Simon Jenkins rightly derides the notion of the Church of England as “a national corporation of grandees”, for if the church exists at all, in any meaningful sense, it’s at the local, parochial level (Churches could double as banks, or even serve beer. We can’t leave them empty, 31 December). But this is where Jenkins wrongly, in my view, elides two similar terms: congregation and community. The local church “congregation” consists just of those who actively worship in the church building – and in rural contexts it’s often a very small number indeed.
The “community”, however, is the much wider population of the parish – the parishioners, all those who live within the parish boundary. Our task in the rural church – if we are to survive locally – is to help revive a sense of popular, community ownership, both of the church building and of the heritage of faith and values it represents.
This means setting out not to “convert” people in the parish, but rather help them to own their church, both as sacred space and common ground – a locus of human meaning. Philip Larkin was on to this in his elegiac Church Going: “A serious house on serious earth it is, / In whose blent air all our compulsions meet, / Are recognised, and robed as destinies.”
Rev Dr John Caperon
Crowborough, East Sussex
Simon Jenkins rightly advocates ways in which redundant churches can be restored and converted for use by charities and social enterprises, but makes no mention of the Churches Conservation Trust (CCT), which does just this.
With 356 such churches in its care, it initiates and manages a range of projects that not only inject new life into these buildings, but also funds and protects jobs in the heritage construction sector and underpins the work of specialist professionals and crafts people, many of whom have lost their jobs during the pandemic; a prime example being in Sunderland, where the work has generated much local interest and participation by young people who would otherwise be unemployed.
With its experienced staff and expertise in this highly complex area, the CCT is ideally equipped to save and promote these buildings for use by their local communities. All it needs now is proper government funding and better publicity of its work to enable it to apply its innovative approach on a much larger scale.
Simon Jenkins is absolutely right about the strong historic ties between a community and its local church buildings, even if no longer used as places of worship. Not only are these the places where so many were christened, wed, or buried – many (like ours) are also fine buildings that deserve to go on being used and loved by the communities in which they are rooted.
Here in Stannington, we are battling to save the former Knowle Top Methodist chapel for our community – to rescue our after-school club and brass band rehearsal space, and to create a fabulous new arts and performance venue that will make best use of the historic tiered seating in its calm and beautiful interior.
Jenny van Tinteren
I was interested to read Simon Jenkins’ article regarding the use of church buildings. In our rural parish of Mursley, we have indeed opened “The Church Arms”. Sparked by the boarding up of our village pub in October, the church opened the door to meet a community need for a place to catch up with other villagers and have a light-hearted or more serious chat. This project has been fully supported by the diocese of Oxford. Judging by the response to our venture, I would encourage other churches to experiment. It’s not all about booze either, we are offering a soup and cake lunch at other times.
Mursley, Milton Keynes