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…