The Church and Modern Enclosure

Argus title : We must protect our birthright

Of recent months, I have been very involved in the campaign to save St Peter’s Church.

This has caused confusion amongst my atheist friends. Many of them find it difficult to understand why I have a faith at all. Some see an attachment to Christianity as a relatively harmless, though embarrassing, lapse of judgment – a bit like enjoying the Eurovision Song Contest or liking Bruce Forsythe. They prefer to politely ignore it.

Unfortunately for them, it’s proved quite difficult to ignore the campaign to save St Peter’s Church. It’s been interesting to watch their discomfort when confronted by the petition to save it. Some say they won’t sign because they can’t support anything to do with religion. Others indicate there are many more important campaigns. After all, when Iraq is in flames, rape and murder continue unabated in Darfur and Palestine is on the brink of civil war, why concern oneself with an old church?

A few are sympathetic. Despite viewing religion as a form of false consciousness, they consider the church to be part of our national heritage – and on that basis want to preserve it. However, they are very far from seeing this as a radical campaign. And they tend to view St Peter’s as exceptional.

It is a relatively common view, both amongst people of faith and those of none, that “there are too many churches in Brighton & Hove” and that some should go. Cllr Bill Randall and Andy Winter of BHT are typical of this group. They believe St Peter’s Church should remain because of its great importance, but that other less significant churches should be closed and used for housing.

It is a hard argument to counter when there is huge housing need and some churches have tiny congregations or are of little architectural or historical interest. However, I find myself quite unable to support the closure of any of the city’s churches.

I have struggled to understand just why I find the idea so repugnant. The penny dropped a few days ago as I sat reading a book called “Larkrise to Candleford” by Flora Thompson.

Flora Thompson grew up in rural Oxfordshire. Her book is a record of country life from the late 19th century. She describes the hamlet in which she grew up, the grinding poverty of poor farm labourers and the memory of better times in the past.

Some of the old people remembered a time before the enclosure of common land, when farm labourers lived relatively well. Everything changed with the Enclosure Acts.

These enclosures divided and brought under private ownership land which had been used in common by rural labourers. Earlier Tudor enclosures for the purpose of sheep farming divided land which was already owned by landlords, but the 19th century enclosures involved appropriation of common land.

Families which had been able to graze cattle, sheep, a pig, some geese and chickens and glean, berry and gather fuel, now could no longer do so. Many who had been able to live off the land were forced into cities where they became impoverished wage labourers.

The governing classes argued that enclosed land would be better managed. In fact, the purpose of enclosure was to maximise profits. Even in cases where landlords did not intend to farm the land, enclosure allowed them to demand higher rents from tenant farmers. Compensation offered was woefully inadequate. The landless poor continued to work for pitiful wages, while the landowners became very rich.

It was theft on a grand scale, encapsulated in the old English rhyme:

“They hang the man, and flog the woman
That steals the goose from off the common
But let the greater villain loose
That steals the common from the goose.”

Sir Thomas More in his book “Utopia” condemned earlier Tudor enclosures by landowners of the aristocracy and church. He wrote that sheep “may be said now to devour men and unpeople, not only villages, but towns; for wherever it is found that the sheep of any soil yield a softer and richer wool than ordinary, there the nobility and gentry, and even those holy men, the abbots not contented with the old rents which their farms yielded, nor thinking it enough that they, living at their ease, do no good to the public, resolve to do it hurt instead of good.”

By the 19th century there were few intellectuals or churchmen of More’s calibre, prepared to protest about the enclosures. The notion of “common wealth” amongst the people had given way to the concept of “public good” – which, as now, tended to be interpreted as whatever promoted technological advance or economic success for the governing classes.

As I read Flora Thompson’s account of the impact of enclosure and trawled through my old history books, I began to make links between the enclosure of land and the closure of churches. I realise that the reason I am so revolted by the sale of churches is not just because I believe we need to preserve our holy places. It is also because they are one of the last remnants of our common spaces.

Many churches were built on land which belonged “to the people”. St Peter’s is a case in point. The grassed spaces north and south belong to the council. The land on which the church itself was built was donated to the people of Brighton for the sole purpose of providing a church for the Church of England. Indeed, there are some legal pundits who argue that ownership reverts to descendents of the original donors if the church can no longer be used for its original purpose.

People of different faiths and none sometimes express unease at the Church of England’s status as “established church”. Though there are negative aspects to this, there are some positives as well, not least that as a part of the British state, the Church belongs to us all.

Churches may have been financed and commissioned by wealthy benefactors, but they were built by ordinary craftspeople and labourers. Over the centuries, they have been one of the few places in which rich and poor could assemble under the same roof. And over time, though power has remained with the priests, churches have come to be used and run by ordinary people.

And this is why ordinary non-Christians should fight to retain churches. They are part of our common heritage in the same way as public footpaths. And just as we don’t have to be ramblers to support the “right to roam” campaign, we don’t have to be Christians to save the churches.

Churches which are under-used can be partially converted to community functions. St John’s Church in Hove and St Georges in Kemp Town are fine churches which have been retained as worship spaces while meeting the needs of local communities through education and other social functions. They are open to and continue to serve the people.

St Peter’s Church might one day provide just such a facility in the central area of the city, but there is no reason why it should be the only church to develop in this way. I have met several people who believe that the city has too many churches, but have yet to meet one who thinks it has too many community centres.

The Church hierarchy tends to justify closure on grounds of cost, yet a great deal is spent on maintaining senior clergy, often in considerable style. The Church of England’s newspaper, The Church Times, recently published the figures.

Last year the total cost of ordinary parish ministry was £32.4 million, while related expenditure on administration and church buildings dropped from £7 million to £6.4 million (presumably because of closures and savings on staff). In the same period the Church spent £6.6 million on cathedrals and staff and £24.5 million on Bishops, an 18% rise.

Last year, on actuarial advice, the Church imposed savings of £4 million on “mission” (evangelism and outreach work in communities). They did so largely by the sale of redundant churches and by delaying repairs on bishops’ palaces. However, these savings were wiped out because the total cost of keeping bishops rose by nearly £4 million.

The closure of churches for sale or rent is a form of modern enclosure which we should all resist. These buildings are our birthright, and whatever our religious background, constitute our common wealth.

In an idle moment, I penned my own version of the old English rhyme to which I referred above. I wrote:

“They blame the drunks who swear and falter
And steal brass crosses off the altar
But don’t condemn the fine church bosses
Who steal the churches from the crosses.”

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