Lucy Winkett: Churches have played a vital role throughout Covid. But their buildings are increasingly under threat.

20 Oct

The Revd Lucy Winkett is Rector of St James’s Church, Piccadilly, a writer and broadcaster. 

The new House of Good report by the National Churches Trust confirmed in figures what I, as Rector of a central London church, see in everyday life. Church buildings, whether in urban or rural areas, can be and often are, hubs of community activity inspired by, but not constrained by, their central religious purpose on a Sunday.

The Covid-19 pandemic is causing isolation, loneliness, mental fragility and economic deprivation on a huge scale. Churches provide enormous value, far beyond what is often a small gathered congregation once a week or a couple of times a month.   

It may seem a strange thing for the church to do; to try to quantify in hard data, what the value of its work is. On one level, of course this is right; our main activity – prayer and worship – is almost by definition, immeasurable. But what the report calls the “Halo effect” is key. There are social, economic and cultural activities undertaken by churches in their local communities that can be measured.

The report, which for the first time evaluates the economic and social impact of churches, found them to be contributing services worth £12.4 billion: a combination of direct market value, volunteers’ time, the replacement cost of services and wellbeing value based on the wellbeing adjusted life year (WELLBY) measurement. 

Like many other churches, for years St James’s Church, Piccadilly has provided care and support for anyone who passes by, whether they are local workers, people going through homelessness or people in need of someone to talk to. Churches throughout the UK in every denomination are hosting food banks, addiction support services, mental health support and youth services. The need for these community-building initiatives is greater than ever.  

Although much has been written about church worship going digital as a result of Covid-19, much less attention has been paid to the way that churches have continued to provide help for people in need. While the pandemic closed church buildings for some time, the House of Good report has found that 89 per cent of church communities have continued to provide a range of help to local people, including a highly adaptive approach to the worship itself.

The need for this provision is bound to increase as businesses close and work across the hospitality, travel and cultural sectors dries up and more people are experiencing financial hardship. Families with one or two parents out of work, or in uncertain work, are increasingly resorting to food banks, the majority of which are housed in churches.

More people are now isolated or lonely, deprived of their usual social interactions and unable to meet up with loved ones. This has had a massive impact on mental health and on drug and alcohol abuse – and this will drive up the need for the counselling services and addiction support meetings which take place in church buildings. And the cheery socially distanced coffee morning, which might be the sole social contact for some, is taking on renewed importance as churches find the determination to adapt the old ways of gathering people together.  

But these buildings themselves are under threat, especially in the most deprived areas of the UK. These churches, often hundreds of years old, contend with crumbling roofs, deteriorating church halls, and inadequate kitchen and toilet facilities, which can make them unsuitable for the community help they provide and can lead to them being closed altogether.  

900 churches in the UK are currently on the Historic England “at risk” register and, on average, one Church of England church closes every fortnight. The National Churches Trust is approached by several hundred churches every year who are struggling to afford essential repairs and maintenance of their buildings, but they can only afford to fund one quarter of these applications. 

Many people think that church authorities or government pay for the upkeep of the UK’s church buildings. But it is actually up to parishes themselves to raise the money needed to repair a leaking roof or fix a crumbling spire. Very often, the sums needed are not large, but what this report shows is that the investment, however small, has an amplifier effect in terms of the good work that can be generated in a building that has a functioning toilet, a secure roof, a working boiler.

Because of their strategic importance, Government and the National Lottery Heritage Fund have an important role to play in helping to keep church buildings in good repair. 

Following on the successful “Taylor Pilots” run by Historic England, the NCT report shows that the Government could and should examine how best to establish a new repair and maintenance fund for places of worship. The social and economic benefit of doing so is now plain, and outlined in the data contained in this report.

Simple steps can be taken to increase the social and economic impact that church buildings can have on their localities. The Listed Places of Worship Grant Scheme pays for the VAT incurred in works to listed buildings in use as places of worship. In October 2019 it was announced that the scheme is to be extended by the Treasury for a further year until March 2021. This scheme should be guaranteed for at least the next five years, to provide certainty for churches undertaking repair projects. 

The devolved administrations and local authorities also have a role to play in providing a strategic overview for church buildings. This could include imaginative funding schemes, such as the Community Facilities Programme in Wales, which has provided grants to a wide range of buildings, including places of worship. 

Church buildings are “key places” – a ready-made network of responsive hubs that look after the care and wellbeing of the local community.

Together, let’s make sure these Houses of Good remain at the heart of the communities for which they were built – and can continue to play an integral part in the building of community and strengthening of society among all of us, from all faiths and none.

