Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

The Lord Bishop of Norwich: My Lords, I too am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, for initiating this timely debate.

My colleague, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London, has been, as he told us, instrumental in promoting a coherent national strategy on church buildings in the Church of England. That is necessary partly because our ancient parish churches are cared for as a result of the best sort of localism. Thousands of volunteers maintain and raise funds for that priceless part of our national heritage, which is why, strangely, our parish churches have perhaps never
 
25 Oct 2004 : Column 1150
 
been so well cared for as they are now. Most of them are loved, but the costs are spiralling and grant aid seems to be reducing. Rightly or wrongly, that is the perception.

I am far from convinced that the next generation of Christian people in the Church of England will want to give so much time to maintaining our architectural heritage as is the case with the present generation of Anglican Christians. Somehow, the impression is abroad that the Church of England is subsidised by the state, whereas the true position is almost precisely the reverse, as far as our built heritage goes and in most other ways. That is why this debate is so timely.

The diocese of Norwich contains a greater concentration of medieval churches than anywhere else in western Europe. It is reckoned too that almost half of all visitors to Norfolk visit a parish church during their stay; they can hardly avoid it—there are so many of them. More than half a million visitors come to Norwich Cathedral each year. It is, I am told, the biggest tourist attraction in East Anglia, although it does not set out to be one. As an economic driver for the city of Norwich, the cathedral's contribution to local spending and in support of other businesses must be enormous.

Theme parks and casinos are now more commonly spoken of as wonderful economic drivers for a town, city or region. There is something that seems to prevent us acknowledging churches and cathedrals in quite the same way. On the church side, we do not normally calculate those things in case we are regarded as unspiritual. On the tourism side, there seems to be a coyness about the promotion of churches and religious buildings, perhaps because the secular mindset takes over and then their significance is underplayed.

It is time that we put that right. As the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, has reminded us, these are community buildings. The Church of England has never regarded them as exclusively for worship—think, for example, of the concerts everywhere to which my colleague referred. Yet it is noticeable that this is how some of the funding agencies seem to regard them. I have been told more than once that the village hall is for everyone, but faith-based buildings are not. If the people of this country are not to be separated from their own heritage, that argument, which has become very fashionable, needs countering.

Some of our parish churches have been transformed for wider community purposes, and to good effect. The nave of one of our Norfolk village churches is already effectively the school hall and gymnasium for the very cramped village school next door. That is achievable only if pews are removed. But the passionate defences mounted by some people for that backbreaking form of seating never fails to astound me. I notice that the defences of pews are normally mounted by those who never sit in them. I am not saying that people here do that, of course, because we are very comfortably upholstered.

If we are again to use the naves of our parish churches for community use—for which the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, pleads, and I agree with
 
25 Oct 2004 : Column 1151
 
him—just as they were in the Middle Ages, then we have to get away from thinking that our churches as we have received them, furnishings and all, are what they are meant to look like. Conservation is not the enemy of community building, but it can be if interpreted too narrowly.

Last year, some professional, independent research was undertaken about the community work and social outreach of churches within the city of Norwich. In fact, it was limited to all the churches that lay within the inner ring road. So it was not the total city by any means. We are not short of churches there.

The research was not about the state of the buildings, but about the communities who worshipped in them and what the people who worshipped there did for the wider community around and about. The results were astonishing. We really had no idea that our churches ran so many luncheon clubs for the elderly, children's holiday schemes, drop-in facilities for the homeless, bereavement counselling groups, mother and toddler clubs, youth groups and all the rest.

The number of volunteers involved and the number of hours that they gave to this wider community work was calculated. If that work was removed, it would take at least 80 full-time community workers to replace it. Calculating the contribution to the community by multiplying the number of volunteer hours spent on such activities in our churches by the minimum wage meant a contribution of nearly £700,000 per annum to the local economy.

This debate is not simply about opening up unused church buildings for use by the wider community; it is about something much subtler than that. It is about the connectedness between our churches and wider community life. As a result of that research and its consequences, a month ago we had a reception for more than 200 Christian volunteers engaged in community work in Norwich at which the chief executive of the county council and many others from our local authority simply said, "Thank you".

It is difficult to underestimate the social glue provided by our Church communities and the social capital that they build. All of that is equally true in rural areas—perhaps even more so. But we face a very significant problem in the most rural locations. Last Sunday week, I was rededicating All Saints, Brandon Parva in Norfolk after a major restoration. English Heritage had contributed generously, but nothing at all would have happened were it not for the determination of a small band of local people. The total population of this rural parish is 38. I have more than 100 parishes in my diocese where the total population reaches only double figures and, in a few cases, not even that. All Saints, Brandon Parva has no electricity, no running water or any other services apart from godly ones. It is not any good suggesting that it should be turned over to community use since that assumes a scale of community which does not exist. Many architectural jewels are in this predicament and there needs to be special help for them, otherwise we shall lose them over the course of time.
 
25 Oct 2004 : Column 1152
 

It has been my experience that there is good understanding at ministerial level of these matters, along with a readiness to work with the Church, given its substantial contribution to community service. I do not think that attitudes are always quite as enlightened or informed among the staff of some government departments and agencies. That is why last week's initiative and debates like this are so important. There is indeed a word to be spread.

Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville: My Lords, I rise to speak briefly in the gap, having consulted the noble Lord, Lord Phillips. I speak as an ordinary worshipper in Anglican pews and one who, since our own hamlet does not possess a church, worships at least once a year in a score of different churches.

I declare an interest as a former chairman of the Churches Conservation Trust. I am a peripatetic disciple of Betjeman's 1958 Collins Guide, with its brilliant preface of three score or so pages by the poet laureate as he then was not, and I am an admiring and travelling addict of Sir Simon Jenkins's discriminating choice of the country's 1,000 best churches. The views in the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, which crowned his happy initiative of launching this subject for debate tonight, are echoed by Sir Simon Jenkins in articles that he has written on the same subject and I concur with them both, within reason.

As a practising Christian, however, I wish mildly to rebut the plaint of the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, about declining congregations, diminishing funds and deteriorating fabrics, although of course the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich indicated just how severe the problems are in certain parts of that famous diocese.

The parish church from which eponymously I derive my title is medieval, Grade II listed and last restored in 1862. It is, roughly speaking, in a dispersed rural parish containing around 100 people in the parish proper and another 100 in our own adjacent, dispersed hamlet, who render to Caesar their local government rates to Sutton Mandeville while being attached ecclesiastically elsewhere.

Last year, the diocesan architect confronted us with the challenge of raising £65,000, primarily for our splendid tower. Your Lordships can calculate what that means in terms of the number of parishioners I mentioned on a per capita basis. Are we downhearted? We are not. We gave ourselves three years to raise the money and, in the year since we started, we have already raised half of it. The church is our only community building in the parish itself, although there is a notable 14th century pub in our neighbouring hamlet. Every household in the parish has contributed to the appeal. The whole parish cherishes the church as our only communal building, and the congregation—a pretty intimate one, I acknowledge—feels spiritually enlarged and communally enthusiastic in being engaged on this great project, and to the glory of God.
 
25 Oct 2004 : Column 1153
 

8.18 p.m.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page