It’s Saturday afternoon in Ilkley, West Yorkshire and the church was full of people- but they were not there to worship God.  That doesn’t pack them in any more except at Christmas and Harvest Festival and the local pet’s service, of course.  No, Sir Roy Strong, one time curator of the V&A, was in town to talk about the decline of country churches and the need for change.   

 

Warming to his task, the good knight waved his arms and in juicy vowels like a summer fruit pudding, declared,  ‘I would get rid of all the pews.  They would make jolly good firewood and it would free up all this wonderful space.’

 

‘Then you could use it for what the church always was, a centre of the community.  You could hold meetings here, whist drives, hog roasts, farmer’s markets.  These old buildings are wonderful, but they must not be just be preserved as part of our heritage.  They must be used.  They must change.  Otherwise they will fall into ruin.’ 

 

‘There are 10,000 rural churches in this country and only 5,000 are used. They are a memorial to a bygone age when 80% of the population lived in scattered small communities in the country.  That figure was reversed in the 19th century when people moved into the big cities to find work in the factories and mills.  And then in the latter half of the twentieth century, less and less people attended church, and the local vicars probably had about 7 churches to service with half a dozen ageing congregation in each.’

 

 ‘We have to alter our thinking.  We have to do something now, otherwise the buildings will be boarded up and fall into ruin.’

 

He’s right.  The buildings are wonderful, but they shouldn’t be wrapped in ecclesiastical wool in homage to Nicolas Pevsner or John Betjeman.  The space should be freed up. 

 

But for what?  A meeting hall?  Certainly.  A conference centre.  Why not?  A space  for concerts, plays, films, dance?  Of course. Many churches are being used as such.  And you could charge for admission and use the money to maintain and develop the building.  But would you want to serve alcohol in a church.  Sir Roy was positively enthusiastic?  ‘I love drinking!’, he exclaimed. 

 

But where would he draw the line?  I wanted to ask him what he thought of churches becoming banks, nightclubs, gyms, private houses, restaurants, or mosques?   The buildings are far too useful not to be used but would he feel saddened by functions that did not respect the sanctity of the church in some way?  His views seemed surprisingly liberal through he did seem to suggest that pole dancing might be a step too far. 

 

Rural churches have a symbolic significance for many of us. They are the spiritual centre of a community.  The buildings offer creative space for reflection and contemplation.  It would seem a pity not to be able to utilise the traditional, symbolism of the church.  So could they, for example, became centres for enlightenment and healing.

       

Our institutionalised religions seem to have lost their way.  The gospel they preach seems so out of touch with the difficulties, the dilemmas that most people are facing in the 21st century.  Television and the internet do not offer much spiritual guidance in understanding the meaning of our lives and how to feel  good about ourselves.  50% of people suffer from depression or unexplained physical illnesses related to depression.  Doctors surgeries have become the new chapels, dispensing tablets and medicines instead of wafers and cheap wine.   But institutionalised medicine, like religion, does not work. 

Could churches have a community health role, hosting lectures, seminars and courses in helping people live healthy and happy lives. Could they offer space for healers, alternative therapists and psychotherapists to practice?  Could we at last recognise that mind, body and spirit (meaning) cannot be separated and recover the original role of the church as custodian of the health of the community? 

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