How would you feel if your parish church shut?

Hello my friends,

As many of your will know our parishes  are part of something called a mission community, that is a group of churches sharing a priest and working together, up until the beginning of April that was the Churches4all mission community composed of four churches, from the 1st of April it became the East Clyst Churches composed of eight parishes containing ten churches sharing three priests.

Having been the priest in charge of the former I became the rector of the latter, with a team vicar in Rockbeare and a full-time minister dedicated to Cranbrook as part of my team. When I was interviewed for the post, I explained that when the new group of churches was formed, I wanted to have honest conversations with each of them to consider the challenge and opportunities of the future; as part of that in the last six weeks I have spoken regularly to our congregations about some of the elephants in the corner of the room so many folks have been ignoring in the church of England for, well, probably decades.

That is what this article is about.

What are these? Well, many rural churches have been struggling for years, numbers attending have been shrinking, finances are stretched, volunteers keeping them going are exhausted. Some of them, probably quite a few are going to close.

This is a trend which in many churches started a long time ago, Covid 19 is speeding up the cliff edge many churches are heading for.

Why is this? There is no one easy answer, but here are a few possible ones:

People used to feel obligated to go to church, now they do not (this is a good thing).

People have a whole range of other things to do on a Sunday morning.

People’s spirituality and the way they express it has changed, most people in the UK still believe in some sort of higher power, contrary to what some strident atheists might have you believe, but less want to conform to a set religion.

The Church of England has done an excellent job of offending vast numbers of people and mishandling several crises.

The Church is seen as out of touch and boring (and often can be). The hymns were written hundreds of years ago, the prayers in a language which a lot of people struggle with and people do not fancy the idea of watching a man in a dress wandering around a cold draughty building with uncomfortable seats on a Sunday when they could be having a lay in.

We can debate the reasons, but the evidence is plain, most rural churches, even those which are still doing reasonably well, have seen numbers steadily decline for decades.

Moving on from this there is a bigger picture issue also developing: the Church of England has a serious cash flow problem; they simply cannot afford to sustain the number of full-time paid clergy at current levels. Even now we rely heavily upon retired colleagues and unpaid part time (or self-supporting), ministers plus several other volunteers and lay leaders to keep the show on the road. The pressure on diocese finances results in mission communities (groups of churches), growing larger and larger, with priests having more and more to cope with.

Many people imagine that every now and then their local church will raise the thorny subject of money but somehow there is some pot of cash in the national church somewhere and money will be fed down to the parish church to keep it open. Well, there isn’t, and it won’t; parish churches are paid for partially out of the fees for special services like funerals or weddings (some of this money also goes to the Diocese to pay for priest’s wages and back-room staff and services) and out of fund raising (fetes and coffee mornings), but most of it comes from the pockets of the folks who come on a Sunday. So, churches do shut and a lot more will be shutting over the coming years.

Now you may say, ‘good, it is a load of old rubbish, so good riddance, what has the Church of England ever done for us?’.

That is a view you are entitled to take. Of course, leaving aside matters spiritual, in a recent independent audit the value of the churches works, in both material terms and wellbeing generated was put at over twelve billion pounds per year, which includes 35,000 projects before the Covid-19 pandemic, including 8,000 food banks, 4,000 parent-toddler groups, 5,000 lunch clubs or coffee mornings, 2,700 community cafes, 2,400 night shelters and 2,300 breakfast or holiday clubs for children.  That is a financial benefit to society funded by the church, and this doesn’t include the end of life care it provides, the pastoral visiting to the elderly, lonely, bereaved or sick, or the colossal investment the church has in four thousand seven hundred schools which educate over a million pupils. However, even given that you might feel, you are not too bothered if your parish church closed.

On the other hand, you may feel that it is a bit of a shame, you quite like coming to church for services like Christmas, Easter, Mother’s or Father’s Day or the idea that the old building might still be there for your wedding, to baptise your children or grandchildren and maybe even for your funeral.

Or, you may never have considered that your church could shut and be sold and this might come as a bit of a shock.

So why am I telling you this? Well, I want honest conversations about the future of the churches in our mission community, all of them. At one we have already started considering the possibility of it becoming a festival church (only opening for the big Christian festival days per year plus weddings and funerals), or, shutting completely.

Is every church going to shut? Not any time soon, many have a small team of volunteers who work incredibly hard to keep them open, buildings in good nick and running services and events which serve the parish, folks who are also trying to considering how we can change our buildings to make them fit for purpose for the twenty first century, warm, dry, accessible for everyone regardless of their mobility with decent toilets and space which can be flexible, bit it is an uphill struggle

I tell you this not to frightened you but because I want this to be a rallying call to all of you who love our churches and believe, for whatever reason, they are worth cherishing. I want folks to understand both what is takes to keep the church open but also the real risk of it closing one day if the last decades trajectory continues. I tell you this not to illicit money or sympathy but so that everyone can make an informed choice of how they view the church and it’s role in our parish not just today but for tomorrow and beyond. Feel free to email me any questions or comments. God bless. Rev Marc.

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