When the congregation has gone, what’s to become of our city churches?

By Sarah Wilson

I’ve been lucky enough to live within earshot of a church for my entire life. The pealing of church bells is among my favourite sounds in the world; perhaps it’s because they remind me of home, or university, or of half-awake Sunday mornings spent in bed.

I was in bed not because I’m a bad Christian, but because I’m not one at all. I’ve never been religious. Yet I’ve always found church bells uniquely mesmerising; a moment’s contact with a faith I’ve never been a part of. Last Christmas Eve, with a few glasses of wine swirling through me, the bells of York Minster even inspired me, foolishly, to attend midnight mass.

I’m sure many other British atheists, who now make up 53 per cent of the population, have paused at some point beneath a church and felt the same way. Our vague affection for the church bells, however, clearly isn’t enough to make us attend the services they’re tolling for. While church membership in Britain stood at approximately 10.6m people in 1930, by 2013 that number had dwindled to just 5.4m. In 2015, just 4.7 per cent of England’s population were attending church regularly, down from 11.8% in 1980. For better or for worse, the UK’s congregation is in decline. The bells continue to ring, but the pews are emptying out. Each day, the problem grows larger.

This isn’t a situation I’d ever dwelled on much until a passing comment I heard a couple of years ago while working on a summer school for Japanese teenagers. I was leading a tour of Cambridge when a student looked around and very earnestly observed: “There are many Christian people here in England”. For a moment I was flummoxed before my eyes adjusted to her stranger’s perspective.

The plethora of churches and chapels that crowd the streets of Cambridge had, for me, faded into the background. The same is true of city-dwellers all over the country, who pass churches each day between buildings, on street corners, and in the middle of city parks, hiding in plain sight. We barely ever stop to think about the British conservation policy that allows developers to get their hands on historic pubs, cinemas and clubs – but prevents them from laying hands on the thousands of churches that still stand on our city streets, half-empty of worshippers.

Their presence raises a pertinent question: what are we to do with our churches once the congregation have all vanished? It’s not impossible that we may see an upsurge in church membership – but far more likely is a continuation of the current downward trend which will leave church membership in England at just 2.5m people by 2025. The architectural structure often can’t be touched, so creativity is essential.

We might look to renovations of the past to guess what lies in the future for city churches. Some, inevitably, have been more tasteful than others. In York, an old city centre church now serves £1 jägerbombs to hen party weekenders. Before it made way for a restaurant, an old Presbyterian church served as an O’Neills in Muswell Hill, London.

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In cities all over the country, conversions like these will have to continue in order to keep up with the cost of maintenance and the dwindling congregation. Yet each time plans are made to convert a church into a restaurant, apartment block, or worst of all, a bar, outrage and controversy invariably follow.

The important question, perhaps, is not what will happen to our city churches – we’ve seen that in action already – but what should happen to our city churches. Should we allow chain restaurants and bars the freedom to serve burgers and drinks in the old pews? Or should we be more selective?

I would hazard that this isn’t just a matter for fusty old priests and bishops to worry over either. Churches are a precious part of our heritage and history in the UK – and that’s something you don’t have to be religious to understand. When interviewed beneath the vaulted arches of O’Neills in Muswell Hill a few years back, a construction worker commented on the building that “It’s weird […] I feel I kind of have to respect it”.

It’s an instinct we all have any time we enter a religious building. Most of us fall silent without being prompted. Many light candles for the dead even if they’ve never prayed before. Survivors in post-apocalyptic dramatisations of the future frequently end up in churches, searching for meaning amongst the chaos.

To keep everyone happy and ensure the longevity of our churches, then, planning needs to strike a balance between renewed functionality and the church’s original spirit. When the Taylor Review last year called for churches to become “social hubs”, they hit upon a fitting solution.

We’ve seen this happen in all sorts of places already: churches serving as a meeting place for the elderly, hosting food banks and setting up toddler groups. By widening their services in this way, churches can place themselves back in the heart of a community without surrendering its original promise to serve as a centre of charity, goodwill and reflection.

Contemporary interest in spiritual exercise like yoga, and the popularity of mindfulness, may also present a key opportunity for the future of churches. By hosting yoga or mindfulness sessions, churches can widen their outreach whilst retaining the spirit of reflection and prayer upon which they were initially founded.

The solution is of course not perfect. I’m sure many church leaders would prefer God to strike religion into the hearts of non-believers and have them all rushing to fill the Sunday service. The fact is, however, our churches will have to adapt to survive. It’s how we decide to do this which will mark the way churches are understood and appreciated for years to come.

If we achieve the right balance, in a hundred years’ time, we can hope that the pealing of church bells will still evoke joy and transcendence – not a 241 happy hour.

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