How to defuse the parish church crisis

England’s medieval parish churches are a unique asset and a ticking timebomb. However, they are a Doomsday Device with no digital display. People thought it would blow thirty years ago. But here it is, in 2017, still ticking.

Consecration Of Rachel Treweek As The Next Bishop Of Gloucester
“So glad you can join us in the Silly Hat Club, Sarah”

The maintenance of many churches spread over our green and often-pleasant land is becoming unsustainable, and the architecture and art inside is at risk. Money needs to spent on them. But where should the money come from? People often labour under the impression that the Church of England is very wealthy, indeed greedy, in that they own billions in land, only the squander it on silly hats. However, despite the size of their assets being indeed large, as much of it is indeed these rural parish churches, they can’t be monetised.

Holy Trinity, Blythburgh (Suffolk), tower c.1330, new church begun 1412-

Church buildings used to be entirely funded by wealth generated by their parishioners. The villagers were responsible for the upkeep of the nave, and they also paid tithes to their parish priest, which would provide his livelihood and maintenance of the east end of the building, the chancel. In reality, rich donors such as the lord of the manor were the fiscal means for the building programmes we see today. Since the abolition of tithes in the 1930s, parish priests are directly waged by the Church of England. The parochial church council is the guardian of the church building, and is required to pay a “parish share” to the diocese for the running of the Church of England. Even bolstered by its other investments, after clergy wages, pensions, administrative work, etc., the CofE can only keep ticking over by a whisker. It cannot afford to maintain ancient buildings by itself – especially when historically, it never did. Very often it is still private donations from individuals that solves maintenance problems.

So you want to be a vicar
“So You Want to Be a Vicar”, pinched from the pages of Viz comic (more specifically the pen of the frequently hilarious Simon Ecob)

But for less fortunate churches that aren’t in wealthy Cotswolds villages: who should pay? A small number of parish churches have become redundant for parochial worship and subsequently vested in the Churches Conservation Trust (founded 1969 as the Redundant Churches Fund). The CCT was founded by the church commissioners and receives state funding at its core, but government commitment to it has been reduced since 2010, making it ever-more dependent on voluntary donations. Most churches, however, can only raise money through applications to bodies such as the Heritage Lottery Fund and National Churches Trust, which require tenacity and dedication from the parish church council.

As a card-carrying lefty, rather than hoping Andrew Lloyd Webber will take care of it, I believe that (as suggested by Paul Binski in his closing remarks to our parish church conference at The Courtauld Institute of Art in June 2017) the benevolent hand of the state should preserve our artistic heritage which is culturally, aesthetically and historically significant, including all listed churches. One day, it would be ideal to have a branch of government which actively provides maintenance for our built heritage. Indeed, it would have been a better use of money than having the civil servants of Whitehall dedicated to perusing the folly of an exit from the European Union in seeming hopeless perpetuity.

P1020219.jpgIt’s not that it would take that much money. Certainly less than what that other dilapidated clockless timebomb, the Conservative Party, spent on propping themselves up with the DUP in Northern Ireland. It’s just very hard to justify, especially since, the sort of people who might support the radical collectivisation of cultural assets for the public good are not the sort of people who tend to go into churches. Just have a look at these comments, that I can only assume were all written by sandal-wearing school teachers in between their bites of muesli. You will find opposition to any notion of organised religion (mostly fuelled by the nadir of Christianity that is the supreme intolerance of the American religious right), the perceived wealth of the Church of England, but very often a complete ignorance to what churches are actually like to visit. Many of these people will have been to an art gallery recently, or an English Heritage property, but will have never been in a church except for weddings.

Before we can justify putting public money into churches, we need to get these sort of people into the idea of church tourism, the churches are friendly places and the Church of England is our most valuable cultural asset. Here’s my entirely personal perspective on what some churches do that are good, and some that are bad and are close to cutting the red wire that’ll blow this joint to kingdom come.

Get down!

