Church architecture in Hertfordshire and elsewhere, art, books, and whatever crosses my path

Saturday 31 March 2018

Locked churches revisited (if only you could get into them)

There's an article by Simon Jenkins in yesterday's Guardian in which he calls for the nationalisation of England's parish churches as a solution to the problem of how to preserve them while congregations dwindle.

I'm going to use this as an excuse to revisit the subject of locked churches. One of my earliest posts, in 2015, attempted to tackle this subject (Getting into churches), (which has become one of my two or three most read, incidentally). I wrote then from a determinedly secularist standpoint; nowhere did I suggest, for example, that churches should be open because people might want to use them for private prayer. Perhaps my approach should have been more inclusive, but I was writing about myself and others like me, and felt that the religious were perfectly capable of speaking up for themselves. Neither did I make much effort to suggest what could be done to keep churches open; I was chiefly determined to have a good old cathartic rant, rather than offer any solutions. This time I'll try to correct those two faults (if  they are faults).

But first I must correct a factual error in Jenkins' article. He states that 'most [churches] are locked and inaccessible'. This isn't true. As a footnote to 'Getting into churches' I provided a link to the Digital Atlas of England Foundation, which has since become The Parish Church Photographic Survey. This constitutes an attempt to photograph every English parish church, which has obviously involved visiting them. (The photographer, C B Newham FSA, surely holds the record for visiting the most, beating Pevsner, who must have held the record previously.) I can no longer find the page which used to have statistics for the number of locked churches in each county, but I wrote down some of them. Countrywide, 58% of parish churches are generally open, with a further 12% advertising a keyholder. In Herts 66% are open, and 3% have a keyholder. So on average over two thirds of churches are accessible. (But note that these figures are specifically for Anglican churches and don't include other places of worship, such as non-conformist chapels, which are almost always locked, and Roman Catholic churches, which tend to be open in towns but not the country, in my limited experience.)

By claiming that most churches are inaccessible Jenkins paints an unnecessarily gloomy picture, and, more importantly, encourages the custodians of locked churches to keep them locked (because it's what everyone else is doing, apparently), and discourages people from trying to get into churches as they are lead to believe that their journey will be fruitless. However, it's undeniable that, while the situation isn't currently quite as dire as Jenkins suggests, if the number of people attending services doesn't increase - and there's absolutely no reason to think that it will - it's very hard to see how churches are going to be kept open and maintained. Neglected buildings decay and become dangerous, roofless ruins. If no solution is found, and a pretty radical solution at that, the situation will soon be very dire indeed.

The problem is compounded by the indifference, or even active hostility, towards church buildings from at least two directions. Firstly, from some secularists; no surprise there. Here, for example, is one of the comments under Jenkins' article:

My village/small town has a church which dates back a long time. It is still in use and my grandparents are buried in its yard. It is a a handsome building and I occasionally deign to enter it but only for funerals. I would be far happier if the church was just a hulk, a ruin the haunting presence of something that once was but is no more and which we no longer understood - a sort of local Stonhenge. At the funeral services I am always annoyed when the speaker in skirts suddenly switches from the Joe Bloggs in who's memory we are gathered to "in my father's house there are many mansions, if there were not I would have told you so", I came out of respect for the departed not for that trite myth.
While I like the idea of churches being taken from the C of E I would not for one moment agree to even a penny per lifetime for a church tax. Let them out for sufficient rent to pay for upkeep and administration or otherwise let them crumble. For too long these edifices of superstition have dominated every town and village in the land. With that in mind do not allow other superstitions to erect their form of domination in any area, let alone across the land.
And for goodness sake get the bishops out of the Lords today!

The author of this post, while admitting that the church is 'handsome', feels so little connection with the building that he or she 'would be far happier if the church was just a hulk, a ruin', 'a sort of local Stonehenge.' At least they're not calling for its wholesale demolition. But they allow their distaste for Christianity to blind them to the historical and cultural worth of church buildings, and undervalue their aesthetic contribution to the landscape.

Most secularists are probably indifferent rather than hostile; they just feel, as Jenkins says, that churches are of no interest to them. It doesn't occur to them to visit a church (except for the occasional wedding etc). Nor does it occur to them, apparently, how much they would lose if their local church were to disappear. They would (or at least I hope they would) be troubled if, say, the pictures in the National Gallery were flogged off to private owners and vanished from public view, but churches, which are far more integral to the life of the nation, are dismissed because belief in Christianity has become the preserve of a small minority. (Ironically, many of the paintings whose loss we'd (nearly) all mourn are also essentially religious tools.) Like the author of the post, they see churches only as the clubhouses of a few eccentrics, and are short-sighted enough to be unable to cherish the buildings for extra-religious reasons.

