When the congregation has gone, what’s to become of our city churches?

The O'Neill's pub, Muswell Hill, London. Image: Philafrenzy/Wikimedia Commons.

I’ve been lucky enough to live within earshot of a church for my entire life. The pealing of church bells is among my favourite sounds in the world; perhaps it’s because they remind me of home, or university, or of half-awake Sunday mornings spent in bed.

I was in bed not because I’m a bad Christian, but because I’m not one at all. I’ve never been religious. Yet I’ve always found church bells uniquely mesmerising; a moment’s contact with a faith I’ve never been a part of. Last Christmas Eve, with a few glasses of wine swirling through me, the bells of York Minster even inspired me, foolishly, to attend midnight mass.

I’m sure many other British atheists, who now make up 53 per cent of the population, have paused at some point beneath a church and felt the same way. Our vague affection for the church bells, however, clearly isn’t enough to make us attend the services they’re tolling for. While church membership in Britain stood at approximately 10.6m people in 1930, by 2013 that number had dwindled to just 5.4m. In 2015, just 4.7 per cent of England’s population were attending church regularly, down from 11.8% in 1980. For better or for worse, the UK’s congregation is in decline. The bells continue to ring, but the pews are emptying out. Each day, the problem grows larger.

This isn’t a situation I’d ever dwelled on much until a passing comment I heard a couple of years ago while working on a summer school for Japanese teenagers. I was leading a tour of Cambridge when a student looked around and very earnestly observed: “There are many Christian people here in England”. For a moment I was flummoxed before my eyes adjusted to her stranger’s perspective.

The plethora of churches and chapels that crowd the streets of Cambridge had, for me, faded into the background. The same is true of city-dwellers all over the country, who pass churches each day between buildings, on street corners, and in the middle of city parks, hiding in plain sight. We barely ever stop to think about the British conservation policy that allows developers to get their hands on historic pubs, cinemas and clubs – but prevents them from laying hands on the thousands of churches that still stand on our city streets, half-empty of worshippers.

Their presence raises a pertinent question: what are we to do with our churches once the congregation have all vanished? It’s not impossible that we may see an upsurge in church membership – but far more likely is a continuation of the current downward trend which will leave church membership in England at just 2.5m people by 2025. The architectural structure often can’t be touched, so creativity is essential.

We might look to renovations of the past to guess what lies in the future for city churches. Some, inevitably, have been more tasteful than others. In York, an old city centre church now serves £1 jägerbombs to hen party weekenders. Before it made way for a restaurant, an old Presbyterian church served as an O’Neills in Muswell Hill, London.

In cities all over the country, conversions like these will have to continue in order to keep up with the cost of maintenance and the dwindling congregation. Yet each time plans are made to convert a church into a restaurant, apartment block, or worst of all, a bar, outrage and controversy invariably follow.

The important question, perhaps, is not what will happen to our city churches – we’ve seen that in action already – but what should happen to our city churches. Should we allow chain restaurants and bars the freedom to serve burgers and drinks in the old pews? Or should we be more selective?

I would hazard that this isn’t just a matter for fusty old priests and bishops to worry over either. Churches are a precious part of our heritage and history in the UK – and that’s something you don’t have to be religious to understand. When interviewed beneath the vaulted arches of O’Neills in Muswell Hill a few years back, a construction worker commented on the building that “It’s weird […] I feel I kind of have to respect it”.

It’s an instinct we all have any time we enter a religious building. Most of us fall silent without being prompted. Many light candles for the dead even if they’ve never prayed before. Survivors in post-apocalyptic dramatisations of the future frequently end up in churches, searching for meaning amongst the chaos.

To keep everyone happy and ensure the longevity of our churches, then, planning needs to strike a balance between renewed functionality and the church’s original spirit. When the Taylor Review last year called for churches to become “social hubs”, they hit upon a fitting solution.

We’ve seen this happen in all sorts of places already: churches serving as a meeting place for the elderly, hosting food banks and setting up toddler groups. By widening their services in this way, churches can place themselves back in the heart of a community without surrendering its original promise to serve as a centre of charity, goodwill and reflection.

Contemporary interest in spiritual exercise like yoga, and the popularity of mindfulness, may also present a key opportunity for the future of churches. By hosting yoga or mindfulness sessions, churches can widen their outreach whilst retaining the spirit of reflection and prayer upon which they were initially founded.

The solution is of course not perfect. I’m sure many church leaders would prefer God to strike religion into the hearts of non-believers and have them all rushing to fill the Sunday service. The fact is, however, our churches will have to adapt to survive. It’s how we decide to do this which will mark the way churches are understood and appreciated for years to come.

