Why churches?

Bishopstone, Wiltshire

The lumbering splendor of Bishopstone (Wiltshire)

I’m doing a doctorate on English parish churches. The problem is with waving this about in public is that, let’s be honest, churches aren’t terribly cool. They’re not like particle accelerators. What should our churches be for? Should they be purely for baptisms, weddings, and funerals, and allegedly dwindling Church of England congregations? Or should they be turned into secular museums? Or is there a middle way? I like to think that there is.



The Sacrament Shrine at Hawton (Nottinghamshire). A rare survival of fourteenth-century sculpture at its height

The Sacrament Shrine at Hawton (Nottinghamshire). A rare survival of fourteenth-century sculpture at its height

It might seem clichéd to preach a spiel about the sense of wonder around of a site that has been the focal point of a community for hundreds of years, but that’s only because it’s true. It makes churches invaluable for our culture, and it is why people loaded them with amazing art. Sure, it was often with a degree of self-interest: towering tombs of medieval lords, private pews of Georgian families, and Victorian memorial stained glass, but then no act can be entirely selfless. We can now appreciate the opportunity that disposable income gave artists to create works of inspiring and beautiful craft. I don’t think anyone would disagree, certainly for the Middle Ages, that some of our finest works of art can be found in churches, and are worthy of protection and preservation.

St Bartholomew the Great - Maundy Thursday

Elevation of the Host on Maundy Thursday at St Bartholomew the Great in London, the choir of a former twelfth-century priory

But there’s a thorny, often unspoken problem that exists even between people who are actually interested in these buildings: what goes on in them. However, I think that the tradition of performance is just delicate and worthy of preservation as material art. Religious ritual has the potential to move your senses, especially in a space built especially to accommodate it. Just like you can get a lot out of watching a guy pretend to be a Danish prince who does nothing about his dead dad for three hours, I think there’s also a great deal anyone can obtain from the universal message that you are not the most important entity in the Universe, yet there’s no one around you who is better or worse than you either.

Grantham, Lincolnshire

Soaring pointed Gothic arches at Grantham, Lincolnshire

Basically, I think that churches, even ones built relatively recently, embody history, art and ritual in ways that an institution like a museum cannot. They’re not just built for these things, but around them. They grew out of them, it’s what they’re all about. Something that exemplifies this idea is the Gothic style itself. There are Gothic buildings that aren’t churches, and churches that aren’t Gothic. But the style was first forged and popularised in them, and unavoidably accompanies them in the popular imagination. The key element of the Gothic, the pointed arch, acknowledges something beyond the rational circle, outside the initial boundaries of our understanding. It’s a style that appeals to contemplation, imagination and sensual excitement. This is what churches, as places, visual repositories and theatres, should aspire to be.


8 thoughts on “Why churches?

  1. M-R

    Speaking as an old fart who used to edit PhD theses (and the occasional Masters), I hope very much that yours will end up as fascinating as your blog. Imnsho, your markers will be fortunate. 🙂

    1. James Alexander Cameron Post author

      Some bits are more exciting than others. A lot of stating the obvious, attempting to prove negatives, resulting in a nuanced narrative to allow for some interesting speculation. I think my supervisors are enjoying it…

      Thank you

  2. Aadil

    Interesting article. Apart from being an atheist, I am very interested in medieval and Gothic churches and cathedrals for their art, architecture, wall paintings and stained glass windows which are really inspiring works of art well worthy of appreciation. Finding many of them closed permanently or only opened by key holders who are difficult to find or contact many a times defeats the very purpose for which they were initially built and if they are out of actual service or use now then it is best to convert them into museums with an entrance fee (besides being open for service as well whenever required) so that at least some of them which are really worth seeing and appreciating are not locked out for those enthusiasts who wish to see them and enjoy what they have to offer.

    1. James Alexander Cameron Post author

      The problem with charging, Adil, is that only big places that can afford the overheads of staff handling money can do it. You should always leave a donation, equal to at least whatever coffee you usually buy, as a general courtesy. But turning the country into a swave of turnstiles at lychgates is not a way to go, if not just because of the initial expense.

      I’ve rhetorically asked before, should churches stay open, with the risk that something bad might happen, just in case someone comes past and wants to go in? With the exception of some in urban areas, yes, they should!

      It’s good for the Church with a big C too. No one is going to consider visiting a building where they’re made unwelcome by a locked door 6 days a week. Certainly if you visit a community they should open the church for you, whether you’re wanting some peace or a major church-nerd, rather than treating you as a possible criminal which too many places do, unfortunately.

      1. Aadil

        Some places that are open without anyone supervising the church premises may be vandalised or have precious things stolen or damaged by fanatics or hooligans. So I would not recommend keeping them open without someone keeping a watch over the place.

  3. C B Newham

    Aadil. Over 60% of churches in England are open during the day. Nearly all don’t require people to be there to keep watch (and those that attempt this either end up having them locked again, or just leave them open – watchers just get very bored because of the low visitor numbers). Fanatics or hooligans don’t really exist in anything other than an urban setting. In fact, it’s more a case of children getting up to no good (which is why some churches lock during school holidays). However, churches suffer more from vandalism and theft by being locked, and what’s worse, sometimes these problems go unnoticed for days because a building is only visited each Sunday.

    The big problem (which the CofE, EH and others have refused to address properly) is what to do with churches when congregations reduce to single figures – many of whom are elderly. There are far too many churches and not enough people to look after them. In the north-west (and elsewhere) there’s also a problem finding clergy. The current policy is to avoid redundancy (as of late they even euphemistically call them “closed churches” rather than “redundant churches” – as though some of these dead places will somehow magically re-open!) The benefice system has become unwieldy in the extreme in certain places such as Lincolnshire and Norfolk. 15 churches, 20 churches in a team? When will it end?

    For the most part the problem is intractable. I’ve talked with thousands of churchwardens and others. There are no simple solutions. The church commissioners try to keep redundancies to a minimum, but this is just storing up the problem, not solving it. You can throw all the money you want at this, but it comes down to a simple lack of people – people to do all those unpaid jobs like cutting churchyard grass, keeping gutters clear, cleaning the building interior, and scores of other small jobs. Without that the buildings are dead in the water.

    I think we live in a golden age – unprecedented access to these buildings, transportation that gets us quickly to even the most remote churches, high quality information on them, and above all, small bands of ageing custodians who keep these buildings alive. But that age is passing. Unless there is some miracle, I don’t see a bright future for many churches. Some will become multi-purpose community centres. Many will fall by the wayside.

    I’d like to be wrong, but I don’t think I am. The probable demise of many of these buildings is now my number one reason for striving to finish my detailed photographic documentation of them.

    1. Aadil

      Thanks for your reply, C B Newham. Very sad that some places that are really so beautiful to see and which need a lot of care and conservation to prevent it from decay and falling apart and if they are not visited by people regularly then they would disintegrate further due to lack of proper care. Only wish things would improve in the future and more young people take an active interest in these lovely buildings and artworks with wonderful architecture. Only wish the best for their future.


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