Church of England & Ministry

In defence of the church – a response to Simon Jenkins…

Simon Jenkins wrote last week in The Guardian that we should nationalise our churches, in what I can only describe as a scathing and rather inaccurate attack on parish churches and the role of the Church of England. With a background that includes stints at English Heritage, the National Trust, The Times and The Economist amongst others, and as he himself states as a ‘non worshipper’ it’s quite clear what angle Jenkins is coming from.

The article read like sensationalist journalism and to be fair it worked on me, because my first reaction as a member of clergy in the Church of England, was anger. But it also saddens me that someone with such a great love of churches and historical buildings can misrepresent the church so badly, apparently unable to see beyond his own blinkered view.

I must confess in the post Easter brainfuzz – after our church served 6 congregations on Easter Sunday alone (some 500 people at a guess), including baptising 2 young people and a service that included people dancing in the aisles, oh and hosting a day centre for the street community yesterday – my brain might not do this response justice but I have to try. So here’s just a few points in response…

Jenkins notes that :

Every now and then the Church of England declares its buildings need to “reach out” beyond worshippers to the local community… But the heart is rarely in it. Why bother when the Church of England owns and controls everything?

Every now and then? Has he spoken to any member of clergy recently? Mission – ie: the calling of all Christians (not just clergy) to reach outside of our church walls – is a constant topic of discussion in the CofE, not an occasional whim, and for many clergy to say that ‘the heart is rarely in it’ is frankly insulting. Many of us are deeply passionate about reaching those outside of our immediate church communities as we seek to put God’s love into action in our parishes.

He goes on:

The Church of England is Britain’s oldest “nationalised” service industry – courtesy of Henry VIII, yet it resolutely refuses to serve the nation.

This is a ridiculous and unfair accusation, just thinking alone about the growing issue of people living in poverty in the UK, I wonder if Jenkins is aware quite how many churches run foodbanks, or night shelters for the homeless? A few years ago the Church Urban Fund published stats showing that 54% of Anglican parishes run at least one organised activity addressing a social need in their area, and numbers have increased since then.

The Trussell Trust, a Christian organisation and the largest provider of foodbanks in the UK, oversees more than 400 foodbanks, many of which (I can’t find the current stats, sorry) are run by churches and meeting the needs of those living in extreme poverty.

The number of people using overnight shelters has risen dramatically in the last few years also, with figures from the Government-spending watchdog the Audit Office, showing a 134% rise in rough-sleepers since 2010, and a 60% rise in the number of families living in temporary accommodation. Last year there were 107 church and community winter night shelters, almost double that of 2 years before and they receive no public funding to run, usually hosted by volunteers.

And yet Jenkins continues in his criticism…

Churches were built on the tithes and taxes of everyone, and in return supplied everyone with a modicum of education and welfare. The state now performs those tasks.

This as I am sure Jenkins knows, is misleading. Churches do currently receive some benefits like, being eligible for gift aid on donations, as registered charities, for example, and they can apply for grants like anyone else towards historic building repairs etc (this is not my area so forgive any inaccuracies). But in addition, each church pays its own ‘parish share’ an amount payable to each diocese (the CofE is divided into geographical areas called dioceses). This money effectively covers the cost of their minister. Some smaller parishes find this hard to pay in full and other larger churches pay over their share in order to help support others. This share largely comes from donations from members of the congregations themselves.

More, his suggestion that the state ‘now performs those tasks’ is quite laughable when you consider than many of the issues faced by those less well off in our society, are being caused by or made worse by governmental cuts. And the church is often the one filling in the gaps caused by those needs, as I mentioned above. Every day I come across those in my community who are dealing with great need and with very little state support – those with mental health problems, addictions, lonely older people, those living below the poverty line, all of whom we are attempting to help in our church. Even if you look beyond the organised projects or ministries to help support others, I am sure every member of clergy in the land can tell you stories of individual people knocking at their door seeking help knowing that the church is a place they can look to for help.

And finally we think about the area of worship. Jenkins, as he says, is not a worshipper so I wouldn’t expect him to understand the importance of worship and a place of worship to Christians, but he doesn’t even seem to try. He notes of churches:

They are not available for other forms of worship. Most refuse to marry or bury outsiders.

