Cambridgeshire is home to nearly three hundred historic parish churches. Nationally, due to their age, presence in the landscape, and the long and deep association between churches and the communities that built them, nearly 45 per cent of all Grade I listed buildings in England are churches. In parts of Cambridgeshire the proportion of Grade I listed buildings that are churches is even higher: more than 75 per cent in South Cambridgeshire and 70 per cent in Fenland. Statistical research has shown that more highly listed buildings are concentrated in unpopulous rural areas across England.
Statistics for Mission shows a worrying pattern of decline, with many highly significant church buildings at increasing risk of being lost to their communities through lack of income to maintain and develop them, and decline in traditional measures of success. The 2015 Statistics for Mission report admitted:
“Over recent decades, attendance at Church of England church services has gradually fallen…Most key measures of attendance have fallen by between 10 per cent and 15 per cent over the past 10 years.”
This continues a long-term trend; between 1970 and 2010 Sunday attendance showed an average decline of 46 per cent. Decline is, on average, the same in rural and urban areas; but with six or seven times as many church buildings per capita in rural areas, the need to take action in a predominantly rural diocese like Ely, is acute.
Lack of income and decline in use ultimately lead to church closure. The two national organisations tasked with caring for closed churches (Churches Conservation Trust and Friends of Friendless Churches), have capacity for new vestings of “one or two each year.” Therefore, in most cases, a closed church is permanently converted to a new use, changing it from a tool for mission into a permanent symbol of failure for the church in that place.
What appears to be a long-term fall in support for the church, as defined by traditional measures such as attendance at services, is not reflected in what is already known about the attitudes of local communities to the churches in their midst. Here support appears to be growing. The model of friends groups continues to expand, with an estimated 22,000 non-church-going “friends” working to support hundreds of churches nationally.
The range of commercial and community of activities carried out in some churches continues to grow, along with the alterations required to accommodate them. This indicates that the local community value of church buildings is complex and deep-rooted, and urgently needs to be better understood by churches.
At a national level, limited research carried out to date reflects this local strength of feeling. A National Churches Trust opinion poll carried out in 2015 revealed that “83 per cent of British adults think that the UK’s churches and chapels and meeting houses play an important role for society”.