In defence of England’s ’empty churches’
When we abandon these special buildings, we lose a timeless spiritual refuge
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.”
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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.
I’m an American who lived and worked in the UK years ago. I love the old UK churches. I remember walking into a small, rural church in the south of England with a friend. I don’t know its exact age but it was certainly hundreds of years old with ancient stained glass windows and what appeared to be woven tapestries on some of the walls. It was still a functioning church, sitting out there by itself in the countryside, and it was open to the public. Incredibly, there was no sign of vandalism.
My friend and I were not especially religious, but it was impossible not to be moved by the sense of history, of previous generations of people and their lives, as we stood in that silent church.
I couldn’t agree more with the author’s observation, “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.“
Well there are about 9,000 English Medieval Parish churches extant. Of these about a fifth maybe described as outstanding, although this off course a rather subjective judgement!
My guess is that there are far more than 2,000 which are outstanding. I don’t mean outstanding as a parish church, or for an architectural feature, but outstanding in absolute terms as being ancient and rare.
Ancient perhaps, but rare, I must disagree.
There are off course at least another 35K in France, many of which exceed their English counterparts in architectural complexity.
sitting out there by itself in the countryside, and it was open to the public. Incredibly, there was no sign of vandalism.
Well, it’s in the countryside. And the countryside is racist, as we are informed by the woke journalists of the Guardian etc. The countryside is racist because the bames are bored in the countryside, so they don’t go there but hang around in the cities. At least for now. I reckon as the place fills up, at some point the bames will be more evenly spread around in the country and then it will be like in France where the vandalism of Christian churches is rampant in cities, towns and countryside alike.
I love them, too, and always try to visit them when passing one, Each is unique, and interesting.
Mine is at least 700 years old, but more likely 900, and on top of a church from about 1,500 years ago. The village is mentioned in the Domesday Book, 1066, and already owned by the church before the Normans arrived.
I am not superstitious, but I always find them spiritually uplifting.
There is usually a visitors’ book, and it is interesting to see how many people from here and abroad visit them. It reminds one of how lucky we are to have a long and stable history.
Keighley strikes me as materialistic, and as being in the wrong vocation. I advise him to seek work in, say, a secular charity, and leave our churches to those who love them for what they are, and more importantly, those who still worship in them, however few.
Our church is always open during the day (except for the last year), and of course unmanned. It is 6 miles from the nearest city.
HaHA, Cordoba, “You have built here what you or anyone might have built anywhere else, but you have destroyed what was unique in the world.”
The Liberalism C of E, and Welby as its perfect example, have destroyed Christianity in UK No heathen could destroy the wonder of Christianity, its intellectualism, its justice, the basis all our arts, philosophy, freedoms, intellectual power, philosophy, sciences it created, moral and ethical perfection…. it had to be eaten from the inside by that pernicious, evil, of Liberalism.
A bit of a hypocrite our Charles V.
What about his desecration of the Alhambra with the Palacio de Carlos V?
All 3 major religions came from an Abrahamic base-& he is as difficult to find as Homer– Mystical
All the religions were very similar, some like Christianity melded with time & stopped stoning folk for working on the Sabbath & the od be-heading
Some of the other branches still keep this up
Christians now have same-sex marriages FFS
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.
A gross exaggeration.
The world of reason (logos) dreamt up by the Hellenes is diametrically opposed to, and incompatible
with that of the three ‘Abrahamic’, nutter monotheistic cults.
These rely on something called faith, which translates as ‘belief in the unbelievable’.
You should read Dominion by Tom Holland.
Surely that was, is, an addition to one side, respecting and almost complementing the earlier Alhambra? Unlike La Mezquita’s pretty but brutal insertion
I would beg to differ in that it hardly compliments,, but rather dominates the Alhambra as it was meant to. As to “one side” it is almost dead centre. Incidentally do we know what was demolished to accommodate it?
This off course is not say it isn’t a fine (unfinished) Renaissance edifice, but I don’t think Charles can have it both ways do you?
