It takes a village (or six): the battle for rural churches

Can the Church of England keep the doors open for 10,000 tiny congregations?

21 February 2015

9:00 AM

21 February 2015

9:00 AM

Some of the longest job descriptions belong to rural Church of England clergy. ‘So what do you do?’ ‘I’m the Rector of Aldwincle, Clopton, Pilton, Stoke Doyle, Thorpe Achurch, Titchmarsh and Wadenhoe.’ Every one of these place names evokes an ancient Pevsner-worthy church, smelling of candlewax, damp hymn books and brass polish. Though many villages no longer have a shop or a pub, most do still have a parish church used for regular services — even if only on the first and third Sunday of the month. You push open the creaky door, and last Sunday’s hymns are still up on the hymn board.

Last week the brilliant blind member of the House of Laity John Spence (whose mesmerising speech in the final debate on women bishops swayed the vote towards ‘yes’) warned that the Church could be ‘eliminated’ from rural areas in ten years’ time. ‘If you look at [the] arithmetic projection you identify that, over the period 2007 to 2057, church attendance and membership would fall from 1.2 million on a regular basis to something like two or three hundred thousand.’

Can the current situation go on, in our 10,000 rural churches? Tiny congregations, with few people under 70; overworked clergy racing from church to church, having no time to chat to parishioners after each service, worn down by having six Grade I churches to look after, underpaid or not paid at all and at a loss as to how to make more people come to their Family Communion?

The truth of the daily struggle was revealed to me by the Revd Jo Saunders, rector of Great Casterton, Little Casterton, Pickworth and Tickencote in Rutland. When I rang her, she was applying for a grant to mend the heating system in her smallest and poorest church. ‘It will only cost £600, but that’s more than we’ve got. I worry all the time. I simply can’t physically do everything.’ Tickencote only has services in the summer months. The average attendance is six. ‘We’d keep it going till the last one disappears.’ She was proud to tell me that two new families had moved in to Pickworth, which had doubled the congregation to 12.

It’s odd: we see from the stark statistics that attendance numbers are in decline, but I have yet to talk to a single clergyperson who admits that numbers are going down in his or her parish or benefice. Vicars express concern about the general picture but the problem always seems to be in somebody else’s parish. They’re certainly good at presenting their own attendance figures in an optimistic light. Canon Jim Mynors, rector of the seven parishes near Oundle named above, told me, ‘The total population of our seven parishes is 1,400. Over the Christmas period we have 1,300 attending our churches: that’s almost the whole population.’ Michael Hampson, vicar of Hornby, Whittington, Arkholme and Gressingham in Lancashire, said, ‘Our numbers are steady and even creeping up.’

‘Do new 70-year-olds come when the old ones die?’ I asked him.

‘They do,’ he said, and gave me another statistic. ‘Remember: in rural ministry you get 10 per cent of the population coming to church. In urban ministry it’s only 1 per cent.’

Take that, you townies! There seems to be a vigorous rural-versus-urban rivalry going on in the C of E. A report published last week, called ‘Released for Mission: Growing the Rural Church’, tells us (amid endless deadening abstract nouns, e.g. ‘Congregations are empowered to take ownership of their own collective life through worship, mission and outreach’) that while 29 per cent of urban parishes are declining, only 25 per cent of rural ones are.

There’s a feeling in rural parishes that the Church is run on an urban model by urban people from Church House. Part of the way of dealing with urban decline has been to close churches. But the rural clergy believe that while this might work in towns (because there will be an open church nearby), in rural areas closing churches doesn’t work. People feel attached to their villages, and while they’ll happily drive five miles to a supermarket, they’re reluctant to do the same to go to a church service in someone else’s village.

If you can stay awake to disentangle that sentence about mission and outreach, you get to the gist of what the report is saying: that the only way to make it all work in rural benefices is for the congregation to be an essential part of the ministry. ‘The role of the priest is to support the ministry of the Church, not to do it.’ The idea is that everyone who is baptised has the commission to go out and share the Good News. In other words, the Church needs free labour, and lots of it, if the treasured tradition of regular worship in tiny parish churches is to continue.

An extinct village church gives out a strong message that the Church is dead. Michael Hampson told me that in his group of Lancashire parishes, one of the churches was closed and sold off, and it’s now owned ‘by a rich playboy who’s letting it fall down’. There is something creepy about churches turned into houses: marital sex in the belfry and a graveyard for a garden, let alone the windows all being at the wrong height. As Canon Mark Roberts, Rector of Sandwich, says, ‘For our generation to be the one that cuts the chain going back to the early centuries of the Christian faith would be shameful.’

