by jonathan glancey
Thursday, 4
March 2021

In defence of England’s ’empty churches’

When we abandon these special buildings, we lose a timeless spiritual refuge
by jonathan glancey
A ‘waste of space’, according to Reverend David Keighley. Credit: Getty

What is the point of churches, especially English churches? Few people use them, especially in recent lockdown months when online services have replaced physical celebrants, choirs and communicants. Expensive to heat and maintain, most — at least according to the Reverend David Keighley, a retired Church of England priest — are, at best, “museums gathering dust”, at worst “a waste of space”. The Church can perform its ministry without physical walls.

Who, though, will rid the CoE of these peaceful places? Reverend Keighley hopes Justin Welby will. In plans for their future submitted to the Archbishop of Canterbury, the self-professed “Progressive Christian” poet and therapist, cites that by his own research 75% of places of worship — that’s 12,000 of them — are attended regularly by fewer than thirty people. Their sale, he says, could raise millions “for the poorest in the UK.”

Aside, though, from the fact that redundant churches can find new uses whether as homes, concert halls or museums, there is another reason why Reverend Keighley and likeminded progressive “church-without-walls” clergy are wrong.

England’s parish churches, built over some 1,500 years, are prayers in themselves, testament in brick and stone to religious faith, a collective work of imagination, skill and sensitivity to place. Whether in cramped city streets or wide-open countryside, they offer refuge and solace. Even if apparently empty, they contain multitudes. Here are traces and echoes of hundreds of years of hands and feet and voices, of artists, craftsmen, children, of nesting birds and wildflowers. Here are memories of christenings, weddings and funerals. And memories, too, of those who have died in war.

These are buildings where those with or without religious faith still gather in times of collective uncertainty. Worth millions of pounds, if such a thing could be calculated, in therapists’ fees, our parish churches are surely more than worth the expense of their upkeep. And then, of course, there’s the architecture, flowering in a multiplicity of guises over the centuries and, very nearly always, the best in the varied locations they grace. Only cultural philistines, zealously modernising local authorities, opportunistic property developers or, of course, “progressive” priests, would seek to destroy them.

We are, though, not alone. At the end of last month, the former Jesuit chapel of St Joseph in Lille, a distinctive building of the 1880s, was demolished, despite considerable protest, to make way for what promises to be a blocky and soulless building that might sadden any city street anywhere in the world. This is for the engineering faculties of the Catholic University of Lille which, surely, might have seen the potential of a renovated and reconfigured chapel, all light and height, grace and space.

When we allow ourselves to abandon or destroy our churches, we lose not just special buildings, but a part of our souls and, unfairly, those of future generations who may yet find them spiritual refuges and timeless comforts worth the expense of keeping in a world of indistinct reality and jarringly rapid change.

Join the discussion

  • The Rev David Keighley, in his enthusiasm for selling off “wasteful” ancient churches to give the proceeds to the poor (or to provide “affordable housing”), seems to be taking his inspiration from Judas Iscariot. When Mary of Bethany anointed Jesus with extremely costly ointment in a gesture of reverence, Judas reportedly complained at the extravagance, and said the ointment should have been sold and the money given to the poor. Jesus rebuked him, saying “Leave her alone. The poor will always be with you, but I will not always be with you…” (this was shortly before his arrest and crucifixion).

    These ancient shrines of prayer are irreplaceable once lost. It’s very telling that senior churchmen can take Judas as a role model and apparently not even notice that. It makes you wonder when they last read the Gospel of John.

  • I do not think you really know the Religions Of the Book if stoning is what you take from them. The amazing intellectualism which caused thousands of monks for centuries to be hand copying the best thinking of man, that almost 100 of the world’s top 120 philosophers were Christian, that science and universities all came directly from it is not just about stoning. Judaism has always been intellectual, Islam as well, although not to the same degree as it tends to be more about behavior than thought than the other two,, but still, almost all enlightening, knowledge, freedoms, justice, science, philosophy post Greek, come from the West being formed by Christianity. The debt we, and the world, owe it is vast.

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