Bishop Viv's Diocesan Synod Presidential Address, 16 March 2024

First published 25th March 2024


The following address was delivered by the Rt Revd Vivienne Faull, Bishop of Bristol to the Diocesan Synod that took place at St Michael's Centre, Stoke Gifford on Saturday 16 March.

We know that churches are not essential to the life of Christians. Our faith has its roots in the story of a pilgrim people wandering in the wilderness, and in Lent we are reminded of Jesus back in that wilderness experience, resisting the temptation of the devil within which the seductive presence of the Jerusalem temple featured dramatically. And ask folk where they most often or easily sense the presence of the living God; it is on a hilltop or looking out over the ocean.

Buildings are not essential to the life of faith. But it is fascinating to note how the people of Israel found in the material presence of the tablets of the word a focus of the real presence of God in their midst. And, as we enter the days of the commemoration of Christ’s passion, we are reminded how there is a constant interplay between the inside and the outside. The upper room and the Mount of Olives. The high priest’s house and its courtyard. Golgotha and the garden tomb. The road to Emmaus and the inn at Emmaus.

And we will live out that interplay in the coming days of Palm Sunday processions and the reading of the passion in Church; the Good Friday Walk of witness and the three hours at the foot of the cross. The tidying and decoration of graveyards and the creation of Easter gardens inside the church building.

So to talk a little more about those church buildings. This diocese has two hundred church buildings. 57 of them are Grade 1 listed, amongst the most precious architectural gems in our national heritage. The Church of England has in its care 45% of the nation’s Grade 1 listed buildings. We have a lower proportion than many dioceses, but those we have (from, for example, Malmesbury Abbey to St Mary Redcliffe) are great treasures. On the other hand, 54 of our churches are unlisted. That may mean they are easier to adapt for new ways of being church. It may mean that they are showing signs of age or defect most demandingly concrete cancer…

In between are the Grade 2 or 2* churches including the many 19th century high Victorian gothic built to meet the needs of rapidly urbanising towns and the City of Bristol, built rapidly and often with more attention to appearance and fashion than build quality or sustainability.

And there we see the ambiguity of our church buildings. They are deeply loved, and deeply demanding. As you recalled your precious church building, you may have recalled the way in which that building was a place where you sensed God’s call, or call back, where you knew Christ’s healing or Christ’s challenging company. It may have been a place where you could be still and know the presence of God, or where you had joined with others in moments of deep joy, profound grief, or great perplexity.

But if you are a churchwarden or PCC member you will know how that beloved building draws on your attention, your skill, your time, your money.

That ambiguity, that interplay between the gift and demand of your church, the asset and liability it offers you is something which is so familiar. And it is glimpsed far beyond the worshipping community. Our communities do sense that our church buildings are places of refuge and sanctuary and, in recent years places where food and warmth and company are generously and gratefully received. More than that churches are reminders of our stories and our community’s story, made through a labour of love as architectural gifts to God, landmarks by which we navigate both geographically and socially and spiritually, connecting us to our ancestors, neighbours and strangers.

A community’s often inchoate affiliation with our church buildings results in both the hugely difficult task of negotiating change (put bluntly, when affiliation with the building has tipped into idolatry, notoriously when removing the pews) , but it also can result in significant financial support from way beyond that worshipping community.

The gift and demand of our church buildings is understood by heritage organisations and regionally by the County Historic churches Trusts and also increasingly by the National 3 Churches Trust 1which, using HM Treasury guidance on how to view impact of projects in financial terms (we may have other measures but have patience, because the calculations are striking). It is not only that churches nationally spend £1bn a year but the economic and social value of churches is £55bn a year, including the running, staffing and hiring out of church buildings, the replacement cost of volunteer time and the replacement cost of social and community services (foodbanks, youth groups, family support services). But there is in addition, the value of the impact on the wellbeing of those who attend church weekly. Going to church really is good for you. And there is the benefit of your church’s community outreach, and the value of the impact on wellbeing for individuals who become volunteers. All this calculated using Treasury frameworks of not just £1bn but £55bn a year.

Looking at that calculation from a different perspective, churches are delivering social care to those in need worth twice as much as the total spend on social care by local authorities. Churches are levelling up every single day and when £1 is invested in a church the return is over £16 to the economy and community.

And government knows that, because we are telling them and we are in conversation about a considerable increasing in financial support even in, or perhaps because of, the current cost of living crisis. But I am not sure that we are aware of this at diocesan level. I met recently with the Archbishop of Canterbury to review my ministry as Bishop. We talked about my work to raise awareness of the needs of those carrying responsibility for parish church buildings. He reported that, having conducted a dozen reviews recently I was the first diocesan bishop to mention church buildings.

But as the needs and demands of our buildings become increasingly pressing, I will continue to press the case. Too often parishes are left unsupported in their responsibilities. The weight of compliance continues to grow. The faculty system is not easy to negotiate. The demands of fundraising can seem completely overwhelming. And that’s all before the crisis of the lead on the church roof being stripped and stolen and put on a ship from the docks and the boiler you have tended over the years finally giving up the ghost.

So I am immensely grateful to those in our diocesan support staff who make the task as easy as it can be, naming Emma Bakewell, who provides superb support. The additional TC.T and national funding for church building officers is a Godsend. The chair of our FAC is both understanding of the stresses you face, and visionary in his determination to enable our church buildings to be developed so our Christina mission can flourish.

But for a church building to be kept in good repair and the mission and evangelism of our churches to flourish we are absolutely dependent on volunteers. You need much greater recognition, and support if, in times of great demand, you are to be enabled to have the energy and hope needed to keep going. The best way of keeping a church building in good repair is not so much to have a deep fabric fund with hundreds of thousands in it, but rather to have a lively worshipping community which loves its church and longs to share it with others and so share its faith.

I will continue to work to ensure that commitment is valued locally and nationally. And I will continue to give thanks to God for you, for your predecessors, and for those I pray will come after you.

Vivienne Faull
Bishop of Bristol


Powered by Church Edit