In the case of the Church of England alone, there are around 16,000 churches in its national network. With recent church reports suggesting that just over 25% of churches have as few as 20 parishioners, it’s been described by Guardian journalist Simon Jenkins as the “nation’s grandest unexploited social resource.”
In terms of the church, a combination of under-use, high maintenance costs, and a lack of income generation has created an “unaffordable architectural legacy” – according to the Arthur Rank Centre church buildings can “become a stifling burden and a drain on energy and resources.” But these vast swathes of church property, as Rachel Laurence of the New Economics Foundation acknowledges, have largely been neglected by those working in Community Economic Development (at least here in the UK).
Alongside this institutional decline has been the significant loss of local services and public utilities in many villages and market towns, where post offices, banks, and food shops have closed. According to the Commission for Rural Communities, “it is estimated that 70% of villages in the UK have no local shop.” And in terms of rural banking services, between 1989 and 2012, 7,500 banks closed in the UK – more than 40% of banks.
In response to this market failure, many communities have worked together to create new initiatives to save shops, halls, and pubs, as well as leisure centres and other vital local assets. There are now more than 350 Community Co-ops in the UK, a model that is viable and effective, with the Plunkett Foundation’s research showing that “97% of the community owned village stores opened over the past 25 years are still open and trading today.”
But is there an institutional appetite within modern churches to uphold their social purpose, meet changing circumstances, and find new ways to engage their communities?