The main purpose of a church building is to provide a roost or toilet for bats.
This isn’t a polemic point but an objective piece of analysis.
I once came across an apparently loaded claim that a hospital was being run chiefly for the convenience of administrators. It turned out that the claim was based on a careful evaluation of a number of very specific binary decisions (such as ‘make this small change to increase patient care but make administration quite difficult’ and ‘make this small change to make administration run smoothly but make carers’ lives more complicated’) and was simply a straight deduction.
So all one has to do is look at the balance of specific decisions.
‘This bat population is damaging the historic fabric’ or ‘that bat population is making it an unpleasant experience preparing for or participating in regular worship in a particular place’? The bats win and solutions need to be found which don’t disturb the bats - or the size of the fine might be astronomic.
I’ve been reminded of all this because it has just been announced that St Nicolas’ has got the full cost of the repairs needed to its south aisle roof from Government heritage funds (over £50 000, plus the refund of any VAT) - which is a great relief and we are really thankful.
Almost the last thing we have to do before we can go ahead with the work is provide proof that there are no bats there. I’m glad to say we are sure there aren’t and that we are trying to resist any resentment that we actually have to prove this to be the case.
But rather than appear to have a go at bats, this approach to analysis is really a sobering act of self scrutiny.
Objectively, the provision of a roost or toilet for bats is the main purpose of the provision of a church building. The preservation of built heritage is the second. Bat arguments win over heritage arguments, but otherwise heritage arguments usually win over any other arguments.
They certainly win over most mission arguments (‘this particular change to the fabric of the church would enable us to undertake mission in a better way’, ‘this money would be best used to address a pressing social need rather than repair the fabric to quite the standard heritage bodies would like’).
Third comes demonstrating compliance - or, to put the point positively, being clear how we are keeping people safe.
This doesn’t beat bats and heritage - if there are bats or valued heritage and a church can’t deliver things safely then the building may become disused and surrounding by hoardings to protect the bats or the fabric.
But it, quite rightly, beats almost everything else. From child protection policies to fire risk assessments reminders come in regularly about the levels of compliance required of us.
And, most shockingly, since this is a piece of self scrutiny rather than an anti-bat tirade, in fourth place is the provision of good manageable working conditions for stipendiary clergy.
Bats, heritage and being clear one is keeping people safe are more important and cannot be overlooked whatever pressure they put stipendiary clergy under, but otherwise the life of a church is actually arranged chiefly for the benefit of people like me.
Why do we have to raise quite so much money? Because the diocesan budget requires income to deploy hundreds of people like me.
Why are these churches asked to show loyalty to this particular wider grouping of churches? Because they share one stipendiary clergy appointment.
Why does this particular pattern of worship obtain in this group of churches? Because that is the one he or she can sustain.
In the end, arguments about other things which might benefit from the sacrificial giving of church members, about the natural grouping of churches or about a different rhythm or variety of worship in a particular place, are valid but are usually trumped by how things work best for the deployment of stipendiary clergy.
So, the main purpose of church buildings is to provide a roost or toilet for bats.
The preservation of built heritage is the second, and only the presence of bats is really allowed to trump this.
The next thing in importance is demonstrating that every precaution is being taken to keep people safe - unless this conflicts with bat protection or heritage preservation, in which case things should remain unsafe and unused.
Then (provided this doesn’t conflict with bat protection, heritage preservation or human safety requirements) things will be arranged so as best to enable a pattern of stipendiary ministry to operate smoothly.
If there are no bat protection, heritage preservation, human safety or clergy flourishing issues, then aspects of care, mission and prayer may set the agenda. Or there may be something I haven’t yet spotted so clearly which will push these things further down the queue.
Meanwhile, the tree cut down at the east end of St Nicolas’ a short while ago is having a good go at sprouting.