The Canon Chancellor of Exeter Cathedral, Anna Norman Walker, has had another idea, and one that is now being talked about: struggling churches could avoid closure by signing up to become ‘Festival Churches’. The village would pay for the upkeep of the church in exchange for having it as a usable community building; but at church festivals (Christmas, Harvest, Mothering Sunday, Easter) it would be open for services. Details will need to be discussed, but this suggestion at least faces up to the fact that most of us are now occasional rather than regular attenders.

Linda Woodhead, professor of the sociology of religion at Lancaster University, conducted a recent survey asking clergy and laity the question ‘What does the C of E offer?’ The top clergy answer was ‘it’s at the heart of local communities’; the top laity answer was ‘culture and heritage’. This suggests a mismatch between clergy and lay expectations. The laity are hungry for the numinous.

Many rural parish services are dispiritingly prosaic. The parish communion (which only came into fashion in the 1950s) seems to have swollen to over an hour and a quarter. It’s time to cut the padding — even the sermon. There’s no need to give out the parish notices about the mums and toddlers group when they’re already written on the sheet. It breaks the spell. Don’t dumb down. Call it ‘a confirmation class’, not ‘Teenage Central’. We go to church in search of a brief but intense dose of holiness, beauty and devotion. If the Church gave us more of that, could its decline be halted?

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  • Adrian Morgan

    Small point of information – no picture credit is given for the church illustrated here. For those who are interested, it is the Church of St Eadburgha, Broadway, in the Diocese of Worcester.

    • Bonkim

      Broadway is far from a rural outpost – it is a tourist haunt housing mostly commuters that go to work to Cheltenham or Worcester.

  • lyndsey

    It’s more to do with the nature of rural communities: second homes etc. My husband (a clergyman) always said that if he ever accepted the “5 parish” job spec, he would major on one church for regular meetings and Bible study, bus other people in, and maintain the little outposts for occasional (once a month?) gatherings. And face the mighty battles that would ensue with such an approach! You’ve got to bring life, not maintain a slow march towards death.

    • Roy

      Stocking the churches with clergymen, or extending parishes, is not the answer. The answer is bringing back people to the countryside. With respect, the sight of the local vicar is enough to send them packing back to the city.

      • Damaris Tighe

        The answer is bringing back people to their religion. Perhaps only a war or other disaster will do that.

        • rtj1211

          And there lies the nonsense. ‘Christianity needs war’. You have just made an absolutely marvellous pitch for Buddhism.

          • Damaris Tighe

            I didn’t say ‘Christianity needs war’, nor did I imply that I wanted it. I was simply reflecting the reality that in times of war & disaster people flock back to church. At the risk of invoking Godwin’s Law, WW2 is an example.

          • Bonkim

            All societies have now moved on from the close relationships that existed pre-WW2. Second half of the 20th century saw huge changes in transport and communications and most people today have lost that sense of communion with the people that lived together in rural districts, intermarrying and earning livelihoods locally. Same in cities where communities grew up together in back to back terraces. the internet and mobile phones have replaced village halls and pubs – and pubs themselves have changed from what they were a few decades back. Village shops and post offices are also on their way out. People travel to schools, shops, work, etc, away from villages and small villages themselves are slowly expanding to house commuters.

          • Richard Baranov

            As a Buddhist I would have to say that I do find Christian spirituality quite appealing, I’m an admirer of the Kyoto School of Philosophy which is greatly involved in Christian thinking. But, I have to say that I find C of E vicars and the rituals of the C of E shallow to the point of tedium. They don’t do spirituality as far as I can see and that is truly a problem because it is spirituality that people want. Read the early church fathers or read the Philokalia and you realize that what is taught in a C of E church is remote from Christianity, quite what it is I’m not sure but it holds little appeal for people.

            The harsh truth is that when I have been invited to a church to teach, more people have turned up than on a regular Sunday service. People have been far more interested in what I have to say than listening to the vicar, and that is because Buddhism has not lost it’s spirituality, in fact it’s up front and central and people instinctively realize it and want that spirituality.

            I say that with no pleasure at all because, as a Buddhist, I firmly believe the Buddhist teaching that one should encourage people in their own religion and discourage conversion as vigorously as possible, you are supposed to tell people to go away at least three times before accepting them and then only with the proviso that they continue to support their former religion. But when I try to discourage people in wanting to convert I’m hard put to it to tell them where to go. I usually cop out by giving them a list of books and telling them to check out Eastern Orthodoxy but it would be nice if they could go to their local church instead.