The second sort of person who, deliberately or otherwise, stands in the way of radical solutions is more surprising. Some Christians resent what they probably see as outside interference in their way of life. For example, a link to Jenkins' article was posted this morning on the Historic Churches of Norfolk Facebook page, and the first comment that appeared reads: 'What an idiot! Church buildings need their congregations. They aren't museums but places where the church recharges its batteries.' I've spoken to Christians who feel that the only important purpose of a church is worship, and that if the building is no longer used for this purpose it might as well be left to rot or demolished rather than be desecrated by being turned over for secular use. They're hostile to Jenkins, and presumably to me, because they perceive that we don't understand their beliefs or practices. They feel threatened by secularism, and put up the barricades. The comments under the article include many from Christians who are angry with Jenkins because he has helped, in their eyes, turn their sacred places into mere tourist attractions.

And Low Church Christians often deliberately discourage interest in their buildings, presumably because they feel that enjoying stone carving, stained glass and so on is tantamount to idolatry.* Most Christians of course take a pride in their church, but a significant minority are just as reluctant as secularists to make plans to rescue the buildings, if it means letting them fall into the hands of non-believers.

This is a disastrous situation. The two kinds of people who should be in agreement because we want the same thing - the preservation of our heritage of churches - are at odds. I don't know how to solve this; writing this post (if it has any effect at all, which I doubt) will probably only increase the resentment and anger because I'll be seen as encroaching on their territory and trying to claim part of it for myself. The first step towards solving the problem, however, has got to be to acknowledge that the problem exists.

The men and women who first built, and paid for and used, the churches were almost certainly believers, but that doesn't mean that churches haven't always had secular purposes. They were a focus of civic pride. They acted as art galleries and concert halls. They were community centres. They were places for quiet reflection. It's true that worship was the central and essential purpose of churches, but it's never been the only one. If the bulk of churches are going to survive, secularism and spirituality have got to work side by side, not against each other. 

Above are some of the problems facing churches, boiling down to indifference or even hostility towards them from a lot of people, which in turn means that not enough money is available. How to combat this? How to keep churches open for now and for future generations?

Of course, I can't magically provide dead cert solutions; I can only offer some thoughts. You might well think that they're feeble in the face of the immensity of the problem.

Education has to be the key. Children have to be encouraged to see their local church, and churches generally, as natural places for them to visit, without any proselytising. History teachers should use churches as part of the curriculum (I'm sure many do already). Church authorities, both local and national, should take the initiative and contact schools (specifically, history teachers) and invite them to visit.

Churches should be used for events that will attract a secular audience - flower festivals, concerts, lectures, etc - as much as possible, so people are encouraged to think of the buildings as central to their communities. They're far more likely to give money to restoration appeals and so on if they've been in; why would they give money to a place they've never visited? 

Churches should be, whenever possible, kept open, or at least advertise the whereabouts of a keyholder. Why would anyone take an interest in places they can't access and feel excluded from? As I said in my previous post, permanently locking churches is like putting razor wire around the village green.

I know it's easier to say than to accomplish, but why can't different denominations share the same buildings? In Herts (Much Hadham) there's the excellent example of the Catholics and Anglicans sharing the parish church. This would boost the numbers using the old buildings (though it would inevitably mean that the newer non-conformist chapels and RC churches would fall out of use, which would be sad, but they're often of less architectural merit and historical interest, so it would be a sacrifice worth making). If Christians can't collaborate with other Christians, what hope is there? After all, Baptists and Anglicans, for example, share far more beliefs than they have doctrinal disagreements. 

We can't save all churches, and we'll just have to accept that some will have to go, or, preferably, be turned over to other uses so at least the exterior remains intact. Selling them off makes money for the preservation of the survivors. 

All lovers of churches, the secular as much as the religious, should try to give what money they can. Put money in the wall safes (not forgetting to fill in a Gift Aid form). Join the National Churches Trust and the Churches Conservation Trust. Buy tickets for the events in the church.

Money will inevitably be a problem. I'm inclined to agree with Jenkins that some form of nationalisation, problematic though that would be, is the only solution radical enough. Anything else will doom a majority of churches. That can't be allowed to happen.

* This is why churches with Evangelical ministries are much more likely to be locked. In Stamford, Lincs, for example, all the medieval churches welcome visitors except the one in the hands of evangelicals. You'd think that evangelicals would want to evangelise, and that getting people through the door would be a good first step, but apparently not.

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