Dominic Grieve QC
Our churches and chapels in the UK are as varied as the history of our Christian faith. A few are filled for services on a Sunday, but many are three quarters empty and some may always have been so. Some are modern but others an architectural amalgam of centuries of development and occasionally semi-ruin.
They cost a lot to maintain and they do not necessarily lend themselves to modern styles of worship. Many are only used for a f ew hours a week, even if an attached church hall may be much busier with community activity such as clubs, scouts and nursery schools and may indeed provide the main source of income for upkeep.
Yet it is the sacred space of the building itself and the communal memory it contains that defines it. Without it the adjacent hall is no more than another “public facility”. And despite the decline in the quantity of organised Christian religion that is the hallmark of our age, there is still a need for accessible and
benign sacred space.
This is noticeable in the presence of individuals who will enter a church, if open, to sit in it for silent reflection or walk round it and take an interest in its content as a place of memory and often artistic beauty. It is also the case that those who want to use what it offers at key moments of life or find comfort from its physical presence and use as a community hub, where the faith based foundations of its management are perhaps counter intuitively a reassurance and an attraction and not a deterrent to coming over the threshold.
This became particularly apparent to me during the Covid lockdown. For the congregation, digital worship for those who attend my 1950’s London church provided important but limited attractions, but numbers revived completely once the bar on “in person” services was lifted.
But more strikingly the presence of the church, in ringing the tolling bell for the Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral or the decision to sing our one permitted congregational hymn in the churchyard at the end of the service against the background of a busy main road attracted nothing but favourable comment from passers-by.
The weekly mother and toddlers group uses the church nave with its robust wooden benches, as does the brass band which appreciates the acoustic for rehearsals, as does the Thursday friendship group open to all. The hundreds who attended our last Christmas carol service which is run with the help of the same brass band, the use of the churchyard for selling Christmas trees and the musical events that draw people in, show that the benefits offered are far beyond the existence of a hall for letting.
In France where I have a holiday home, the law of 1906 effectively nationalised all earlier church buildings, turning the congregations into licensees. As the French State struggles to pay for the fabric, you can all too often feel the neglect as you wander round, with tired fittings and furnishings and a feeling of its all being rather unloved; often cold and damp.
Even when the church is being used for concerts and cultural purposes as well as worship there is a sense of lack of ownership and care, unless it is of national importance as a building. Sometimes they feel semi secularised and lifeless, despite being in good repair.
Restoring and maintaining churches
This is why I think there is so much that can be achieved in our country by helping existing congregations to restore and maintain their churches and chapels and develop their use for local communities whilst respecting their primary purpose as sacred space. Far from making that community use more difficult, I am convinced that the recognition of that primary purpose facilitates it and makes it much more relevant to users.
Obviously challenges and opportunities differ widely from one part of the country to another. The scope for projects in a deeply rural area is not the same as in an inner city. But as long as there is a congregation wanting and willing to worship and to participate and work for community benefit, then the platform is there for caring for the building and maximising its usage.
In the process you can achieve far more than the preservation of historic buildings. You can help sustain and restore community life. You don’t do that by closing, much less demolishing, the church building.
When I am driving around the country, I can’t resist stopping to look at the churches which I pass. If by good fortune they are not locked-and most are usually open, then ten minutes of visit tells one a lot, not just about their architecture and history but also about current use.
Seeing sacred space sensitively married to effective community use is always a delight. The building lives and memory is joined to the present. It is the outcome we should be working for as it offers a far better contribution to our common good than mere preservation no matter how well written the explanatory leaflet. With the help of organisations like the National Churches Trust we, in our church and chapel communities, should be able to persuade donors that this is a cause worthy of being further taken forward.
Dominic Grieve is a barrister and served as ShadowHome Secretary from 2008 to 2009 and Attorney General for England and Wales from 2010 to 2014. He served as the Member of Parliament (MP) for Beaconsfield from 1997 to 2019.