This strategic review of church buildings has its origins in:
- The Church of England’s Church Buildings Review (2016)
- The Taylor Review: Sustainability of English Churches and Cathedrals (2017)
- The Taylor Review Pilot Evaluation (2020)
- Covid pandemic (2020/21)
- Lichfield Diocese’s Shaping for Mission process (2020/21)
Also the Church of England’s Strategic planning for church buildings web resource, from which the current review has utilised their diocesan strategic review template, adding new material, tailored proposals and recommendations.
The review and resultant toolkit seeks to establish a proactive involvement in this diocese’s church buildings (old and new) in relation to their development, repair and use, complementing the deaneries’ work of Shaping for Mission.
The national context and parameters for this diocesan review are set out in the 2016 Church Buildings Review, which states:
What is understood by ‘open for worship’ has evolved over time depending on local contexts and will need to evolve further for some buildings over the coming years. Legislation needs to facilitate this.
More generally, the overall legislative framework governing the use and management of church buildings needs to be simpler, less prescriptive and less burdensome for laity and clergy. There needs to be more flexibility to reflect the wide diversity of local situations.
Dioceses need to integrate thinking about their church buildings with their mission and ministry planning. Regular diocesan strategic reviews, taking account of diocesan and deanery plans, mission action plans and parish audits are important for ensuring that buildings issues are given their proper weight – neither dominating nor being overlooked or regarded as a specialist subject.
Examples provided of mission planning focussing on activity at various levels included:
- Diocesan strategic plans including planning for buildings, sometimes facilitated by deploying Places of Worship Support Officers part funded by Historic England
- Diocesan surveys of parishes regarding challenges and opportunities offered by buildings
- Categorisation of churches, e.g. as ‘mission’ or ‘festival’ churches
- Deaneries expected to consider the viability and use of buildings when drawing up their deanery plans
- Mission communities carrying out buildings audits to discover how best they may enable work of mission and ministry in their area and assessing budgetary implications
- Parishes being encouraged to identify Growth Action Planning goals including missional use of buildings
- Use of toolkits to assist parishes in creative use of their buildings
- Promoting united alternate worship patterns in church buildings between parishes in united benefices
- Church plants where there are declining congregations. Installation of facilities or improvement of church buildings as a priority in enabling parishes to be better positioned to achieve missional growth
The current diocesan review comes on the back of the Church of England discussion paper entitled Perspectives on Money, People and Buildings, debating the challenges that the Covid pandemic has caused, making clear that the future reshaping of the church is no longer a long-term theoretical matter.
As the Most Revd Stephen Cottrell, Archbishop of York, stated in this regard: "Covid-19 has hit us hard. It has also revealed other shortcomings and challenges that were often unheeded. We are moving into new, uncharted territory". Whilst he goes on to say that there is no evidence that church buildings being closed for worship has led to a general feeling that they are not needed, a Church Times survey carried out early in 2020 found that 34% of rural clergy and 22% of rural laity considered that their church building would not be viable after the pandemic.
In response to this within Lichfield Diocese, a review group was formed to consider how we can best provide proactive church buildings support. The review group, drawn from the Central Administrative Support Teams and led by Andy Mason, Director of Glebe and Church Buildings Strategy, was convened in November 2020 and met every 4–6 weeks.
It is the opinion of this group, reflected in the national Church Buildings Review, that a sustainable ‘top-down’ single strategy for church buildings is unachievable since PCCs enjoy a certain level of autonomy as separate and distinct charities.
However, the diocese can provide parameters and structures within which local decisions can be made, and give appropriate support within the available resources.
The group therefore concentrated on ways of easing the burden of maintaining a church building and freeing PCCs from some of the anxiety experienced in caring for their church, to enable mission activity to flourish. This is set within the context that many exciting projects are happening in our church buildings, which themselves are generally in good condition.
The burden of maintaining, insuring, repairing and adapting these buildings can fall on a small number of people with little or no experience in looking after a listed, possibly Grade I medieval building. This strategy and toolkit recognises that PCCs often struggle in this regard. It makes recommendations to assist our churches to become actively sustainable into the future.
Many of our churches are rightly the pride of their community, but they also take up a huge amount of time and resources for both clergy and lay alike. Together we can aim to form a strategic response that will make them better equipped to be centres of mission and ministry, easing the burden for PCCs and releasing energy for mission using the potential of our buildings where this is possible.
At an early stage it was recognised that there was a need for tailored information available for parishes on key aspects of church buildings and churchyards, including the environment, maintenance and repair, accessibility, grants and funding. Rather than waiting for publication of the strategic toolkit, this was addressed by producing a new Church buildings and churchyards web page, which brings together signposts to all the areas that affect managing, maintaining and using church buildings and churchyards.
Next section: Strategic review part 3: Audits of buildings