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.
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.
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.
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.
It’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.
DO open the church
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”
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
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
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.
DO let everyone feel welcome
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
However, 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
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
Some 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.
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.