Seeking funds and congregants, the Church of England turns steeples into billboards

Upkeep costs continue to rise for its historic churches and fewer are filling the pews. What's a church to do?

The Rev. Mark Osborne is having trouble with his crocketted finials.

"They should lift the church skywards," he says of the stunted turrets topping St. John's gleaming brick tower.

But restoring them to their original Georgian grandeur and replacing the leaky roof over St. John's – the centerpiece of the chocolate-box Walham Green parish in West London – is beyond the fundraising prowess of his 250-strong congregation.

"The state won't help," he explains.

Indeed, despite owning 60 percent of all buildings listed on the country's historic register, such as St. John's, the Church of England receives only a tenth of the cash divvied out by authorities for restoration.

Last month the Church of England said the recession has punched a £1.3 billion ($2.1 billion) hole in its investments. So, Rev. Osborne must now reluctantly turn to advertising.

"A billboard on the church tower will help us become a self-funding parish," he explains.

If planning permission is granted, St John's could quickly match the £190,000 ($311,000) cash injection by English National Heritage, Britain's main architectural conservation charity, and meet the estimated $800,000 costs of a revamp.

There will also be strict rules to protect the integrity of the church, crafted by the Church of England and the advertising agency specializing in sales of space on "unconventional" sites.

"There'll be no ads promoting sex, booze, gambling, or cigarettes – so, a giant Wonderbra ad will not be disturbing the residents of Walham Green," the pastor says.

But such assurances are unlikely to persuade critics queasy at the idea of the Church of England embracing commercial values.

"The big picture shows the Church of England is in not just a deep financial crisis but also a theological one," says Jonathan Bartley codirector of the religious think tank Ekklesia.

Islam set to eclipse Church of England?

Dwindling Church of England attendances are forcing penurious parishes across the country to find new ways to finance the upkeep of their buildings.

Official Church figures from 2007 – the most recent – show a 1 percent decline in congregation numbers to 1,163,000 a week.

An independent study last year by Christian Research, a religious trend analyst, made for starker reading. It found evidence of less than 1 million churchgoers a week and predicted that Sunday attendances will shrink to fewer than 420,000 by 2030.

If born out, the Church of England will be less popular than Islam, Hinduism, and Sikhism; the same study anticipates Britain to be home to nearly 2 million practicing Muslims by 2035.

The Church of England disputes talk of its decline and has launched a PR offensive to show it can still draw the faithful as the nation's established church.

Transformation underway

Although the debate on its endurance rages, parishes are finding the windfall from advertising increasingly tempting.

Two miles away from St. John's, astride West London's main traffic artery in Hammersmith, a glance at the scaffolding cocooning St. Paul's Church reveals the tensions at play.

The church has made hundreds of thousands of pounds from giant billboards promoting everything from supermarkets to rock albums.

Currently, a robot head stares out from its buttresses, the highlight of a giant movie poster for the movie "Transformers: Revenge of The Fallen."

"Of course I would rather we didn't have to do it," says the Archdeacon of Middlesex, Stephan Welch, who leads the West London diocese.

"But we are in the midst of a consumer-orientated world and churches should be allowed to exploit that. Rather than seeing our buildings as something we have a passive responsibility for, we want to take control of them and make them work for our future. It is about making a dying church live."

Church 'struggling to find a role'

The church insists advertising is not a long-term plan, just an expedient measure to cover staggeringly expensive works. But the template for stronger ties between men of cloth and the market is set.

"We have a shop front, as it were, in most major streets in London," concedes the archdeacon.

Critics claim handing over that shop front to brands draws the Church of England further away from the heart of British life and ignores the deeper problem of its lack of relevance to the modern world.

"It's lost its identity. The established church is struggling to find a role," says Mr. Bartley, of Ekklesia.

He adds, "Perhaps instead of buying into a consumer culture for short-term gain, it should 'subvertise' and put out bold messages in touch with church ethics such as being against war and climate change. There would be long-term reward showing a church with strong values and beliefs."

Alarmed by the erosion of its base and growing secularism, the Church of England is launching a nationwide "Back to Church" campaign this autumn.

Even if it works, the long-term shape of the church here – and the condition of its buildings – remains far from certain.

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