I was brought up in a churchgoing family. When my parents got married in 1942 the local newspaper reported that “Two church people wed.” They stayed that way for the rest of their lives and brought their children up to do the same. I believe my mother may have even had something of a vocation but of course in her lifetime it was not possible to fulfil that. My sister and I both lost interest in our teens and only go to church on special occasions. My brother however also felt he had a vocation and in his case he fulfilled it, and he has spent most of his working life as a vicar. He met and married his wife through their training in church matters and she also became a vicar. Most of the time they have managed to find parishes close to each other and have lived in whichever parish offered the best vicarage. However, in the recent past both of them have been made redundant by the Church of England authorities and while both have been able to find new roles, they are in a much worse location than before.
What has happened to my brother and sister-in-law has happened to a great many Church of England vicars over the past few years. It is obvious to everyone that church attendance has been in decline for a long time. However, the way the authorities are dealing with this is perverse and it's compounding the problem rather than addressing it. Many experienced Church of England priests have gone on the record to this effect, but many are afraid to speak out for fear of losing their jobs. Those brave enough to do so include the Reverend Marcus Walker, Rector at Saint Bartholomew the Great in the City of London which is the oldest church in the City. It recently celebrated its 900th anniversary. Reverend Walker is a member of the General Synod, the Church of England’s legislative body and chair of the campaign group, Save the Parish. He has warned “the death knell is ringing for the church we love and serve.”
He added “in short this is driven decline. A doom loop. Until the Church of England, at a national level, decides to redirect its money and its manpower towards frontline parish ministry, churches will close, clergy well-being will collapse, and the laity will walk.”
Analysis of the most recently available Church of England statistics shows that between 2016 and 2021, 278 individual parishes disappeared and were either reorganised or merged as the total dropped from 12,510 to 12,232. This works out as an average of 56 fewer parishes every year and marks the fastest rate of parish closures in 70 years. In 1960 there were 14,491 parishes, in 1987 13,287 and in 1991 there were 13,099. Between 2000 and 2006 the average number of parishes dropped by 41 a year; between 2006 and 2011 by 55 a year.
Save the Parish Cornwall, a local branch of the national campaigning body, compiled a dossier detailing concerns of clergy and congregants regarding the reorganisation scheme in the diocese of Truro, called “On The Way “which aims to merge parishes. The campaigners claimed that the scheme “is forcing dozens of parishes together into giant benefices and starving them of regular priests” and that although their dossier relates specifically to the Diocese of Truro, it reveals “a pattern of change that is spreading nationwide “and acts as a “blueprint” for what is to come across the nation.
Reverend Walker says that “This policy means for the laity there will be absolutely zero chance of having communion each week, or hearing a sermon preached by someone with theological education. What are the chances of finding a priest to bury your father, marry your daughter, prepare you for confirmation or chat with you as your marriage goes through a difficult patch? The church has essentially withdrawn all services from you. For the clergy, it destroys the joy of being a priest. Getting embedded in the community; christening the grandchild of a man you buried the month before, being there at the highs and the lows and everything in between of people in the community the vicar that I am a part of.”
Reverend Walker goes on to say “but is this a consequence, not a cause, of failure? I'm afraid the opposite is the case. The Church of England has been ordaining more priests than have been retiring for over a decade. We don't have a shortage, we have a deployment problem, where 980 priests (well over 10%) are serving in roles in diocesan and national HQs.
“We don't actually have a money problem. The church commissioners are the custodians of the endowments which is supposed to be spent for, almost exclusively, on parish ministry - £10.2 billion of endowments. In the last decade, the church has torn up this commitment from the past to the future in order to defund actual parish ministry and invest eye watering sums in fancy new schemes.”
For someone like me who is no longer a regular churchgoer does this really matter? At a personal level probably not but at a wider social level very much so. My brother and my sister-in-law are effectively social workers who offer not only pastoral care but other forms of support to all their parishioners whether or not they're churchgoers, whether or not they go to other churches of different denomination or even mosques or synagogues. The Church of England is a national institution. Each parish priest has a duty of care to all people who live within their parish. That is a matter of British law. It is not just some solemn oath that they have made in their church. It means that anyone who needs some help or support, or pastoral care can ask for it and it will be offered. It means anyone who wants to get married in the local Church of England can do so whether or not they are regular churchgoers. It means when they have a child and they want to have it christened in that church they can do so whether or not they're regular churchgoers.
My own daughter got married in our local C of E church and my brother conducted the ceremony. She has never been a regular churchgoer and her husband is of Catholic background. When they had their first child he was christened in the same church and again my brother conducted the ceremony followed by a wonderful reception in our home. In terms of attendance the Church of England is only likely to decline. However, as an institution it can be managed much better for the longer term. It has the people and the resources, but they are being badly managed.
And what about the buildings? Church of England churches are among the most beautiful buildings in the country. One of my favourite books is “England’s Thousand Best Churches
by the well-known journalist and writer Simon Jenkins. It was first published in 1999 and that Christmas I bought it as a present for my father. After he died my sister found it among his effects and seeing my inscription returned it to me. My wife and I had wished him hours of pleasure and I certainly got those myself.
England’s wonderful churches should not just be sold to be converted into commercial buildings which is what is happening. They should be maintained as churches but adapted as buildings of social purpose. Some will need investment in kitchens and lavatories but as a community asset they could be of great service. There is no limit in the imagination to what could be achieved in these wonderful buildings which are always in key central locations.