This month I would like to reflect on a different but very important aspect of church life...
Appreciate what you have before you realise it’s what you had!
Don’t take your village church for granted…
The church you take for granted someone else is paying for, praying for and keeping open. Be aware that the building and facility you take for granted may not always be there! How would you feel if the church closed permanently? We don’t realise what we have until we loose it! Don’t presume the church building will always be open and there for you. To coin a phrase… ‘the writing is on the wall… it’s days are numbered’. You’ve heard the saying ‘Use it or loose it’, well that also includes support it or it will close! Read on…
There are about 9,000 rural churches in England, of which about 8,200 are listed. A key finding of the church buildings report is that more than 2,000 of these rural churches have congregations of fewer than ten people. Statistics published elsewhere show that in rural dioceses some 75 to 90 per cent of worshippers are over the age of 70. Thus attendance will inevitably decline through natural causes, even if in future more young people join the church.
What are the consequences of having declining and ageing rural congregations? The obvious worry is how to fund the upkeep of the buildings. Contrary to what many people still believe, the responsibility for maintaining church buildings and keeping them in repair lies with each individual church: the incumbent and the parochial church council. There is no state funding for churches’ care or maintenance nor does the Church itself have central funds to put towards these buildings.
But the shortage of people has practical consequences too. The routine care of rural church buildings, their graveyards and worship and community activities is done by volunteers from the congregation and a few in the community and it is becoming harder to find people to do these jobs. In addition, the shortage of people makes it difficult to do new things – to set up new church community activities and services, to fundraise for and carry out a large building projects or to find other community uses for the church.
Small congregations also have quite subtle implications. If the building is only used for one service each Sunday, or less often than that, with small numbers present, then in the eyes of those who do not attend it may be seen as a private club and the sense of public purpose of the building may be weakened. Furthermore, many church leaders at regional and national level are thinking of concentrating rural resources on fewer church buildings, so an increasing number of churches may no longer be required for regular worship. In other words they lose their local Vicar - you loose your local Vicar to engage with the community and work with the children in the local school . The risk is that then such buildings almost entirely lose their sense of purpose. And a building without purpose is potentially at risk - at risk of closure. This means that the doors will be locked permanently and will no longer be available for Rites of Passage (Baptisms, Weddings, Funerals) or any other church service.
So the problem is not just financial. Money matters, of course, but so does access to willing and capable people, and so does a sense of purpose for the building. These three are interdependent and interlinked: pounds, people and purpose. All are important.
Rural church buildings need pounds, people and purpose if they are to survive as public places of worship for the benefit of all. Shrinking congregations are putting them under pressure.