Chris Whitehouse: Faith leaders have a moral duty to be better prepared for the next pandemic

27 Jun

Chris Whitehouse leads the team at his public affairs agency, The Whitehouse Consultancy and is a papal Knight Commander of Saint Gregory.

Lockdown gave an unprecedented character this year to the major celebrations of the great Abrahamic faiths.

Those in the Jewish community endured Passover unable to join with family, friends and their wider community to celebrate the escape of the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt.

Those of Muslim beliefs found themselves daily breaking their Ramadan fast alone, not together; and approached the culmination of that celebration, Eid, at best in small household groups rather than with communal rejoicing.

]The Christian faiths marked the Last Supper on Maundy Thursday; the passion, crucifixion, and death of Jesus on Good Friday; and the resurrection of their Christ on Easter Sunday, without the usual community support in the dark hours or the joyous celebrations of the greatest day in the Christian calendar.

No amount of digital alternatives – Zoom meetings, live-streaming of services, on-line communal singing of religious songs – can really substitute for the mutual support in a time of crisis that comes from being together both physically and emotionally with those who share values and beliefs.

All those whose beliefs and cultural traditions involve them coming together to pray, to worship and to be in social communion have suffered as they endured separation from their wider communities; but for those, in particular, whose faith is nurtured through holy sacraments, their separation from what they believe to be the source of grace has been particularly painful.

Gathering in supportive worshipping communities and maintaining those horizontal relationships with other people is important.

But for those whose beliefs involve a sacramental tradition, that vertical relationship to God that comes through their access to his grace in the sacraments (for example, of holy communion and confession), to deny them that access is to starve them of the spiritual nurturing and sustenance their faith teaches them to crave.

For many of those Christians for whom the sacrament of communion, central to the mass, is the beating heart of their faith, to be able to be present in that sacrifice only remotely has not, for many, been to sense participation. On the contrary, it has exacerbated the sense of separation.

For a church founded on the blood of martyrs, persecuted, tortured, and executed for their subversive beliefs, it has been particularly uncomfortable to see the doors of our Christian churches locked when they could, and should, have remained open to allow private prayer and socially distanced participation in services.

That Westminster Cathedral and Westminster Abbey have remained closed, doors locked to keep out their faithful, whilst the local Sainsbury’s and Tesco have remained open, delivering socially-distanced access to physical food and drink, has been to exacerbate that pain of separation. Why a Warburton’s white medium sliced loaf, but not the bread of life itself?

That church leaders surrendered to this position at the outset of lock-down was perhaps understandable given the sense of crisis and uncertainty that prevailed at that time, but the closure could and should have been only temporary whilst practical precautions were introduced. It was not for our political masters to decide on the importance to the faithful of access to spiritual sustenance compared to other goods and services.

This plague has claimed many lives, including those of ministers of religion, and for their passing we mourn; but that they may have spent their final weeks denied the opportunity to share the sacraments with and to minister to the spiritual needs of their flocks must have been a cause of frustration and anguish to many. Not to hide behind locked doors did they tread the long and difficult path to religious ministry, but to share the love of God with his people and to be with them in their times of need.

Where was the priest to baptise my new grandchild? To marry my daughter whose wedding was postponed? To hear my confession and grant me absolution? To offer the sacrifice of mass and to let me take a personal, risk-assessed decision as to whether I should receive holy communion? To give the last rites to friends of faith who have died during the pandemic? To comfort my elderly and vulnerable mother, alone and fearful in her home?

For many people, these things are not just rituals, they are the building blocks of faith, the foundation upon which their lives, their families, their values, and their political views are based. Many are understandably frustrated, indeed angry, that these needs have been ignored.

Faith leaders will have had troubled consciences about these decisions; and there is no desire to exacerbate their doubts and fears; but their redemption can come only through them learning from these tragic few months, and by them making plans for the future so that when the next plague comes they are ready, their lamps are full of oil, and their wicks trimmed.

Church doors closed for a few hours for a deep clean and some social distancing sticky tape is acceptable; those doors being locked for 15 weeks is not. It must never happen again.

Matt Kilcoyne: An unholy alliance is frustrating our freedom to shop on Sunday. Johnson should take it on.

24 Jun

Matt Kilcoyne is Head Of Communications at the Adam Smith Institute.

An unholy alliance of small shops, supermarkets with convenience stores, unions and the church has formed again to oppose ending Sunday trading restrictions. The whole argument against letting the big shops open after 6.00pm appears quite confected. After all, no other industry has this weird restriction in place. Our NHS doctors and nurses can work Sunday night.

Few small business owners will refuse to help a customer if they come a-knocking after hours with a genuine need. You can even order online and have it delivered on a Sunday.

