The pressing buildings challenge

One of the central debates at last week’s diocesan synod is one which is gaining increasing importance across our diocese, and indeed the Church of England.

The future of our buildings is one of those hot potato issues where emotion, history and heritage collide with the stark realities of mission need and a financial balance sheet.

Diocesan Secretary, Mike Eastwood, led synod’s debate outlining a new framework designed to support parishes in their conversations about buildings. We asked Mike why this has been brought onto the diocesan agenda now.

“It feels like the final element that we need to get around to” he said. “Our buildings are highly significant.  Significant in terms of the historical legacy we have received – one that we don’t want to casually discard. It is significant in terms the impact we have on our communities and it is significant in terms of the amount of time and money we spend maintaining our buildings.

This issue forms a central plank in Growing in Christ. We have a recognition that many of our buildings are broken but that this is possibly one of the harder conversations that we need to have.
“It’s one of those sensitive areas that can lead to a difficult, unproductive conversation if we don’t set it up well. When we talk about buildings we are talking about people’s memories and the lives and memories of entire communities. We feel that there’s no point starting the conversation because somebody will stop it, somebody else will prevent us from doing what we want – the diocese, the Church Commissioner, planning bodies, even our own congregations. It’s also one of those conversations where people recognise the problem in general – there’s too many poor quality church buildings in the diocese – but somehow ‘my church’ building always seems to be different, the exception.”

The proposed Buildings Framework has been devised by a team including our expert buildings and heritage advisors, DAC and input from the Church Commissioners. Modelled on the success of the Growth Planning Framework it sets out the practical questions that parishes may want to ask. It’s seen as a practical way into the conversation, an opportunity to have some form of what is/what might be discussion and to take some of the conflict and emotion out of the conversation. Mike very much hopes it will support a healthy, honest, open realistic discussion.

“It is perfectly understandable but generally unhelpful for people to get into defensive conversations when it comes to the future for our buildings” he explains. “This framework should help us steer away from that.  Fundamentally each PCC/DCC has to ask itself what is in the best interests of the parish. Is it on-going maintenance, incremental improvements, major adaptation, or radical change?” And Mike was clear that if a parish opted for radical change the we would engage as constructively as we can with those proposals, especially when relating to Church Commissioners and other authorities.

Mike is clear that this is absolutely not an agenda for closure. “Church buildings are symbols of God’s ongoing commitment to His communities We cannot be casual about our inheritance.  Decisions on buildings are best made locally, in the parish or the Deanery. It is not a tick box exercise; it has to be based on conversation but the conversation has to take place. It will be part of the Archdeacons’ Parish Review meetings. This is an area in which we need to be accountable to God and to each other”.

Yet again this is an area where the Diocese of Liverpool looks to be leading the way. “No one else is doing anything like this but others are interested in what we find.” But it is not a sign of yet more things to come. In fact this framework document will be the last one of its kind. “I have made a public commitment that this is the last of these documents. With this we will have a core set of documents covering mission and growth, buildings, money and numbers. That is what we need to tackle the major challenges we face as we build on what we have received and seek to grow in Christ.”