The bishop of Manchester has warned that many Church of England churches are unlikely to survive the pandemic. The normal trickle of church closures (around 25 per year) is set to become a steady stream in the next few years. 'I suspect the pace (of closures) will increase as a result of Covid', the Right Rev David Walker has said.
It will be a sad loss to the nation’s social fabric if hundreds of churches become flats, or offices, or are demolished. But there is another possibility.
The pandemic has highlighted our need to invest in local communities, and this is an opportunity to do so. The government should give every church that cannot afford to maintain itself the chance to double up as a community centre, owned and maintained by the local council. On Sundays, it will still be the site of worship, but the burden of maintenance will be lifted from the congregation.
Of course such mixed usage already happens to a large extent, but in almost all cases the church remains the owner of the building, and has to pay the costs. If a church becomes a community centre, then the church is just one renter of the space, alongside the yoga class, the cafe, the art club, maybe the local school that needs more space. The vicar will have more time to plan worship, visit the needy and discuss theology, now that he does not need to act as landlord of a crumbling pile.
Many vicars would find it impossible to cede control, and to be told by the community centre committee what they can and can’t do. But another sort of vicar will rise to the challenge of being a sort of squatter in what used to be his own building. It will mean that he has to be genuinely involved in his local community, in all its diversity. This might not be too bad for the Church’s image. The change might be a shot in the arm for the congregation, to use a currently potent metaphor. And for the rest of the local community too.