A different perspective: St James church in West Hampstead, London, now hosts a post office, café and children’s play area. Image: London Churches in Photographs / londonchurchbuildings.com

Keeping the faith in our parish churches

Well funded and with a reserve of spectacular buildings, the Church of England has the resources to curb dwindling attendance—so long as it dares to re-imagine
March 3, 2022

Out for a walk in the Oxfordshire countryside recently, I visited one of my favourite churches, a beautiful space with medieval wall paintings and carved columns full of fantastical animals conjured up by a stonemason’s imagination many centuries ago. It’s a peaceful place to sit for a while, to settle the soul and quieten the mind. As I was leaving, I found on the table—along with the usual postcards and guidebooks—a sad but feisty letter from the vicar to the parishioners of her four churches. With the headline “Appreciate what you have before you realise it’s what you had!” the vicar goes on to make a plea for help—through “pounds, people and purpose”—so that rural churches might have a sustainable future.

The sense of impending doom for parish churches, especially those that are rural, has recently been grasped, and a grassroots Save the Parish movement (much championed by the Daily Telegraph) has been launched. How successful it will be is as yet unknown, but there’s everything to play for—especially the 8,200 listed rural churches in England, places of great architectural and artistic significance that form part of the fabric, life and history of our countryside.

The Church of England’s current crisis is presented in terms of declining numbers and a lack of money. Church attendance has been definitively in decline for a century and, according to recent surveys, if the decrease in attendance continues at the present rate, the Church will be largely dead by 2033. As for money, the Church has it. The Church commissioners oversee a fund of £9.2bn, and the primary aim of that is to support parish clergy. There’s also an annual flow of cash from individual parishes to their dioceses, known as the “parish share.” The question is where and how the money gets spent, and an increasingly top-heavy C of E wants to spend it on more management, centrally directed projects and some very narrow ideas about how to grow the church again. But it could be spent on parishes.

Money and decline might therefore be pressing issues, but there’s something bigger at stake here. What kind of church do we as a society want? What and who is the church for? Is the Church of England for everyone who wants and needs it, or a special club for the chosen few? The C of E was designed to be for everyone, with common prayers for common (that is, shared) sins and thanksgivings. As Elizabeth I famously said, she didn’t want to make windows out of her subjects’ souls. But there have always been people pushing for the private club model. In the 17th century it was the Puritans and in the 19th century the evangelicals, the latter arguing that mere attendance and shared worship were not enough; to be a proper Christian you had to believe a specific set of doctrines about salvation.

That tension has not gone away. Today, the evangelical model is in the ascendancy once again. The language is all about discipleship. Follow the money to see this. The C of E bishops last year announced, as part of their top-down strategy to grow the church (or attempt to), an investment in the creation of 20,000 lay-led church groups in people’s houses. In these non-parish spaces, people will be taught what they need to believe to become disciples. The announcement caused an outcry and prompted the Save the Parish movement. Other models of church growth, with hard evidence demonstrating their success, are usually ignored. Cathedrals—places of pilgrimage, with their expansive welcome to anyone and everyone, with no tests of belief but rather an emphasis on worship, beauty, music and social justice—have been steadily growing their numbers for some decades now, but that model doesn’t suit the prevailing C of E winds.

My hunch—and my experience of being a cathedral dean—is that the more open model of church resonates with the broader population. A 2016 YouGov survey indicated that while 28 per cent of the British population believe in God or a higher spiritual power and 38 per cent do not, there’s another 20 per cent who believe in a higher spiritual power (without the God bit), and a final 14 per cent that isn’t sure what it believes. That’s 34 per cent who might want some sense of spirituality—and I’m pretty sure they don’t want to be “disciples.”

Writing over 100 years ago, in 1912, Bertrand Russell captured this brilliantly. An atheist, he wrote that even when traditional beliefs have been rejected, “the question of the place of religion in life is by no means decided.” People still seek the “quality of infinity” which seems to give “an insight deeper than the piecemeal knowledge of our daily life.”

Traditionally, the C of E has been able to serve such seekers, and those on the edges of organised religion, locally through the parish—through the provision of baptisms, weddings and funerals; compassion and pastoral care in times of crisis; distinctive contributions to a community’s wellbeing; civic rituals that cement the bond between individual and society; and the beauty and peace of the parish church itself. With the careless (or deliberate) erosion of the parish system, all that will go.

To survive, clergy and their parishes will need to be imaginative about how to serve the community, reclaim their power and collaborate with other local institutions. St James, in West Hampstead, provides a creative example: when the post office, a local hub, was about to close, the parish re-thought its mission. The Victorian Gothic church now hosts not only a worshipping space but also a post office, a café, shop and popular children’s play area, all of which the parish owns and operates. The idea of “church” that lies behind this is about service to the community and being witnesses to God’s love (not creators of disciples). “Blessed with the resources of  buildings and people,” as the parish’s website says, “we use them in the service of others because we believe that we see God in our service of others.”

St James is still a living church, but it is also a bustling community, full of people all day and every day.