The Church of England (CofE) has lost so many members it is having to consider restructuring its centuries-old parish system to cut costs. In a bid to preserve funds for the upkeep of its historic churches, the Church is mulling over plans to scrap Sunday services in many rural areas, reducing them to ‘Christmas Only parishes’.
A new report by the CofE reveals that one in four rural parishes, covering about 2,000 churches, can no longer muster just ten people at Sunday services, while half of all parishes count fewer than 20 congregants.
As a result the CofE’s church building review group, made up of senior clerics and laity, has recommended a change in ecclesiastical law to allow some failing parishes to be designated as “festival churches”, a new category of parish used only for religious holiday such as Easter and Christmas, and occasional weddings and funerals.
The proposal has been justified in the face of the huge cost of running the Church’s 15,700 churches and cathedrals across the country; some £160 million a year.
Seventy-eight per cent of church buildings are listed, rising to 91 per cent of rural churches, whereas just 55 per cent of those located in urban areas are listed. The CofE is also responsible for around 45 per cent of the grade I listed buildings of England, almost three-quarters of which are in rural areas.
Shifting populations have seen once-thriving parish churches effectively abandoned in the midst of fields. The report notes that 57 per cent of churches are in rural areas where just 17 per cent of the population now lives.
However, urban listed buildings cost a lot more to maintain – the average urban Grade I listed church costs nearly £35,000 a year to maintain according to the report, while the average rural Grade I listed church costs £7,900 per annum to maintain.
The report blames dwindling congregations on an ageing religious population, saying “since the 1980s, the average age of Church of England membership has increased very significantly”. But rather than trying to find new ways to attract younger members in rural areas, the report seeks to justify its plans to abandon rural parishes, arguing: “Our churches … and our great cathedrals, assist in proclaiming the gospel just by being there.”
The Bishop of Worcester, the Right Reverend John Inge, who chaired the review said: “The primary purpose of churches is and should remain the worship of Almighty God, to be houses of prayer. But that can and needs to be sensitively combined with service to the community. The imaginative adaptation of church buildings for community use in many areas is breathing new life into them.”
He added: “there is no single solution to the challenges posed by our extensive responsibility for part of the nation’s historic heritage. But we hope that our report will be a catalyst for discussion around the Church of England.”