Renewed spirits

Brick Lane, in east London, is perhaps better known for its curry houses than its heritage. But halfway down is the great mosque, or Jamme Masjid, one of the most remarkable buildings in London. It was built in 1743-1744 as a Huguenot chapel and was taken over in 1815 by the London Society for Propagating Christianity Amongst the Jews. Four years later it became a Methodist chapel, which it remained until 1897 when it became a synagogue for orthodox Jews who had emigrated from eastern Europe to the East End. Finally in 1976, the Jews having moved on, it became a mosque.

The London Jamme Masjid is not a typical British religious building in that it has survived, chameleon-like, as a place of worship as populations have come and gone. More typical is the case of St Clement’s Church, Ordsall, in Greater Manchester. St Clement’s was one of four churches in a one-mile radius in Salford, two of which have now been demolished with the remaining one derelict. St Clement’s is the only church left in use. For 10 years it had had a perilous existence, for three it was closed. Five years ago, there were only three people in the congregation and this fine Grade II-listed church, built in 1877-1878, was too large. There were other problems too: the roof leaked and the stained glass windows had been smashed by vandals.

In England, there are about 47,000 Christian places of worship – a lot of heritage for the 6.3 per cent of the population that regularly goes to church; particularly as, between 1995 and 2005, Catholic church attendance shrunk by 27 per cent and Anglican attendance by 11 per cent.

Unsurprisingly, many who care about churches fear the worst, particularly as England, in the words of Richard Chartres, the Bishop of London, “is the most disestablished church in Europe”. He’s right. Churches in the UK, unlike their continental cousins, receive no direct government funding.

In France, the church and state were separated by law in 1905 and all religious buildings constructed before that date fell into state care. This is a substantial responsibility, as France has about 45,000 parish churches. In Germany, the funding model is more mixed with Länder (states), denominations and private money all playing a part. The federal subsidy derives from a 9 per cent income tax levy from church members that pays for the salaries and pensions of clergy and some maintenance and repair. However, in 1992, after German unification, more than 360,000 people ceded membership of protestant churches and 192,000 quit the Catholic church. This made a big dent in the funds available.

The secularisation of society has led to many problems for European churches, but for two areas in particular when it comes to heritage: the countryside and city centres.

In France, 80 per cent of churches are in rural areas and in some places one priest serves between 10 and 30 individual churches. Not surprisingly, mayors seeing these churches so little used are reluctant to pay for maintenance. There are similar problems in England. Population shifts mean that four rural counties – Lincolnshire, Herefordshire, Norfolk and Cumbria – have 1 per cent of England’s population but 12 per cent of its Grade I-listed Anglican churches: a huge responsibility for a small number of people.

Then there are problems in the big urban churches built to service growing 19th-century suburbs. A large urban diocese in Germany, Essen, recently announced plans to shut down 96 of its 300 churches. Many of these are post-war buildings erected to accommodate new workers in the 1950s and 1960s. Today, many are in areas with virtually no Christian inhabitants. In England, Brighton and Hove has a series of magnificent 19th-century churches but there are now simply too many in a small area and as many as 11 now have an uncertain future.

The Church of England has been championing extended use as a way to give these buildings a new lease of life. The idea is to find additional uses for churches that are often only used for a couple of hours on a Sunday. So at St Giles’s church in Shipbourne, Kent, there is now a regular farmers’ market with local produce sold on boards lying on the pew tops. This is a sensible additional use for a church in a village that lost its last shop in 1981. At St Clement’s, Ordsall, where the congregation today is 30, there is now a café, bingo and craft workshops, and the church is open for children during the school holidays.

There are other causes for optimism. Bishop Graham James of Norwich is proud of his record over the last 10 years in which he has not seen a single church close its doors. The experience of the Norwich diocese is not unique. In Germany, despite under-use and under-funding, just 0.4 per cent of churches have been demolished or sold. One reason for this is that hundreds of local associations have sprung up to support their churches. Many communities see churches as a symbol of their identity and will not contemplate closure.

In Arc-sur-Tille, near Dijon, France, the 2007 local elections were dominated by a decision by the town council to demolish St Martin’s parish church. All 16 councillors who voted for demolition were unseated by those wishing to repair and reuse it.

These examples tell not of an international heritage catastrophe, but of feisty determination and imaginative adaptation, perhaps not quite like the London Jamme Masjid, but of an equally successful kind.

Very often, survival is not a matter of religion but of local pride and identity; of history and heritage. In the words of Gerd Weiss, president of the association of conservation officers in Germany, “unlike any other kind of monument, churches are able to provoke the preservation instinct”. It is for this reason that they will survive.

Dr Simon Thurley is the chief executive of English Heritage

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