DO open the church

“Come in and Pray” oh wait

Well, this is the first step, really, isn’t it? Some parts of the country, every church around will be kept open. In many villages it actually makes life easier having it open: people in the village can complete errands without an unsecure number of copies of the key floating around. The churchwarden only locks it up after checking on it at dusk.

Some parts of the country – and in these regions it’s not really connected to it being a hamlet or urbanised market town – churches are only unlocked for services, with the keys held by the churchwardens and priest-in-charge. If the church really does need to be kept locked (because it does suffer from repeated thefts or vandalism while open, or it’s so remote it’s hard to keep an eye on) the key should be accessible – e.g., it is available at reasonable times, and the street address – especially if it’s a named house – is clear. Anyone other than diehards aren’t going to make the effort. Nothing more than the churchwarden’s name and a phone number without the area code, and even I’m not going to bother.

DON’T be adamant that the church is “not a museum”

St Denys’ Church, Rotherfield (Sussex): late 13thc and early 15thc wall paintings.

It seems bizarre that churches often stubbornly separately themselves from art galleries and museums, as if all the beautiful, old, interesting things they own are a distraction which ought to be ignored. People go to art galleries to contemplate, relax, not unlike why people visit churches.

The important thing is that people know how to behave in art galleries, but they can be scared of churches. But people don’t shout in the National Gallery, they don’t eat crisps in the British Museum, and they don’t rollerblade around the Serpentine Gallery, so it’s actually a pretty good behavioural template for them to go in a church with. It’s not one that will distance them from a worshipper, instead it’s probably the closest you can get them to one.

DO be permissive with photography

No photo!

Similarly, as art galleries now have almost entirely given up on controlling photography, be endlessly positive about people taking pictures. It’s actually a more productive exercise than it ever used to be: even ordinary people’s holiday snaps can be seen by hundreds of people on Instagram, unlike when you could only bore your neighbours or immediate family with them.

Embrace this chance to spread images of your building across the public perception. Only confront people if they are being disruptive, like using a flash or having a loud fake-shutter noise. Otherwise, why not let people take pictures of the liturgy? Don’t you want a record of what goes on in buildings too?

DON’T cast off that vast moth-eaten brocade of tradition

St John Tue Brook, Liverpool, by G.F. Bodley, 1867-70.

Now, some churches look to the funky-groovy church Evangelical church-plants with jealously, and the hundreds of people they get packed in on Sunday prayer meetings for a happy-clappy sing-a-long. But the reality is that these only tend to work in established urban Bible Belts. Most people don’t want to hear Shine Jesus Shine, they want to hear a hymn that doesn’t sound like it’s trying to be cool. They come into a church to experience its beauty and history.

While you might keep people comfy for the short term with your plush carpets and blue-cushioned stackable chairs, if you make a church interior just like every other bland meeting-room interior people come across in their drab lives, you’re going to lose the transcendent atmosphere that makes a church uniqe. And then what will you have? Oh, a sad smelly sofa with croissant crumbs between the cushions.P2170078.jpg

DO let everyone feel welcome

Spot the dog

People should not feel like they are unwelcome if they haven’t been to Church the Sunday before. Or ever, in fact. They shouldn’t feel unwelcome if they’re wearing nothing on their shoulders, a Deicide T-shirt or even if they’re an adult man in shorts ending above the knee (*shudder*). People should feel happy they’ve been in a church, not leaving it guiltily as if they’ve sullied it with their presence. Who knows, it might be the beginning of a new fascination.

DON’T hide the donation box

P2140819However, you should also not be embarrassed to prominently display a request for donations: again, something museums and galleries do. Partly this is so people who are prepared to give actually can find the place where you can put the money, but also to remind people that nothing comes without a cost. Do the old “this building costs this much to run”, but also do a typical breakdown of expenditure from your yearly budget.

If someone happens not to pay, don’t be cross: they may have no change on them, they might have slipped a fiver in and you wouldn’t have heard it, or indeed they might not have a penny to their name. However, chances are they’ve bought a cup of tea that cost over a quid in their life, and they probably could easily spare a wee pund for you.

