Ensuring that churches have a future

Published: Friday, January 23, 2015


Claire Walker, Chief Executive of the National Churches Trust, writes about how to help safeguard the future of the UK's churches.

The article was first published in The Field magazine's 'If I ruled the world' column in January 2015.

If I ruled the world I would end all wars, murders, crimes against humanity, torture and abuse of all kinds.

Bullies would be a distant memory, neighbours would live harmoniously side by side and life would be free of anxieties and hardship for all. Anger management would be on the National Curriculum, as would how to set the table for dinner.

And before anyone bought a ticket to travel on public transport they’d have to pass a test to ensure they have good manners and respect for others. That would mean an end to those unthinking individuals who leave their banana skins on the seat, spill takeaway coffee all over the floor for other unfortunate passengers to slip in, put their feet up so that the next person has to choose whether to sit in mud and grime or stand for the whole journey, or – as witnessed the other day – sharpen their eyeliner pencil onto the floor.

That test could take place in the UK’s churches, chapels and meeting houses which do so much to help facilitate social cohesion, enabling people from different walks of life and social and economic backgrounds to work, pray and live together. Churches also provide a place where it’s possible to respect others, tolerate one another’s differences and develop new skills. There is much to learn from their example. Churches and their communities could hold the key I’d be looking for if I ruled the world.

A tall order? To quote Margaret Mead, ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the  world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.’

Historic buildings

However, we all know that the number of people going to a church has been declining. That includes not just people attending services, but also those visiting what are some of our country’s oldest and most historic buildings (churches make up 45% of Grade I listed buildings in England, with similarly high numbers in the rest of the UK).  

So, if I ruled the world I would start by ensuring that a clean, accessible toilet was installed in every church. That’s because nothing in this life is certain apart from death and taxes – and the call of nature. In the modern era we expect to be able to go to the toilet when we are out shopping, at work, at a concert, on most forms of public transport. Even portable loos are doing a roaring trade.

And yet it is estimated that over half of the Church of England’s parish churches are without toilets.

That’s why the National Churches Trust, which for over 60 years has been funding the repair of churches of all denominations, is receiving more and more requests for funding to install toilets.  Last year, toilets topped the list of funding requests to the Trust’s Community Grant programme for the third year running.

I’m willing to bet there are few people who would not be worried at the prospect of going on a long journey, going to work, attending a function, or taking part in a church service if they knew they would not be able to visit a toilet, should nature call. Indeed anxiety brought on by the very thought that there would be no toilet could generate the need to ‘go’. And what about young children, the elderly, those afflicted by unfortunate conditions such as Crohn’s disease, irritable bowel syndrome or Parkinson’s Disease, to name but a few? 

Welcoming to worshippers

Toilets allow churches to become more welcoming; to worshippers of course, and also to guests attending weddings or christenings, parents with young children, community groups, choirs, charities wishing to use the space for their meetings,; even to voters, with one sixth of all polling places at the last election being inside church buildings.

Of course, it’s important that toilets are installed in keeping with the architecture of the building. But whilst it’s true that churches, chapels and meeting houses are full of history, the people looking after them know that buildings can’t be stuck in the past. Many church buildings have adapted and changed over the decades and centuries. And installing modern facilities such as toilets is essential to increasing their use and safeguarding their future.

Churches are at the heart of their communities and bring people together in a way that makes life better. That’s especially true in our inner cities – think of their work helping the homeless – and in rural areas where after the closure of local shops, post offices and even pubs, they are often the last building left where people can meet together.   So as well as installing a toilet in every church, if I ruled the world I’d make sure that there was adequate funding to keep churches repaired – too many churches still have problems with their roofs and drains, and once water gets in, then the building gets damaged and you get a bigger problem.

Looking after church buildings usually falls to volunteers. In many of our villages, a handful of people look after priceless architectural masterpieces, many of them hundreds of years old. So my final act as ruler of the world would be to make sure that the small battalions of churchwardens and laypeople helping their ministers, priests and vicars to look after places of worship are properly recognised as heritage heroes. Because they are the people who are safeguarding our truly world class religious heritage, enabling beautiful architecture, art and history to be understood, interpreted and enjoyed for generations to come.


The Field Magazine