Argus title : Clergy have a duty to safeguard our heritage

Just recently my elderly mother has been asking to go to church. It’s an unusual thing for her.

During my lifetime she has not been a churchgoer and, in fact, over the years has several times expressed an almost superstitious fear of prayer. It was as if she feared she would do damage if she attempted it.

However, her memory is much impaired and whatever the source of her concern, it now seems to have disappeared.

She remembers the comfort of going to church with her mother, long before I was born. She has happy memories of her husband, my father, who died after 59 years of marriage. She would like to go to church and think about him.

She tells me that she and Dad used into go churches to sit. I don’t know if this is true. I’d be pleasantly surprised if so. Dad disliked church liturgy and what he called “ritual”.

But one of the few comforts of Alzheimers is that while it strips people of real happy memories it can also help them to construct others.

I’ve been trying to find my mother a church within easy walking distance, because she is less mobile than she was. Unfortunately, there aren’t any close by.

There used to be a church just a short walk away on Ditchling Road, called St Saviour’s. It was a lovely little church, and was one of the local features which attracted my parents’ to the area when they bought their house back in 1977. At that time they had no thought of attending, but just liked the fact that it was there.

I used to live in a house backing onto it. I loved hearing the hymns on a Sunday, the deafening brass band which practised on a Thursday and the crashing and thumping of the dance class which seemed to be there every night.

Unfortunately, the congregation was too small to ‘sustain’ the church. Despite its potential for use as a community centre, the church was demolished in 1983 to make way for St Saviour’s Court, a large block of flats. Local people were told there was no alternative to closure, but were reassured that the parish would continue to be served by St Augustine’s at the lower end of Florence Road. It too had a well-used hall and was seen by churchgoers and non-churchgoers alike as a community resource.

It was a lot further to walk for anyone of limited mobility, but we were told there was no other option. Those who complained were told the sale would ‘safeguard’ St Augustine’s. I remember one elderly parishioner telling me she had been made to feel “almost guilty for saying anything”. She’d been led to believe that the authorities had a “strategy” for safeguarding the churches.

Whatever strategy it was, it didn’t work. In 2003, despite widespread protests, St Augustine’s Church was closed. Once again local people were told that the congregation wasn’t large enough to ‘sustain’ the church.

Now that St Augustine’s has gone, my mother’s only real option is St Peters Church – except that it too is at risk of closure. Earlier this week an article in the Argus referred to this and to the potential closure of a further 9 of the city’s churches. It also reported the launch of a national campaign to safeguard the many hundreds of Britain’s churches now under threat. The ‘Inspired’ campaign is being led by English Heritage and is supported by a range of celebrities, such as Jeremy Paxman and Jools Holland and prominent non-Christians such as Rabbi Lionel Blue.

What struck me most forcefully about the Argus report, was the contrast between the positive and passionate comments made those supporting the national campaign and the apparent defeatism of those representing local parishes (though I have recently been assured by a diocesan representative that this diocese does fully support the campaign).

I was very struck by Jeremy Paxman’s comment that “Church spires are the great punctuation points of our English countryside but the religious buildings of this country not only tell us where we are geographically, they tell us where we’ve come from”. I’m sure this is true. The fact that they were there before we came and will be there after our deaths is a source of strength and peace to many people.

I remember how much I loved to see the spire of St Saviour’s above the rooftops. Even now after all these years I still half expect it to be there. Such churches are like the beating heart of a community, providing a sense of continuity beyond our own individual lives. The musician Jools Holland called them “dear old friends and relatives”.

Given such strength of feeling about churches, I find it hard to believe that it even crossed the minds of local church leaders to close historic churches such as St Peter’s and the thirteenth century St Leonard’s Church in Hove. Rev Stephen Terry, St Leonard’s own priest, did not call for a local campaign to fight church closures. Instead he said how he would manage them, commenting “if I was backed against a wall it is St Leonard’s I would have to close as a place of worship”.

Rev Terry said “Although it’s nice to have these splendid buildings, you can’t say they matter more than the people.” This is of course true, but people need buildings. They are a focal point and a meeting place, a sacred space in a secular world. And there is little evidence to suggest clergy who fail to protect church buildings are any better at caring for people.

Rev Stephen Terry’s comment “We have too many churches for our numbers” echoes the conventional Church ‘line’ on closures, but it is untrue. A church is not like a supermarket which can be closed as market factors change.

The fact that congregations are small doesn’t make church buildings redundant. It’s more likely to indicate that priests need to change the way they work. And that the services offered in church buildings should be more responsive to community needs.

The Argus’ article quoted a report that, during the previous year, 89% of people surveyed had visited a church, “whether for marriages, funerals, quiet contemplation or regular services”. It matters not one whit whether such people are church-goers – or even Christian. The church belongs to them and priests have a duty to serve them.

There is no shortage of people to serve. The city has many social problems and is packed to the rafters with people of varying ages and backgrounds who at one time or another need care, support and guidance – or who want to explore spiritual matters or celebrate life events in a sacred place.

There are around 250,000 people here, living, working, playing and dying. We are the ‘congregation’.

Just as the Church has a mission to everyone, church buildings belong to us all. They are part of a Christian tradition and community in these islands which is well over a thousand years old. Our ancestors built churches, paid for them, worshipped in them, were baptised, married and buried in them. Colonial ancestors paid for them over hundreds of years with their sweat and blood. So they are a common treasury which no one generation has a right to squander.

Far from welcoming the campaign to save our churches, Rev Terry says he sees “no great reason why central government should bail us out.”

So I will give him a reason. Two thousand listed churches have been lost in the last 30 years. Government and English Heritage, councils and other bodies need to intervene because, on recent form, it seems that some church leaders who should be the custodians of our religious heritage cannot be trusted to safeguard it.

It is true that, as Rev Terry says, “churches are not buildings”. But equally the buildings are not the personal property or fiefdom of the existing clergy, parish councils, the bishops or even the Archbishop of Canterbury himself.

They belong to us and we should fight to keep them, encouraging their use for community services while protecting their purpose as sacred spaces and places of rest, tranquillity and religious devotion.

In the meanwhile I’ll take my mother to St Peter’s Church and see how she gets on. The music’s good and so is the priest, Fr David Biggs. And the scones and tea are excellent.

I think my mum will be fine.

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