If we achieve the right balance, in a hundred years’ time, we can hope that the pealing of church bells will still evoke joy and transcendence – not a 241 happy hour.

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Mayor Marvin Rees' hope for Bristol: A more equitable city that can 'live with difference'

“I call on everyone to challenge racism and inequality in every corner of our city," Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees says. (Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

When the statue of 18th century slave trader Edward Colston was torn from its plinth and dumped in Bristol’s harbour during the city’s Black Lives Matter protests on 7 June, mayor Marvin Rees was thrust into the spotlight. 

Refraining from direct support of the statue’s removal, the city’s first black mayor shared a different perspective on what UK home secretary Priti Patel called “sheer vandalism”:

“It is important to listen to those who found the statue to represent an affront to humanity,” he said in a statement at the time. “I call on everyone to challenge racism and inequality in every corner of our city and wherever we see it.”

48 year-old Rees, who grew up in the city, has since expanded on his approach to the issue in an interview with CityMetric, saying “wherever you stand on that spectrum, the city needs to be a home for all of those people with all of those perspectives, even if you disagree with them.”

“We need to have the ability to live with difference, and that is the ethnic difference, racial difference, gender difference, but also different political perspectives,” he added. “I have been making that point repeatedly – and I hope that by making it, it becomes real.” 

What making that point means, in practice, for Rees is perhaps best illustrated by his approach to city governance.

Weeks after the toppling of Colston’s statue, a new installation was erected at the same spot featuring Jen Reid, a protester of Black Lives Matter. However, the installation was removed, as “it was the work and decision of a London-based artist, and it was not requested and permission was not given for it to be installed”, Rees said in a statement.

Bristol may appear a prosperous city, logging the highest employment rate among the UK’s “core cities” in the second quarter of 2019. But it is still home to many areas that suffer from social and economic problems: over 70,000 people, about 15 percent of Bristol’s population, live in what are considered the top 10 percent most disadvantaged areas in England. 

In an attempt to combat this inequality, Rees has been involved in a number of projects. He has established Bristol Works, where more than 3,000 young people from economically disadvantaged backgrounds are given work experience opportunities. And is now setting up a commission on social mobility. “Launching a Bristol commission on social mobility is not only about social justice; it [should not be] possible for a modern city to leave millions of pounds worth of talent on the shelf, just because the talent was born into poverty,” he says.

The mayor is also a strong supporter of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), explaining that SDGs offer a way to talk about sustainability within a framework of many issues, ranging from climate change and biodiversity to women’s issues, domestic violence, poverty and hunger.

“What we want to achieve as a city cannot be done as a city working alone,” he insists. “We don’t want to benefit only people inside Bristol, we want to benefit the planet, and the SDGs offer a framework for a global conversation,” suggesting that a vehicle should be launched that allows cities to work together, ideally with organisations such as the UN, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund involved. 

Greater collaboration between cities would be “beneficial in terms of economies of scale,” he argues, “as cities could get more competitive prices when buying materials for building houses or ordering buses, rather than each city acquiring a few of them at a higher price.”

In an attempt to focus on the long term, Rees launched One City Plan in January 2019, setting out a number of goals for Bristol to achieve by 2050.

Investing in green infrastructure to meet 2030 carbon emission targets spelled out in the SDGs is a key area here, with the mayor noting that transport, mass transit and energy are important sectors looking for further investment and government funding: “The sooner we meet our targets, the sooner we will benefit from them, and invest in sectors that will provide people with jobs.”

Jobs, especially following the outbreak of Covid-19, are of paramount importance to Rees. Bristol’s council wants to ensure that any government money given to the city will be quickly passed on to businesses to help prevent redundancies, he says, though given that mass job losses seem inevitable, reskilling options are also being looked into, such as through a zero-carbon smart energy project called City Leap.

Another important area for investment in Bristol is affordable housing, with 9,000 homes already built under Rees’s term of office. “People could build a base for life with affordable housing, [and this would mean] their mental health would be better because they have a safe place,” he explains. “Children in families that have a home that is affordable are more likely to able to eat and to heat, [and they are more likely to enjoy a] better education.”

Taken in the round, Rees’s agenda for Bristol is its own blueprint for shaping history. The Colston statue now lies in safe storage, with a local museum likely to play host to the controversial monument. But the Black Lives Matters protestors were fighting for a fairer, more equal future, and it is here where Rees is determined to deliver.

Sofia Karadima is a senior editor at NS Media Group.