Meanwhile, if you’re a reporter with a sharp nose for a story it doesn’t matter if it breaks after your shift. Notably, an article announcing opposition to ending Sunday trading restrictions was published in Monday’s Daily Telegraph, indicating at least some of the editing was undertaken after 5.00pm the previous day.

Indeed, I’ve done something rather naughty while writing this. For you see, most of this piece was itself written on the Sabbath, by my own free choice. And unlike shift workers, I don’t even get paid to do so.

Yet for some reason, we arbitrarily do not allow shops larger than 3,000 square feet to open for more than six hours between 10.00am and 6.00pm on a Sunday. Deuteronomy is famous for its niche laws governing every aspect of the observant’s life, but I must have missed the verse that says shops with 3,001 square feet are too big, and that opening for more than six hours is forbidden.

The Old Testament calls for a day of rest. We have those written into law, just at times of our own choosing rather than convention. Universality is lovely in morals, but can be poor in practice.

Our restrictions hurt consumers, workers and businesses. They hold workers back from flexible and well-compensated hours; they reduce consumer choice; and they put pressure on time-poor and cash-poor parents in tight spots.

These current laws unfairly punish larger shops, when in fact these larger shops are precisely the ones that allow for much greater social distancing in the context of Covid-19. It is, to be frank, bizarre to encourage people to go to smaller shops, with the higher risk of interaction and contagion.

The same arguments Conservatives made against Sadiq Khan shutting down the tube at the beginning of this pandemic apply to those that want to control hours of opening for Sunday shoppers.

A great deal of our economy has gone off the cliff  but, like Wiley Coyote, we seem to have not yet realised. Instead of debates over the shopping habits of the past, we need as many ways as possible to increase transactions, consumption, and employment as we can muster.

We also need to find ways to keep us safe against the undimmed viral threat by allowing greater social distancing in stores, which is certainly helped by spreading out shoppers and staff over the week.

We consumer capitalists at the Adam Smith Institute have noted before that shoppers actually like the extra bit of choice: when Sunday trading laws were suspended during the Olympics, sales increased 2.8 per cent inside of London and 6.2 per cent outside of London.

The current restrictions are not even that traditionally British. Scotland has no restrictions on Sunday trading — workers have a right not to work on a Sunday should they so wish. Northern Ireland has even stricter laws than England and Wales, meaning you can only go to the supermarket between 1pm and 6pm.

Keep Sunday Special is made up of: the Association of Convenience Stores and the National Federation of Retail Newsagents; the Federation of Wholesale Distributors; the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers, the Church of England, and post offices.

Beside the Church of England, which understandably wants us all in the pews rather than pounding the high street, you may have spotted the giant vested interests in this campaign. All the shops are themselves quite happily open on Sunday (and that includes some supermarkets with smaller inner city stores too), those that supply these small stores, a union that wants to limit labour competition, and the post offices that are reliant on corner shops.

This has nothing to do with keeping Sunday special. It has everything to do with shutting out the competition.

The idea that we’re a downtrodden people beholden to capitalists that want us to work every single second of every single day like Scrooge himself is both wrong and wrongheaded. The opposition and the quick backtrack from Number 10 also shows something much more worrying: a weakness for sticking to a choice when it’s made at the heart of a government.

Instead of the surety that should come with an 80-seat majority and the public’s support, we’ve had another U-turn in record time. In the face of obvious vested interests and a small but vociferous campaign that says it can muster 50 MPs to its cause, but only managed seven names on an open letter. And there’s something really off and quite worrying about the Chief Whip’s personal opinion ending up on the front page of theTelegraph.

For a Government that is supposedly obsessed with public opinion, this decision shows a deaf ear. A recent YouGov poll found 48 per cent in favour of abolishing Sunday trading rules with just 31 per cent against. Conservative voters were most in favour – with 53 per cent of self-identified Tories saying they would support relaxed trading hours rules.

Nobody is going to suddenly turn up at your house at 6.00pm on the Lord’s day, and drag you out of the house to a supermarket and stand over you while you weep in the veg aisle. But your opposition to Sunday trading should not prevent me from having that choice.

Boris Johnson should take back control of the agenda from a vocal minority on Sunday trading. The existing rules are inconsistent and hypocritical. They do not reflect a 24/7 economy, where people can purchase online and receive deliveries any time. They are backed by vested interests masquerading under a campaign of faux outrage. In their place, with a decisive move to liberalise, could come more opportunities to work, hours that meet our needs and reduced risk — and a reflection of the values of the voters that put the Conservatives back into power in December.