The Church of England says the rate at which churches are closing across the country is slowing – despite more than 400 closing their doors in a decade.
Recent analysis of Church of England data by the Telegraph newspaper found that 423 church buildings were closed between 2010 to 2019, a decline of around 6 percent. 209 of these were traditional churches while the remainder were former mission halls and other places licensed for worship.
The figures reflect the situation across the Church of England's 42 dioceses which comprises 12,300 parishes.
But is it all bad news or is there a wider glimmer of hope?
Wendy Matthews who is Head of Pastoral and Church Property at the Church of England tells Premier the rate of church closures has actually been slowing.
“I think it's always been the case that church buildings need to close sometimes, as the mission of the church changes and where people are living changes. There has always been change at the parish level, there's ebb and flow. So we always see a certain number of church buildings close.
“What we have seen in the last decade, particularly in relation to consecrated churches, is in fact the lowest point of church building closure for 50 years. The trend of closure has stayed very steady, since the 1990s, at 20 to 25 a year. That’s good news and shows how hard local communities work to keep their church buildings open.”
“It’s always good to look at the other side of things as well and I think long term trend is really important. This has been a very steady position since the 1990s and we have no evidence yet that the trend is going to alter.”
In figures seen by Premier, 760 churches closed between 1969 and 1979, while 485 were closed in the decade to 1989.
Between 1990 and 1999, 274 churches closed, while 243 were closed between 2000 and 2009.
Wendy Matthews says it is always difficult when the decision is taken for a church to close, although the process is usually lead at a local level.
“Churches are at the centre of the community and mean a lot to so many people, so it's heart-breaking for many people to see their local church close. It means a lot to the parish to try to keep them open. It’s always a very difficult process for a community to go through to have the loss of the church building. That’s why the church has particular legislation and very careful processes in place to make sure that that happens in an appropriate way.”
Reacting to the Telegraph’s analysis of the figures, the Dean of Southwark, the Very Reverend Andrew Nunn said he was shocked by the number of churches which had closed.
“I share the concern of many people that the policies that lead to the closure of churches may also mean that we will be seeing more and more changes to the parish system, which is, after all, the bedrock of the life of the Church of England for England.”
Wendy Matthews says it’s too early to say whether the pandemic will have an effect on church closures.
“Potentially, there are negative and positive impacts of Covid. In some cases, there might be older people who are still having to shield or be careful who may not be coming back to worship in a building as regularly.
"But on the other hand, we have seen people reconnect to their local place to their local community in Covid, perhaps be more aware of their local church. I think that's a real opportunity for the church in the future and we need to build on that. So there could be lots of good things coming from it and there’s a lot to celebrate in how communities have helped each other during this difficult time.”