Saturday, 7 May 2011

Churches, community, architecture and balance

I blogged recently (see Parish Capers) on the difficulties up at Jurby Church. Just the week after, the Northern News section of the Isle of Man Examiner mentioned a proposal for the church to become an arts centre during the week, with ‘business as usual’ on Sundays.
This, I fear, is desperate folly. Does the island really need yet another naff ‘arts centre’ where no actual arts can be experienced or practiced?
Honestly, those island galleries which get public subsidy would be substantially improved if they just took the pictures off the walls and left them bare. And shops run by duff daubers which pose as art galleries flog tat which even Jurby Junk would not take. As for Port Erin Arts Centre –who amongst us can recall the last time any art happened there, if ever, apart from some creative accountancy?
Come to think of it, our arts community may be even less popular than child molesters or tub-thumping evangelicals amongst those with even half a wit. Frankly, I would put these clueless, anal-gazing galoots lower than lepers on the social scale, and I do so as a well informed party.
I spent my early twenties working on the experimental fringe of the UK arts scene, back in the days when working class people could at least get a foothold in an industry now run entirely by wealthy inbreeds with two figure IQs, no natural talent and no incentive to develop any through hard work or practice.
But the dilemma of these small church communities, and this suggested compromise, is worth more serious thought.
As the bishop himself admitted in the last copy of Together, the Manx Anglican newsletter:
“I have been surprised by some statistics which reveal that between 1989 and 2009 this Diocese declined in numbers by a greater proportion than any other diocese of the Church of England: we are down 40% over that 20-year period.
There will, of course, be some who excuse this by saying that the Island was probably more religious than England in 1989. Then there will be others who respond that, since the Island’s population grew significantly during that period, the decline is actually worse!”
Add this new bombshell to that infamous report co-sponsored by government, Manx Heritage and the churches, which showed that by the admission of church leaders themselves some 40% of island churches are ‘surplus to requirement’, and it is clear we have a crisis for the churches, or more particularly for their dwindling congregations. But as someone who (it may surprise folk) takes a keener interest in church architecture than many actual church-goers, and who certainly cares about the quality of life of my community and neighbours (even religious ones) I am not sure I want to cheer. And I certainly do not want a decline in church-going to be yet another ‘investment opportunity’ for the thugs in the property development racket. We have lost quite enough decent Victorian, Edwardian and Art Deco landmarks to that already, if you don’t mind.
So if sometimes quite decent buildings, made with care and craftsmanship and where centuries of personal history have been played out, are not to be flattened to make way for (empty) luxury flats and office blocks or just car parks, but can be retained for some useful community purpose, which in the long or short term also allows ageing churchgoers to worship close to home with their friends, what should be the ‘ground rules’?
I raise the issue because I am genuinely interested. Using the case of Jurby as an example, I cannot see how the right balance is struck between the need of the church-goers for a certain moral and spiritual ‘ambience’ and the need for at least one place on the island where, for once, we can have real creative industry and discussion without having to worry about ‘offending’ religious bigots and their tiny, crypto-fascist view of the world.
I know we cannot trust either the churches, the politicians and civil servants or venal property developers to run this debate. But if we want better lives, and to retain better buildings for better, more varied use, perhaps we had better have it.

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