Sunday, 18 October 2015

Church Building Reviewed and condemned?

I'm not sure how many people have read the Church of England's 'Buildings Review Group' (BRG) report (you can read it HERE) but I am certain that a good many more will have read Gile's Frasers take on it in the Guardian (Thursday 15th Oct). What follows is a 'five minute splurge' (time it takes to have a brew) - it's not pretty and possibly wrong, but then aren't we all at some time in some ways?

In his article, Fraser, points at the Church of England's 15700 church building - 12,560 of them listed and dismisses them as,  'A millstone around our necks, sapping the energy of our wider social and religious mission, and transforming the church into a buildings department of the heritage industry.' He continues by saying that he suspects that, 'If every single one of them were blown up tomorrow, England would be a much more Christian country in 10 years’ time.'

Now having quite recently visited a place with two listed church buildings, one whose average congregation was less than the number on the PCC (still struggling with that one) and the other with attendance numbers you could count on both hands and feet, I have some sympathy with those who would like to see something done with the black hole for cash and emotional collateral that is the small and fading church. The problem is that, in my humble view, Fraser has got it wrong on more things than he has got it right.

A legend in his own lunchtime, Fraser is the doyen of many (usually intellectual and nicely-placed if my experience is typical) after the St Paul's debacle. 'Listen to this man,' said a friend, 'He is the future of the Church!'  Yeah? Well his words might just suggest otherwise*!

But let me agree with him first:

We do need to work out ways of rationalising the building stock we have, for we spend too much maintaining monuments rather than doing Church. I don't think anyone can have a doubt about that.

I have come to the conclusion that those who pass by the doors of some church building are convinced by the small numbers going in, and their oft desperate air, that the Church is on the decline. I felt the same when visiting a Tesco somewhere on holiday: It felt tired and made me feel the store was on the downwards slope and because of this was losing out to the new revamped Sainsbury store up the road!

But then I have to take issue with Fraser's own too often 'willy-waving' writings in that:

1. Beeching's actions extended the cuts which were already on the table in response to vanishing communities (removing about one-third of the network). It was a prime example of bean counting and paid little heed to the news of the communities the railway served.

And this is where we need to lay our first marker: Church is about serving the people in all communities, not just those who can pay or where the congregations remain about some benchmark level (often decided by those who live in places where the tide is high and money's coming in!

This is predominantly a hit at those rural communities who find their local church to be a place of cohesion and service; people who (I think I'm right here) account for some 45% of the whole Anglican population. Church is not a spreadsheet exercise but the real engagement with real people: Simple to have high views in a tourist attraction with a heavy footfall!

Beeching was right in that where the communities were no longer present then there was also no need of a station. But the line between two points was still needed. The intelligent action is to decide which needed to go to support an efficient infrastructure, not cull the lot (some of which are now in the process of being reestablished by the way)!

2. The idea that culling of church buildings would see us with a more Christian country is folly and akin to those who put aside the early and late services on the grounds that it makes for a greater, and more engaged, congregation at the mid-morning service form which growth can come.

The reality here is that where three services with congregations of 8, 25 and 8 respectively are amalgamated there is an increase in the mid-morning service (last experience was 32) but that means that in the doing, nine (22%) have been lost.

What we see here is mathematics rather than an understanding of serving already hit and diminished rural communities. It is economics and top-down management by those who who have no understanding of the customer and the next step to a church whose motto is: 'Can't pay - can't have!' - mind you, once all bishops and senior clergy have their MBAs I guess this will be the Gospel we hear more and more. Sad because I'd rather we had informed people of faith leading us rather than the economics displayed in the response especially.

3. Look at the faithful, sacrificial (so much free giving of time and skill) ministry and maintenance that the predominantly rural churches referred to in the report and response refer. Church for the people buy the people: 'I'm from head office, I'm here to help,' has always been a lie, still is! This response shows how little understanding of Church and how much damage a little knowledge misplaced >Iconoclasm gorn mad,' as a friend put it) and validated by monetarist policies (blimey, could be something from Blair, Thatcher and the like could't it?).

