… to use the Church of England’s lingo, they are both “redundant.
In nearly every case the reason for closure is the same: dwindling congregations that cannot afford to look after ancient buildings despite often valiant attempts. There is some help for repairs from local and national bodies, particularly the Heritage Lottery Fund, the National Churches Trust and the Church of England itself. A lucky few are kept open by trusts or charities, including the exemplary Churches Conservation Trust.
This story is partly about the decline of religion but it is also about a waning appreciation for those parts of our history unconnected with the rich and famous. Churches are not only of interest to worshippers, just as Titian is not only of interest to lovers of Greek mythology. They are the physical expression, in stone and mortar, of Britain’s communal past, built not only by the wealthy but also by ordinary local people. In most cases, they are still used today roughly as they were centuries ago. This can be said of almost no other building. They are not ours to sell…
There is hope, however. Without increased public funding, any solution will have to find a way to appeal to tourists and locals with and without a faith. But why should a family looking for a day out not as easily choose an ancient church, or three, as an expensive trip to a country house?
The success of the National Trust should point the way forward, a way led by bodies like the Churches Tourism Association. This means keeping churches unlocked, well signed from major roads and searchable on Google Maps. It also means improving their web presence with easy to use websites illustrating their history and working with other churches to put together trails for walkers, cyclists or beer drinkers. Churches, like National Trust houses, need to explain their history and architecture with innovative and interesting church guides, on paper and online, intelligible to those with little or no experience.
Churches often claim that: “We are a not a museum”. But it is time to throw out the idea that churches must choose between celebrating their heritage and being a living community – they can do both.
What a sad state of affairs…