Also, a secure place to the put the money, please! It’s off-putting to think that said wee pund could be swiped by a thoughtless ne’er-do-well. Even if it’s only a Poundland padlock, it’s important to have something both as a deterrent and a comfort.

DO listen to your visitors

All Saints North Street, York: The Pricke of Conscience window, early 15thc.

And yes, this is a sticky point. And us art historians need to do it a lot more too. But it’s yet another thing that the public galleries have started to do that churches could learn from. Custodians of churches occasionally seem to pose as if they are custodians of all knowledge related to the building. But no church is an island: the experience of others – especially an “outsider” – can greatly lend to interpretation of an object. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, after all.

DON’T feel the need to give a guided tour

P1600235.jpgSome people are there for the memorials. Some people are there for the Victorian stained glass. Some are here because it’s where their parents married. Not all of them are interested in the herringbone masonry in the south transept. And some of them are REALLY interested in the herringbone masonry in the south transept, in fact they wrote their whole PhD on the herringbone masonry in the south transept. Make information available, but make it available at all levels, and never try and have the label out-do the object. Let people have their own personal experience in a building. It will ultimately mean more to them than looking at a few info boards.

DO love nature

One of the reasons English parish churches are so varied and fascinating is that they are deeply connected to the equally varied landscape of the British Isles. Nearly all village churches are built of stone from local quarries: be it Red Sandstone, Ironstone, Granite or, where there is no stone, bits of pebbles bedded in mortar. A church building is the bedrock exhumed and reanimated by human hands.P2000523.jpg

But nature also poses a problem. Insects can infest woodwork. Bats in the belfry can excrete all over your furniture and fittings. Play the All Things Bright and Beautiful approach: work with local wildlife groups, have part of the graveyard overgrown to encourage biodiversity, tempt the bats away with cosier bat boxes.

DO visit other churches!

There is no single church which is the model for others to follow when it comes to being accessible. Learn from other churches, see what they do, and also what makes your church special in its own way: because rest assured, practically every church building is.


  1. I agree. I’d add that churches could often do more to get new visitors through the door by staging concerts, flower festivals, art displays, etc. A church near me (Hexton, Herts) has a regular farmers’ market. They could often do with a large welcoming sandwich board outside saying OPEN – WELCOME to make it clear to passers-by that casual visitors are allowed in; lots of people feel, I think, that churches are some sort of private club, and that they’ll be treated with suspicion if they look in. (Sadly, in a few churches, this is true.)

    It also seems daft to me (a non-believer) that many towns and villages have several places of Christian worship as well as the parish church (Methodist, Baptist, etc), all of them probably struggling to keep up their congregations. Why not sell off the non-conformist chapels (which I know happens quite often anyway, and is sad, but, if it’s a choice between preserving a beautiful medieval building and an architecturally insignificant structure, I know which I’ll choose) and come to an arrangement that the other denominations can use the parish church for their services? Easier said than done, I know, but congregations have got to be brave and radical if church buildings are going to survive.

    • Much Hadham church in Hertfordshire has a Catholic congregation. I think it does make a lot of sense, but there’s a lot of division in the One Holy Catholic Apostolic Church that makes it pretty unlikely you’ll get Anglicans, URC, Methodists, Baptists and Romans all huddling together in the ancient parish church.

      • Which, as I say, seems daft to me. Don’t they believe about 90% the same things, and isn’t loving your neighbour high on the list of things they all supposedly believe? Collaborating together would send a strong message. And they wouldn’t have to all huddle up together, but could have services spread throughout the day (or week). But I suppose they’d rather let their congregations and places of worship die out rather than compromise a tiny bit. As Trump would say – sad.

  2. I enjoyed reading your very informative post until you became political, criticising Brexit and the Conservative party. So I stopped reading.
    52% of the UK electorate voted to leave the fascist unelected former trading area.