4. Give the building to the councils?
Get real - wake up and smell the mould because the one thing councils don't want to do is add to their building stock with a grade whatever listed building! But what we do need to do is get constructive in the way that we use the buildings and this needs so common-sense responses from civic and heritage groups; those people who never set foot in a building and yet dictate as to how it should be because Dickens or William Morris or some other worthy one set foot in the place. If that's what they want then pay for the upkeep and take it over as something for themselves - otherwise, back off!

The value of our church buildings is in the fingerprints of those who populated it in time past - and in thieve present too, we need to be able to make what buildings we have useful for containing a living body that is Church and for serving the community**.

We do not only have the 'cure of all souls - but also function as the curators of a places memories.' a precious and much to be protected reality which the number crunching approach, a la Beeching and Thatcher.

A quick rant - a real splurge which I hope makes some sense, 'cos I ain't a clever as what some of those what niggle me at times are - obvious that, innit?


It's all relative isn't - coke and burgers inside?

* I know this is extremely cheeky of me to hold such views as the minister of a church which runs fairly consistently  year-on-year in an urban priority area with some thirty members - after all I am low quality in pretty much every aspect when standing in the light of such august folk!

**  I often say, 'Give me a building and I'll live in it and keep the sanctuary open as a chapel of ease,' I'd love it and the community would prosper and the church saved from some expense. How's that for a plan?


Anonymous said...

Buildings are a red herring in many respects. It's what happens in and around them that matters.

I had recently a chance to experience some multi-sensory worship. What struck me was that the related bible passages spoke remarkably clearly despite the distractions. I did a story-telling course a while back (after many years playng with powerpoint) and discovered that story-telling really did require a lot of care and thought compared to bashing out a few jazzy bullet-point slides. Maybe we just need to be better at telling the story? Otherwise a church conversion experience will become largely archetectural rather than theological. Mind you, story-telling works best when there are some do we get some of those into play?

JonG said...

Piloti, the architecture column in Private Eye, has long irritated me by summing up a lot of the problem that the Church of England faces in the matter of its buildings: The view that the CofE exists primarily to maintain that part of our heritage which comprises its ecclesiastical architecture, and woe betide any congregation that attempts to alter such buildings to better meet the current needs of congregation and/or community.

But, it is all very well saying that "Church is about serving the people in all communities", when the reality is that many churches, and it does tend to be the ones with smaller congregations, appear to be about serving the desires of that congregation - which in turn has contributed to why it has become so small in the first place.

I agree, though, with your concerns about the managementisation* of church leadership. I have noted before the parallels between the NHS and church hierarchy: I have watched with despair how doctors in local NHS management, as they have been trained in management, have become indistinguishable From the managers they were supposed to have replaced in the last-but-one reshuffle. And, like those managers, their concerns now revolve around budgets and other management things, and not the patients that a doctor should be concerned with, and who, after all, are meant to be who the whole shebang is about anyway.

I fear, then, for the future. But I can with relief mention that the very nice lady from the new Bishop's office who spoke at our service this morning, although her topic was mainly to do with money, didn't give a hint of that attitude.

Rather like our music, and many other things, learning from the world may be valuable (Paul appears to have done so in Athens), aping the world is not.

Thanks as ever for the food for thought.

*I thought that that is a suitably horrible management-speak term to coin.

Vic Van Den Bergh said...

I too think we get too bound up by bricks and mortar, losing sight of the living bricks that are Church, but for some people they are the visible sign of God's presence and place to which they are drawn in times of trouble and joy (yes, they do still come when it's going right!).

But regardless of the prettiness of the box it's what's goes on in it that carries the real weight.

Thanks for the comment.

Vic Van Den Bergh said...

The death knell of the Church lies in keeping the (often un)faithful people happy. I have met clergy who have stopped growth because the people who were the 'growth' weren't popular with their own nice and comfortable membership!


Thanks as ever for the comments - as usual, find myself agreeing :-)