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Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Want a truly heavenly home? Why church conversions are all the rage

Why are so many churches for sale?

Rachel Morley is the director of Friends of Friendless Churches, a charity which campaigns for and rescues redundant historic places of worship threatened by demolition, decay or inappropriate conversion. “Churches can and should be kept for the benefit of current and future generations. These historic places are the very essence of placemaking in England.

“Consecration is a legal status. It means that a building was built for the glory of God and is as a matter of law set aside for God’s purposes. Deconsecration of an Anglican church means that the building has been withdrawn from regular worship by the Church of England (or the Church in Wales). Once this happens to a church, parishioners do not have the legal right to marry or be buried there.

“The Church of England has approximately 16,000 churches (of which 12,500 are listed as being of historic or architectural significance). Since the 1990s the closure rate has remained at roughly 20-25 per annum. Between 1969 and 2019, 1,972 churches closed. However, the Church Commissioners believe, post-Covid, this rate will increase, and are estimating between 314 and 368 closures in the next two to five years. Their most recent consultation seeks to make it easier and faster to close a church.

“In England, a PCC (parochial church council) decides whether to close a church or not, so at present the decision comes locally. Often, the hope is that they continue to have a life as a community building. For many, the difficulty comes with making this a reality. In Wales, the diocese (the Church in Wales has six diocesan bishops) decides what to close, and this can cause upset. However, when a church closes or is in danger of closure, people realise what they could lose and rally around.

“The decline of churches has been centuries in the making. The reasons for closure are all the usuals: dwindling, ageing congregations and a lack of money to pay the parish share and keep the building in a good state of repair. The move to industrial centres in the 19th century led to new churches and the abandonment of older, rural buildings. It’s difficult to drum up a lot of local support for remote churches. In 1801, 20 per cent of the population lived in cities. By 1901, that was up to 75 per cent.

“For a long time parish churches were supported by tithes (a compulsory tax of one tenth of earnings). In 1868, this ended. After that, they were funded by voluntary contributions, and since the 20th century, have relied on grants. However, in 2017, the Heritage Lottery Fund terminated its dedicated funding stream for places of worship.

“Over the past 18 months services have been forced to move online. Given the ensuing popularity of the slogan ‘the building is closed but the church is still open’, people’s wish to seek spiritual succour in an ancient building, perhaps with a daunting repair bill, may be further sapped as a result.

“With the church building itself increasingly seen as surplus to requirements, more church doors may close permanently.”

Heavenly stays

With stained-glass windows, soaring ceilings and a sense of the sublime, holiday rental sites now abound with converted church stays. The number of converted churches available to rent on Airbnb has more than tripled in the UK since 2015, and there are just under 150 converted churches currently listed across the UK on the platform.

Here’s our pick of the best converted churches and chapels for a divine staycation:

The Old Chapel at Slad

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