          • Bonkim

            Have you travelled to Buddhist societies such as Ceylon and Burma – and how superstitious they are – your intellectual brand of Buddhism is an imaginary concept – real life Buddhism is simply series of rituals and listening to omens in a world inhabited by supernatural fairies and other spirits to be placated by incense and prayer wheels. All faiths are superstitions one way or the other and people today have come to recognise that and hence put off. The Church used to be the centre of local social life – that simply does not exist. People today live across territorial boundaries, work, shopping, accommodation, and social life span across different locations and fast transport/communications allow one to be part of communities anywhere in the world.

          • Richard Baranov

            I have been a Buddhist ‘Priest’ for 40 years and a ‘Buddhist’ my entire life since I was 13, it is my primary mode of being and quite simply, you are talking nonsense. Do you speak any of the languages of the countries you are talking about? Do you know any of these people as close friends? Thought not but I do. Do you have any idea of the Buddhist approach to people and their superstitions? Thought not. The idea is that people can be left alone with their superstitions because it is not the business of Buddhists to ‘convert’. If people ask, that is a different thing. But it is no ones business what ordinary people wish to think. That is the typical way for Buddhists to think and that is why you will find people doing their ‘superstitions thing’. Simply put, it is not our business unless asked. Because, central to Buddhist thinking is, ‘ahimsa’, which means non-interference/non-violence/non-imposition, an explicit understanding that your tender ministrations are not warranted and that guidance is only warranted if asked. In short you are imposing assumptions on Buddhist cultures that have more to do with your Western style of thinking, than it does with Buddhism. Buddhist culture is ‘two tier’, for want of a way of putting it, folk Buddhism and ‘Dharmic’ Buddhism, the latter being the practice of monks, knowledgeable laymen etc. and that two tier system is fine unless, of course, you are narrow minded and think your way of thinking is exclusively right and everyone else is wrong!
            Do you have any idea what a so called ‘prayer wheel is or what it is for? Obviously not from your crude assumptions concerning same. My time was spent almost exclusively with ‘Eastern Buddhists’, specifically Tibetans, and I had very little to do with Westerners unless they came visiting. So your assumptions are false. I represent a typical strain and a typical form of Buddhist thought called Nyingma, look it up if you want to get an idea beyond your false assumptions.

            Your idea that I represent an ‘intellectual brand of Buddhism’ is simply false because in accordance with Buddhist thought there is no such thing. So you aren’t even getting the basics right. Buddhism is a balance between, intellect, ethical conduct, and meditation. No particular mode of human ‘being’ is given prominence because Buddhism does not make dualistic assumptions about what constitutes a human being.
            In all politeness, I do suggest you go and read and inform yourself properly. But I suggest you read Eastern authors, a great many write in English. ‘Handbook for Mankind, by Buddhadasa, a Thai, will go a long way to correcting your false assumptions. You will find they contradict your opinion of Buddhism at every turn. Of course, if you wish to keep to your prejudices, that is entirely your business.
            But I do find it amazing that people such as yourself, who clearly have no clue about their own religious tradition have the presumption to lecture those of a different tradition that you make abundantly clear that you haven’t clue about how it operates in the world or toward people. Ignorance is bliss and, it appears, generates hubris.

          • Bonkim

            Thanks you for the lecture Prof Baranov – a most useless exercise if I may say. But not surprising from a tradition founded by a prince that ran away from his responsibility to look after his wife and young son – yes I understand a true Buddhist – whatever his brand has to forsake attachment to worldly matters to attain Nirvana as the Buddha did.

            In practical terms a useless religion – on a practical plane its followers including the Monks in Sri Lanka, and Burma are past masters of bigoted nationalism and sectarianism, and lately given in to genicide as in Lanka. Now the Great Emperror Ashoka did repent and converted to Buddha’s eight fold path and spreading his prayer wheels (Dharma chakras) across the land.

            Is Buddhism reverting to type or is it now just a religion of rituals and omen-browsing allowing its followers infinite freedom to do what they want and that their religion is not a guide to follow. I don’t see many Buddhists in Buddhist-dominated lands searching for Nirvana or discarding all material possessions and taking to the loin cloth and salvation. What use is a religion that fails to set codes of morality or ethical behaviour and tolerance for fellow human beings.

            Now talking abot Nyingma, Tantric cults and Vajryana I am sure you have a better understanding of the spirit world than I do and good luck with that. I will take Buddha’s advice and keep away from all wordly attachments.

