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: