Covid can’t stop it. This year, as every year, the magic will descend, as people make a sometimes unfamiliar way to church, or at least pause to remember the point of it all: the birth of a baby around 2020 years ago. Although congregations won’t be allowed to belt out the words of O Come, All Ye Faithful, because singing in church has mostly been banned, and some services have been moved online, the reflective mood brought on by Covid-19 may focus minds more on the spiritual dimension of Christmas than on the frenzy of shopping that usually precedes it.

Churches are one of the few places that people can legitimately gather, albeit in smaller numbers than usual; and the fact that these buildings have often been in existence for many centuries, despite all that bubonic plague, civil war and the Luftwaffe could throw at them, gives consolation.

Age is the glory of the parish church, but also poses a threat. The cost of repairs to what could be a Grade 1-listed building can devolve upon a mere handful of people. About a quarter of the 16,000 parish churches in England are attended, on a regular basis, by fewer than 20 people – 800 of them have a congregation of less than 10.

Abbey Dore, in the sublime landscape of the Welsh Marches, is half the size of a cathedral and an important example of a Laudian interior, but hardly anyone lives in the parish. This church was originally built by a Cistercian monastery. Others are the work of medieval lords who often spent a large proportion of their income on the building and beautification of churches. Victorian landowners and industrialists were also prodigious builders. Those of us who go to a church service over Christmas may marvel at the legacy they have left us – while also wondering how on earth to keep it up.

Some congregations have been forced to throw in the towel. A number of churches have passed into the hands of admirable charities like the Friends of Friendless Churches and the Churches Conservation Trust, which care for scores of often remote and poetic places of worship, complete with box pews, wall paintings and medieval details. But thousands more keep up the fight, holding services and organising repairs, with less and less cash on which to do it.

This year has been dire. The Archbishop of Canterbury’s decision to close churches during the first lockdown cut off one income stream – the Sunday collection. Church fetes have also been cancelled and fees from the rites of passage (baptisms, weddings, burials) have dried up. It’s believed that most English dioceses will have made a loss this year in the region of £1 million.

At the same time, the National Heritage Lottery Fund, which used to be the only significant funder of church repairs, has stopped making grants of this kind. Almost incredibly, parish churches receive no regular help from government, except a reduction on the VAT charged on repairs. Sir Tony Baldry, then a Tory MP and Second Church Commissioner, succeeded in wringing £60 million out of George Osborne when he was chancellor, but there has been no second helping.

But Christmas is a season of miracles and let’s hope one is in store for the parish church. A new initiative is that of the festival church – open for worship on big occasions such as Easter and Harvest Festival but otherwise available for use by the population that surrounds it. Some Evangelicals see old churches as a money-guzzling irrelevance, but to the wider population, they are the one aspect of the Church of England that they like. You don’t have to believe in God to recognise the importance of a parish church to the ambience of the village and the consequent effect on property values.

Some churches have been taken on by local trusts, for the sake of the architecture more than the religion. And haven’t we been conscious of something else in this wretched year? Community. Neighbourliness has blossomed, among a population forced to stay in one place; local networks have helped us survive. Nothing symbolises community more than the parish church. As the Christmas story is told again and the familiar traditions are re-enacted, if only in reduced form, it’s time for it to experience a rebirth.


Clive Aslet is the author of ‘The Real Crown Jewels of England’ (Little, Brown)

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