          • Richard Baranov

            In almost every single remark above you are close to 100% factually wrong. But fact you are obviously not interested in, you clearly prefer your own bigotry to knowledge about a subject you clearly know nothing about. So, of course my reply is useless, I may as well be communicating with a child. There is no point in talking to a closed mind and I should know better.
            That you would waste so much time on feeding your anger and false sense of superiority is not healthy. But that is your problem to work out.

          • Bonkim

            I am not angry byt amused that as a teacher you are an arrogant Git full of your book-knowledge and little understanding of the real world – the very thing Buddha was against. Buddha was rebelling against the closed shop of Brahmin-Hinduism and the arrogance that they showed towards the people around – in the process he also switched off the real world and ignored his responsibilities selfishly – Go back to your Monastery.

          • Richard Baranov

            You are obviously ignorant and have no idea what you are talking about so it is obviously pointless in attempting to communicate with you. It is, of course, entirely your privilege to be wilfully ignorant but its rather sad that you also choose to make yourself ridiculous by posting comments on something you have no idea about. So on the principle ‘do not feed the Troll, this is my last remark. Feel free to rant all you wish, you will not get an more answers from me.

          • Damaris Tighe

            This is a great shame Richard because, as you say, Christianity has its own tradition of spirituality. Not only Eastern Orthodox but the western branch too – the early Thomas Merton (before he became interested in Buddhism – no offence!) is excellent.

          • Richard Baranov

            Hallo Damaris, I had the great good fortune to know Thomas Merton. When he died he was in dialogue with the Dalai Lama and my own teacher about whether he should convert to Buddhism. No one on the Buddhist side thought it a great idea but thought it would create more problems than it was worth. His death was therefore a matter of ill/good fortune, if one can have such a circumstance. In any event it solved a lot of problems.

            Mahayana Buddhist monks take a vow to learn all systems, obviously a tall order, so I confined myself to Christianity and Islam because they are directly relevant to my life experience. As I said, proper Buddhists do not like to convert people, it is considered to be a matter of last resort, and you are supposed to discourage people as much as possible. The reason is simple, ones baggage cannot be cured by switching systems, you bring your baggage with you so really people do not convert but switch suits, so to speak, the person is still the same just using a different
            vocabulary to mask their prejudices and problems.

            Specifically, with regard to Christianity and Buddhism, the world view and the way each side thinks makes it near impossible to convert. It is not difficult for a Buddhist
            to understand Christianity because both theism and the belief in a self/soul (substantialism), are common to humanity everywhere, the arguments are about what that means. However Buddhism is non-substantialist and non-theist and will not accept metaphysical assertions as truths (using ‘metaphysical’ in the popular sense here), I am always careful to say I am a non-theist, not an atheist because from the Buddhist point of view both modes of thinking are unintelligible. and the mode of thinking issuing from the Buddhist world view is so different that it is close to unintelligible to someone from the theistic side. Almost everything that Westerners think is Buddhism is mostly a projection filtered through Western glasses and modes of thinking. A great many of us on the Buddhist side think that Buddhism in the West is an utter failure for that reason, it is an on-going argument, especially amongst the Tibetan teachers. I did teach, if asked, because one is obliged to by the rules. But none of my friends are Western Buddhists, I avoid them and, in that, I’m fairly typical as a traditionalist. So, I’m quite aware of Apophatic Theology, Meister Eckhart, Cloud of unknowing, Philokalia etc. etc. and that is the way I try to direct people. As for Eastern Orthodoxy, a misnomer, if ever there was one, I have no doubt that I have converted more people to that than anything else.

          • Richard Baranov

            By way of a P.S.to my other reply to you. What I do think is that it is far more productive for Buddhists to do is offer insights on Christianity to Christians that they otherwise may not have and to assist as much as possible in reviving Christianity from its disastrous state in these here isles.

          • littleted

            This is where the old adage about there being no atheists in foxholes under artillery fire comes in.

      • lyndsey

        Depends on the vicar.

      • Bonkim

        People move for work or to retire if they have the resources. Most rural locations – people commute out to work, or shop.

        • Roy


  • Roy

    The village church in England is one of the most beautiful characteristic of the countryside. It is the depopulation of the countryside, the lessor emphasis on encouraging agriculture with it’s immoral policy of importing pig meat and dairy products at the expense of the home produced product. More younger farmers would take up farming if only they had a chance to get a start on their own account, with more smaller units made available. It seems all policy is to encourage the larger factory farming systems, with less and less younger families who are fully prepared to do the hard slog and stay in the countryside to do the work they love. Bigger is not always better, and the younger generation should have a chance of a stake in Britain’s fertile acres.

