A message to churches of all denominations from your local community- please don’t sell your buildings to property developers. Rather, work with grassroots community organisations, reimagine and repurpose their use.
In 2015 Simon Jenkins wrote that there were 16,000 churches in the Church in England, with “more than a quarter seeing fewer than 20 worshippers on a Sunday – fewer than 10 in rural areas… The obvious answer is steadily to convert them to communal activities that are needed locally,… The reality is that the network of parish churches must be the nation’s grandest unexploited social resource. This network may be failing in its original purpose, but that does not obscure its potential. The essence of most churches is their beauty and physical prominence. They are the physical embodiment of local England and should recover their status as the community’s social and cultural focus. This will never happen while they retain their aura of religious exclusivity.”
In 2019 The National Churches Trust estimated that the total number of church buildings in England was 40,300. This doesn’t include parish halls, church school buildings and all of the other community spaces attached to churches.
“There are around 39,000 pubs in the UK, according to the latest figures from the Office of National Statistics, with more than 11,000 pubs having closed in the UK in the last decade – a fall of almost a quarter (23%).”
The number of church buildings is also substantially higher than other key public buildings in the UK. There are currently around 14,300 supermarkets, 11,500 post offices, 7,500 banks and 3,600 libraries
Churches will of course still be used for services on Sundays and at other times during the week, but local sports clubs and a variety of other community based projects with social values are crying out for spaces to operate from. Everyone wins and the social mission and community aims of the church are continued.
Exactly five years ago Brighton Table Tennis Club was given keys to the Fitzherbert’s Centre, the old St John the Baptist primary school in Kemptown, near the centre of Brighton.
We needed a minimum of 10 years as security of lease in order to be given a £100k facilities grant from Table Tennis England. Since then we have run it as a full time 10 table Table Tennis venue, with four hundred people coming through the doors every week. Sport England and other national bodies are interested in the BTTC as a model of community integration and social cohesion. Getting full time use of the venue has been transformational to our development.
Now there are plans for a significant investment for the Church into the adjoining Parish Hall in which the Real Junk Food Project Brighton (RJFPB) will be running a full time community cafe, serving intercepted food waste, on a pay as you feel basis for absolutely anyone in the local community. The new venture is going to be called The Fitzherbert Community Hub and is partnership between the Parish of St John the Baptist, BTTC, RJFPB and Voices in Exile.
Churches are under financial pressure after the pandemic as they have all lost critical income from lettings. There is a danger that many churches will no longer be financially viable in the coming years. Rather than parishes and dioceses looking at selling buildings, where possible local grassroots community groups and charities could be given shared management responsibilities of appropriate spaces and they can become thriving community hubs.
Local authorities have been decimated by austerity. Third sector organisations overly dependent on funding from their local council have been hardest hit. BTTC has been in an unusual position in terms of its ability to access funding from Sport England and others. We appreciate that there are finite resources on a national level especially at this time. However, a lot of church spaces wouldn’t require capital investment in order for them to be repurposed and shared with existing local community groups. All that is needed is for decision makers at a local and national level to embrace the idea.
Gig Buddies, The Real Junk Food Project Brighton and Audio Active are examples of three other incredibly successful and innovative projects who have navigated the current climate and have found a way of continuing to increase their impact over the last 10 years.
Gig Buddies is a prime example of an innovative blueprint being shared and scaled as part of reimagining the traditional model of provision for adults with learning disabilities. BTTC’s Building a Grassroots Community course hopes to empower other local grassroots organisations to explore the possibilities of repurposing some of these church spaces. It’s a very exciting prospect.
You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.
Photos are of BTTC in 2015, and five years later since being in The Fitzherbert’s Centre. Today is our fifth anniversary of being given keys to the building