We Can’t Go Back…to Preserving Bricks & Mortar

by the Ven Nikki Groarke, Archdeacon of Dudley and Member of General Synod


A small group of beleaguered disciples, tired, fearful and disappointed, uncertain about the future, meeting behind closed doors, wistfully reminiscing about the crowds who had at one time gathered with them. Now it’s just the faithful remnant.

 The Holy Spirit comes, and they are transformed, heading out into the public arena, living life fully as Christ’s followers, drawing others to join them by their love for each other and their neighbours, and their accessible, amateurish but heartfelt teaching and worship.

We have all reflected recently on a story something like this over Pentecost. However, what I am describing is not the early church, but rather what I have seen played out in many small congregations across my diocese in these last few months.  In multi-parish rural benefices and urban teams, where previously ten to fifteen committed long term members met in multiple locations for worship, now a hundred or more gather online together, energised and engaged each week, making new friends and attracting others. It’s easier to join a crowd than a clique.

For many years across the country, weary church wardens have with dogged determination, fought to keep regular Sunday services going in their church building, not wanting to betray their predecessors by allowing the church to die on their watch. Failure and local wrath have been constant threats  Then, overnight in March, the doors of every church building were closed, unilaterally. And they were not responsible. It was not their fault. A Kairos moment?

Lockdown was dramatic and shocking for church communities. Emerging from it will be far more nuanced, and no less difficult. Already MPs and journalists are politicising the ‘draconian’ refusal to permit the use of church buildings for private prayer and funerals. Bishops across the country are tweeting  (including my own)!  Passions and anxieties are running high amidst uncertainties and swathes of guidelines for ‘whenever we can reopen’.

Churches will soon be allowed to open again, and that is right. But please let’s not rush back to opening them all.  Church buildings are different, have different purposes and callings, and can sometimes get in the way of God’s people truly being church.  And we have too many of them.

It’s very easy to say. “Open your church building from tomorrow” to gain some support from vocal campaigners.  But what about the tiny rural church with no mains water, where handwashing isn’t possible?  How do you clean an ancient building with nooks and crannies when you can’t slosh the bleach around?  How do you safely open a huge cathedral with multiple entrances and many chapels, when staff are furloughed, closure of cafés and shops and no tourists has caused a financial crisis, and most volunteers are vulnerable or shielding?  Practically there are many issues to be overcome.  The challenges will be met of course.  Clergy and church members will rise to the occasion creatively, just as they have adapted to the constraints of recent months with resilience and faith.

But what about the opportunities of this Kairos moment?  Strategically is it right to go back to dispersed, fragmented and often insular worship in every place?  Surely this is the time to courageously ask the questions few previously dared voice.

Should this church be used for worship each Sunday in the future?  Can we re-designate for occasional use – weddings, funerals, harvest and Christmas?  Can we formally close, and recognise the building’s importance as a local heritage asset, treating it as such rather than trying to meet unrealistic expectations of it becoming a vibrant community hub when we all know in our hearts that this role is filled adequately by the village hall or pub?  Dare we contemplate allowing our building to become perhaps a beautiful ruin?

Place is important of course, and prayed in places are undoubtedly holy.  It is important to have sacred space where we can gather, celebrate the sacraments, reflect amidst beauty.  Buildings where key life events have been marked hold special significance and will always be places of pilgrimage.  But not every church building is beautiful, many are not fit for purpose, they are often in the wrong places where settlements have moved. Some were built for dubious reasons – as follies or status symbols.  One size does not fit all, and we need to grasp the freedom the current closure gives us to treat each case individually.

If congregations and weary wardens can be released to be church, rather than being burdened with the responsibility of preserving bricks and mortar, maybe the new life we have seen emerge in lockdown might blossom and flourish – not forever online – heaven forbid! But in vibrant Christian communities meeting in the most appropriate church building in a grouping, or even in a school hall, focussing their energies and enthusiasm on serving their communities, fed by corporate worship with many others, sharing gifts and skills as they grow in discipleship together.

