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BCD SPECIAL REPORT ON

HISTORIC CHURCHES

23

RD ANNUAL EDITION

7

THE FUTURE OF ENGLAND’S

RURAL PARISH CHURCHES

Trevor Cooper

I

N SEPTEMBER 2015 the Church

of England published the

Report

of the Church Buildings Review

Group

, a major report on the future

of its church buildings. Many of

its findings were not new, but it is

significant that it was the Church itself

highlighting some of the problems.

Historic England, supported by

others, then called for ‘a wider discussion’,

suggesting perhaps a government

commission or task force, and in his

recent budget the chancellor announced

a task force to carry out an

English

Churches and Cathedrals Sustainability

Review

. The task force will report to both

the secretary of state for culture and the

chancellor in April 2017.

After briefly discussing the report and

its findings, this article will describe some

of the options which the task force may

want to consider. It will concentrate on

rural parish churches, which have some of

the most intractable problems.

It is striking that in rural areas some

96 per cent of people have no formal

commitment to the upkeep of their parish

church (that is, they are not on the church

electoral roll), so I will focus on ways in

which these people might share the load

through voluntary and other bodies, at

regional and local levels.

KEY FINDINGS OF THE REPORT

There are about 9,000 rural churches in

England, of which about 8,200 are listed.

A key finding of the church buildings

report is that more than 2,000 of these

rural churches have congregations of

fewer than ten people. Although the

report makes no mention of it, this is a

sharp increase from the 2001 figure of 800

such parishes, caused by the continuing

downwards drift in rural congregations.

Statistics published elsewhere show

that in rural dioceses some 40 per cent of

worshippers are over the age of 70. This

too is new, caused by a shortage of young

people. Thus attendance is likely to go

on declining for a while through natural

causes, even if in future there is more

effective recruitment of young people.

Based on figures in the report, rural

church congregations spend about

£55 million per year on their listed church

buildings. On my estimate, it is likely that

less than 20 per cent of this is provided

by Heritage Lottery Fund grants (based

on the number of rural listed churches

compared to the overall number). The

great bulk of the money comes from the

efforts of the individual congregations.

POUNDS, PEOPLE AND PURPOSE

What are the consequences of having

declining and ageing rural congregations?

The obvious worry is how to fund the

upkeep of the buildings. But the shortage

of people has practical consequences too.

Much of the routine care of rural church

buildings and their graveyards is done by

volunteers, and it is becoming harder to

find people to do these jobs. In addition,

the shortage of people makes it difficult to

do

new

things – to fundraise for and carry

out a large building project, or set up new

community uses in the church.

Small congregations also have quite

subtle implications. If the building is

only used for one service each Sunday, or

less often than that, with small numbers

present, then in the eyes of those who do

not attend it may be seen as a private club

and the sense of public purpose of the

building may be weakened. Furthermore,

many church leaders are thinking of

concentrating rural resources on fewer

church buildings, so an increasing

number of churches may no longer be

required for regular worship. The risk is

that such buildings almost entirely lose

their sense of purpose. And a building

without purpose is potentially at risk.

So the problem is not just financial.

Money matters, but so does access

to willing and capable people, and

so does a sense of purpose for the

building. These three are interdependent

and interlinked: pounds, people

and purpose. All are important.

Yarpole church, Herefordshire: alongside its regular use for worship, a village trust uses the building as a shop

and cafe. The trust is responsible for the upkeep of the building. The church is unusual in having a separate

medieval bell tower, on the right in the image below.