No, they are not available for other religions to worship, because they are buildings consecrated (dedicated) to worshipping the Christian God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. First and foremost they are dedicated to God, and if they weren’t, I’d wager than most, if not all, would not have been built in the first place! Intricate details, beautiful architecture, historical importance, all highlighted in Jenkins’ book ‘England’s Thousand Best Churches’ are there because people gave for the glory of God, because architects and patrons and donors wanted buildings that would give a sense of the presence of God, the glory of God not just to create a nice building, or as Jenkins suggests in his book – a museum. Many people visit churches because there is a sense of something ‘other’ there, an atmosphere of peace or of love, something that I suggest is as a result of the years of worship and prayer that have gone into a place, not simply because of a vaulted roof or a well sculpted stone boss.

And by the way, that bit about marriage and funerals being refused is rubbish. Actually according to church law, people have a right to be married in, or have their funeral in, their parish church, and there are very few reasons why people can be excluded from this, regardless of whether they are church goers or not.

Funeral ministry particularly is one where as clergy we have a huge opportunity to help support those outside the church in a time of great sorrow. Of all the funerals I’ve done so far, I’d say more than half have been for non-church goers ,but who themselves or whose families still look to the church to help them at an immensely difficult time and I count it as a privilege to come alongside them in love and compassion.

So Mr Jenkins, please don’t sensationalise your own view with such a misrepresentation of the church. And as for nationalisation? If you think the state will continue the good community work as the church currently does, I think you are sadly mistaken…

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  • Reply
    Cecile Gillard
    April 3, 2018 at 3:14 pm

    Thank you for this piece, much to reflect on. Just picking up on the foodbanks point:

    428 foodbanks were operating with the Trussell Trust network (year to 31.9.2017). I know of many other foodbanks that are operated wholly or primarily by churches and/or Christian volunteers.

    Between 1st April and 30th September 2017, The Trussell Trust’s foodbank network distributed 586,907 three day emergency food supplies to people in crisis compared to 519,342 during the same period last year, 208,956 of these went to children.

    • Reply
      April 3, 2018 at 6:59 pm

      Thanks Cecile. It’s totally shocking and I fear only going to get worse with Universal Credit rolling out…

    • Reply
      sandra sykes
      April 4, 2018 at 11:37 am

      and churches like ours don’t run a Foodbank but have a permanent box for donations to Foodbank in church- and let the community know that the church is open and they can leave food etc there anytime,

  • Reply
    Cecile Gillard
    April 3, 2018 at 3:52 pm

    This interactive map indicates the Church of England’s parish level presence, giving information about deprivation levels in the parishes we serve:

    Our English Cathedrals welcomed 1/2 million people to their regular scheduled services; 426,000 to special services (excludes attendance numbers at memorial services etc); 950,000 people to special events.
    They welcomed 310,000 children to educational events.
    They welcomed 9 million visitors.
    They also hosted 900 choirs singing (regular and occasional Cathedral choirs and visiting choirs)
    (Most recent available full year figures, 2016)

    • Reply
      April 3, 2018 at 7:01 pm

      Thanks this is really helpful.

  • Reply
    April 3, 2018 at 4:06 pm

    Thanks for an able refutation of Simon Jenkins blinkered article and a response that deserves wider consumption.

    I for one, spend more time outside the Church than inside, and when I’m inside, I’m often welcoming those who come to light candles, to gaze at our wonderful church, built for the people by a local land owner 166 years ago, concerned that his workers on the land and the growing community with heavy industry along the Thames had to travel many miles to one of the two ancient churches than present.

    He did this as he and his wife (who are both commemorated in Church) worried about the spiritual nurture often absent from their lives. At one stage, a large community of Romanies (around 4000) were living in Caravans on the Belvedere Marshes and had no support what so ever, that outreach remains today and we have many traveler families, who are living among us, and who come in their hundreds to the hatch, match and despatch of their people, as they’ve been associated with our Church for four or more generations.

    We struggle to maintain our church with no help from the State and rely on the charity of individual members and our community outreach activities for fund raising. There is much local deprivation and we participate in supporting a food bank and CAP Debt Centre within our Deanery.

    Our priority is a ministry and mission, together with our sister churches to the people of our community. We cooperate with ecumenically with other denominations and we have joint services each year and this year will be putting on a Christmas Nativity Play.

