Module 1 in the toolkit looks at options for support, the purpose of which is not in the first instance to recommend closure of churches.
Of our 552 churches we need to ask the following questions, constituting an early intervention protocol for the appraisal of church buildings (clearer PDF version):
Fig. 1 Early intervention protocol for the appraisal of church buildings
What resources do we have?
The diocese will continue to support deanery buildings audits to facilitate their Shaping for Mission plans by providing data for each deanery (see strategic review part 3). This can be updated on a rolling annual basis.
The diocese also has information on the condition of church buildings taken from Quinquennial Inspection (QI) reports. However, some QIs are overdue and the reports out of date. So work would need to be done to encourage churches to commission these.
Combining three aspects can provide an initial indicator of churches that might be of concern:
- The Archdeacons have authority to initiate a QI where one has not been carried out within the specified time period
- The Finance Team has information on parish share arrears – a possible indicator of churches in difficulty – as well as information on the finances of individual churches
- The Mission Coordinator can provide annual statistics on church attendance on Sundays as well as mid-week use
If a church is identified as having the energy to explore new possibilities, then:
- The Discipleship, Vocation and Evangelism (DVE) Teams can look at mission initiatives
- The Diocesan Advisory Committee (DAC) can advise on whether physical alterations or adaptions to buildings are likely to gain the support of Historic England, the Victorian Society, the Georgian Group etc., all of whose views need to be taken into account before major permissions or faculties are applied for or granted
- The Parish Support Project Officer can advise on funding opportunities for building repairs and upgrades
What else would we need to make this happen?
Further work on funding opportunities is needed. The National Lottery Heritage Fund (NLHF) has this year changed their funding criteria, and have indicated that churches should now concentrate their applications on how they will share the heritage of the building, rather than just church repairs. The NLHF should no longer be considered the main grant-making body for this.
Funding solely for church repairs is problematic, especially for some of the larger or more complex funding requirements. Work is needed to explore all avenues including whether diversifying what a church offers, to include more community support, will provide the necessary leverage with grant makers.
Further research can be gathered on the proximity of other Church of England churches, and other denominations, to each other. This was done in a pilot exercise for the deanery buildings audit and could be replicated.
We currently have limited information on the level of tourism that our churches are engaged with. Although we are aware of some church engagement (see toolkit module 3), research could show what else churches are involved in. Then with information gained it could be shared and replicated where appropriate.
Hereford Diocese is part way through a funded project called Discover Churches Herefordshire and Shropshire. They have employed a company to engage with churches on tourism. Hereford is willing to share information on this project, and external funding could be sought to replicate it in our diocese.
The Church of England has committed to becoming carbon net zero by 2030. This is an ambitious project and work will be needed to support churches on this path (see toolkit module 4). An online survey has recently been circulated to all parishes in the diocese by the DAC Heating Advisers and the results will be collated to create a baseline of current church and vicarage energy use. Once this is established, the data can be used to provide targeted advice to reduce carbon usage.
Working through the support that the diocese is currently able to offer does show a gap in provision, and that is the ability to offer support to individual churches on how to improve their community offering, either by new user groups or community facilities such as post offices, café and shops.
This type of work was identified in the national Taylor Review: Sustainability of English Churches and Cathedrals, and it was recommended that Community Support Advisers should be employed. The view of the Taylor Review was that these posts should be Government funded, but at the present time this has not been initiated (see toolkit module 4). However, diocesan approaches could be made to other external funders, starting perhaps with Allchurches Trust (parent body of Ecclesiastical Insurance).
In the meantime, it would be possible to discover more about what provision is already offered within the diocese. Case studies and points of contact could support other churches to consider what might be possible.
‘End of life’ care
For churches that are identified through the early intervention protocol as no longer ‘fit for purpose’, careful thought needs to be given to what support to offer. As well as the formal procedure needed to close a church, there needs to be understanding that some congregations will find this a painful process, whether because they are exhausted by trying to continue or because they have spent so much of their lives in the upkeep of a building that they feel will then be forgotten (see toolkit module 3).
Our churches provide a valuable service both to their worshipping congregations and wider communities.
With the work that this diocese has already started, in this strategic review and toolkit, we have the opportunity to offer holistic support to churches with their buildings and their mission, as we move forward into what will be our ‘new normal’.
We need to identify the churches that cannot be saved or are no longer fit for purpose, and support them with ‘end of life’ care, as well as working with the churches that are not currently identified as struggling, and to explore what avenues could be available to them.
We have the opportunity to make a real difference. By providing clear guidance and a documented approach, we can work with churches to face the future in whatever guise that may be.
Next section: Toolkit module 2: Roles of churches