Julian Mann argues that the heritage lobby is unknowingly doing the devil’s work
The devil, according to orthodox Christian theology, is the implacable enemy of God and of his Christ. He is, therefore, the enemy of the Church, the gathering of Christ’s followers for corporate worship. Though Anglican Christians can be found meeting in pubs, schools, even disused cinemas, the overwhelming majority of us meet in designated church buildings, 13,000 of which are listed.
When they want to adapt listed buildings for modern usage, congregations come up against the heritage lobby, especially English Heritage, which by law has to be consulted about proposed changes. At the local level EH has considerable power to thwart changes.
Please do not get me wrong – EH is made up of well-meaning people who want to preserve historic church buildings for posterity. But in throwing up dust in the faces of local churches that want to adapt by installing toilets, building adjoining church halls and/or office facilities these well-intended people undermine the very cause they espouse.
Unless these buildings are equipped with people-friendly facilities, particularly for youth work, the congregations that meet in them will decline and will not be able to pay for their upkeep. Anyone who thinks the post-Christian secular state will come to the rescue is living in a ‘Jerusalem’ dream-world of old England.
Front-line clergy who are involved in delicate negotiations over their listed buildings are inevitably reluctant to go on record. But the Bishop of Croydon, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, was not afraid to stick his head over the parapet and weigh into a row over EH refusing to let churches replace their stolen lead with cheaper materials. He told the Sunday Telegraph, ‘English Heritage have to give greater attention to the real issues faced by parishes and not just see this simply as a case of preserving museums. Small congregations cannot afford to be constantly replacing expensive materials.
Our church building in Oughtibridge, four miles from Sheffield, is mid-nineteenth century and, thank the good Lord, it is not listed. We have a regular adult congregation of about 35 adults with 12 children. To pay for the upkeep of the building and for my ministry as incumbent, we need to double in size -to a regular congregation of around 70 adults. These adults need to give annually around £60,000, which works out at an average of £71 per person per month.
Unless by God’s grace our congregation becomes viable in the next ten to fifteen years, no one, least of all the cash-strapped Diocese of Sheffield, will be able to bail us out. What will happen to the building? Either it will have to be converted into flats or into something like a Chinese restaurant.
Churches that make the necessary changes to their existing buildings can tap into two spiritual trends in our culture which are running concurrently. They can attract those in their 60s and 70s who, disillusioned with materialism, are being drawn back to church. Certainly, they do want the church to have a physical resemblance to the one they remember from their youth. And they can also cater for the growing number of parents with young children who are troubled about the values-vacuum in British society. They want to be part of a living community of faith and see their children learning about Christ and Christian living.
Allowing congregations to adapt their buildings rather than forcing them to relocate can cater for both groups. The devil is opposed to Christ’s Church growing both larger and younger. In resisting necessary change, the heritage lobby is unknowingly doing his work. May God intervene and give them grace to see that the best way to preserve traditional buildings for the future is to let them change.