BCD SPECIAL REPORT ON
RD ANNUAL EDITION
THE FUTURE OF ENGLAND’S
RURAL PARISH CHURCHES
N SEPTEMBER 2015 the Church
of England published the
of the Church Buildings Review
, 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
Churches and Cathedrals Sustainability
. 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
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.