My theological college principal often reflected that policy is usually at least ten years behind practice in the Church of England.  Re-designating masses of church buildings can, if we are brave to seize the moment, be trialled instinctively as we begin to embrace the new normal. The legislation to make it formal will take Chancellors and Archdeacons and General Synod many years and tie us all in knots, but let’s not be deterred.  We cannot go back to a uniform approach to church buildings draining the life from the church.  Let’s invest in some, reinvent others, and dare to let some quietly stay closed for ever.

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10 Responses to We Can’t Go Back…to Preserving Bricks & Mortar

  1. williambuggins says:

    Good post, thank you.
    I liked “It’s easier to join a crowd than a clique.” but it is hard work to stop clique’s forming -especially in churches!
    “Church buildings are different, have different purposes and callings, and can sometimes get in the way of God’s people truly being church. And we have too many of them.” Indeed. True Christians are The Church, aka The Body of Christ. We do need places to meet but as a former member of a parish church and pcc I agree there are far too many churches. Usually kept going by a gallant little band of folk who take a more than usual interest in the state of each other’s health..
    When we first joined “Committed to Growth” was being promoted. My wife started up Messy Church, I formed an interdenominational home group. It took a while to realise some of the old stalwarts were simply committed to “Keeping the (ancient) church building going” and had no time for any activity that wouldn’t raise money for the Fabric fund..
    I think this lockdown period has been an excellent opportunity for people to re-evaluate their lives and what is important. The increase in numbers tuning in to streamed church services shows that there is a real interest in the Christian faith. If we can avoid slipping back into our church routines and remember that God invests in people not buildings, we may yet see new life!


  2. Susan clarke says:

    Hello Nikki
    This makes an interesting and thoughtful read. The future of church buildings does need careful consideration as the buildings are costly to run and always need constant repair. I have enjoyed our services on you tube, and I was thankful to have the internet. I have especially enjoyed morning and evening prayer and hope this could continue. We still need to be able to meet up though especially for courses. I did not feel able to join zoom for the courses being offered at present. That was my choice.

    Regards susan clarke


  3. Carys Underdown says:

    “How do you safely open a huge cathedral with multiple entrances and many chapels, when staff are furloughed?”

    You unfurlough the vergers and limit which areas are open. But it may take more than a week’s notice to achieve this.


  4. Kate Chester-Lamb says:

    Thank you for being brave enough to write this!


  5. Sue Adeney says:

    Thank you Nikki for this balanced and challenging piece. Your right of course but there will be NMCT. Not my church though!!! How we disciple people to overcome this is the challenge.


  6. Revd James Gilder says:

    Thank you for this thoughtful piece. I wonder whether closing a lot of churches to regular worship might be the (comparatively) easy part though. You’re right that most of the semi-redundant buildings will not be needed, or even suitable, for use as community facilities, so the problem is, who pays for the maintenance after they are closed for regular worship? Will closing buildings actually solve any problems, or just transfer the issues elsewhere?

    In practice, in a benefice of maybe ten rural churches where a ‘travelling congregation’ system is in place, there’ll be many churches in the benefice who already don’t have more than maybe six services a year, but – because they are still open – there remains a loyal few who shoulder the responsibility of maintaining the building, often through a deep love of the history and sense of place, and indeed, of God, that they feel people connect with there.

    If you close the church building, you probably also lose the band of volunteers – however small – that maintains the building and pays for upkeep. A closed building is less likely to get financial support from the community it sits within, to maintain it. If there are no volunteers left, I suppose it has to close, but whilst the responsibility and risk of the building might be transferred to the diocese and so be less burdensome on the benefice, the upkeep will also become a cost borne by the diocese and thus, by everyone contributing financially to the diocese – so parish share would go up, not down. Maybe a few economies of scale might be achieved, but other than perhaps a group insurance policy, it might be difficult to make huge cost savings through this.