    • rtj1211

      They probably can as tenant farmers. Problem is, the rents charged usually make it rather difficult for them to make a semi-decent living.

    • tjamesjones

      Bigger is not always better, but it tends to be more efficient, i.e. cheaper. Which you don’t mention. It’s not so much a matter of policy as it is of economics. There are two possible solutions – the market one, which is for smallholding farms to brand themselves (like the fair trade and organic movements), and so attract customers who support that model. The other is some sort of “policy” or regulation that inhibits large farms. I find it hard to imagine that being successful, and is inherently illiberal.

      • Roy

        In many respects you are right of course. I don’t however believe in this overreaching organics that pervades all and every farming system. I’m thinking more in the line of a regulation that inhibits the over extension of large holdings. It is not right that the God given land should be monopolised by large swaths of inherited lands from the dark ages, or the systemised buying up of small farms (so called uneconomic) that become available. It is not beyond man’s ingenuity to devise a system for a more even spread of land owner ship and land usage.

        • Bonkim

          British farming employs a very small proportion of the population – it is highly mechanised and efficient in terms of labour – much of the seasonal work is done using local contractors and real wages are low. Rural poverty is a reality and most labourers cannot afford to live there as houses and rural cottages are being bought by city-folk selling their higher priced city homes to retire in the country. Needless to say all that creates disjointed communities killing off the earlier stable relationships.

          • littleted

            “much of the seasonal work is done using local contractors and real wages are low.

            But the plant is expensive, so hired by farmers only when required. A field of crops can now be harvested by a handful of workers – sometimes even single handed where time is not of the essence.

            “…houses and rural cottages are being bought by city-folk selling their higher priced city homes to retire in the country.”

            Whose contribution to the church is to attempt to silence the ringing of centuries old bells and take defecating dogs for churchyard contamination strolls.

            They still expect to be able to tell lies in front of their families and before God at the baptism of little Tamsin or Glanville in the parish church, though.

    • Bonkim

      Not many farmers I know are regular Church-goers or devout Christians – COE was more a social construct and became irrelevant after the 1960s.

      • Roy

        I’m personally not touting for church attendance, rather giving the countryside back to its custodians who can work the land, give it back some life and offer more young people a healthy living. With also a chance to offer a sharing of the land, rather than belonging to a few for exercising their dogs and horses.

        • Bonkim

          True rural life is no more – many now are migrating from urban areas that expect the same levels of convenience and services they had in cities – U.K is now largely urbanised even rural areas and people turnover (10 to 15%) is high preventing the type of stable relationships that prevailed when communications were slow or non-existent. People in most in rural areas now commute to work or go to schools in towns and cities, farming and land management employ very few – even there cheap immigrant labour put up in caravans do much of the work. What we are lamenting is the demise of interdependent rural communities with the Church, pub, parish hall, post office and the village shop as the hub of the community and where everybody knew everybody else as in the Agatha Christie stories. Not many left I am afraid.

  • Damaris Tighe

    Couldn’t agree more about the parish notices at the end of the service (afflicting all denominations). They’re intrusive, break the spell as you say, & turn a moment of sanctity into a community meeting. This reflects another point you make, that the clergy see their churches as all about ‘community’, perhaps because they view themselves as social workers more than priests.

    I think it takes a particular level of detachment from the nouminous to start wittering on about quiche & the mothers’ & toddlers’ group immediately after communion. I worry about any priest who would do that.

    • Et_Expecto

      Is there any point in announcing the mothers and toddlers group meeting when there are no mothers or toddlers there?

      • littleted

        There are usually mothers there. Toddlers are rare at a regular service round our way. The mothers are mostly (great) grandmothers, who may still find the info useful if they are helping out with the kids.

    • Dukeofplazatoro

      And PLEASE get rid of “The Peace”, not the response itself, but “The Peace”. This has become inflated over the last thirty years from a simple response, via offering a handshake to one’s neighbours into a ghastly ritual of everyone wheeling round the church with holy Willie smiles, hugging and kissing everyone else, and going “beesbewidyou”. It is impossible to opt out of as it is churlish so to do, so one is obliged to accept it, but it is toe curling.

      We are supposed to be celebrating the Holy Mysteries and now we have this dreadful commercial break where we are effectively celebrating ourselves.

  • littleted

    However reluctantly, I now see no long term future for the Church of England. It has been the agent of its own destruction.