To veer slightly ‘off piste’ I’m also by the struck by the near contemporary activity in Oxford with the construction and destruction occasioned by Wolsey’s enormous Cardinal College.
“Their sale, he says, could raise millions “for the poorest in the UK.”
By God, Archbishop Wellness (sic) really is the most wretched and mindless of men. After the poor have squandered the proceeds on beer, drugs and crisps etc, they will still be poor. (Actually, most of the proceeds will probably go to various social engineers and consultants etc). Meanwhile, the country will have lost countless treasures.
The Dutch have turned many of their churches into useful buildings and spaces, at least in Amsterdam.
They did make really good carpet stores in Yorkshire as you could have a 4-metre roll standing up so folk could see.
I suppose the local reverend was not that bothered as he/she still got there stipend
Shepherd of the hill -fecking cushy number Eh ??
Fraser, did you ever read CS Lewis ‘That Hideous Strength’? In all the world, and I have read thousands of books, I would say it most perfectly describes the utter horror of secular and evil combining. The great character ‘Reverend Straik – the “Mad Parson”‘ has always stuck in my mind, actually all of the characters are exceedingly well formed by the writer. I wonder what sort of bringing up these Anglican/secular/Liberal/lefty clergy can have had to have left them so messed up.
After the poor have squandered the proceeds on beer, drugs and crisps etc
If only. “The poor” nowadays does not mean the ‘English poor‘ with their chavvy old beer & crisps habits and white privilege, but almost exclusively the bames. Most certainly for Welby and that Rev Keighley “the poorest in the UK” is the global lumpenproletariat making landfall on the island.
Not that we Roman Catholics are any better off with this communist “pope”. If i was of a more religious disposition than i am, i’d be eyeing up Judaism or Eastern Orthodoxy for conversion.
The USA border is now in complete breakdown with 5000 illegals being caught, and then released into USA daily. (this is all hushed up) Biden has called the worlds needy, they are on the march. The big snag is we have now outsourced our immigration policy to the Drug Cartel coyotes! And we know the world’s criminal class are marching with them. I am a tradesman in USA, and the importation of illegal unskilled workers over the last 40 years has caused more pain to the American unskilled than any other factor in all America in its history. It has destroyed the native unskilled’s ability to have a living off their own work, and has destroyed them as a class, sending them into the horrors of ‘The Welfare Trap’, idleness, drugs, depression, prisons, and every misery the unskilled suffer when they cannot hold jobs. Biden is causing more misery to the people he is supposedly helping than any leader in USA, ever – the voters must be insane.
Quite the same here, only they are put in 4star hotels. Some were put in an ex-military barrack, which they burnt down as it wasn’t good enough.
I sometimes wonder how / where will it all end.
the voters must be insane.
I think they are. Do you think is there a chance to return to sanity at some point, or has that boat sailed already with the demographic change?
A tune to lift the spirits: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OeZ95Gxqtp8
(languedoc, with english subtitles)
Who would you vote for if you want a return to sanity. UnHerd hates the Left but if you look closely, the Tories have taken over the mantle of the left, the only difference being that the paymasters are business people and not unions. The Tories have been borrowing and borrowing again, just like Labour said they would do.
Our system gives us Labour vs Conservative with a few no-hopers thrown in.
History has a little to say about this. In the 1950s and 1960s the USA used to fly in labour from Mexico every year for the fruit picking and the people who came and went must have seen that the USA was a good country to live in if you wanted to work – clearly, fruit picking was below the thoughts of the American people.
Now, today, China and Mexico have taken a lot of the blue collar jobs and, suddenly, that cheap labour is not needed. Who does the fruit picking now?
Bob Dylan song!
I may be wrong but I think it was Keighley who was talking about the poor, not Welby.. Still, I take your point. I do wish these philistine clerics would remember the woman who washed Jesus’ feet with Oil of Spikenard- an expensive perfume – only to be reproved by Judas who said that she should have sold it and given the money to the poor. At which Jesus said that she did it to honour him because “the poor are with us always”. Well, for that jar of perfume substitute our old churches.
