Alexander Stafford MP

 

In the wake of the devastating coronavirus pandemic, Britain’s magnificent churches proved their worth as food for the soul in these uncertain modern times. The social, economic, historical, cultural, architectural, and spiritual worth of our 39,800 churches is self-evident. Yet now more than ever, they are facing a grave struggle to ensure their survival.

As a Roman Catholic and as a historian, I have spent much of my life sitting at a pew gazing up at various consecrated interiors: at the hammerbeam roof of my Benedictine school’s abbey, at the stained-glass windows of my university chapel, and most importantly at the hanging crucifix in my local parish church. Whenever I travel, I find myself seeking out chapels, churches, abbeys, cathedrals, and basilicas of all shapes and sizes – it is an enduring interest of mine.

A reassuring constant in an ever-changing world

My abiding love for churches is born of the very same reasons that keep them relevant to life in Britain today. They are the bedrock of our society; past, present, and future. They are a living, breathing record of who we are as a people and where we have come from, spanning across the ages and connecting us with our ancestors and our descendants to come. They have borne witness to all the great events in our country’s history; our triumphs, our tragedies, and foundational moments which altered the path of this nation. They also serve as a reassuring constant in an ever-changing world.

After all, there is nowhere quite like a church. It can be a place of solitude and quiet reflection from the hustle and bustle of the outside world; a source of solace and comfort as an antidote to grief; a refuge and provider of support in times of hardship; a hive of community and companionship in situations of common purpose; and a haven of tranquillity and peace for those seeking God.

In my mind, the value of our churches simply cannot be overstated. There is, of course, the spiritual nourishment that flows from Christian worship in a church – increasingly important in an irreligious age. However, churches offer something to everyone, believer and non-believer alike, with the positive impact on individuals and on society immeasurable. Our churches are an inclusive, multi-generational space, welcoming the young, the old, the disabled, the weak, and the vulnerable equally. They are located at the hearts of our communities and are there for the people who want and need them. These versatile buildings can be used for various activities, ranging from music and the arts to youth groups and food banks. This utility not only brings countless economic benefits but also shows the wisdom of partially repurposing these awe-inspiring buildings so that we can simultaneously preserve them for their original use. If we are not flexible and creative regarding the future of our churches, in many cases they will wither and die.

The architectural value and geographical spread of our churches is truly something to behold. They run the gamut from the Saxon and Norman period to the Tudor, Victorian, and modern age, ranging in type and size from the smallest chapels to the mightiest cathedrals. We have inner city concrete megachurches and City of London ancient chancels, but we also have idyllic, bucolic English country spires and windswept island outposts. Cities, towns, villages, and the countryside are all represented. The architectural and touristic draw is understandably magnetic, resulting in a clear economic gain.

Our churches stand testament to Britain’s Christian history and heritage

Culturally, our churches are a microcosm of our society, reflecting the denominational diversity of Christian worship and belief across our United Kingdom. From the Methodism of the coal mining regions of South Yorkshire and Wales and the Anglicanism of the shires, to the Presbyterianism of Scotland and Northern Ireland, our churches stand testament to Britain’s Christian history and heritage. This has been augmented by the different groups which have made Britain their home, with Protestantism, including Baptists and Pentecostalists, strengthened by Commonwealth immigration from Africa and the West Indies, and Roman Catholicism experiencing explosive growth from successive waves of Irish, Italian, and Polish arrivals who supplemented the existing English recusants.

In many senses, in addition to being a witness to our past, our churches are our modern United Kingdom.

It is natural to ask what the future holds for our British churches at a time when they are feeling the squeeze like never before. If we allow these spaces to disappear, they will never return and we shall regret it deeply. We must not and we will not allow this to happen. We know that the need amongst the younger generation for the services provided by our churches has not gone away – the huge focus on mindfulness and self-care is evidence enough. We must harness this desire by positioning our churches as places which can cater for these needs well into the future. Churches do still matter as they always have done, and they will continue to be beacons of hope for community cohesion, belief, and heritage for many hundreds of years to come.

Alexander Stafford is the Conservative MP for Rother Valley. His election in December 2019 marked the first time the seat had been won by a non-Labour   since the constituency’s creation in 1918. In Parliament, he champions the green recovery, having previously worked for WWF and Shell. As a member of the Committee, chair of the ESG APPG, vice-chair of the Hydrogen APPG, and vice-chair of the Critical Minerals APPG, he is a leading voice for the role of hydrogen, green finance, ESG, and critical minerals in Britain’s drive to reach net zero and to level up communities across the country. Alexander also has a deep policy interest infreedom of religion and belief and in Christianity at home and abroad.

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