    The time for thunder from the pulpit was the 1960s. Instead the church hierarchy joined in the orchestrated liberal license that was deliberately architected from the shadows to separate the British people from their culture and heritage. Now the hinges of the stable door have rusted through, the stable door is in a bramble patch, and the horse – once bolted – is dead.

    Children in England have not been brought up in the Christian faith for generations. Consequently most people simply have no idea what the churches – any churches – are banging on about. The Lord’s prayer has to be printed on orders of service because people were not taught it as children. Church rituals are laughed at as amusing irrelevances at weddings and funerals. People don’t believe in God, so they believe in anything.

    Trying to reverse matters now without medieval facilites such as stocks, flogging and strong blasphemy laws is pointless. That bird has long flown.

    Apart from young parents blackmailed into temporarily attending church so their children can escape state education by attending a church school (an indictment of state education, rather than an acclamation of the church, or church schools) congregations are dying out – literally – and in the next decade or so rural churches will essentially vanish, and the buildings will be shut down and either sold or left to rot, or both.

    The bishops have spotted it far too late. Like many organisations they only recruited like-minded individuals, which in their case are fluffy-headed leadership-avoiding liberals. Those are not people with the dynamism to turn round a dying church.

    They could have been saved by returning to a mass indoctrination of children in the schools into the faith. Oh, and by feeding the pigs ready for flying.

    We now have the pathos of women celebrating breaking the more or less irrelevant male bishops bastion, just as (or because) it is crumbling to dust.

    • rtj1211

      Well, I have to say that when I was at primary school 40 years ago the Lords Prayer WAS taught. The shame was that mostly it was all about us repeating it rather than actually talking at any level about what it actually meant. It was the same with learning rote all the books of the Bible at Sunday School. I can’t think of a better way of driving a 9 year old boy spare than mindless rote repetition.

      The mistake the church made was not changing its modus operandum toward children when christianity became a positive choice rather than a societal coercion. Military discipline works much less often when freedom to choose is involved – it works for some, fails for most. Engaging with children at the level they are at usually works better……..

      • salt_peter

        It doesn’t matter now – what is done is done.

        I never found any difficulty comprehending the meaning of the words of the Lord’s prayer. but you are younger than me and the dumbing down started in primary schools in the 1960s.

        Hopefully I’ll be gone before Islam imposes sharia law by force. Then it will be too late to wake up. I hope these ordained ladies enjoy the 14th century.

        And as for Mrs and Mrs Fry …..

    • John

      If only we could go back to the days of forcing kids to ‘love’ an invisible space wizard whose idea of mercy is sending people to eternal torture if they don’t adore him or haven’t had a bit of water splashed on their head. The fundamentalism you seek is alive and well all over the world, just under other names. Nutball.

      • salt_peter

        That signature of yours – nutball – is very appropriate.

    • Bonkim

      A Church is not a building but the people in the Congregation – religion is increasingly irrelevant to modern life. We are no longer close-bound interdependent communities with distinct social and cultural traditions. Unless people share life and live together as a community guided by a common faith, a village church loses its original purpose.

      • littleted

        I agree that a church is an entity separate from a building. A church does not need a building at all, which is why I was careful not to conflate the two, or at least I thought I was.

        The buildings were constructed and have been maintained with care and love at great personal cost by devout local people over hundreds of years, which now counts for nothing. Or it will count for nothing once the tail end of what you call, “close-bound interdependent communities with distinct social and cultural traditions,” finally die out – quite literally.

        I am disappointed that salt-peter’s highly apposite comment in reply to rtj below was removed.

        • Bonkim

          Having said that you are obliged to pay for upkeep of the Parish/Church graveyard through your council tax regardless of whether you are a Christian or attend Church or not. The Church buildings funnily are not entitled to the same privilege.

          • littleted

            Well, everybody has to die eventually.

            But once the C of E is gone people in England will lose their automatic right to a funeral by the local parish church.

            Oh well, if you are dead, then that is someone else’s problem.

            Also, without the defunct C of E congregations forking out to maintain churchyards, someone else will have to pick up the burden – presumably the parish councils, who will recover the cost through the precepts.

            So instead of just the church-goers, households will pay for churchyards (along with the cemeteries) according to their alleged house value. Sounds much fairer.

            The secular non-flock will have to suck it up and live and die with it.

          • Bonkim

            Local residents are paying for the upkeep regardless of faith.

          • littleted

            Churchyards are maintained by the church, funded by plate collections, hatch match and despatch charges, etc.

            Cemeteries are the concern of local authorities.

            Once the church is disbanded the maintenance of the churchyards will become someone else’s problem – such as the parish council.