    • It was merely a point about money and that parish church maintainence is a drop in the ocean compared to most spending.
      If you will stop reading anything that has the merest criticism of your personal beliefs, then please at least read my points about listening to people, and making everyone feel welcome.
      I believe that debate and shifts of leadership are the way that a good society can be acheived. Hence why I approve your post rather than just ignore it like all the people furious that I said Selby was in West Yorkshire when it’s actually in the West Riding of Yorkshire.

      I can be wrong.
      You can be wrong (e.g. besides your use of “fascist” being far more inflammatory than anything I said about the Tories, it wasn’t 52% of the electorate. Electorate means everyone eligible to vote. Turnout was not 100%).

  3. On the question of door unlocking and so forth, one rural church that we visited during training had an automated door system set on a timer. So it would unlock the door about 8am and lock it about 6pm (or what ever time was set), with a push button if you where stuck in the building. This meant the church in question could open their building daily for the community without needing a person to unlock every day and the need for multiple keys.

    • I’ve written another post explicitly about church-locking in the churchcrawling category, and this one focused on other aspects. Of course, I just love to find a parish church open. But the reason you lock up a church at night isn’t really to stop people getting in – it’s the giving it a quick check and closing up.

      The CCT use time-locks and their churches have some of the worst thefts. Some churches simply are not locked at night. However, if more people visited these remote churches, then that would serve as security and a deterrent.

      Then of course you open up a can of worms that by publicising these things you put them at greater risk, but let’s cross that bridge when we come to it?

  4. Thank you for this post. The publication of the Taylor Review seems to have occasioned very little public comment. This is a pity, because its recommendations could have significant implications for most church buildings in England.

    The Review places a considerable and worthwhile emphasis on the need to encourage parallel uses. However, it is not clear how all of the proposals detailed in the Review will reduce diocesan costs or the administrative burden borne by hard-pressed PCCs. Nor – as you note – is it evident how such parallel uses might be found in those large tracts of England where churches are located at some distance from any critical mass of housing. Bad news for Cornwall, Devon, Kent, etc. Nor does it account for those many thousands of parishes who have perfectly adequate village halls, rendering church buildings truly redundant once the congregations expire.

    On page 11 the Review notes the difficulties confronting many churches, but on page 23 this signal truth is laid bare: ‘In some situations it will not be possible to identify viable partners or alternative models of management and the building will be closed…in the majority of situations [vesting in the Churches Conservation Trust] will not be possible’. Note to exhausted PCCs and ageing congregations: in the final analysis, you are on your own, and your ‘much loved church’ will probably end up as residential units or be allowed to fade into disrepair or even ruin (as has occurred, scandalously, at places like Berners Roding, Stratfield Turgis, St Mary the Less in Thetford, etc.).

    I have attended services at nearly 4,000 churches over the last decade or so; although not all of these were necessarily representative of the demographic health of any particular parish, I would guesstimate that about 95% of congregations will become extinct over the next generation, and many of them rather sooner than that. Despite some occasional local successes, Renewal and Reform is set to be almost as successful as the Decade of Evangelism (that is, an abject failure). This being so, the situation is far more urgent than the Review seems to allow, and its sensible proposals would have been perfectly useful had they been published in 1977 or 1987. Pages 63 to 67 summarize how some European countries protect their churches, which underscores how feeble, cynical and opportunistic by comparison are the makeshift and ad hoc solutions prevailing in the UK. Like you, I have come to the painful conclusion that the only credible way the Church might be able to sustain a presence in each community (and thus justify its status as a national institution) is for the entire stock established prior to c.1830 to be vested in central government, and for the Commissioners to transfer a significant portion of their capital to the state as a suitable douceur and repairing fund: in other words, a variant of the French solution. However, as the Church will never countenance this, it will perforce lose its presence in most of the country. I think that the Church should therefore lose about a third of its endowment.

