Church buildings close because churches die

Photo by Irina Iriser on

It has been reported that 400 Church of England parish churches have closed in the last decade and 1000 in the last 30 years.  This has prompted concern, not just, or so much from practicing Christians but non-believers too.  See for example this by Michael Deacon in the Daily Telegraph.

The primary concern of those mourning the loss of “churches” is two-fold. First of all, it means that the buildings are at risk of being lost to the public, crumbling away or being converted for other uses. Secondly, there is a concern that even non-religious people appreciate the benefits that churches bring in terms of public good for society, whether that’s charitable deeds or simply provide space for something religious, spiritual, ceremonial.

If I could deal with those two concerns in turn, my first point would be that concern about losing buildings of architectural significance is not enough reason to bewail the loss of church buildings.  I know people who care passionately about protecting buildings. I would say that they are welcome to do this either by raising private finance or by partnering with organisations like the National Trust or English Heritage.

At the same time, those with ascetic concerns should have no problem with buildings changing use. So what if St Paul’s Cathedral gets turned into shops and a Wetherspoons one day? You’ll still be able to enjoy its magnificent dome and presumably visit the whispering gallery.  In my home city Bradford stands something called “The Wool Exchange.” At one point in its history, it was potentially as significant to the wealth of our northern cities as the Stock Exchange is to London today. Bradford became rich on the back of the woollen trade. Those days are long gone and so when I was growing up, the Wool Exchange was no longer used for commerce but was an empty shell, sometimes hired out for community type events and exhibitions (I remember visiting model railway exhibitions as a child).  Today if you were to visit, you’ll find a Waterstones bookshop. Times have changed, needs have changed and the Wool Exchange is no more but the building still serves an purpose.  Indeed, it is perhaps a better thing that Waterstones use the building today than that anyone attempted to keep it running as a wool market.

The other challenge perhaps needs a little bit more thought.  It’s tempting to immediately shut down concern about religious traditions continuing from people who don’t continue them for themselves. Yet, perhaps this might just give us a little bit of a clue that there are signs of spiritual hunger even in the most surprising of secular places. Maybe, this should get us thinking about how we as churches respond to such hunger expressed in a hesitant and under-stated way. Just because someone isn’t up for an Alpha Course, Hillsong type rock concert or a St Helen’s exposition doesn’t mean that they are completely closed off.

However, again it is important to remind people that we are not here as churches to provide a consumer process. Maybe the right challenge back to Mr Deacon should be “okay then, why have you and secularism not been able to provide the things you look to the church to provide whilst at the same time refusing its core message?”

Finally, there is another point we need to pay attention to. It’s the point in the heading. Church buildings close because churches die.  So we need to think about why churches die. The root answer is that they die because Christ removes their candlestick. They die because they lose their first love, because they compromise with false teaching or because they allow sinful abusive practices to creep in. Those have been the reasons behind the death and closure of many British churches. And they need to die because if those things are true of them then they aren’t just irrelevant and ineffective, they are dangerous.

I cannot comment about St Paul’s Cathedral but I do know of church buildings where bluntly it would be far better that the place was converted into a Wetherspoons or Costa. At least that way people will be offered something fairly palatable to eat and drink. I’ve never knowingly been poisoned by Costa, Beefeater or Wetherspoons. Yet, too many places passing themselves off as churches are poisoning people. They poison them with false Gospels whether that’s liberalism, ritual superstition, the prosperity Gospel or the personal agenda of abusive leaders.

So, the answer to the closure of these church buildings cannot be simply to try and keep the buildings preserved or to keep them running as religious venues. Rather, we need to look harder at why the churches that met in those places died. Our concern should not be to see those buildings kept open but to see true churches living out the Gospel in our communities. Our immediate priority should be to pay heed to our own churches in order to ensure that death doesn’t creep in.

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