Churches now outnumber pubs but they are facing a raft of problems

There are now more churches than pubs in the UK.

By Charlie Bullough
Monday, 17 June, 2019, 18:10
The Post Office at St James, West Hampstead. Picture: Grainge Photography

We have around 40,500 churches compared with 39,000 pubs, according to research commissioned by The National Churches Trust (NCT) and the Office for National Statistics.

Numbers have been boosted by the growth of new Evangelical and Pentecostal church congregations. Migrant communities are also setting up their own places of worship in non-traditional spaces such as converted cinemas, warehouses or shops.

A family do some shopping at St Leonard's Church in Yarpole, Herefordshire. Picture: Russell Lewis Photography

But more traditional churches are facing a raft of problems. Issues include funding repairs, declining congregations, a shortage of volunteers, lack of modern facilities and lead theft.

These top five problems were identified in an online poll on the NCT’s website. The leading issue was lack of funding for maintenance.

Catherine Townsend, head of church support at the NCT, said: “Churches are some of the most important historic buildings in the UK. 12,500 of the Church of England’s churches are listed by Historic England and almost half of the very best listed buildings - those listed at Grade I- are owned by the Church of England.

“Most major repairs to churches are to roofs and to structural elements such as spires and towers. These sort of projects can cost a minimum of £500,000. Although congregations raise a lot of money themselves for a repair project, it is almost impossible for a church to raise this sum of money themselves.

A drone shot of St Columba RC Church in Derry.

“It is currently very hard for churches to raise money for major repairs due to cutbacks in funding.”

The Government funded Listed Places of Worship Roof Repair Fund ended in 2016 and The National Lottery Heritage Fund no longer has a dedicated programme or ring-fenced funds for places of worship.

Churches are increasingly having to turn to non-governmental funders and charities to pay for repairs. The NCT launched the first dedicated church building maintenance grant programme two years ago with grants from £250 to £3,000. The Government is also funding two pilot schemes which give small grants for maintenance.

Catherine Townsend added: “However, there is no getting away from the fact that more money is needed. We estimate that annually, between £30 and £50 million is needed to tackle the backlog of repairs and make sure that the UK’s historic churches are in good condition.”

Keeping St Augustines Church in Sheffield in good repair. Picture: Peter Paul Drabble.

Funding is just one of the many issues facing churches. A recurring problem is lead theft.

Eddie Tulasiewicz, head of communications at the NCT, said: “In parts of the country, it is thought that organised gangs work out which churches to target by using drones and Google’s satellite mapping and take the lead to sell in continental Europe where it can be sold more easily.

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“An organised gang can strip the lead from a church in a couple of hours leaving the church with a big repair bill. The effects of lead theft on a church can be devastating as water can pour in through the roof causing further damage.”

Legislation enacted in 2013 made it harder for thieves to sell stolen lead, but the problem has resurfaced. Metal theft from churches increased by 21 per cent last year compared with 2017, according to figures from Ecclesiastical Insurance.

Gutter cleaning at St Peter's church, Macclesfield. Picture: Peter's Church, Macclesfield

But the NCT survey also identified an even more pressing problem for churches - declining congregations. Churches are now being encouraged to become community hubs in order to make themselves more relevant.

Dame Caroline Spelman MP, Second Church Estates Commissioner, has been telling Parliament about some of these multi-use venues.

She said: “In answering questions from MPs in the House of Commons which I do on a monthly basis as the Second Church Estates Commissioner, I am regularly highlighting projects in churches up and down the country who are taking steps to make their building more resilient by creating more fixable spaces, adding office space, post offices, community shops, banks, libraries, concert venues, broadcasting WiFi to their community all while investing in preserving and restoring the religious space for worship.”

One such community hub is St Leonard’s in Yarpole, Herefordshire, which has a shop with a post office, and a cafe. The increased use of the church has helped bolster the congregation.

But the future for some churches is less secure. Chapels have closed in Wales and there are planned closures in Scotland.

Communications chief Mr Tulasiewicz said: “People are very reluctant to see a church close, particularly if it has been around for hundreds of years, and they will fight hard to keep it going. Despite that, recent years have seen some closures. That’s been the case in Wales, where a large number of chapels have closed down due to population changes and a decline in religious belief. Scotland may well see a large number of churches closing in the coming years as the Church of Scotland seeks to better manage its buildings in the face of falling numbers of worshippers. In England, the Church of England and the Roman Catholic church close very few of their buildings and that is unlikely to change. However other denominations, such as the Methodist and Baptist churches, will continue to merge congregations and close less used buildings.”

St Leonard's in Yarpole, Herefordshire has a Post Office in it. Picture: Russell Lewis Photography.

Mr Tulasiewicz believes increased community involvement is key to solving the problem.

He said: “In an age where, in general, fewer people go to church, the best way to prevent closures is for local people to help. We should all care about the heritage of churches and chapels which help tell the story of our nation and of local communities. So it’s important that we all help to keep them alive.

“If you’re looking for a venue to hold an event of a concert or community activity, why not pick one of your local churches or chapels. If you’re any good at DIY, why not volunteer with some repair work. Or if you’re simply looking for a great day out why not pop into a church or chapel and discover the fascinating history. The religious heritage of the UK belongs to all of us. So we should celebrate it.”

See www.explorechurches.org to find out more about the UK’s sacred heritage.