The Archbishop of Canterbury is not advocating the selling off of churches. If they close (it’s a rare occurrence) it is at the behest of local people and much consultation.
These buildings are extremely costly to maintain. The financial and administrative burden week in week out is firmly placed on the shoulders of the local congregation who do their utmost to fulfill their responsibilities. It would be good if those who pontificate from the sidelines, and I believe this article and some comments are examples of this, would actually put their money where their mouth is and support their local church financially if in nothing else. I can assure you there is generally little evidence of that happening to any realistic degree.
However much local congregations may be inclined to put hands in pockets to support their local churches, they are often deterred knowing that a huge proportion (just under 53% in the final year that I served as a PCC treasurer) will be passed on to the diocese as payments towards the Common Fund / Parochial Share.
Then people have to decide if they want their parish priest because much of the Share goes toward the maintenance of the full time ministry. But you would know that as an ex-treasurer.
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.
Thank you for making that link between the present-day zealots of progressivism and the critics of Mary of Bethany. I know the Bible well, and am surprised that this link had not occurred to me. I shall remember it. Thank you!
Equally important, you have lost a tangible link to the past.
And what of the unborn? Why should they not inherit English churches like people have for more than 1000 years? The arrogance and philistinism of the CoE is breathtaking.
Do chapels count as well?
Yes, absolutely – the CofE’s present bishops including Welby are only temporary, the church – and our heritage must continue.
This is similar to the statues row in churches and demands for many to be removed – in this Welby came out supporting the BLM protestors. But again he is a temporary position holder- nothing more, and does not represent the rank and file in the church- or in our society.
Welby’s opinions- his woke statements, count for nothing for most of us- and such only make the CofE’s financial position worse.
Here’s one way to cut costs- reduce staff costs – from Conservative Woman:
“In 1836, when eight times as many people attended church as today, there were 26 bishops. In 2021 there are 116. There are teeming hordes of Archdeacons and Assistant Archdeacons, Advisers, Consultants, Specialists, Officers and Clerks”.
I was a volunteer guide in Salisbury Cath when they spent dozens of thousands of £s to celebrate Magna Carta’s 800th anniversary- pure tourist appeal as MC was not democratic or Christian. They paid a Muslim man a huge salary to promote the festival. Can’t see an important mosque doing similar.
Clearly the CofE has money to burn. When it choses to.
I have sat through many sermons condemning Trump, extolling saving the planet, the joys of Islam and a more inclusive liturgy. The article comes as no surprise. However, it does illustrate the chasm between the clergy and the Anglican laity worldwide. We see growth in Anglicanism throughout Africa and Asia but little inspiration for us in Australia. When I saw the parish churches in England I felt part of something beautiful, meaningful and something profoundly moral. I cannot see Zoom promoting these ideals. Are Anglican clergy ashamed of there own heritage?
Many other denominations growing in Africa and Asia even where there is persecution.
Actually we have been here before.
In 1536 on the eve of the Dissolution, England possessed 55 *Great churches, that is churches with a ground plan of 29,000 sq ft or more and a length of over 300ft. The vast majority were either Cathedrals, Abbeys, Priories or Collegiate churches.
Today only 22 are left, a destruction rate of about 60%. Needless to say the destruction in Scotland was even worse, and Ireland and Wales not much better.
* There is a little room for argument here, but not much. (eg: St Pauls was destroyed in 1666).
This article in Conservative Woman spells out what ‘The Church’ really wants old churches for. And what happened last time they stole from the parishes under the same sort of progressive pretences.
I used to meditate in an estate church in Yorkshire that was used only a couple times a year, but was a sustaining presence for me. Out of context with the past spirituality becomes untethered.
The likes of Reverend Keighley fill me with utter despair.
Would it be too much to ask l for the vicar to think that one way of fulfilling his Christian calling would be revive these churches bequeathed to us by finer generations by bringing people back to them? By preaching sharing the teachings of Jesus – far better and far more radical than any Corbyn or Marx -and making them once again living, breathing centres of communities?
