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Chair of the Church Buildings Council contributes to debate at General Synod on the future of church buildings

25 November 2015

Tony Baldry, Oxford, 373 and Chair of the Church Buildings Council

I concur with everything said by Bishop John in his excellent speech and I will thus try not to repeat any of the points that have already been made.

Our purpose has to be to ensure that our church buildings are blessings and not burdens.

We want all our churches to thrive,

To ensure that church buildings can connect with the communities that they serve.

That we can celebrate their beauty, their history, their sense of place, continuity, and sense of the sacred.

But the challenges of caring and maintaining some 16,000 parish churches are many.

So, for example, a couple of weeks ago, I was visiting a church on the Northamptonshire/Leicestershire border to consider the future of a church of 600 sopranos – Soprano Pippistrelle Bats !

But what made me slightly weak-kneed was this magnificent, Grade One, Medieval, Listed Church – with some wonderful medieval stained glass and an organ that had come from the Palace of Whitehall in the time of King Charles the First – was served and was supported by a community of just ten houses. And, as a consequence of history, not least the medieval manorial system, there are significant numbers of Listed Church Buildings in Dioceses such as Truro, Exeter, Hereford, Norwich and elsewhere, with magnificent church buildings serving comparatively small communities.

The Bishop of London and I went and saw the Chancellor and requested money for church roofs.

We reminded the Chancellor that he had said of the previous Government that they had failed to repair the roof while the sun was shining, and that we had quite a lot of roofs that needed repairing and we hoped that the sun would shine on our request. We were extremely grateful when the Chancellor gave us £55 million for the Church Roof Fund.

The first tranche is helping repair and restore 372 church roofs, but I have a note from a Landmark Listed Church in the Diocese of Lincoln that had been awarded a grant, saying that they weren’t sure that they could proceed with the project because they are a community of just 70 people, i.e. that was the total number of the community, not the size of the congregation, and they were not confident that they could afford the annual costs of insurance.

For reasons of history, the majority of our church buildings are in rural areas, serving about a fifth of England’s population.

So the challenges are many, and there is no one single solution.

We need to find ways to make the maintenance of our church buildings viable, hence why we are discussing how we can widen the sharing of the burden – more Friends Groups – in some cases, passing on the responsibility of maintenance to Trusts, or making it easier for churches to rent out or lease out part of a building they no longer require, so sharing the building with other community uses.

Sometimes the solution may be Festival Churches, but can I reinforce the point made by Bishop John the idea of Festival Churches is to keep churches open – and to keep churches open for now and future generations. It is to draw together the local community on a number of times a year, in acts of worship, to ensure such churches are there, open for worship, but also, hopefully, to encourage the community to help raise the money needed to pay the essentials such as insurance and to clear the guttering and to maintain the basic fabric of the church.

And with all our church buildings we are seeking to try to ensure that our churches are open as much as possible to serve their communities in as many ways as possible.

As places of prayer, worship and contemplation, but also churches across the country, every day, provide a huge range of social enterprise and community services.

And in all of this, we have to find a sense of balance.

Between those who understandably want every piece of heritage, every ecclesiastical artefact, every church treasure maintained to the highest possible standards and who would canonise George Gilbert Scott, and on the other hand, those who equally understandably from their perspective, argue that the millions that we spend on maintaining church buildings could be better spent on the Church’s wider mission and that we could equally well, like Moses, worship God in tents.

The Church Buildings Council somehow has to help square the circle so that we have the capacity to simultaneously both support refugees and maintain rood screens.

In policy terms, it doesn’t make much sense having one part of the Church, i.e. the Church Buildings Council, responsible for churches that are open and another part of the Church, i.e. part of the Church Commissioners responsible for churches that are contemplating closure, closing or have closed. And it does seem sensible to have a single entity dealing with all church buildings.

It is, I think, important to stress that these proposals are all subject to consultation and I think everyone who is part of the Working Party very much hopes that as many people as possible will read our Report and contribute to the consultation.

Sir John Betjeman served on the Oxford Diocesan Advisory Committee for 32 years and Betjeman observed that

“ . . our churches are our history shown in wood and glass and iron and stone”.

And more prosaically, Betjeman observed:

“He ordered windows stained like red and crimson lake. Sing on with hymns uproarious ye humble and aloof, look up, and oh how glorious, he has restored the roof”.