Chapel, Kirk, Cathedral, Minster. Whatever you call them, Churches have been at the heart of our communities for more than a thousand years and even in 21st century secular Britain they remain integral to the fabric of our society. Their physical presence is important, even the most iconoclastic amongst us cannot imagine a British landscape without them, but they also still fulfil a communal role in cities, towns and villages across our islands. Yet, today many of them risk disappearing as community spaces open to all, either turned into private homes or even demolished to make way for new land uses if they are not listed buildings. The sheer abundance of them – Warwickshire and Coventry alone have over 300 churches – encourages complacency about their disappearance and makes preserving them an enormously expensive challenge. The National Churches Trust, and its various County subsidiaries do their best, but just stemming decay is difficult enough, enhancing our Churches for modern use is an unrealistic target for many places of worship.
It wasn’t always this way for Churches, money used to flow through their great oak doors from all cross-sections of society, particularly local landowners. Churches were a source of civic pride and each and every parish sought to ensure their place of worship was the most admired in the area. This served a religious purpose as well, particularly in the pre-Reformation period, the physical building and its contents were supposed to inspire greater devotion in God. The medieval Cathedrals took this to another level, buildings on a truly colossal scale that towered over communities and inspired awe in the power of God and magnificence of the Church. William Golding’s dark and powerful The Spire, an account of one fictional Dean’s fatal obsession with building higher and higher is a brilliant examination of some potential human motivations behind these buildings, which in their own way were as impressive an undertaking as the prehistoric monuments of Stonehenge and Avebury. They have lost none of that power today, even as modern cathedrals of commerce such as skyscrapers and airports dwarf them in size. To stand in front of the West door of any of our great Cathedrals facing down the barrel of the nave is still to feel the smallness of the human body and the awesomeness of what we can achieve.
Churches served many practical purposes as well as being a physical focal point of the community, the spires dotted around our rolling hills were beacons to help guide travellers to their destination in an age before road signs or gps, and in the chaotic narrow alleys of early modern London the distinctive towers and spires of the City Churches acted similarly to help pedestrians find their way through the maze. At night their distinctive bells were lighthouses in the centuries before road lighting to enable the weary walker to find their way home. It was a sign of the totality of World War II that all church bells were silenced, to be rung only in the event of invasion, until they pealed for victory in May 1945. Church bells and clocks peformed another vital community service, informing town and country inhabitants alike about the time of day in the centuries before personal watches became the norm. In the time before every village built a hall the Church was often the only large communal space available for mass gatherings, in many city parishes that is still the case today.
In an increasingly secular age it is easy to dismiss Churches as no longer relevant or useful, a burden on society. The great Cathedrals suffer less from this modern judgement, although far from finding it easy they are often more financially viable thanks to tourist donations and in fact help support their local economy through bringing in those visitors. Many of them have become successful commercial operations. The thousands of unremarkable local Churches, most without a full-time dedicated incumbent, are ‘the problem’. Yet the vast majority of people still visit churches every year, whether for a few minutes of quiet peaceful contemplation and escape from the hectic pace of modern life, or for enjoyment of church music. Carol services still draw in most of the population and are almost the only occasion when entire communities still come together. Churches are often vital social and support networks for the elderly and vulnerable. Once lost, they are extremely difficult to replace. So however much of a money pit they may be when the roof leaks again and yet more expensive repairs are required, it is worth our support to continue to preserve these historic hearts of our communities that link our past, present and future.