Church buildings are a challenge. Sure, buildings can be useful, but viability and costly maintenance clog up work and the agenda of church meetings. And when you’ve only a tiny congregation – the pressure builds up.
How, when the vicars vocation is about people and community, is so much time given to buildings? What is ‘church’ – a pseudo heritage organisation?
A church building is a great opportunity:
- A presence in a neighbourhood, on the skyline and landscape.
- A continuity, reassuring in a changing world.
- A resource to host all kinds of activity.
On the other hand, they are a nuisance:
- Space is often unused for most of the week.
- Expensive to maintain.
- Refurbishment or modernising plans can dominate forever.
- People resources get diverted to focus on bricks and mortar.
With small congregations and affordable alternatives, why a building anyway?
As soon as a minister starts at a church they get a bunch of keys. Incumbent to the building, keeping it open is a key measure of success. For most vicars the building becomes the constant headache – the ongoing distraction.
You can see the building ‘managing’ the minister and their congregation.
What is the alternative?
In Cornwall I met a vicar set free from managing the plant. A new Trust has been set up with support from the diocese to manage a huge listed rural church building.
- The Trust is independent of the Parochial Church Council (PCC).
- The local vicar is not on the board of the Trust.
- The Trust is enabling those outside the church interested in the building to oversee and develop the space.
I sat in on a meeting of the Trust and PCC as they agreed responsibility for every aspect of the building – who looks after and oversees what? Like a couple deciding who had custody, this was in a brilliant exercise in pragmatism. The PCC prioritising use of space within the building and responsibility only for those items required for a worshiping congregation. The devil is in the detail, and the detail is a lease signed in January 2016 by the PCC
It’s not a straight forward exercise for the vicar.
Happy to loose responsibility for the upkeep of the building while (outside regular use on a Sunday and occasional meetings and events) loosing control of the space can feel like too much. In Cornwall they’ve struck a good deal. The congregation retain full use for meeting Sundays and for weddings, baptisms etc, and PCC oversee their meeting area in the chancellery. The rest of the building and time during the week is overseen by the Trust.
It’s early days for the vicar, the PCC and the Trust but this new approach could make a huge difference. The congregation and vicar can get on working on interpreting ‘church’ as a group of people. The Trust focus on working with stakeholders (including the congregation) to develop the space.
The project raises important questions about a population’s relationship with their local church building.
- What are the priorities for small congregations with limited resources?
- What does a phrase like ‘our church’ mean to members of a worshiping congregation and the vast majority of the local population who aren’t?
- Who is responsible for maintaining and developing a church building when its beyond the reach of the congregation and incumbent? What are the implications and possibilities for seeding responsibility to a wider circle of people beyond the congregations?
What’s clear is that while the church faces a tsunami of redundant church buildings, many buildings still present a huge opportunity. Bold solutions – like the one in Cornwall – offer learning and maybe some answers.