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Church converts

As more churches in Britain fall silent, their empty edifices are finding new life as nightclubs, bagpipe training centers, theaters, pubs, and museums.

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Two of the three churches closed. One, St. Werburgh's, quickly became a climbing center. Margaret Ford, a devoted member until the church's closing in the late 1980s, says: "It is quite strange, very strange, to go in there today." But though they tried their hardest, she says, her small congregation couldn't keep the church open any longer. Today, "the Climbing Centre keeps the fabric going."

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Movements of population and a shortage of ministers have contributed to church closures. But, says the FFC's Matthew Saunders, the principle cause is undoubtedly dwindling congregations.

Lifelong churchgoer Elizabeth Warnock campaigned vigorously to save the 17th-18th century rural church in Pettinain, a tiny village in southwest Scotland where her husband has been an elder since the 1940s. Now "retired," the building belongs to the Scottish Redundant Churches Trust. Apart from the occasional tour, wedding, or funeral, it sits empty. "The young ones are not interested, you know," Mrs. Warnock says.

Statistics suggest a small increase in church closures in Britain from 2001 to 2002, but over the past 10 years closures have averaged a fairly steady 40 a year. This may not sound much in the face of a total of 15,000 live Anglican churches, but it accumulates.

Other denominations are facing losses, too. The Methodist Church saw 532 closures from 1992 to 2001. It has more than 6,300 chapels and churches in Britain.

Church redundancy follows a law of diminishing returns: Few ever go back to being live churches. Meantime, Mr. Saunders says churches are making hundreds of appeals every day, mainly for money, to restoration groups, charities, and private citizens. Although this shows how "absolutely tenacious people's love of their church is" and how hard they will fight to keep them open, he says, it also indicates many churches under threat of closure.

Both Saunders and Cullis say redundancy counts will likely rise in the next few years. Cullis speculates, "Perhaps psychologically the turn of the millennium meant that people are now thinking: 'Do we actually need this building?' or 'Do we want to worship in a slightly different form?' " She adds: "A lot of church-sharing goes on now in the Church of England. I think they are wanting to take it even further."

Lottery money

This could mean more churches becoming redundant than the CCT and other organizations can cope with. The CCT's government funding is now frozen for three years, and although the organization eagerly seeks HLF grants, not all the churches fit the strict criteria. St. Paul's does, says Cullis, "and I don't even want to imagine how we could have helped this church without the HLF's £2.3 million."

Saunders also points out that the HLF provided £24 million this year in answer to appeals from churches. This help has proved significant for individual churches, even if, overall, "it is a drop in the ocean."

Neither the CCT nor the FFC has qualms about using lottery money. But some churches have long histories of opposing gambling as dangerous and immoral. The Methodists and the Church of Scotland fall into this category. Yet in recent years both churches have managed to rationalize the possibility of applying for HLF grants for conservation of their buildings. In 1999, following the Church of Scotland's lead a year earlier, the Methodist Conference adopted a Statement on the National Lottery that allowed individual church councils to choose whether or not to apply for lottery money.

Paul Ingram of the Methodist Property Office says he would not advise a church needing preservation money to seek HLF funding. But would he mention it as an option? "Yes, we would, absolutely," he says. "It is a major source of funding."

Saunders says once a church is redundant, the rights and wrongs of using lottery grants no longer apply anyway. "The Methodists sell their [redundant] chapels, so they have no say over what new owners do with them," he says.