    It would be interesting to see whether those benefices who have chosen to do Messy Church or other forms of outreach service have been more successful when they have met in a modern building, compared with those that have met in the church building. I suspect that there wouldn’t be much difference.

    As many churches are listed buildings, we simply will not be allowed to just let them become ruins, and I’m a little surprised that an archdeacon of all people suggests that this is a viable option, because it is plainly unlawful. Even if we were just allowed to let the building gently fall down (which I stress – we are not, and if we do, we could face significant financial penalties from the local authority), this doesn’t happen overnight – you might need fifty years, during which time you’d have to ban people from going inside, in case the roof falls in on them. The other option would be to intentionally ruin them – take the roof off, etc. But this is hugely expensive. Besides which, ruins also require maintenance if people are to be allowed to access them, otherwise they are just lawsuits waiting to happen. They also send out a pretty awful message to a community.

    You mention worship being insular. I’m not sure it’s the building that makes worship insular – in fact, I’m pretty sure it’s the people. Some tiny congregations in ancient buildings are incredibly welcoming, some are not; some larger congregations in 1960s halls are insular, some are not. Wherever people meet, I think we need to look deeper than that about what welcome is, and not assume that a change of scene will necessarily help.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Robert Barlow says:

    I’m probably a bit long in the tooth and have heard “Church buildings … can sometimes get in the way of God’s people truly being church” said very many times over the years. Indeed when (in the past) confronted with some of the difficulties of a conservation focused DAC I have certainly thought it and probably said it myself.
    But what I have never seen with the closure of buildings is “congregations and weary wardens…(being) released to be church”. The “maybe” of “maybe the new life we have seen emerge in lockdown might blossom and flourish….” is a very big maybe.
    What I have seen when buildings close is that what remains of the congregation struggling or folding (unless injected with fresh resources externally). What I see in rural Methodism, where many rural chapels have closed, is of Methodism being pretty much absent in many places.
    A more evidenced based study by Roberts & Francis. “Church closure and membership statistics: Trends in four rural dioceses” (Rural Theology, 4, 37-56) found that the two diocese in the study that closed buildings at a faster rate also had a faster rate of decline of church memebrship than the two diocese that closed buildings at a slower rate.
    I suspect that the renewal of the church we all long to see won’t happen if our focus is on our buildings – either their retention or their closure. I suspect it will require a fresh imagination and a dreaming of dreams which will include the release of “weary wardens” but also allowing sacred places and buildings to witness to the glory of God and praying that, as Jesus said of the stones in Jerusalem, “the stones will cry out”.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Peter Gardner says:

      I’d be interested to know what the definition of “Church Membership” was in the statement “found that the two diocese in the study that closed buildings at a faster rate also had a faster rate of decline of church memebrship (sic) than the two diocese that closed buildings at a slower rate.”.
      In this Covid (and post Covid, hopefully) era would ZOOM, Facebook and Youtube listening or sharing Church Services or gatherings constitute “Church Membership” or not?


  8. williambuggins says:

    Well said Robert Barlow. My wife and I now attend a small Methodist chapel, but the same kinds of problems we encountered in the parish church are here also.
    Lovely (elderly) people of whom we are very fond, but increasing numbers of ‘progressive’ speakers and ministers who do not accept the authority of the Bible, nor believe in the Gospel of Salvation as secured and proclaimed by our Lord. Too many churches nowadays resemble social clubs in which Inclusivity is the guiding principle, and entertainment along with a ‘feel good’ factor the main goal. I am all for inclusivity in that we invite and welcome all peoples of whatever background. But we also have to preach the Gospel so that all may know where they stand before a holy God who sent Christ into the world for our salvation. As our Lord said to Nicodemus, “Ye must be born again..”


  9. Pingback: We Can’t Go Back….But We Will, Unless… | ViaMedia.News

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