Christopher Catling

 

I completely understand the arguments of many Christians that the maintenance and repair of historic buildings forms no part of their mission. Jesus did not command his followers to worry about raising the money to repair the gutters or pay for the heating.

On the contrary, he offered the disciples a minimalist and highly practical suggestion: 'where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them' (Matthew 18:20). Arguably, then, worshipping by Zoom in order to sell churches and use the proceeds to help the homeless, the hungry, the lonely and the sick is the best way of fulfilling the teachings of Christ.

Heritage professionals like me will object, of course: 'you have no right', we will say, 'to dispose of a building that was built and paid for by the community as a whole. It is wrong that one generation should make decisions that over-ride the love and care that has gone into cherishing these buildings over many generations'.

Churches are significant repositories of community history; they contain rare and precious objects; they are, in a very real sense, places where the past is kept alive at the heart of every community. They are also places of reflection and spiritual sustenance for many more people than those who attend Sunday worship.

'Fine', says the churchgoer. 'If that's your view, how about contributing to the cost?'

Arguments like these are no doubt familiar to readers of this collection of essays. How then do we move on from the stalemate of polarised arguments, pitting heritage values against ethical and theological ones, both sides being very aware of the prodigious annual cost of maintaining these historic buildings and equally aware that no government or lottery is going to open the coffers and provide the enough money to do so?

Independent congregations are merging

I have a number of suggestions. First, we have to accept that some degree of closure is inevitable. This is a Europe-wide phenomenon, but one that is especially acute in Wales because of the large number of late 19th and early 20th-century places of worship built by independent congregations, many of which are= now merging and selling off surplus buildings.

We can't save them all, but we can at least make a record of a very significant part of the lives of the people of Wales in an age when Sunday meant chapel not shopping. Make a record – that sounds simple enough – so why are we not just getting on with it?

That's because there is no central body to review and manage disposals and as few of these buildings are listed, there is no way of knowing in advance which buildings are most at risk. In Wales we depend for our intelligence on close contact with such conservation bodies as the Friends of Friendless Churches and on scouring estate agents' websites on a regular basis. Too often the first we know of a disposal is when we drive past a chapel and see the broken-up pulpit and pews being piled into a skip or the archives being heaped onto a bonfire.

In a perfect world we would have a comprehensive record of every place of worship, compiled long before closures started in earnest. During 2014-18, to mark the centenary of the First World War, many communities researched the lives of the people commemorated by village war memorials. Could we persuade the historians in every community to do the same for the places of worship in their midst?

How about a Wikipedia page for every place of worship? Not only would future historians benefit, it is also likely that if the good folk of every community were to record their buildings, contents, archives, memorials and so on, they would begin to engage intellectually and emotionally with these places of worship and be more willing to intervene to save them if disposal were to be proposed. Otherwise they are invisible and do not even have a digital footprint.

Valuing the role of the building

We must also encourage a dialogue between the worshipping community and those members of the wider community who are not religious but who value the role of the building and the institution. Too often there is no dialogue at all, but my experience shows that it is not very difficult to get people to engage, with a little effort.

For example, a church I know in Wiltshire built the necessary financial support to undertake vital repairs and re-ordering by opening the church for quiz nights, film shows, parties and concerts. They made the effort to reach out to the community and they did not put up barriers to access, saying in effect that all are welcome, not just people who subscribe to our beliefs.

Congregations wedded to the idea that the church or chapel is for no other purpose than the worship of God and who lock the doors for all but an hour or so on a Sunday are the ones most likely to close.

It is vital that all who are in charge of churches and chapels in Wales embrace community use and recognise that it can also be a form of mission (although that is not the primary purpose of opening the doors and nothing will deter visitors more than the thought that if they enter a place of worship, somebody will try to 'convert' them).

Faith tourism

That brings me to faith tourism. This is a field in which the National Churches Trust and the Churches Conservation Trust have made a considerable investment, and we will watch with interest to see whether projects such as Experiencing Sacred Wales help to produce an income stream. The project managers have been working with the travel trade to create bookable tours, offering people the chance to visit faith buildings with a knowledgeable tour guide, travelling by bike, on foot, on horseback and by kayak. I am hopeful that a more professional and co-ordinated approach to faith tourism and pilgrimage, also being pioneered by the British Pilgrimage Trust, will yield positive results.

We should not assume, however, that faith tourism is the saviour for all our religious buildings. Another way forward would be a project similar to the National Churches Trust's 'House of Good' research report to measure the social and economic benefits of faith tourism and how effective this might be in securing the future of our faith buildings. We all say that faith tourism has enormous potential (it is worth £14 billion globally) but we need to know more about what works and whether the effort involved delivers the right results.

These are just some ideas for mitigating the accelerating rate of church and chapel closure and for protecting that precious legacy= of buildings that form the quietly beating spiritual heart of every community. The alternative is to do nothing and see that legacy squandered in a generation.

Closure of places of worship also means that we lose a focus of community life, the place that serves for rites of passage – baptism, marriage, funerals and memorial services – and for national commemorations – Armistice, VE Day, Remembrance Day, not to mention festivals that may have pagan as well as Christian roots – Christmas and Easter, All Souls, Plough Sunday and Harvest Festival. We say goodbye to bells, flower festivals, choirs and musical recitals, a meeting space and a social place which guarantees some friendly company once a week.

Artistic, historical and architectural collections

Once a place of worship is sold, we no longer have access to the artistic, historical and architectural features of the building, nor to the social history inherent in the memorials, nor to the churchyard with its inscribed headstones and wildlife. We will no longer be able to dis cover and study the best collections of woodwork, sculpture, and stained glass to survive in Wales outside a museum.

The challenge now is to make sure that closure does not become the new post-Covid-19 normal, and I for one am determined to spend what remains of my life trying to ensure that it doesn't.

People like me who devote their lives to working in the heritage sector are motivated by the idea that there is a virtuous circle of conservation, which says that an initial connection with heritage arises when people enjoy visiting a historic place.

Enjoyment leads to a desire to understand the heritage better. Understanding leads people to value their heritage and this creates the possibility that they might be persuaded to take a role in caring for it. For the sake of the future of the UK's 39,000 places of worship, let us take this message forward and proclaim it when

Christopher Catling is Chair of The Welsh Places of Worship Forum and Secretary of The Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales.

www.rcahmw.gov.uk

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