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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Older people need better homes – but then, so does everybody else

Colne, Lancashire. Image: Getty.

Towards the end of last year, I started as an associate director at the Centre for Ageing Better, working particularly on our goal around safe and accessible homes. Before I arrived, Ageing Better had established some ambitious goals for this work: by 2030, we want the number of homes classed as decent to increase by a million, and by the same date to ensure that at least half of all new homes are built to be fully accessible.

We’ve all heard the statistics about the huge growth in the number of households headed by someone over 65, and the exponential growth in the number of households of people over 85. Frustratingly, this is often presented as a problem to be solved rather than a major success story of post war social and health policy. Older people, like everyone else, have ambitions for the future, opportunities to make a full contribution to their communities and to continue to work in fulfilling jobs.

It is also essential that older people, again like everyone else, should live in decent and accessible homes. In the last 50 years we have made real progress in improving the quality of our homes, but we still have a lot to do. Our new research shows that over 4 million homes across England fail to meet the government’s basic standards of decency. And a higher proportion of older people live in these homes than the population more generally, with over a million people over the age of 55 living in conditions that pose a risk to their health or safety.

It shouldn’t be too difficult to ensure all our homes meet a decent standard. A small number of homes require major and expensive remedial work, but the overwhelming majority need less than £3,000 to hit the mark. We know how to do it. We now need the political will to make it a priority. Apart from the benefits to the people living in the homes, investment of this kind is great for the economy, especially when so many of our skilled tradespeople are older. Imagine if they were part of training young people to learn these skills.

At a recent staff away day, we explored where we would ideally want to live in our later lives. This was not a stretch for me, although for some of our younger colleagues it is a long way into the future.

The point at which the conversation really took off for me was when we moved away from government definitions of decency and accessibility and began to explore the principles of what great homes for older people would be like. We agreed they needed light and space (by which we meant real space – our national obsession with number of bedrooms as opposed to space has led to us building the smallest new homes in Europe).

We agreed, too, that they needed to be as flexible as possible so that the space could be used differently as our needs change. We thought access to safe outdoor space was essential and that the homes should be digitally connected and in places that maximise the potential for social connection.

Of course, it took us just a few seconds to realise that this is true for virtually everyone. As a nation we have been dismal at moving away from three-bed boxes to thinking differently about what our homes should look like. In a world of technology and factory building, and as we build the new generation of homes we desperately need, we have a real chance to be bold.

Great, flexible homes with light and space, in the places where people want to live. Surely it’s not too much to ask?

David Orr is associate director – homes at the Centre for Ageing Better.