How do we make our churches more sustainable?

In an age of growing secularism and declining faith, what is the future for our church buildings and how do we make them more relevant and more resilient so that they may continue to have a role for future generations? This is not the place to discuss the future of the Church of England or other denominations: suffice it to note that there are still many vibrant churches and many with growing congregations. The Church of England’s early successes with its ‘Resource churches’ shows what can be done.

For those churches with declining or static congregations, which certainly includes the majority of rural churches outside the south east of England, for which maintenance of an historic church fabric may become a growing burden, part of the answer has to be community use. Churches simply must reach out to their communities if they are to make themselves relevant and secure their future. There are in most parishes people who have affection for their historic church even if they do not want to worship there and will be willing to contribute – both in terms of effort and money – to keeping it going. The Friends extended their grant scheme in recent years to cover the installation of facilities in order to encourage community use.

Another part of the answer is to ensure that the routine of low level but essential maintenance to the building is kept up so that minor problems do not become major ones which may put the future both of the congregation and the building at risk. This is especially important now that state funding for the repair of churches has more or less disappeared and the amount of money available for repairs from the Lottery Heritage Fund is much reduced, so that major repair projects are increasingly difficult to finance.

Small congregations of predominantly elderly people often struggle with these issues and if the priest is responsible for several parishes, he or she may not have much time to invest in community outreach or looking after the building. Some dioceses have responded to these needs by appointing staff whose task is to help needy parishes improve their sustainability, to give advice and spread best practice on how to open the church up to the community, how to  maintain it and where to get grants and how to apply in a way which maximises the chances of success.

The Government, too, is alive to these problems and set up several years ago the Taylor review to look at how to make listed places of worship more sustainable. Following up the recommendations of that review, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport established two pilot schemes, in the dioceses of Manchester and St Edmundsbury, to test some of the ideas which Taylor had put forward; amongst other things the schemes provided money for a new post in each diocese to provide parishes with advice and set up a maintenance/minor repairs fund on which parishes could draw. The Department has just published some interesting interim findings from the pilots. Parishes reported that the grants from the Minor Repair Fund and professional advice which came with them had meant that they brought forward maintenance and repair works that otherwise would not have happened until much later, or would not have happened at all. The reasons given for this were that:

  1. the grant allowed more work to be undertaken in one go which would not otherwise have been possible because of financial constraints;
  2. the advice available enabled a more systematic approach to be used to identifying necessary maintenance and minor repairs which might otherwise have been done piecemeal over a longer period, storing up trouble for the future;
  3. there was more focus on the need for maintenance rather than major projects which would in current circumstances be difficult to fund and might consume much effort without ever happening.

Jo Elders will be discussing some of these issues in his autumn lecture to the Friends on 14 October.