BY JIM BROWNE
I am a church-goer. My wife and I appear weekly at our local Anglican church every Sunday even when it snows. We tend to sit somewhere near the back, especially now as we have a Vicar who likes to get political and I do tend to chunter when he talks nonsense.
Our church was built in the Sixteenth Century and the congregation has managed to raise the funds over the years to maintain the building. We even had half a million off the National Lottery to repair the roof.
At the main Sunday service there are twelve regulars now. While the church can comfortably hold 230. The average age of the members of the congregation (I am guessing) is 72. Apart from the Vicar I am the youngest parishioner, except when we have baptisms during Sunday Service or someone’s grandchild happens to be staying in the village.
The Sunday Service is not a big draw. The Vicar tries his best. But how can he compete with the web, Andrew Marr, a world torn apart by religion, and the erudite arguments of loud atheists like Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens?
A member of the Church of England’s Archbishop’s Council, John Spence, told the General Synod in 2015 that many rural Anglican parishes have very few people in them, all of whom are over the age of 70. He said across the whole of England, two-thirds of Anglican membership are aged 55 or more; that attendance is decreasing by one percent a year. Separate figures have shown Church of England attendance decrease by 41% from 1980 to 2012. Mr Spence also said 3 in 4 current Church of England members would no longer exist by 2057, if current trends continue.
He said: “We know that we have large numbers of parishes now with very small electoral rolls and with nobody on them below the age of 70. We know from what at least two diocesan bishops have said that in less than ten years we will see a threat to the presence of church in communities across rural England and some urban areas as well. Over a period 2007 to 2057, church attendance and membership would fall from 1.2 million on a regular basis to something like two or three hundred thousand if current trends continue.”
It’s not as if our village lacks young people. There is a full local school, a new kindergarten has opened to cater for a local baby boom and there are many Polish immigrants who live locally but they, of course, attend the Catholic church in the town.
The bottom line is that we all need our Countryside churches. Whether for funerals, weddings, baptisms or to use them as quiet places – bush-telegraphs to our Maker. But their lack of use would suggest that Spence is correct. That we’re going to lose our churches altogether.
I have thought about this long and hard and I think the best thing the Church of England can do is start an essay competition. The people should be asked what to do with their churches. The title should be: “Church use in Future: Discuss”
I see more and more people working at home in the countryside, using Skype and broadband rather than needing to attend any kind of office – so why not use the church halls as meeting centres or quiet work centres, which would bring in some much needed income to the churches and get the modern day workers out of their homes a bit? I like the idea of nurseries being built around churches. I see churches as community centres where concerts can be held and, post-Brexit, pulpits can be used to debate the current issues of our day. Why not allow counsellors to use churches as places where they can listen, as the spike in mental illness grows? Combine churches with food banks or village stores. I see no problem at all with letting the local countryside homeless shack up in church halls overnight as long as they pay their way by strimming paths and clearing gravestones; after all, churches are for all not just those who show up on Sunday.
It is time the Church of England became creative.
It depresses me visiting villages where the local church has become yet another chapel conversion where the altar has been converted into a novelty kitchen top and the only organs manifesting themselves in the organ loft are not the kind that spout Bach. I feel uneasy walking into churches which are now restaurants or gastro pubs – these buildings were not built to gorge, flirt or imbibe in.
There must be a better way forward and somewhere out there lies the answer. It is not in making Vicars interesting; kidding ourselves that they are crowd-pullers. Vicars are most often dull as ditch-water. They are Rich Teas amongst biscuits. Most are sandal-wearing, Lib Dem creepers – and should be humble enough to know their limitations.
Church of England – less prayers and more doing, please. Or Countryside Churches will disappear as fast as their ageing congregations.