    If Simon Jenkins spoke not just to Clergy, but also to the very many volunteers who work in amazing ways both in the church and in the community and saw how outreach benefits everyone and brings people together, he might get a different idea of the value of of what Parish Churches of all denominations mean to their local communities.

    But in his secular, self satisfied world view, that wouldn’t be acceptable, he’d describe it as fake news – just as his piece is fake news.

    • Reply
      April 3, 2018 at 7:03 pm

      Thanks Ernie. I know my post only touched on a tiny portion of what our churches are doing, that’s why it’s so frustrating that someone like him would write such a misleading and unfair piece. People look to him as someone who knows about churches, but his view is so narrow that he misses such important work.

  • Reply
    Luke Larner
    April 4, 2018 at 2:27 pm

    Great stuff, couldn’t have put it any better. I live in a town where public services are falling apart at the seams and Churches and Christian organisations are picking up the slack (alongside other faith-based and non-faith based charities also doing excellent work).

  • Reply
    April 4, 2018 at 4:38 pm

    I think Jenkins was just winding you up a bit as he is prone to do but at least he is thinking creatively about demographic problems that the church has been avoiding for decades now. Nationalization will never happen but Linda Woodhead, a prominent sociologist of religion and a communicant of the COE, has floated the idea of creating something akin to the National Trust funded by membership dues to manage the large number of historic buildings that will soon be surplus to requirement over the next few decades.

    Bravo on your litany of good works but I must take exception when it comes to marriage – gay couples are excluded from your beneficence due to the homophobia that the COE can’t seem to shake itself from. The Bishops want the benefits, prestige and deference that comes with establishment whilst excluding a significant minority of the population from its remit. Such hypocrisy and special pleading will eventually lead to a confrontation with parliament that will finally open a discussion about disestablishment. Be careful what you wish for…

    • Reply
      April 4, 2018 at 6:19 pm

      Hi There.
      Interesting points on Jenkins article, thanks.
      Just wanted to respond about the 2nd para. I don’t sensor stuff on the blog, I’d much rather have conversations with people who might have a different view to mine. I don’t want this conversation to become about gay marriage, however your comments are incorrect, no one is ‘excluded’ from the church or it’s outreach, whatever their sexuality. Marriage is an area where there is a lot of debate I agree, but that doesn’t mean people are excluded from ‘our beneficence’ – at this church and many churches no one is (and I’m saddened by this in churches, whatever their theology, who can’t offer a loving welcome to all). Who knows what the future holds for the marriage debate but I really object to the use of the word ‘homophobic’ as a sweeping generalisation over the church. Many clergy are supportive of gay marriage even if they can’t actually preside at it due to church law, and many others struggle deeply with how to reconcile their theology of loving everyone, alongside the churches teaching on marriage. I also recognise that my objection to one word might seem offensive to you if you have suffered at the hands of the church or at those who are truly homophobic, and I can only apologise for that. With every blessing…

  • Reply
    April 4, 2018 at 10:18 pm

    I attended services at pretty much every church in the Chichester diocese between 2009 and 2013 (obviously including the ones in your benefice), as part of a pilgrimage/tour of much of England (and parts of Wales, Scotland and Ireland) that has led me to attend services at more than 4,000 places. Yours is once of the more successful benefices in East Sussex; frankly, the demographic situation is really desperate, and not least in Sussex: as you may know the deanery has ruminated the closure of East Chiltington, Hamsey and Piddinghoe, whilst Beddingham came within an ace of closure not so long ago. Fewer than 5% of the churches I have encountered are viable in demographic terms. Congregations are so heavily weighted to those aged over 80 and young people are so scarce almost everywhere that a devastating and terminal implosion is upon us.

    The Church of England is both a provider of pastoral and spiritual services and the custodian for a large number of precious buildings. I find Jenkins’ views limiting and reductive, but his proposal for the nationalisation of church buildings is sensible (he was one of the team that produced the otherwise disappointing Taylor Report last December which had few useful ideas, so his proposals are a significant advance on that report). PCCs are often tired and indigent; many will soon be extinct – they frequently lack the means or wherewithal to maintain the churches for which they are responsible (despite the many gallant efforts being made). Above all, they do not have the economies of scale in terms of the procurement of supplies and materials, or the procurement of resources that the state would be able to deploy. A significant structural problem can quickly lead to closure: see Botolphs in the lower Adur valley as a recent instance of this.