Rev Keighley signals his virtue cheaply by suggesting that the money would be spent on ‘the poor’ what a fatuous remark. Open the churches to ‘the poor’ and the downhearted, inspire people with hope and lift them out of apathy. In short do your job as a vicar or go and become a social worker. Once these churches are gone they are gone for ever. I cannot quite believe the rank arrogance of people such as he.
I’m not sure who it is that would buy all these buildings for so much money that it would make some sort of dent in the plight of the poor.
Selling the buildings wouldn’t raise anywhere near the money this vicar thinks. however this does not eliminate the need to get rid of a lot of old Church buildings, because very soon in some areas, there will be no one to maintain them. Maintaining these old buildings costs parishioners thousands of pounds a year in insurance and inspections and repairs. When there are not sufficient of them to pay the bills who is left to pay them? Elitist cultural tourists? I think they will run a mile when their “free lunch” at the parishioners expense ends.
Actually, it doesn’t cost thousands. Our insurance is £2,400, and it would be a lot less if criminals didn’t steal lead off the roofs so frequently.
On the few occasions when repairs are necessary, they are indeed too much for disposable income, on which an appeal is launched and grants obtained from charities.
The inspections are once every 5 years.
If the day comes that the parishioners cannot afford the above, the C of E will find that it will no longer receive the diocesan quota, which exceeds the cost of our rector, shared with four other parishes.
A couple of years before I retired as PCC treasurer, we had a church in our mission community which was, for a perfectly genuine reason, unable to meet its Common Fund quota for the year. The other five parishes were urged by the diocesan authorities to contribute significantly towards making up the deficit, with vague menaces of loss of clergy and church closures (which turned out to be entirely cynical, as it later transpired that this was already on the agenda).
There are many people in rural areas who are prepared to look after them. There has been no energy put into this from the CofE.
The Charity, Friends of Friendless Churches is worth looking into.
I completely agree, Jonathan, but we will need to find a reliable and enduring funding and management model for these lovely old buildings in the near future! They are only a joy (and safe) to visit if they are in reasonable condition, not neglected and abandoned. Somebody (preferably a small team) needs to look after them – it could be a nearly full-time job for one person – and somebody (the National Trust, with ring-fenced funding in perpetuity from HMG, perhaps?) needs to pay for their upkeep and repair. This is an increasing challenge for the tiny, ageing congregations that support these lovely buildings at the moment. I should know – I’m an ex-Churchwarden, now PCC Treasurer in a parish with an exquisite Grade I Victorian Gothic Revival church in the Surrey Hills, with an active church community of around 50 adults and an average weekly attendance at services around 20.
“well of course! Why does the church need churches? Let us sell these dreadful, bourgeoise buildings and give the money to the “poor” people”.
A casual observer might well think that Justin Welby’s intention, like that of this priest, is to do as much damage to the reputation and structure of the church of England in as short a time as possible.
Selling the churches to give to the poor will simply kill off the Church of England rapidly and for good.
After all, many parishes such as ours once had their own reserves of money, land, rights, and a rectory. In a past bout of modernisation, these were all swept up into the Church’s administration, only for efficiency, of course, but maybe someone mentioned giving to the poor, at the time.
The rectory was sold many years ago.
Rationalisation may have been a good idea, but those assets had been accumulated over hundreds of years by past generations for the benefit of the parish church. Once these assets were managed by distant and anonymous people who probably knew nothing of the village, the only benefit which remained was the stipend of the rector, diluted steadily over the years by sharing him (her) over more and more parishes.
Meanwhile, the ‘parish share’, or quota has increased until it consumes almost all of the income raised in the parish.
Repurpose the church buildings – but not a new restaurants , houses etc and certainly do not demolish these ancient historical constructions. Agree to open them up for other purposes that are in general keeping with Christianity. Let people get married in churches but by a humanist celebrant if they want, let ‘spiritual ‘ groups use them , let mediation groups and classes take place in Churches , let community choirs use them , let concerts take place in them etc etc ( mind you, there might be a need to do something about the uncomfortable pews!)
