Churches need active communities otherwise they die. It’s not rocket science but it does seem to need restating. I have now seen three versions of Simon Jenkins’ current thoughts on church buildings in as many days. The latest is in today’s Guardian. His argument seems to be that many churches are struggling and so should be handed over to community trusts. In his book celebrating 100 best churches he argued that churches are repositories of community history, which they are given their centuries of presence at the heart of those communities. Their preservation, though, is down to the people who have lived and breathed inside them, who have made them valid by their prayers, to quote TS Elliot’s poem Little Gidding.
They can be decommissioned and handed over to another body, but that does not guarantee their thriving or even survival. A building is a shell and it is what goes on inside it which gives it life. Visiting redundant church buildings is a soulless exercise. The architecture is there, but the signs of community from hymnbooks, notice sheets and rotas are missing. These are the signs that a community meets here that adds what Theos calls spiritual capital to their locality. Theos were looking at Cathedrals, but the same applies to any engaged church. They are sacred spaces because an encounter goes on within them and around them. That encounter is with the spiritual, with God, and many more join in with this than can be counted in statistics.
The best preservation for any building is for it to be home to a living, active community or family. Active means that it is sustainable, that it has a purpose for being and continuing to be. Take that away and you have nothing worth preserving. Handing redundant churches over to a local trust will only have any value if that community finds a new use for it. Without that the reality is no one will be found to look after it or sustain it. Many will simply fall into disrepair and crumble.
All of this goes for the Cathedrals that Simon Jenkins mentions as being one of the success stories of recent decades in the Church of England. Many of us involved in them know that this success story brings significant challenges and most of the Church of England’s Cathedrals were recently reported in the Spectator that they are struggling with finance. It is a success story held together in places with string and blu tack.
So, Simon Jenkins is highlighting a problem. Casual interest and on the edges allegiance does not pay the bills. For the Church without committed worshippers, who seek to live the Christian good news of Jesus Christ, the buildings which provide the base for much of their work will be unsustainable. Ironically many buildings are probably in a better state of repair today than they have been, though there is clearly a large number that are at risk. Churches need active communities otherwise they die.