People want churches, not digital worship, new consultation shows.

With Easter approaching, an overwhelming majority of people think that churches are still needed, despite the growth of digital worship during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the results of a consultation about the future of the UK’s church buildings released by The National Churches Trust.
 
80% of people agree that digital services have not reduced the need for church buildings, according to the consultation which involved 1,250 people in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Being together with other people was one reason why church buildings were preferred to online services, as a response to the consultation made clear.
 
"Our congregation has increased with the use of online services as they make access easier for those who find it difficult to attend services in church buildings, but I cannot stress enough how joyful, those of us who can attend services in our local churches again, are to meet together.”
 
About the consultation
The consultation was held as part of The National Churches Trust’s ‘The Future of the UK’s Church Buildings’ debate, which was launched in November 2021 by Sir Michael Palin, Vice President of the church buildings support charity.
 
Sir Michael Palin said: "The UK has over 39,000 church buildings. The restrictions of COVID-19, resulting in reduced funding and fewer worshippers, has clouded the future for many of them. Yet churches remain a vital and much-loved part of the UK's history and heritage and we can't let them fall into neglect and disuse.”

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Claire Walker, Chief Executive of the National Churches Trust said: “Our consultation shows that people really value church buildings. That’s because they are the ultimate all-purpose building, available for everyone to use.  Churches are places for worship and reflection, vitally needed community centres, and are packed with history and heritage.”
 
“I’d like to thank everybody who took part in our ‘The Future of the UK’s Church Buildings’ consultation. We will use the findings and the ideas generated to continue to discuss with Government and our partners in the church and heritage sectors how best to keep as many churches as possible open and being used to benefit local communities.”  
 
“With over 900 churches on Historic England’s ‘Heritage at Risk Register’, and with many more in poor condition in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, more funding for the repair and maintenance of church buildings is urgently needed. The Church of England alone estimates that it will need to find £1 billion to pay for the upkeep of its churches over the next five years.“
 
“The future of the UK’s churches is in our hands.  We need to ensure that they are valued and saved for everyday use, now and in the future, before it’s too late.”
 
Other key findings from the National Churches Trust’s consultation include:
 
The primary responsibility for the funding of church buildings should rest with heritage bodies such as the National Lottery Heritage Fund and local church congregations, according to 79% of people taking part in the consultation.
 
Many felt that Charitable Trusts and Foundations (73%), Central Government and Devolved Administrations (54%), and Christian denominations (50%) should also shoulder financial responsibility for places of worship.  
Christian denominations were seen by some to be best placed to help churches pay repair bills, rather than leaving it up to individual parishes to find the money.
 
One view expressed was: “The Church Commissioners should take full responsibility for the upkeep of Grade One listed churches, it’s unfair to expect a small community to have to raise money for major works. “
 
The lack of understanding amongst the general public of how church buildings are financed was a source of frustration for others.
 
”Non-churchgoers expect the church to be there and have no concern or knowledge at all of the cost of (for example) installing toilets, providing adequate disabled access…the inevitable structural repairs…Often I find that people think we (the church in general) are quite rich and that the local church is subsidized by the central church and/or by the government.”
 
A concern was raised about the difficulty of funding repair work in deprived parts of the country.
 
“Some Victorian churches are in areas of high deprivation - so congregations are unlikely to fund building modification or repair”.
 
92% of people think that the main purpose of church buildings is as places of worship. 72% see the main purpose of church buildings as being community hubs with 71% agreeing that they are a key part of national heritage.

Many spoke about the importance of the history and heritage of local churches and about the sense of ‘place’ they bring to communities.
 
"Churches are amongst the longest standing and reliable 'social glues' that the UK has ever experienced. I see no reason why this should change as long as humans need social spaces and have a spiritual component.”
 
"Churches are often the embodiment of the highest craftsmanship of that time and into the future, we must preserve as much of our heritage as we can for the future.
People who do not regard themselves as religious also had a positive view of churches.
 
"I am not a churchgoer for services but I am a keen walker and love visiting old churches on my travels... Perhaps most of all I find small village churches as peaceful places for quiet contemplation. To lose these little gems would be a very sad thing indeed.”
 
"Churches are part of the fabric of our history and important symbols of western civilisation. Ecclesiastical architecture must be maintained to preserve it - it would be a tragedy not to. Once it is gone, it is gone. People can seek comfort, moments of peace and interaction with others at a church that welcomes them regardless of their views. I am not religious, but attend church and have been made most welcome.”
 
There is support for the idea of local people being able to take ownership of a church threatened with closure. 89% of people taking part in the consultation agreed that churches facing closure should become a community asset with 79% wanting them to continue as a place of worship.
Local councils were seen as having a possible role to play in giving church buildings a future.
 
" Where congregations are declining and can't be sustained, instead of churches being lost and redeveloped as private dwellings, churches threatened with closure should stay at the service of the community, perhaps offered to or under an arrangement for local authority control.”
 
Others thought that turning unwanted churches into ‘Assets of Community Value’ in a similar way that many pubs are now run by local people, could provide a way forward.
 
"The example of community owned pubs and shops demonstrates the potential. Further to this, local businesses could prosper as a result of promotion of churches as cultural capital (as in tourism). A balance of worship, community functions and e.g., arts venue should contribute to costs.”
 
With increasing numbers of churches facing financial pressures caused by declining congregations and a loss of income during COVID-19, 46% of people taking part in the consultation agreed that congregations should share church buildings, so that, perhaps, fewer are needed overall. However, this was thought to be more relevant for urban rather than rural churches.
 
Church buildings are overwhelmingly seen as an asset (89%) rather than a burden (10%). Some people taking part in the consultation noted that church buildings were both an asset and a burden.
 
About the UK’s churches
The number of churches open and being used for worship has fallen from around 42,000 to 39,800 in the last ten years. The Methodist Church has closed 592 churches in the past 10 years.  
 
Earlier this year, The Daily Telegraph newspaper revealed that 423 Church of England churches were closed between 2010 and 2019. It has been reported that over 350 Church of England churches are at risk of closure in the next five years.  
 
A shortage of funding to keep churches in good repair is a key factor leading to closure. Latest figures show that the Church of England will have to find £1 billion to fund repairs to its 16,000 parish churches in the next five years.
 
Funding for the repair and maintenance of church buildings has to be found by congregations as is it not provided by central church authorities. This is particularly difficult for churches in deprived areas or for rural churches with few worshippers.
 
In 2021 The National Churches Trust  provided £5.6 million to help support the long term future of over 300 church buildings in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland with money going to pay for urgent repairs and providing new facilities, such as loos, kitchens and heating. Funding in 2021 for the Trust’s grants included £3.5 million for urgent repair works provided by Historic England as part of the Government’s Heritage Stimulus Fund.

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