Churches must adapt, says Archbishop

The Archbishop of Canterbury called last night for more government money to help to adapt Norfolk's network of historic churches to be used by the communities they serve.

The Archbishop of Canterbury called last night for more government money to help to adapt Norfolk's network of historic churches to be used by the communities they serve.

On a three-day visit to the county, the Most Rev Dr Rowan Williams said churches could continue to be used for worship - but supported additional uses like post offices and language teaching for migrants.

Dr Williams spoke at the end of a busy day that began with a visit to St Mary's Church Hall in Attleborough, where he heard about the challenges facing churches in rural communities.

He then met the chaplaincy team at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital and saw the work they were doing with babies in the neonatal intensive care unit.

The third leg of his tour took in the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change at UEA, where Dr Williams took part in a round-table discussion on climate change.

Afterwards, he spoke of a “hugely encouraging” day, and offered hope for the future use of Norfolk's network of historic churches, many of which are struggling to survive because of crumbling infrastructure and dwindling congregations.

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He said: “I would like to see the government helping to make churches more adaptable and flexible. This morning we saw examples of churches serving as a community post office, spreading information about farmers' markets and being used for language teaching for migrants.

“When an historic church stops being used, often a whole community feels something has gone. The financial support has to come because churches are desperately stretched in their resources.”

He added: “The church is committed long-term to communities. It's not an agency that will come and go. That means communities have a resource that's not going to pull out.”

Dr Williams also offered his support to people looking to lively and original styles of worship.

He said: “There are always going to be people in communities that traditional church life doesn't touch, and church people who follow traditional patterns of worship often need to just give permission to people to do things in less traditional ways.

“It's not that people should stop doing traditional church things. They are good and valuable, but they are not everybody's style. Traditional church people need to relax and admit it's okay to do things differently.”

Dr Williams also made a rallying cry to Christians, at a time when falling congregations are painting a picture of a church in decline.

He said: “I don't think Christianity is dying out. It's going through quite a complicated set of transformations. We are not yet so irrelevant that people don't want to know what we think.

“I don't think the parish system is going to collapse - other things are going to grow up around it.

“Especially for young people, it's harder to be a Christian in society than it was when I was a teenager. I grew up almost in the last days of Christendom, where most of my friends belonged to a church and we didn't feel we were swimming against the tide. Now it takes a lot more independence and courage to be a Christian.

“I think it's an exciting period to belong to the church in this country in spite of all the problems. There's energy and depth of commitment that's driving these things forward.

“I feel Christianity remains relevant to people. I believe in a God who doesn't change and whose purpose was revealed in Jesus.”

He paid tribute to the work of the chaplaincy team at the N&N, and said he found his time in the neonatal intensive care unit “very moving”.

And he played down calls by some Christians for him to be more vocal about controversial issues.

“I think sometimes people expect Christian leaders to be people who've always got a loud, straightforward, one-sentence answer to problems. But often witness and challenge don't come best from headlines but from steady witness.

“I've often said I want to speak when I think I've got something useful to say that may make a difference.”

The three-day visit to the county, the first to Norfolk by an Archbishop of Canterbury since Dr George Carey in 1996, continues today with an address at Norwich Cathedral to over 600 clergy and key lay leaders on the subject of being a Christian in today's world.

He will then head to the diocesan youth and children's residential activity centre at Horstead, before meeting representatives of five “fresh expressions of church” at St Lawrence's at South Walsham.

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