Lichfield Diocese has 552 active church communities within its boundaries. These are a mixture of listed and unlisted, some churches that share other people’s buildings, and some that need no buildings to do the work that they do (see table 1 in strategic review part 3).
The Church Buildings Council (CBC) recommended in 2018 that every diocese undertake a strategic review of their churches as part of mission planning. They provided a template to review buildings, should a diocese want to take this approach. They did not provide guidance on what a church buildings strategy would look like as their view is that every diocese is different.
Since the recommendation made by the CBC, life as we know it has changed immeasurably. Covid-19 forced our church buildings to close to regular worship and to all the other regular activities and services that members and non-members had come to expect, appreciate and depend on.
A recent report by the Centre for the Study of Christianity and Culture at the University of York, Churches, Covid-19 and Communities, published in March 2021, has identified the loss felt from the closure of such buildings:
During the early months of the pandemic, anecdotal evidence appeared to suggest that the closure of church buildings, suspension of normal community activities, and restrictions on churches' ability to operate in 'crisis mode,' were being particularly deeply felt. Many church leaders and members also expressed frustration at the limitations on their ability to serve communities…
The large body of qualitative data gathered and analysed gives voice to the primary deliverers and recipients of the wide-ranging work of churches across the nation: Church Leaders, Church Members, and, very importantly, those who do not identify as ‘Members,’ but nevertheless rely on and greatly value access to church buildings and networks of activity.
The same report recognises the amazing work that churches have undertaken while closed and the social action that they have engaged with. It therefore concludes the importance of reopening.
The current situation
Since the summer of 2020, Lichfield Diocese has been working at deanery level to review mission. Facilitators from the diocese have been meeting with representatives of each of the 28 deaneries to discuss what their identified challenges are, what their vision is, and what the diocese can do to help. This is the work of Shaping for Mission.
To provide the background information for this, different Central Administrative Support Teams have provided data that will be useful for the deaneries.
It was identified that this data, together with what is held centrally, could also inform a church buildings strategic review, the original recommendation by the CBC.
By combining information on the condition of each church building, its finance, and its congregational size, we are able to identify which churches are of concern, which would benefit from assistance, and which are currently holding their own.
However, what has become apparent through this process, and from churches approaching the diocese themselves, is that a number of congregations feel that there is no future for them. Examples include buildings that have fallen into disrepair, or work that was needed has now been exacerbated; reduction in income and/or reserves; and lower returning congregations. Early evidence suggests that some congregations have reduced by a third, but in at least one example by half.
A simple solution might be to suggest that congregations persevere and things may improve. But this does not take into account that some churches were already failing and the pandemic has helped them face this situation, or that some churches have no more energy to take forward the maintenance of their buildings or their mission.
For this reason, the original intention of a strategic review of church buildings has been developed into identifying what support we can give churches now. The results of this immediate intervention will also help inform a more sustained strategic review.
The purpose of the resultant toolkit is not in the first instance to recommend closure of churches but to look at options for support.
Next section: Strategic review part 2: Scope and context