Canon Hilary Barber: It’s time for the government to step in to protect our churches and chapels
By Canon Hilary Barber, Vicar of Halifax Minster
This week I’ve been across to France to begin the risk assessment for the planned tour next summer to Normandy, singing at Bayeux and Coutances Cathedrals, and the abbeys at Lucerne and Mont Saint Michel.
One cannot but be impressed at the mediaeval churches across France, located in every city and village. The Church has been separated from the State for many years, but the State does take responsibility for the maintenance of some of the nation’s most important religious buildings, and the majority that share the highest Listing.
The Cathedrals at Bayeux and Coutances are wonderful and majestic, dominating the sky line and standing tall and proud, pointing away from the struggles we experience here on earth, to another kingdom of peace and tranquillity.
Even the Abbey at Mont Saint Michel perched high on the rocks and only accessible when the tide is out, is a magnet for thousands of visitors, marvelling at this UNESCO heritage site.
Here in the UK we too have a rich history of faith and beautiful medieval buildings of our own. Like across the whole of Europe, these buildings are not simply examples of some past endeavour, mausoleums or museums locked into the past. They are assets that belong to the whole community whether you are a person of faith or none.
These are gathering places where they can be used for religious purposes and so much more, be it for visual and performing arts, for public consultations and meetings, for sanctuary and protest, for places to feast and fasting.
The Church of England has the majority of Listed buildings in England, and no longer has the resources to maintain these wonderful buildings. For too long the Amenities Societies have treated these places as museums and not working spaces, restricting modernisation and evolution, making it ever harder to make these community assets financially sustainable for future generations.
It’s time for the British government to step in to protect these buildings before we lose them in each community, for they provide essential spaces and a focus around which communities can gather, in times of plenty and in times of anxiety.
Here in Calderdale during the 19th and 20th century many churches and chapels were built as both religious houses and community spaces.
As the people of Calderdale, as we now begin to work with the Local Authority on Vision 2034, we need to look carefully at the future needs of every community, however big or small, and to recognise, that we are in danger of losing many of our churches and chapels, and in doing so, depriving communities of focal points, gathering spaces, places of heritage and culture.
Rather than simply close these buildings and turn them into alternative uses, we need to use our imagination, to explore how we can retain them as community assets, and seek to use them to bind communities together, improving the quality of life for local people living in Calderdale, from birth to the grave.