            There could be some local difficulties over the maintenance of the graves in the churchyards which presently is the responsibility of the living family members of the deceased.

            Parish councils may interpret the rules differently.

          • Bonkim

            “responsibility for maintaining the churchyard in good condition and maintaining fences rests with the parochial church council (PCC), except in the case of a burial ground which has been closed by Order in Council and where the obligation has been passed to the local authority”

            Local residents end up paying (Parish Precept) one way or the other for maintaining the Church-yards as it is difficult to follow up the descendants of those buried. The Church stops paying once the Churchyard is closed and the Local Authority will not take on new liability as they are short of money – they may have their own provisions for burial and cremation. So ultimately parish residents have to pay up.

          • Dominic Stockford

            Man and his brother here, in the city, spent hours of their own time working the local CofE churchyard, bringing it up to spec for last November’s 100th Anniversary commemorations – not a word of thanks did the vicar give them. That’s why churches are closing. Thankless, soulless and godless ministers.

          • Bonkim

            Yes there are still some that work selflessly for their community. There is a chap that goes litter picking for 5 or 6 miles along the A40 every week.

          • littleted

            That is more or less what I said. I am glad you have taken the time to do a little research. Hooray.

            There is a difference between maintaining the churchyard and maintaining the graves.

            The graves, not the churchyard, are the responsiblilty of the of the persons who hold the right of burial or interment in a grave or memorial site – usually family members – not the church or the local council. If they neglect the grave of a deceased relative then it will become overgrown and look very sad.

            That is why so many diocese insist on grassing over graves so that the grass can be cut by a lawnmower. You can see the result in the photograph with the article.

            The money for the Parish Precept comes from donations to the church (ie the PCC) including via the collection plate, sales, plus whatever other fees, etc, are received for example, from baptisms, marriages, and funerals.

            Parish residents otherwise pay zilch towards the Parish precept or the upkeep of the graveyard unless the local council gives the PCC a grant. Church-goers are therefore a primary contributor.

            Only if the church walks away from a graveyard does the local authority become involved, whereupon costs become shared more equitably.

          • rockylives

            Don’t worry about the buildings – most of them will become mosques in due course, so they’ll still be looked after.

          • littleted

            Somehow I don’t find that reassuring.

          • rockylives

            Nor I.

          • Jackthesmilingblack

            That tax-exemption status … Face it the Church is a business. Not particularly well run, I grant you.
            So what category would it fall into… Public relations, after life insurance, clairvoyance … I’m sure something will present itself.

          • Bonkim

            All religious and community organisations in the UK come under the Charity Commissions tax exemption status.

    • Shorne

      “medieval facilites (sic) such as stocks, flogging and strong blasphemy laws is pointless.” You must approve of Sharia law then…?

      • littleted

        I don’t know very much about Sharia Law.

        Perhaps today’s bishops envy the power over people’s souls that Bishops in the Roman church possessed at the times of the crusades, for example, which allowed them force devoutness upon their flock.

        Then they would not be staring irrelevance and redundancy in the face.

        • Helen of Troy

          I don’t know very much about Sharia Law.
          And you are so much better off for that fact, my friend. However, we do not want it in our democracies, where it has no place and never shall.

        • Shazza

          If you want to know more about how Sharia law is practised – cast your glance in the direction of Saudi Arabia/Yemen/Chad/Mauritania/emerging caliphate ISIS.

  • john

    The old adage – the CofE is the Tory Party at prayer still holds true. It’s de facto role is as a vehicle of class privilige and elitism (in archaic buildings). It needs to be disestablished and survive or die on its own terms.

    • Peter Stroud

      The present lot of bishops conservatives? I think not.

  • BillH

    Good points, well made. I like the “brief but intense holiness”. I joined a small rural congregation a year ago. 350 in the village. 35 to 40 attending each week and packed out on the big festivals, even a small Sunday School once a month with 8 or 9 kids. I particular like the fact the service starts at 9.30am and is over in 40 to 50 minutes depending on wether we have communion or not. 4 hymns and a good sharp sermon! A quick cup of coffee afterwards to catch up on the village gossip and then back home in time to read the papers, walk the dog and put the afternoon roast on. Great stuff on the part of our local vicar (who has 3 parishes). Maybe that is the template for the future.

  • commenteer

    Fat chance, to your final question. Ugly language, low IQ sermons, and, usually, awful music; the opposite of the beauty and devotion you seek. And a nincompoop in Lambeth Palace, which doesn’t help matters.

    • Justin Welby? I’d hardly describe him that way.

