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On This Rock I shall Build My Church

by John Scott

What does a church building mean to you? English parish churches are a distinctive feature of our landscape, a visible focal point in villages and towns across the country. The Victorians doubled the number, but that still means about half, particularly in the countryside, go back a long way, to medieval times or before.

I have been reading recently about the history of the Saxon church. One thing that struck me is that when churches were founded, they were endowed with grants of land, to provide the resources to maintain the building and its staff (i.e. clergy) and there were also various forms of tax (including voluntary taxation) that supported them. It wasn't a perfect system, far from it, but the point is that the Saxons (and their medieval successors) recognised the need for sustainability.

The Victorians, on the other hand, did not endow the churches they built. Fast forward to the present and even the older churches have lost all their endowments, or at least the land etc. has passed into central control and we no longer have a voluntary component of the tax system that supports churches.

I imagine re-introducing a tax to support church buildings would be extremely unpopular, given the decline in people who identify as Christian. But I wonder how people would feel if our local churches were just demolished - in Leigh, Betchworth, Sidlow Bridge and Charlwood. Some would no doubt cheer the idea. Others, maybe many others, might be indifferent. Yet many, I suspect, even non-churchgoers, would feel the loss of an iconic feature of the landscape, of an enduring witness to something other than utilitarian materialism and consumerism. They might even want to contribute something to maintaining the fabric of the building.

Meanwhile, the small band of dedicated church volunteers keep these buildings standing, without the help of any endowments or local taxes or funds from the central Church of England. Reading this, you may not be aware that the local churches are entirely funded by voluntary giving and appeals. It is a heroic endeavour.

But is it sustainable? Or, like so much else in our society, is it teetering on the verge of collapse because no-one in their right mind would imagine that this was any way to run things? Our ancestors certainly didn't and, in some ways, perhaps they were wiser than we are.

How we make our church buildings sustainable is a key conversation right now, whether it be in terms of energy, maintaining the fabric or being places that are ever more used and loved by the communities they were established to serve. That conversation should not just be conducted among the small number who attend Sunday worship because the parish churches are part of our national and collective heritage. Our whole society needs to have a proper conversation about sustainability, at all levels, in terms of the environment, housing, health, education and quality of life. This includes cultural and sacred places.

So, wherever you are reading this, have a think about the parish church nearest you. Who keeps it going? How does it serve you? Could it serve you better? How could it be made more sustainable and what part could you play in that?

John Scott

Taken from Summer 2023 Parish Magazine


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