    The Church Times report on the Review (21 December) notes that churches should ready themselves for a decline in state support. It is therefore difficult to resist the conclusion that the Review was commissioned by the Osborne Treasury to provide intellectual cover for just such a shift in policy. I hope that I am misinformed. In view of the advancing demographic cataclysm I had anticipated a raft of correspondingly radical proposals; sadly, after a 20 month wait this pretty trite but very ‘safe’ Review puts me somewhat in mind of Horace (adapting Aesop):

    Quid dignum tanto feret hic promissor hiatu?
    Parturient montes, nascetur ridiculus mus. (Ars Poetica, 138-9).

    A massive opportunity missed, therefore – and one that allows the Church authorities to continue with their current policy of cutting here and there until there is little or nothing left. The Church deserves to be stripped of its ‘heritage’ because with the demographic collapse and its insistence on prioritising mission at the expense of its posterity (mission that WILL fail except in a few places), it can no longer be trusted with these assets which are a local and national benefit.

    The other massive lacuna in the Taylor Review is its failure to deal with Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, where the situation is, if anything, worse.

  5. Many thanks for this: that is a useful link. However, my impression of the Church authorities is that levels of administrative inertia are such that nothing will ever be agreed to until it is too late. Church House (specifically the Pastoral and Closed Churches Division) has a vested interest in keeping the current regime going. The bishops will never admit that their agenda for renewal is a lost cause, until it is. In the meantime demographic collapse will be practically universal. The Taylor Review is probably about the most we can expect from a strategically incompetent and compromised Church by way of a contingency policy (and, of course, it is no contingency worthy of the name). Please note that my experience of the closure process is that when a building is closed, ostensibly on ‘pastoral’ grounds, it has little or nothing to do with pastoral need, and everything to do with finance.

    Local authorities, who are under critical financial pressure, will never agree to liability for church repairs; this would drag them into controversial waters, especially when the politics of race, faith and identity have become so highly charged. The great flaw of the French approach is that title to all but the great churches is vested in the communes (essentially the pre-revolutionary parishes), a great many of whom lack an adequate tax base to ensure reasonable levels of maintenance, and a number of whom are still quite viscerally anti-clerical (especially in the Nord, Paris and rural regions like Limousin).

    This means that central government (i.e., the DCMS as a pan-UK body) is the only credible party that could pick up the tab. Yet with budgetary constraints being what they are, no one is going to push for an agenda that effectively prefers one sect, not even with a prime minister whose father, in Oxfordshire, was incumbent of Enstone (large church, large parish, small elderly congregation – pews almost entirely removed), Wheatley (large village; small congregation) and Forest Hill (small village; tiny congregation with occasional messy services). The only way such a transfer politically plausible might be possible is if there is a sufficiently large transfer from the Church to make it worth DCMS’s while: hence my suggestion that the Commissioners should lose about a third of their capital, which would be ring-fenced by DCMS for upkeep. This would constitute a form of cash-for-access along 1905-Combes/Briand/Waldeck-Rousseau lines. This would not be enough to appease the secularists, so it might go hand in glove with something akin to the Church of Scotland Act 1921 (making the Church of England a ‘national’ rather than established church). The Church authorities would smart at the loss of so much capital, but the quid pro quo is that they would get universal free access in perpetuity and they could not then argue that the energies of incumbents are diffused by the strains of providing for the upkeep of buildings. Also, they would need to understand that a significant proportion of that capital has accrued as a consequence of: (i) the Commissioners having mopped up the property of the capitular bodies in the nineteenth century (the Ecclesiastical Commissioners Act 1840); and (ii) the Commissioners having stopped making accruals to the clergy pension scheme after 1998 (the Pensions Measure 1997), thus forcing dioceses (responsible for all post-1998 accruals in a period of nil-compounding) to devour their local assets, which the DBFs appropriated under the Glebe and Endowments Measure 1976.

    The question is which churches should be vested in DCMS and which should not. I would go for everything extant (even if subsequently rebuilt) prior to 1830, because everything extant prior to that date covers the medieval legacy plus the parliamentary churches commissioned under Anne and Spencer Perceval (basically everything that is left itemised in the Phillimore Atlas and Index of Parish Registers, ed. Cecil Humphery-Smith, 2010 which, alas, does not cover Ireland): these having a deep historical presence in local communities, PLUS those Grade I and II* buildings erected after 1830 selected by DCMS. In France everything constructed prior to 1905 was nationalised.

