Bishop John Arnold
There has been an uninterrupted programme for the building of churches in the British Isles, over many centuries. As populations have continued to grow, and faith has been more socially embedded, there has been a need for more buildings as places of worship and witness. This has, in turn, been accelerated by the diversity in the different Christian churches; Catholic, Anglican, Free Church, Methodists, Baptists and more.
I arrived as Bishop of Salford, in December 2014, at a rather particular moment of diocesan development. This is a Diocese about which I had previously known nothing. I arrived to find that the Diocese was entering a new chapter. For a full century and more, there had been an enormous influx of migrant workers, particularly from Ireland, as the area continued its rapid industrial development, with the opening of mines, cotton mills and factories.
There had always been a significant population of recusant Catholics, but this number was greatly increased by thenewcomers. Ireland also provided large numbers of priests because vocations to the priesthood greatly exceeded theneeds of the Irish Church. The existent Parishes were quickly sub-d ivided, and many new churches built. In 1930, there were 146 parishes.
The last fifty years has seen a reverse in this development and a decline in the church-going population and the reduction in the number of priests available for pastoral ministry. By 1980, it was already becoming clear that the Diocese had simply too many churches for the Catholic population. It was time to re-think the structure of the Diocese. A certain reduction in the number of churches had already taken place before my arrival but there was need for consultation and planning.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought further considerations to light. Technology has been employed on a large scale to provide live streaming of liturgies available to anyone, anywhere, who has access to the internet. For one simple example, the Easter Triduum in 2020 was live streamed from St John's Cathedral, Salford, and people in over 100 countries viewed the liturgies.
Many parish priests have reported that more people have been virtually present by live-streaming, than would have been physically present in the church in normal circumstances. The question arises as to how many people have returned to churches now that restrictions on capacity are ended?
Any church is a spiritual landmark, a witness to the Faith of the people who gather there. The landmarks within the cities and throughout the countryside were often the church towers and steeples until the arrival of skyscrapers which now dwarf the city skyline. The churches and their ancillary buildings were not only places of worship but also centres of community life, often providing centres for youth activities and services for charitable outreach to the local community.
How important is a church? While it is certainly true that we can pray anywhere, at any time, there is an importance about that physical gathering together, sharing our prayer and liturgy in community. For Catholics, the Eucharist remains central to our sense of belonging to the One Body, who is Christ. While spiritual communion" has purpose and value, it does not substitute the reception of the Eucharist in the celebration of Mass together. A church provides an important place for the presence of a community that gathers together to celebrate, renew, and nourish its mission.
It was important that we devised a plan for the whole of the Diocese so that all areas were to be served by the accessibility of churches and the ministry of priests. We are fortunate in that the Diocese of Salford is geographically relatively small, but it is divided into urban, suburban and rural areas. It was important that no-one should feel isolated from a church.
There were the added complications that some churches are listed, while other well-maintained churches are too close to other churches or are now in areas of much-reduced population. There were difficult decisions to be made and our reasoning had to be made available and carefully explained to those affected.
While a church may be a central feature in a community, and an enduring sign and witness to faith, a redundant church can easily become a countersign, when it is allowed to decay and is left vulnerable to vandals and thieves. When a church ceases its liturgical life, there would seem to be three possible options.
Centres of social outreach
The most preferred option would be for it to become a centre of social outreach, meeting a need of that community. If seen to be continuing under Church administration, the church building can still be a powerful witness to the application of gospel values, as when it is used as a foodbank, a day centre offering advice, training and learning facilities, or even a night shelter for the homeless.
A second option is the leasing or sale of the building to a charitable organisation which allows it to remain a witness for good works even if no longer overseen by the Diocese. In such a case it is important that the sale or lease includes restrictive covenants on the building's use. People who for years might have known the building as the place for their baptisms or weddings or where the funeral of family members and friends have taken place, might be offended by its conversion to so-called profane use, such as a gymnasium, restaurant, or nightclub.
The third option is the demolition of the church building. This is always a sadness and understandable regret felt by many people who have had associations with the place, often over several generations. But it is an option that must be available.
Costs of repair
Buildings, particularly those with extensive histories, can be very expensive in their upkeep and maintenance and repair. Where there is no viable community, the cost of repair cannot be met. Demolition is preferable to dereliction and decay. I certainly dislike the thought of demolishing a church, but it is an action that must be applied in some cases. Even in such a case, care can be taken to ensure that the land is used for a good purpose, such as social housing or education.
I am left with an important principle. Jesus never established any building as a place of worship. Nor did he define the development and building of the future Church in terms of buildings. His mission was constantly in travelling and meeting people on the road, in their homes, in open spaces. Church buildings are certainly important for us, especially for the witness they give to the faith of a community. They are important as places for gathering for prayer and sacrament and catechesis and for social outreach to the poor, the marginalised.
I hope that as many churches as possible can remain open and fulfilling their primary purpose. But we should acknowledge that, though important and loved, they are not essential to the practice and mission of our faith. Sentimental attraction is understandable and has value, but it cannot override the fundamental mission of the Church.
The Right Reverend John Arnold is the eleventh Roman Catholic Bishop of Salford. He was formerly an auxiliary bishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Westminster and held the titular see of Lindisfarne.