  • HanskyPansky

    Turning a temple to some extravagant flats is obviously degrading. These builidings were designed to serve the God, not to resolve housing shortages. The only way I see for English is to quit heresy at once and reunite with Catholic mother. Polish Roman Catholic parishoners, who’ve come in big numbers recently, will certainly enjoy pictursque village churches.

    • Bonkim

      That is blasphemy.

      • littleted

        You aren’t very savvy in this field, are you.

        • Bonkim

          Do you really want a Catholic occupation of England? As bad as the Islamic one.

          • littleted

            What I want or don’t want has nothing to do with whether HandskyPansky blasphemed or not.

          • Bonkim

            Handsky Pansky was blaspheming by bringing Catholics in the discussion.

      • Jackthesmilingblack

        So last century.

        • Bonkim

          Religion is timeless and modern if you believe in it.

    • Uncle Brian

      Is the Catholic Church holding up any better than the C of E? A little better, maybe, but not much.

  • Radford_NG

    It is not only rural parishes.This has been happening for decades all over our cities with churches,vicarages and/or parish offices sold off:and remaining churches offering only a Sunday morning service.

    Why this is wrong was explained by Jane Austen in Mansfield Park (c.1816).She has the squire say that his son would not be an absentee vicar;that a parish had to be nursed and could not be served by a Minister ridding in on Sunday mornings.

    • Enders_Shadow

      The mistake here is assuming it is the role of the VICAR to do the nursing. It is necessary for ALL members of the congregation to be involved, particularly in fulfilling the promise made at the baptism of infants to bring them up as Christians. That the next generation is not Christian is mainly down to the parents, though often it merely reflects the fact that the parents’ Christianity was only ever skin deep, and modern secularism has given legitimacy to shedding that skin without social consequences.

  • Ken

    The merger of parishes was inevitable, I suppose, but it has had the effect of ironing out variations of style and liturgy in favour of a middle of the road version of Anglicanism that rules out the fervour of the Evangelicals and the beauty of liturgy of Anglo Catholicism. Too many clergy – especially women – seem to see the Church as a form of social service rather than service to God.

    • littleted

      Once motherhood occurs priorities change and it can become a free roof over the head.

  • Dominic Stockford

    Buy a minibus. Hold one proper service each Sunday, by rote, one church at a time. Bus all the peeps from other churches (or both of the peeps, if you prefer) into the one holding the service that week. Then then few (and they are few) who attend could at least have a decent time of worshipping God.

    • Jackthesmilingblack

      Canadians Sued The Bank Of Canada & Won. Mainstream Media & Government Blacks Out Story

  • rockylives

    “The laity are hungry for the numinous” – so true. One reason that so many have stopped going to church is that its services were made mundane by the sociology-student generation that started running the C of E from the late ’70s onwards.

    All “call me ‘Robin'” vicars and fine Victorian hymns replaced by facile modern tunes strummed out on a guitar.

    The essence of religion is mystery. If you remove that and make it all prosaic and familiar, what’s the point of going?

    “‘What does the C of E offer?’ The top clergy answer was ‘it’s at the heart of local communities’; the top laity answer was ‘culture and heritage’”. In other words, the clergy are still peddling the idea of being sanctified social workers, while their congregations are crying out for candles, incense, gravitas and a spiritual link with a tradition that transcends fashion and fad.

    • Peter Stroud

      Quite correct.

    • Bonkim

      But people have stopped believing in magic and mystery.

      • rockylives

        Some have. For now.

    • John Hawkins Totnes

      It’s all about Jesus.

  • Peter Stroud

    Any organisation that calls ‘a confirmation class’, ‘Teenage Central’: deserves to fail.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Prime real estate, good location, presence …
    Surely someone can come up with a use. Spook HQ? Shoo in.

  • Call me Dave

    Just turn them into mosques…. ……

  • Ordinary Man

    How curious to see conversion to houses as creepy. Many churches make lovely houses. What’s creepy are the ridiculous concepts of faith and worship.

    • John Hawkins Totnes

      Your second sentence is quite true -I live in one! Your last sentence is silly – and shallow.

  • Perseus Slade

    a toothless tiger, once so fierce
    now you are almost harmless
    we almost regret to see you go

  • Helen of Troy

    Someone below wrote I don’t know very much about Shari- Law
    I responded: And you are so much better off for that fact, my friend. However, we do not want it in our democracies, where it has no place and never shall.
    I’m having to repeat this now and you can guess why.

  • gram64

    Problem with the C of E is that it no longer believes in Almighty God. It has become merely another social outreach group and left-wing lobbyist.