the aim is personal gratification, not socialising with others.
Personally, I would like to see churches reborn as gathering places for the community. I don’t mind whether that means them doubling as crÃ¨ches, cafÃ©s, art galleries, sports halls, adult education centres, theatres, concert halls, youth clubs or drop-in centres for the old or lonely. Indeed, I have been in ancient churches that operate very successfully in each of these areas, yet still radiate an aura of timeless beauty.
In medieval times, the naves of many churches were used for raucous markets and rowdy meetings — in short, for anything that involved lots of local people coming together. There’s nothing novel about this idea. The only new thing is our curious inability to dream up imaginative new ways in which these glorious buildings can continue to serve, sustain and uplift the communities in which they stand.
Whilst not an overnight decision it is clearly one where a set of guiding principles would be extremely useful; living in the grounds of church where the redevelopment of the curtilage in a sensitive way has ensured the endowment of the building for a long time to come does make one appreciate that the best of both World's can exist. Clearly some sites are too important to tinker with but equally a blanket no leads to decay and ultimately over decades unfortunate loss through an insurance event.