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UK Culture Secretary wants to see redundant churches fit for purpose


The UK government’s Culture Secretary, Andy Burnham, has suggested that church buildings not viable for small congregations could be turned into gyms, restaurants and multi-faith centres for local communities.

As the historic denominations struggle with numbers, and as newer churches, other faiths and alternative spiritualities show signs of growth, so Britain’s complex and mutating mix of beliefs – which also includes an enlarging number of non-believers – is throwing up dilemmas about what to do when inherited buildings prove no longer "fit for purpose" in post-Christendom.

Mr Burnham said last week that while it was important to preserve the architectural beauty of some of the churches, many of which have listed status, they may serve the community better by becoming multi-use.

The comments, reported in the Telegraph newspaper and elsewhere, follow the Culture Secretary’s suggestion earlier in October 2008 that libraries could benefit from being modernised with coffee bars and abolishing the silence rule.

A Church of England spokesperson pointed out that Mr Burnham’s suggestion would only apply to a minority of its 10,000 churches now deemed redundant, amounting to around 30 a year.

The National Secular Society has consistently opposed government and local authority grants for religious buildings, whether for sole or shared use and also opposes tax breaks for this purpose.

But Mr Burnham said if the UK could not preserve some of its church buildings "then we need to find new purposes with the support of the local community and we need to increase secular interest in our church heritage."

He used the example of the recent multi-million pound renovation of All Souls Church in Bolton, an Anglican church which has "found a new multi-faith, multi-racial community to serve."

Mr Burnham also used an example of a former church, St Peter’s in Liverpool, which had been turned into a themed restaurant and bar called Alma De Cuba in 2005.

Simon Barrow, co-director of the religion and society think-tank Ekklesia, said that "imaginative strategies" are needed when particular church buildings prove unsustainable. These need to recognise the "changing demography of belief, religious practice, architectural heritage and community use in Britain today."

He pointed out that many local churches "have been using their buildings creatively and in partnership with others in the local community for many years. In some situations the buildings that have been inherited are beautiful but not adaptive or cost-effective for contemporary congregational life. In other cases they can be adapted or shared. And in some cases the answer is to transition to new use."

Barrow continued: "There is no one solution. But both churches and communities including those of other faith and no religious affiliation have an interest in what happens. Proposals need to be fair, transparent and open. This is a good opportunity to rethink relationships and possibilities of engagement between religious and non-religious civic groups."

One Welsh church worker told Ekklesia that a good solution to unsustainable buildings in some areas might be to make them over free of charge to community ownership and funding, with the former congregation a stakeholder in a new partnership arrangement.

Ekklesia www.ekklesia.co.uk (This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 England & 2.0 England & Wales License)