Sunday, 26 February 2012

Locked out again!

Yesterday I visited five churches in connection with a book I am editing.  (The book is called Landscapes of Faith and is on the Christian heritage of north-east England.)  I am doing some of the photography and wanted to take the opportunity of a bright clear Saturday to get some images of churches off the beaten tourist track. 

I was sad, but not surprised, to find that four of the five were locked.  To be honest, I had not expected anything else. Whether in remote country, villages or towns, there is at best a 50-50 chance of finding a parish church open. And if it's locked, there is less than a 10% chance of a notice somewhere telling us when it will be open.  Since most churches in rural areas now belong to shared benefices, it is likely that there will not even be a Sunday service in that church each week.  So it will remain locked and bolted and unused and univisited and unprayed-in for weeks at a time.  It's hard to avoid the conclusion that in the end it will be uncared for and unloved as a result. 

Of course, I still got some great images of these five churches' exteriors and settings.  But I achieved only one interior. I'll name this church by way of thanking its community.  It was Trimdon not far from Durham. The little church is islanded in the middle of a vast village green.  It is a charming village church: not one you would go hundreds of miles to see, perhaps, but worth seeing if you are in the north-east, quintessentially English and by the looks of things a jewel to its village community. It has a beautifully lopsided Norman chancel-arch that oughtn't to stay upright, though it must have done for 800+ years.  But the most delightful thing about this visit was what I found going on inside the church.  Sitting in a circle behind this Norman arch was a group of parishioners.  I tried not to eavesdrop, but in a small building I could hear snatches of conversation.  It seemed that they were discussing what they loved most about their church, and its significance for village and Christian life.  So here was a church not only open but in use.  I hope they did not find my presence intrusive. 

As for the locked churches, I'll be reticent.  But three of them have visitor potential in terms of their history, setting and architecture.  The fourth, in an urban setting, is unusual, probably that place's most significant piece of heritage.  But what is dispiriting is that there did not seem to be any recognition that people might want to come and pray in these places, drop in to light a candle or ponder, bring their personal blessings and pains into a sacred space and offer them to God.  Did their PCCs have a policy on when their churches were open, and why this mattered?  I've no idea.  But it did seem to me like a failure in mission. 

At the start of the Occupy episode at St Paul's Cathedral, there was much outraged comment about the Cathedral's locked doors.  Yet there are thousands of locked church doors across our nation.  This cannot be right when churches are public buildings, and when they are among the primary tools for mission, evangelism, hospitality and social care a parish has.  It's easy to blame insurers for insisting on closed churches when the risks of leaving them open are obvious.  (Insurers may like to comment on whether they are being accurately represented here....)  However, there are plenty of churches that achieve it by setting and announcing regular times when volunteers will be on a rota not only to police their church buildings but also (and far more important) to welcome visitors to them.  In that way, a parish gives a human and Christian face to its building, and demonstrates that it understands the high importance Christianity places on hospitality.  And it will help the local visitor/tourism economy. 

Here in the north-east we are working hard with skilled help to develop the use of our church buildings as part of our mission.  Some are famous, historic and beautiful, some have native charm, some are curious, some are plain and functonal, a few are (let's admit it) ugly.  But all of them have the potential to serve the gospel and their communities: that is why they are there.  Given the huge maintenance costs all church buildings attract, not to mention the time and effort (and worry) they require, it doesn't make sense that we don't put all this investment to work and earn some moral and spiritual return by making them accessible to the people they belong to.  That means all of us.  So please, please: open up!

This website is illuminating on the statistics of open and locked churches across England:


  1. I belong to a five church benefice near Canterbury. We have a policy of churches being open. Three are in remote locations, one of which is on the top of a hill surrounded by trees. There is a notice on the door where people can get the keys if they want to see inside. The other four churches are open during daylight hours, we've been rewarded by attempted break ins, thefts and burglary. But the policy remains unchanged (so far).

    All are ancient buildings, and on the tourist map for Kent. We don't have the resources in terms of volunteers to have people there all day, but our trust can only go so far. It will be sad if we have to lock them, but at some stage, the insurers will not give us an option.

    We try to have a service in every church every week, but again, clergy and lay ministry resources are thin on the ground. But there is at least 3 services a month in each church.

    We also have friends groups using some of our churches for concerts, local events. Even a Farmers Market in one, once a month. We'd love to do more, but its difficult without re-ordering the churches, and that causes more difficulties. While we are in an affluent area, we cover pockets of rural deprivation, which means that income doesn't allow much more than we are already doing.

    We'd love our village communities to take more ownership and a proactive role in having someone available in each church, but there's not that many coming forward to help. People expect the church to be there when they want it, and complain if we even rearrange a service. Not sure why? It's just a micro-reflection of problems affecting parishes countrywide.

  2. Thank you for mentioning my website and its information on church locking. I too would be interested to hear the views of insurers. Your penultimate paragraph raises an interesting point and prompts several questions; why spend vast sums of money, time (and worry) on locked churches which only a handful of people will ever see inside? Is it worth it? What is the point?

    Having spoken with thousands of churchwardens and clergy over the past 15 years I have more to say on this than could ever fit in this comment - probably enough for a book. However, there is one important observation that I've made that I will relate here; the vast majority of people who have opened locked churches for me have been very proud of their buildings and in many cases they regret having to have them locked. With the right encouragement and support to overcome real and imagined fears, many more PCCs would open the doors to their churches.

  3. It's nothing to do with the insurance companies, as Ecclesiastical Insurance Group have made very clear.

    There is wide variation between dioceses (I am afraid Durham shows particularly poorly in this respect) and I think the lead will need to come from bishops and archdeacons.

    Trevor Cooper, Chair of Council, The Ecclesiological Society