Community spirit

Architecture - Churches fill up at Christmas, but that doesn't stop the rot. Simon Jenkins has a pla

How many readers will this Christmas dress their offspring a little more smartly than usual and walk them self-consciously to the local church for the annual visit? Just for the carols, they will say, or to help the school, or for that nice new vicar. They will go out of curiosity or nostalgia or parental guilt. Nobody wants their child never to have heard "All Things Bright and Beautiful" and "O Come, All Ye Faithful".

As a result, the church will look full. The rest of the year, it will be near empty. Churches in Britain are probably the emptiest buildings not up for sale. Most Protestant ones are at best used a few hours a week. While Nonconformists are selling off chapels by the thousand each year and reallocating the proceeds, Anglicans are constrained from such rationalisation by law, practice and tradition - and thank God, most people cry. But religion must be the most overcapitalised leisure activity in Britain, with barely half the revenue needed to sustain it.

Roughly 18,000 places of worship in England are listed as historic, 13,000 of them Anglican and 5,000 medieval. Half of all Grade I buildings are churches. They occupy prominent sites in the heart of commu-nities, immovable and undestroyable. After visiting a large proportion of them in my search for the "thousand best" in the 1990s, I was both elated and depressed. Only a dozen of my top thousand were in a really bad state, and the better churches were in remarkably good condition. This is entirely through the efforts of small groups of parishioners. They get no help from church commissioners, who claim to maintain people but not buildings. Grants from English Heritage and the Lottery are supplemented by fetes, jumble sales and a few benefactors.

Yet not many churches can claim the general support of their communities. Only a fifth of Anglican churches have more than a hundred worshippers on an average Sunday, and for most of the week the majority are deserted, locked and grim. They are dark holes in the midst of England's villages and towns. They retain some primacy in the community by presiding over rituals and rites of passage: 86 per cent of Britons say they have been inside a church of some sort at least once a year, usually for funerals and weddings. Nevertheless, I was shocked at how often I would ask the way to a church and be answered with "Don't know", even when a glorious Perpendicular tower was just round the corner. To most people, churches are now the private clubhouses of a tiny few.

The Church of England accepts that this problem is chronic, but it is less happy with the obvious solution. Churches, like all buildings, should be dedicated first to their original purpose, worship. But that worship should embrace all forms of local religion, not just Anglicanism. It seems wrong for the Church of England to claim exclusive use of buildings that were largely erected by the Church of Rome and paid for from local tithes.

Future state support for churches should be linked to a plan to concentrate all religious worship in parish churches. This would release the money tied up in other places of worship, often equally underused. The layout of most parish churches is ideally suited to multiple use, with separate aisles, vestries, choirs and chapels. In some places, this is already being done, with Catholics and even Orthodox congregations worshipping under one roof.

This will rarely be enough, however. A survey for English Heritage last year showed that while most people liked to have a church building near them, they thought it should be more widely used than for religious worship. To match their architectural presence and increase public support, parish churches must restore their ancient status as centres of community life. Naves should recover the lay uses they had in the Middle Ages, when they were the "one-stop shop" of parochial welfare. They were centres of local schooling, care of the elderly, legal aid and social work. They were venues for guild and charity activity, for music and entertainment. In return, the parish gave liberally to the church in taxes and bequests. Church-building and local culture were one. This is not an archaic concept: it flourishes in modern America.

Such changes are occurring in Britain, albeit modestly. I have seen churches that embrace concerts, meetings, nursery schools, old people's lunch clubs, cybercafes, car-boot sales, bookshops and even a Post Office. Tamworth church, on my last visit, was an extension of the market place outside. But in most pari-shes, existing church members greet such suggestions with howls of protest. The club is tight.

What is needed is a new parish contract, in which all churches requiring public money are obliged to throw their doors open to new tenants and new uses. In return, their maintenance must shift from being a private or central state obligation to being a charge on the parish or municipal rates, as it is in Germany and elsewhere.

These splendid buildings constitute Britain's most glorious cultural asset outside the metropolis. They contain the cream of British art and craftsmanship down the ages - the finest Gothic "virtual museum" in Europe. The parish church is the one local building that is peaceful, beautiful and potentially accessible to all. Yet for ever more people, its contents are as baffling as its liturgy.

We cannot lose these places. So we may as well use them.

England's Thousand Best Churches by Simon Jenkins is available in paperback from Penguin