Confined recently to Lancashire, I have been exploring the remaining medieval parishes in the local area I haven’t visited. It can come as a surprise, to those lucky enough to live in East Anglia or Wiltshire, that in some areas, it is not the norm for churches to be open. Or even seemingly any way to get inside without attending a service? It particularly annoys me when a church proudly declares it has received Heritage Lottery Fund money for a big repair, but yet there is not so much a phone number for a churchwarden displayed. Why should an essentially private building get public money?
I do believe that the ideal position of all Anglican churches is that they are open to all during the day. So for a church to be locked, there has to be some factors that exist that cause this not to be true. It is a misconception that the attitudes of vicars cause a church to be open or shut. Priests are really only in control of the services and ministry in the parish. They are usually members of the Parochial Church Council, and while they may certain extra rights of veto, but they do not in any sense control how the building is run. The custodians of the building are the elected churchwardens (usually two in a parish). But ultimately, of course, the owner of the building is the diocese, and anything that happens requires a faculty from them – even if the building is not nationally listed (and any medieval church is at least Grade II listed by default).
Here is what I think what cause churches to be locked, from the most reasonable to the less so.
1. Reaction to manifest problems
People can get up to terrible things in public buildings. And you will hear stories about how people have urinated in church pews, vandalised the altar, broken statues, stolen money or pulled up brasses. And of course, if there is an active threat to a building, why would you not protect it? But such attacks are exceptionally rare. I have been in hundreds of churches, and I have never had to report any vandalism that seems to have occurred recently (except perhaps some things a congregation has done to their own church which I suspect they haven’t got a faculty for). It can be harrowing for a congregation to have their church violated, but it is a shame to finally take it away from the public due to a one-off event.
Christian churches in modern Britain are lucky that they (currently, at least) have no systemic prejudice against them, unlike Mosques or Synagogues, which can have vile campaigns against them from hate groups. If there are repeated attacks on a church, they are the acts of individuals, not a mindset. However, if a church is being targeted, it would be foolhardy to let those individuals continue and not take protective measures. But once the culprits are caught, normal opening can be resumed. But some churches seem surprisingly pessimistic about humanity, not to mention vindictive.
2. Reaction to perceived risk
So this leads us to the next point. Risk. Things that are happening is one thing. Things that might happen is another. But risk must be managed. A church in a rural village, that has congregation visiting throughout the day, many events, houses nearby, has almost no risk, beyond the “crazy person” scenario. An isolated rural church, with no fittings of monetary value, has a slightly higher risk. A suburban church, which the churchwardens and priest do not live near, and bored children running about is another matter. One in a city centre, is another entirely.
Of course, perhaps the largest active threat to churches, is the theft of roof lead. Of course, this does not need access to the interior – indeed, it actually helps the thieves if they are sure the church is locked and there’s no one inside before they get up there and steal the roof. All risks however, must be managed accordingly.
3. Low level of resources
However, with all the good will in the world, some churches do not have the resources available to manage these risks. They may not be able to afford security cameras or motion-detector alarms for the sanctuary. They may not have PCC members who live near enough the church to be able to open and close it every day. Of course, this factor can always be solved by campaigning, raising interest, and fundraising, but then that leads us to the next point…
4. Low level of interest
Quite frankly, to overcome problems in opening churches, there has to be a desire. And some PCCs simply do not have it. Well, obviously, they can’t open the church because they live next village over and go to work. I don’t know who lives in the Old Rectory, they probably aren’t interested in looking after the key. Goodness know who runs the pub now, never go there.
This then slips over to last point, and the most extreme. For a village, a parish church is an important asset. What is an English village without its little church? It helps house prices if your village has a church that at least plays lip service on Sundays. Great for the village to have weddings, too. So you treat it like an asset, and lock it up tight. You don’t want ramblers coming in with their muddy boots. Kids knocking over the Easter flowers.
The most extreme level of this is with Evangelical churches, who have the money for security, but keep the church locked as a statement that God is everywhere, and the church is just a meeting hall. This is certainly not true of all churches with a lower-church, charismatic leaning (as sometimes the level of worship is set by the priest, and as I say, priests often have little to do with the opening status of churches), but ones where the entire PCC share this mindset can be the hardest of all to get into.
So which of these points is the most important to combat in getting more churches to open their doors? I think it’s 2 and 4, as 1 and 5, as the most extreme, are rarer. The thing is that “perceived risk” is often overestimated. Usually the worst churches for opening are in what are now satellite villages around big, formerly industrial cities, such as Liverpool. There’s a prejudice against people from “the town” who might come into “their village” and cause trouble. How do you combat this? Well, it’s point 4. Gently moan at them. Tell them people do want to visit the church.
And it’s to their benefit, in the long term anyway. If people who live in urban areas – that is, most people in England – think Anglican churches are locked, unwelcoming, private clubs, the hostility against the established church from the general public is only going to increase, and with it, available funds diminish. Yes, there will always be problems with that great mass we know as “the general public”, but if you can’t find tolerance and forgiveness in a church, where can you?