The problem is that these old buildings need constant work (and therefore money) in order to keep them in a decent state of repair. With the shrinking congregations, just were is this money going to come from ? Personally I agree with the writer of the piece that it would be a massive loss to the historical culture of the UK if they were simply lost to the nation. Is there a way perhaps, that the buildings, with their magnificent architecture, are not simply flattened but can be used for other purposes ? For example, many nice old banks made for terrific pubs. OK, maybe you’d lose a sense of the spirituality, but at least you retain the building itself which is sure the most important thing. Just a thought … Cheers !
There is always pressure on land and buildings – we never have enough of either. When a building becomes redundant for its original use, it must be either repurposed or demolished and replaced with something more appropriate to modern conditions. Churches are no exception. If they can be turned into something useful (restaurants seem to be a common choice) at affordable cost in adaptation and maintenance, then by all means let us do that. If not. it’s time for the bulldozers.
To be unable to discern the spirituality of a place is to have a materialist consciousness.
Perhaps we should be asking why these places are empty in the first place?
Try to have some understanding for the priests who try desperately to maintain some shreds of communication with an increasingly degenerate and materialistic English population.
The Anglican church is of course the British STATE religion, as such it is primarily a political “religion” and a business corporation too. This is even more so with the “catholic” church which is collectively one of the worlds largest business corporations and property owners too. The “catholic” church has always wielded much political and financial power and still does.
For that reason and others too, the now dominant secular world-view is the inevitable out-growth or manifestation of the politics of the institutional power-and-control-seeking institutional or state churches which have in one way or another reduced all of human activity to the mortal human meat-body scale ONLY – there are very strong taboos against anyone becoming too “mystical”.
For many centuries now the “religious” and secular authorities have collectively suppressed and repressed the natural ecstatic urges and potentials of humankind. Both institutional religion and secular institutions are magic-paranoid and, altogether anti-ecstatic traditions rooted in the fear of the magical-power and potential of the individual human being. Both have been actively instructing or propagandistically coercing humankind to disbelieve and to dissociate from all modes of association with magical and metaphysical, and even Spiritual, and, in general ecstasy-producing ideas and activities.
This process of negative indoctrination to which humankind (especially in the Western world) has long been subjected by its sacred and secular authorities has, actually, been a magic-paranoid political, social, economic, and cultural effort to enforce a very worldly or gross “realist”, or thoroughly materialist – and, altogether, anti-ecstatic, anti-magical, anti-metaphysical, and anti-Spiritual – model of life upon all individuals and collectives.
That entire effort to idealize the gross physical ego-“I” and, on that basis, to cause/enforce universal human worldliness, or a world culture based on gross “realism” and reductionist materialism has required the universal suppression of the innate natural magical, metaphysical, and (ultimately) Spiritual potential of each and every human being.. But, also, and profoundly more importantly, the anti-ecstatic, anti-magical, anti-metaphysical, and altogether “gross-materialist-realism” enterprise has deprived humankind of its necessary access to Intrinsically egoless Truth Itself.
Welcome to The Desert of the “Real”!
Presumably the listing authorities will have something to say to Mr Keighley.
But where did the dreaded secular world-view come from and what is the basis of the secular world-view in the case of every single person. Basically it is the world-view created by the world of the senses or what is out there, a world-view which is not in any sense informed by any kind of subtle and/or higher psychic or Spiritual Realization. It is the everyday world which enables everyone and society at large to function and go about their every day business.
This is the one-dimensional flatland “world”, or the spiritually empty desert that goes on forever in all directions from which there is no escape. The flatland in which everyone is now trapped, including most/all of the usual dreadfully sane Christian believers. Mere believe in or mumbling about the self-serving essentially childish and even infantile creator-“God”, all of the cultic nonsense about being “saved” by the “resurrection” of Jesus, which of course never happened, and besides which Jesus was never ever in any sense a Christian, and the naive presumption that the Bible is the revealed world of “God”, has nothing whatsoever to do with religion as a Process.
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