During CEYC’s fantastic November residential only a few weeks ago I talked to a number of people about one of the Church of England’s most defining, wonderful and expensive aspects: our buildings.
First I think it’s best and indeed most helpful to define the difference between our Churches and Church buildings. Churches, as defined in the New Testament, are groups of Christians who gather to pray, worship and teach in the presence of God. Church buildings are the places in which these groups of Christians meet. In the Church of England we sometimes fall into the trap of calling our buildings the “Churches” and believing that a group of Christians can only call themselves a “Church” if they meet in one of these buildings.
It would be good to keep this in the front of your mind while I discuss the Church and its buildings.
The Church of England’s buildings includes our 16,000 parish churches, our 42 cathedrals and our other building such as Church House and Clergy houses. They are, I dare to say, our second most important asset, after the people who walk through our doors every Sunday. Church of England buildings, especially our parish church buildings and Cathedrals are some of the oldest and most striking buildings in the whole of Britain, and they facilitate what Church of England website calls ” A Christian presence in every community”. These buildings, as well as helping us have a visible presence in every community in England, also help is to support those communities in a variety of ways from Christmas and Easter services to weekly toddler groups, from Baptisms and weddings to *insert whatever your Church does here*.
However, these buildings, especially our parish Church buildings are our biggest financial problem by a significant margin. The Church of England costs £1000 million to run every year nationally, when I contacted Church House they couldn’t put an exact figure on it but a “ sizeable percentage is spent on the upkeep of buildings”.
This cost has always seemed unnecessary to me! For years I’ve felt the churches job should not be one of caretakers of thousands of old falling down buildings. The Church of England has this responsibility and for the longest time I’ve wanted to throw that responsibility away and instead favour a more radical Early-Church-like approach to how the Church of England should operate in the future.
That was until I read the architectural report on my Churches building a week ago as part of a PCC meeting.
Some background might be needed at this point: My Church building is an 11th century Norman, sandstone building which stands on the sight of a monastery dating back to the time of St. Columbus. The Church building, called St. George’s and St. Mary’s, is the only Church building in the world (we think) to be dedicated to both St. George and St. Mary. The name only came about because of a clerical error. It is also the oldest Church building of St. George in the country (although there is an on going discussion between us and another St. George’s church about who deserves the title).
However, this Church building is quite literally falling down. Masonry has been coming off at both the back and the front as a result of weathering and the sandstone, being the awful building material it is, means the whole building has been slowly disintegrating for the last 900 years. The roof is also coming down at an accelerated rate and if we don’t get these problems sorted soon then our insurances will be invalidated and we will need to leave the building until we can raise the ludicrous amount of money necessary to fix all these and many more problems.
When I read the report I was shocked. I knew things with the building weren’t great, I knew there was water coming through the roof, I knew that the stone was crumbling and I knew that we’d have to leave the building at some point in a few years maybe. What I never expected was to be looking at almost immediate closure of my Church building.
I love my Church building, I love the history of it, the architecture, the beauty of it. Arguably the only reason I continued going to Church during my early teenage years was that I fell in love with the history and the mystery of the Church buildings I went to every Sunday.
I thought that despite the fact hundreds of Church buildings are having to shut their doors every year because they cannot keep up with the soaring costs of maintenance and the shrinking of grants, I never thought it would happen to my Church building.
Sadly this is something the Church of England is going to have to get very used to over the next couple of years. We simply cannot keep up with the cost these buildings demand, both in time and money. That does not by any means diminish the pain and cruelty of having to leave our Church buildings and find new places for our Churches to meet, as my Church will very soon have to do. These beautiful buildings are part of our culture, our history and our tradition. Our buildings should never define us, but it is heartbreaking to let them go.
As with everything, in this, I trust in God. CEYC has given me hope that God will grow churches no matter where they meet, and our generation does not face these storms alone. I pray that my Church may be able to find a new building to call home and that we in the Church of England may begin to realise the immense task that we are facing due to these crumbling, beautiful and special buildings.