The Revd Lucy Winkett is Rector of St James’s Church, Piccadilly, a writer and broadcaster.
The new House of Good report by the National Churches Trust confirmed in figures what I, as Rector of a central London church, see in everyday life. Church buildings, whether in urban or rural areas, can be and often are, hubs of community activity inspired by, but not constrained by, their central religious purpose on a Sunday.
The Covid-19 pandemic is causing isolation, loneliness, mental fragility and economic deprivation on a huge scale. Churches provide enormous value, far beyond what is often a small gathered congregation once a week or a couple of times a month.
It may seem a strange thing for the church to do; to try to quantify in hard data, what the value of its work is. On one level, of course this is right; our main activity – prayer and worship – is almost by definition, immeasurable. But what the report calls the “Halo effect” is key. There are social, economic and cultural activities undertaken by churches in their local communities that can be measured.
The report, which for the first time evaluates the economic and social impact of churches, found them to be contributing services worth £12.4 billion: a combination of direct market value, volunteers’ time, the replacement cost of services and wellbeing value based on the wellbeing adjusted life year (WELLBY) measurement.
Like many other churches, for years St James’s Church, Piccadilly has provided care and support for anyone who passes by, whether they are local workers, people going through homelessness or people in need of someone to talk to. Churches throughout the UK in every denomination are hosting food banks, addiction support services, mental health support and youth services. The need for these community-building initiatives is greater than ever.
Although much has been written about church worship going digital as a result of Covid-19, much less attention has been paid to the way that churches have continued to provide help for people in need. While the pandemic closed church buildings for some time, the House of Good report has found that 89 per cent of church communities have continued to provide a range of help to local people, including a highly adaptive approach to the worship itself.
The need for this provision is bound to increase as businesses close and work across the hospitality, travel and cultural sectors dries up and more people are experiencing financial hardship. Families with one or two parents out of work, or in uncertain work, are increasingly resorting to food banks, the majority of which are housed in churches.
More people are now isolated or lonely, deprived of their usual social interactions and unable to meet up with loved ones. This has had a massive impact on mental health and on drug and alcohol abuse – and this will drive up the need for the counselling services and addiction support meetings which take place in church buildings. And the cheery socially distanced coffee morning, which might be the sole social contact for some, is taking on renewed importance as churches find the determination to adapt the old ways of gathering people together.
But these buildings themselves are under threat, especially in the most deprived areas of the UK. These churches, often hundreds of years old, contend with crumbling roofs, deteriorating church halls, and inadequate kitchen and toilet facilities, which can make them unsuitable for the community help they provide and can lead to them being closed altogether.
900 churches in the UK are currently on the Historic England “at risk” register and, on average, one Church of England church closes every fortnight. The National Churches Trust is approached by several hundred churches every year who are struggling to afford essential repairs and maintenance of their buildings, but they can only afford to fund one quarter of these applications.
Many people think that church authorities or government pay for the upkeep of the UK’s church buildings. But it is actually up to parishes themselves to raise the money needed to repair a leaking roof or fix a crumbling spire. Very often, the sums needed are not large, but what this report shows is that the investment, however small, has an amplifier effect in terms of the good work that can be generated in a building that has a functioning toilet, a secure roof, a working boiler.
Because of their strategic importance, Government and the National Lottery Heritage Fund have an important role to play in helping to keep church buildings in good repair.
Following on the successful “Taylor Pilots” run by Historic England, the NCT report shows that the Government could and should examine how best to establish a new repair and maintenance fund for places of worship. The social and economic benefit of doing so is now plain, and outlined in the data contained in this report.
Simple steps can be taken to increase the social and economic impact that church buildings can have on their localities. The Listed Places of Worship Grant Scheme pays for the VAT incurred in works to listed buildings in use as places of worship. In October 2019 it was announced that the scheme is to be extended by the Treasury for a further year until March 2021. This scheme should be guaranteed for at least the next five years, to provide certainty for churches undertaking repair projects.
The devolved administrations and local authorities also have a role to play in providing a strategic overview for church buildings. This could include imaginative funding schemes, such as the Community Facilities Programme in Wales, which has provided grants to a wide range of buildings, including places of worship.
Church buildings are “key places” – a ready-made network of responsive hubs that look after the care and wellbeing of the local community.
Together, let’s make sure these Houses of Good remain at the heart of the communities for which they were built – and can continue to play an integral part in the building of community and strengthening of society among all of us, from all faiths and none.