Churches – to close or not to close?

This week the Church of England issued a major report looking at the future of its 15,700 church buildings.

Writing on the Church of England’s Tumblr blog, Sir Tony Baldry, Chair of the CofE’s Church Buildings Council sums up the report as being about realising the potential of the buildings and not seeking widespread closure. He says:

A blessing?

“More than three quarters – 78% – of the Church of England’s 15,700 churches are listed. More than half of churches, 57%, are in rural areas, where only 17% of the population lives. The Church of England is responsible for around 45% of the grade I listed buildings in England and almost three quarters of these are in rural areas.”

“The review group is not putting forward a single solution to the challenges that some churches face but it is suggesting an approach that realises the potential of church buildings, rather than characterising them as a burden.”

Or a burden?

That’s the official view, but many do see church buildings as a burden. That view is summed up by Giles Fraser in a comment piece in The Guardian.

“The Church of England is the custodian of 15,700 churches. A whopping 78% of them are listed. And they are 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. Indeed, I suspect that if every single one of them were blown up tomorrow, England would be a much more Christian country in 10 years’ time. Theologically, they are little more than rain shelters. And yet the C of E treats them with a reverence that ought to be reserved for God himself.”

Giles Fraser even suggests that the CofE takes an axe to churches in the same way that Dr Beeching did to British railways in the 1960s and closes those that are ‘underused’.

(For those who don’t remember those days, the Flanders and Swann ‘The Slow Train’ sums up the regret over that particular accountant led drive.)

Brought back to life

The irony is that now, fifty or so years after the closure of railway lines and stations, some of the axed lines are being re-opened. If churches are closed, in the future will we also be seeking to have them re-opened? That is in fact what has happened in Norfolk to the small church of St Mary in Forncett St Mary. The example is well worth considering when thinking about the options for church buildings. What is important is that the community has helped to bring the church back to life.

Forncett St Mary is a village in Norfolk, England. It is close to Forncett St Peter. The two shared a railway station Forncett on the main line between London and Norwich.  Ironically, it was closed as part of the Beeching Axe.

forncett st mary

St Mary’s Church, was originally mentioned in the Domesday Book, but rebuilt during the 14th, 15th and 19th centuries; the church was closed in 1980. A former rector of St. Mary’s was Revered John William Colenso, who later achieved fame as the first Bishop of Natal.

A successful friends group was formed and has over 100 members. Their aim has been to restore the church and graveyard. Enough work had been carried out to enable the church to be taken out of redundancy on the 26th June 2012 to become a chapel of ease to St. Peter’s Church, Forncett. The church has already held several services, including Carols by Candlelight, a Colenso Celebration service and talk, a Tenebrae service at Easter and has held its first wedding service for 43 years. Services will continue to be held as well as many more community and fundraising events which have been very well supported.

If you’d like to visit the church there is more information here

Eddie Tulasiewicz – Head of Communications, National Churches Trust

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