Apparently last summer (2015) a worthy group headed up by the Bishop of Worcester prepared a report for General Synod on the future of Church Buildings, with grave concerns about the burdens placed on Vicar and villages by caring for ancient, often Listed buildings.
The Church Buildings Review Report was presented to Synod in October and the Consultation period is about to end (29 January 2016). I wonder how many Churchwardens have seen the report? It doesn’t look to me as if many (any?) were involved in preparing the report, or were asked their views. Apparently Bishops and Archdeacons and Diocesan Offices were sent a short questionnaire at the beginning, but that doesn’t exactly seem to me to be a way to consult with those of us who actually ‘walk the talk’ about rural parishes.
I wonder how many Churchwardens have even be sufficiently aware of the Report to have been able to ‘consult’ on it by 29 January?
At least this report notes that, as a proportion of population, rural churches have higher attendance than urban ones, even if – per church building – urban numbers at each service are higher. But yes, let me say that again: as a proportion of the village’s population, more people go to church in villages than they do in towns. Hoorah!
Of course, like the BBC and newspaper editors, there’s an obsession with ‘youth’. The CofE continues to wring its hands over the age of rural congregations. But that is in part a reflection of the house-owning profile (eg in villages which are beyond the price range of young families), and it reflects another truth that, like Radio 3 and gardening, religion is something you come to later in life.
I am also glad the report acknowledges the arguments for the importance of PLACE in the God/People relationship. Two years ago, when our PCC moved Jan/Feb services into our cosy village hall (with wcs and a kitchen) it did not go down well: the congregation asked to return to our freezing church because they insisted that it plays a key part in their worship experience. Non-churchgoers also recognise the spirituality inherent in a building soaked with 900 years of prayer.
There are some apparently sensible, rational suggestions that, if a village finds itself unable to rustle up a full PCC, that it should ‘simplify’ things, lift the burden and instigate a Benefice PCC instead, made up of 1 or 2 representatives from each of the villages. Short of removing pastoral support and labelling a building as a ‘Festival Church’ this would be the surest way of driving a gap between the community and the CofE. The village church belongs to the people, not to the incumbent, no matter what the archaic laws may suggest.
In many villages, the church is the last remaining community building, having lost the village school, the post office, the shop and the pub. Now is the time to get villagers to rally round the church at local level, not remove its admin/responsibility to a neighbouring village: that would be the kiss of death for support from the community.
Frankly, and I say this after working through two Interregnums, a village can manage without a parish priest if the PCC is active and there is access to people with Permission to Officiate, but it cannot keep God’s toe-hold in a village without a sacred space.
Finding the money ‘for the vicar’ ie paying parish share is one thing, and it is an increasingly hard task, because nominal Anglicans don’t understand why parish share is so high. Truly, it is the cost of Ministry which is the biggest problem for PCCs, because that is paid mostly by thefaithful in the pews, whether through our committed giving or in the collection plate.
Finding the money ‘for the building’ is another thing altogether, and it is a much easier task. Many villagers may be nominal Anglicans or once-a-year attenders, but they recognise the importance of the church building to the community: when asked, they donate directly, and they spend generously at our fund-raisers. Their families nominate the church to receive the funeral collection; we even sometimes receive a bequest. The motivation in all these instances is to preserve the fabric of the building.
So the suggestion that struggling PCCs should be able to sign-over their legal responsibility to some secular village Trust is a terrible idea. It would separate the Vicar and the PCC from the fabric of the building, and I am afraid that what would happen is that the enthusiasm and the money would stay with the building! We should NOT want to divest ourselves of the responsibility for the church building, we should want to bring others in to care for it with us!
And who do you think would take it on? In any village, it is the same core of community-minded people who do everything. Here is how it works in my village: I am on the Parish Council as well as the PCC; the PCC Secretary is also on the Village Hall committee; her husband is the Chair of the Parish Council; the PCC Treasurer is also the Clerk to the Parish Council; the other Churchwarden’s wife is on the Village Hall committee.
The next level of involvement is all the people who do not serve on committees, but who volunteer to run the community events and fund-raisers that we need. The final level of engagement is the silent majority who go to the fundraisers and buy the raffle tickets, dipping into their pockets to keep village life going. Who is there left to form a secular Management Trust for a church building?! Nobody.
The church belongs to the people and it is right that the PCC retains that responsibility and maintains the link between the building and God.
What beleagured Churchwardens and PCCs need to keep their church building open and in fair condition is better information about what resources and grants are available. We need pro-active support in the Diocesan Office; we need help chasing grants.
We need help to re-order our churches so that they can stay open and better serve the community. How helpful are the CofE’s own bodies in this task? Rumour has it the CBC acts like a conservation guardian rather than an enabler. And in our own Diocese I am aware of a case where everyone – and I mean the PCC, the vicar, the wider village, the Archdeacon, the Bishop and English Heritage – is in favour of re-ordering to create a much-needed multi-functioning building, but the Diocesan Chancellor has flatly refused to allow the pews to be taken out (and they’re nothing special, believe me). Short of taking their own Diocesan Chancellor to the High Court, the village is stuffed and unable to put in the loos and the kitchen they so badly need so that they can offer Mums and Toddlers, Messy Church and other initiatives the village is crying out for.
I am not sure how I feel about the so-called Festival Churches, which would hold a service only 3 times or so a year. I am not at all clear whether these churches are still part of a Benefice, with a Vicar still responsible for the ‘cure of souls’? Or whether they’re removed from the pastoral care and parish share burden? What about funerals of long-lived villagers? Weddings? Baptisms?
One thing that worries me about the creation of a category of Festival Churches is that they may siphon away grant money from a ‘just-about-managing’ PCC whose ancient building is still open for regular worship. Which leads me to comment on the Churches Conservation Trust. It seems to me to be a terrible irony that a struggling church has to close before it can access the CCT funds to repair it. So I was intrigued to see the report make reference to the CCT beginning to work with some open churches of architectural merit.
I will finish by re-iterating my concern that such a potentially significant report, which makes major recommendations, has been compiled by a small number of people and with little apparent effort to talk to rural parishes at grass-roots level. Far more open dialogue with Churchwardens and PCCs should be undertaken before any of these recommendations are taken up.