In spite of decades of declining church attendance most congregations have battled successfully to keep their churches open. But, according to a recent report, the 2030 Sunday attendance figures could be down to 500,000, from fewer than one million today. Mr Field said: “If we look at the overall figures of baptisms, marriages and Sunday church attendance, the numbers are down very significantly.” He said that two recent “body blows” to the Church had brought the situation to a head. The first was the £800 million losses made by the Church Commissioners on property speculation in the 1980s.
With income from the commissioners’ remaining assets going to pay clergy pensions, he said, parishes had been forced to become almost entirely self-supporting as well as having to find extra funds to give to the dioceses to pay for increasing administrative costs. Mr Field said: “Some congregations are near the point of saying to their bishops: ‘Here are the keys.’ I fear that in the next five years there are going to be a large number of redundancies.” Towns and villages might have to set up trusts to look after them if they wanted the buildings to survive, he said. “It is not just a question of conservation, there is the equally important question of access, of letting people appreciate these churches. It is impossible to understand English history or architecture without knowing about the English Church. It is crucial to our sense of identity.” Mr Field said that the second blow was foot-and-mouth disease, which had led to a restructuring of farming in Britain with many small farms being taken over by conglomerates. As the people who ran these farms and their wives had often been the mainstays of the local country parish, serving as church wardens and vergers as well as being among the most generous givers to the collection plate, their loss was throwing churches into deeper crisis, he said.