It is understandable, if a little surprising, that the Church of England hierarchy was in the vanguard of those who closed their doors as lockdown got underway. Ten or so weeks into the UK lockdown and non- essential shops are about to open their doors, garden centres and the likes of B&Q have been operating for some time already, rules for social gathering are loosening, cleaners are allowed back in your home, tennis, golf and other activities are back on the agenda. So what will the Church of England be doing today with its thousands of buildings? Yes, that’s right, absolutely nothing.
Many of us involved with these places of deep spirituality, be they members of the community or individual parish priests, have argued for some time that at the very least churches should be open for those who wish to pray by themselves or who want to sit in quiet contemplation and gain solace from their places of worship. In these circumstances social distancing comes naturally. You are not waiting just behind the person in front to grab the last toilet rolls at Sainsbury’s. You want to be by yourself with your own thoughts. If ever there has been a time since the end of the Second World War when churches should come into their own, it is now.
Indeed, in a poll just conducted by Savanta ComRes for the National Churches Trust half of all UK adults think churches should open their doors immediately. This figure is quite something when you realise that just 1.5% of English people attend Anglican services. Sir Michael Palin, a Vice-President of the National Churches Trust, summed it up: “Keeping churches closed has taken away what churches do. It has severed their connection with people at a time of great mental anguish for many when they should be open and accessible”.
The Church’s authorities have rejected a shift to earlier opening, pointing out that online services have attracted many more people than normally attend church physically, and therefore the Church’s mission is reaching further into communities. This argument is not without merit, but holding video services in Archbishop Welby’s kitchen or in the vicar’s back yard is at best a novelty that quickly wears off.
In terms of hard cash the ongoing closures are an unmitigated disaster: 41% of all Grade 1 listed buildings in England are churches. The communities that surround these churches have to find every penny every year to keep these wonderful, amazing places open and staffed.
In my own village of Penshurst this amounts to £205 a day or £75,000 a year. Thanks to Covid-19 and continuing closure we are already £10,000 down.
Unlike the other significant owner of Grade 1 buildings, the National Trust, the Church of England does not have a membership base of 5 million paying for yearly subscriptions. Inevitably many churches will now close over the next year or two. Does the Archbishop, his bishops, the archdeacons and the rest of the Church establishment care?
There is no sign that they do. Instead of pressing hard to re-open the doors of our churches, all we hear from the Church’s leadership is a dozen of their Lordships berating Dominic Cummings on Twitter.
The former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey, writing in the Telegraph yesterday, called on the bishops to desist from engaging in partisan pronouncements. Instead, they “[should] address with hope and faith our existential fears about this virus. Where has the Church stood on the effects of this crisis on vulnerable and chaotic families who have no access to outside space, or online learning, or sufficient nutrition for their children? More important, what are the bishops saying about the character of a loving God who cares for his creation?”
The awful lesson we have learnt so far is that the Church authorities have lost interest in fighting for the survival of their churches, squandering an opportunity to make our spiritual spaces relevant again to 66 million people. Their leaders have failed in their duty.
Stephen Hazell-Smith is the Chair of the Friends of Penshurst Church.