    One final point: one of the main reasons for church closures is useless and antipathetic or indifferent clergy (compare the recent fate of Water Newton in Huntingdonshire where an active local incumbent stepped in to save the day with nearby Ufford in the Soke of Peterborough which, he said, would never have closed if he had had anything to do with it). The proposals to double the number of ordinands when the current funding basis is the parish share is a recipe for mass closures, since the coming bow wave of new clergy will probably make little difference to the aggregate number of committed attendees and there will need to be a considerable uplift to parish shares at a time when the people funding those shares are disappearing or have disappeared. This, allied with the diocesan pension liability, will make it more likely that churches will die so that the clergy who have served them (often badly) might live.

    Conditions are so desperate, even in many urban areas (please don’t believe the hype about London) that almost no recommendation can be too controversial.

  6. As an American I can’t help but wonder how do other European countries finance the preservation of their architectural heritage? Could any of these models be applicable to the UK?

    • Well, other people can offer their opinion, but our ancient churches are practically all part of the Church of England, which is the official state religion of England.
      In France, the Catholic Church is disestablished and as far as I understand it, after the 1905 Separation of Church and State, all the Cathedrals are owned by the state and smaller churches by municipal authorities. There has very recently been some debate about whether they should charge:
      Of course in Germany, ancient churches can be Catholic, Lutheran, or whatever.
      Whether the disestablishing the Church of England would make a difference, I’m not sure. I’d like to do another post about the Church of England and what a wonderful but troublesome relic it is, so answers on a postcard please.

  7. What a marvelous post, James — it’s replete with great ideas. And quite simple ideas to implement (or at least try) as well! I hope your suggestions find their way to at least a handful of parish churches.

  8. Great post. Being an atheist I only go inside any church that makes me vaguely welcome to do so. But let’s remember that these buildings were actually supported and paid for by their historic patrons for the benefit of all of us (and that such benefactors were largely funded by the blood and sweat of the entire community). The sooner that the Church realises that tourism can provide a legitimate income for ‘their’ buildings the better

  9. Great post, and I’ve pinned it to several of my Pinterest accounts for the Diocese. However, with my “safeguarding” hat on, I do want to point out that allowing people to take pictures while wandering around the church, and allowing people to take pictures of the LITURGY are two different things. There may be children or vulnerable adults at the liturgy, who do not want their image and their whereabouts splashed onto social media. Visitors to the building should be encouraged to take photos – visitors to services should be reminded that posting any images of a person online without their consent could cause problems.

    • As far as I’m aware safeguarding guidelines (and they’re just that, and no laws have been passed) advise that pictures of children and vulnerable adults online is only a problem if they can be identified, through name badges, etc.
      Some churches (usually the cathedrals) are going seemingly overboard by forbidding photography if a child is even present in the same building as the photographer.
      I don’t want to end this by shifting the blame, but parents who repeatedly post pictures of their children on Facebook, with settings set to public, seems to show there seems to be more general education of safeguarding.

      I think it’s a really difficult thing, because if you tap someone on the shoulder because they’ve taken a picture of an elevation where a child happens to be in frame, and say they need to delete it, you’re really insinuating the possibility.

      I’m glad you mentioned this because I want to write a piece about unfair photography bans, and it does make me realise photography is not a basic human right, and both sides need to observe certain etiquette. Opinion welcome before I write it.

  10. Hello Dr James!
    I really appreciate your text and I had an opportunity for learning about history and about some ideas to help the Churches.
    I am a classical guitarist and I’ve been playing inside of Churches to help raising funds throught of concerts. This is a good way for both but has been hard work to meet the exactly person to plan this.
    Please, if you or someone know some Church that would like to do this, do not hesitate in contact me (
    So have a good new year!
    Best wishes!

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