    Where Jenkins errs is in presuming that the state will provide subventions – that might be possible, but only if it is camouflaged (Taylor was commissioned by the Osborne Treasury to seek ways of reducing state support). In addition, he proposes that the liability be transferred to local government. Neither of these proposals are credible in the current political climate.

    The only solution I can think of is that the Commissioners (whose asset base has grown to £8.1bn as a function of the dioceses being bled white since the passage of the Pensions Measure 1997), are dis-endowed to the tune of about £3.5bn. That money would be transferred, along with title to all pre-1840 foundations (and certain Grade I and II* buildings erected after 1840) to DCMS. The money would form a permanent repairing fund. Naturally, it would be eroded over time, so I would suggest that part of the bargain would require any subsequent excess of the Commissioners’ assets over £7bn to be applied to augment the repairing fund. The transfer should be to central rather than local government, because local government will lack the economies of scale (which is the main problem with the bulk transfer to the state that occurred in France in 1905).

    In return the Church would enjoy a permanent, free right of use to all the transferred stock. I would also disestablish the Church in order to make the assumption of this liability by the state less controversial. We could have a form of disestablishment-lite, roughly along the lines of the Church of Scotland Acts 1921 and 1925 – where the CofS was declared a ‘national’ rather than state church.

    By these means the stock would be maintained for the benefit of the public, and the Church would be able to maintain its presence in almost every community (which it will not if it does not come up with a plan very quickly). Clergy, who are not trained to be the conservators of heritage buildings, would then be able to concentrate on mission, for which they are trained. However, the Church must move quickly before any remaining window of opportunity closes, as it will do in the next couple of years.

    Jenkins’ remarks about tithes and taxes are broadly correct, but parishes certainly did not provide ‘everyone’ with education and welfare. Whilst the civil and ecclesiastical parishes were synonymous from about 1531 (or 1605) to 1894, the provision of welfare was the responsibility of the parish overseers, who were not necessarily the incumbent or churchwardens, and the poor rate which funded this welfare was not the same as the church rate applied up to 1866 for the maintenance of the buildings. Tithe was levied universally until after 1836 when it was gradually commuted to a rentcharge (subject to reforms in 1918 and after the ‘wars’ of the 1930s, in 1936) before being abolished in 1977: incidentally, the Tithe Redemption Office was based in Sussex, at Durrington.

  • Reply
    Rowland Wateridge
    April 5, 2018 at 7:25 pm

    It was a provocative, and to some people a highly offensive article. Quite apart from the factual inaccuracies highlighted in other comments, churches are consecrated places where the sacred host is reserved and people come for private prayer. Whatever changes might be possible, it is no solution to propose using churches for purposes which are incompatible with their proper role as churches.

  • Reply
    Cecile Gillard
    April 6, 2018 at 11:09 am

    Thanks to all for your observations, much to ponder and pray about here – and much to give thanks for too!
    With regard to the suggestion from Mr Jenkins that the state might somehow provide some funding – I can only assume he has no contact at all with any kid of social action, family support and social care activities, anti-poverty action, support and care for those who are in need because of homelessness, addiction, abuse, domestic violence, modern slavery – the list goes on ……. I do in my professional work and my volunteering and I see, day after day, how little the state can now fund these ‘sharp end’ human need issues. Can anyone actually believe that the government (of any political shade) can somehow find a ‘magic money tree’ and shake it so funds rain down in plenteousness for the care of faith buildings of historical, heritage, artistic, cultural etc interest?

    As a certain tennis player was once famous for saying ‘You can not be serious!’

  • Reply
    April 18, 2018 at 2:57 pm

    I loved the piece you wrote here. The Church in all quarters ( I speak as a Canadian) is being pressured, and many who hold no faith in Christ keep telling us what the Church “Should be”. Outsiders are most intolerant of the Churches basic nature, “Followers of Christ” serving a Kingdom not of this world
    As you are a State Church , you certainly face a unique situation that we don’t have here in Canada. But let me say that when my wife and I were visiting the U.K we were heartily impressed by what it means to enter a building that has been worshiped in for multiple, multiple generations. I wept when I thought about it. The Church “Must Stand and that for Christ.
    We were so blessed!!! You have been given a true heritage Keep pressing on. God bless you and lift you up.

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