St Andrew’s Church, Normanby, North Yorkshire, England
The Heritage Trust is fortunate to have our HQ in a little village in North Yorkshire, England that boasts a thriving pub and a pretty little Norman church. This morning we saw an elderly gentleman take some faltering steps towards the church. He’s a frequent visitor to the village and makes a daily pilgrimage to the church when no-one else is there. He went there this morning before the Easter Service. Why does he go alone you may ask. It’s because the church here is Church of England and he is a Roman Catholic. But he does go, daily when visiting, unlike the majority of those in the village and surrounding area. As the church bells rang out this morning, calling its ever dwindling congregation to attend, the words of Simon Jenkins came to mind; “ I don’t go to church, but I do go to churches.”
There are some 16,000 churches in England, many of them architectural gems and places of sanctity and peace. The majority however are poorly attended. The church here has two services a month, with a regular congregation of a dozen or so (most in their seventies and eighties). The rest of the time, other than the occasional wedding, funereal or coffee morning) the church stands open but unused. So what is to be done? Simon Jenkins, in his Guardian article here writes –
England’s biggest, most plentiful, most beautiful buildings are its churches. They are also its emptiest. There are some 16,000 churches in total, and every now and then their owner and janitor, the Church of England, utters a howl of pain. This month a church report points out that more than a quarter of churches have fewer than 20 worshippers on a Sunday – fewer than 10 in rural areas. Help, it cries, opening its mind (at last) to a future for local churches as everything from farmers’ markets to digital hubs, and even to naves as “champing” sites.
Every few years the church gets itself into a mess over how to use its churches. Like millions of people, I don’t go to church, but I do go to churches – 85% of the public visits a church every year. We regard them as the community’s ritual forum, its museum, its art gallery, its concert hall, its occasional retreat for peace, consolation and meditation. Many in the church view us as freeloaders (though I always leave money) and cannot see why they should give us such delight when their proper business is prayer, not heritage custody.
As long as parish churches are seen as shrines belonging to a tiny minority of the community, any hope of wider commitment is pie in the sky. Struggling local churches must be secularised, desanctified. They must be vested in an endowed local trust or parish council that literally owns them, so they become community assets, for whose upkeep local rates can be levied, as with public parks and gardens. There will be many spills along the way. But these buildings cannot be demolished or nationalised. There is simply no alternative.
In a nutshell then, our lovely little parish churches must embrace the wider community. They should become places of worship or meditation for people of all faiths as well as for those of none. Places where concerts are performed, exhibitions held, talks on all matters delivered. Most of all they should be places where all are made welcome and do not feel it necessary, like our elderly gentleman above, to feel excluded.
Happy Easter to all our readers.