If I get up reasonably promptly in the morning, for a few minutes I coincide with Farming Today on Radio 4. Even though it’s clear that farmers always have some complaint to make about the weather, no matter what the weather has been like, it’s an interesting insight into a world I have no other contact with, in my suburban environment. The programme’s reports aren’t all specifically about agriculture, but also look at rural society and issues facing it more generally (they regularly discuss internet access, for instance). A little while ago there was a series of pieces about the role of rural churches and what alternative uses might be made of them in a time when church attendance is mainly small. Listeners’ comments were broadcast. ‘No effort should be wasted on these useless buildings,’ went one, ‘bulldoze the lot and build houses’.
A little while later I was alerted to a discussion on a Facebook board that covers Hornington and the area around: someone had gone into Swanvale Halt church and found a couple of youngsters cycling around inside. It wouldn’t be the first time. Most of the comments concerned issues of respect and manners, and a few ribald statements about what Jesus might do, but one fellow suggested ‘Good for them, at least they’ve found a use for a useless building’.
I’m not suggesting such sentiments are common: in fact it’s clear from the reactions (or definite lack of reactions) to them that they are marginal and, for all I know, the Farming Today commentator and the chap on the message board are one and the same. Nor is it possible to judge whether they fit into something more coherent and thought-out than simply a spasm of irritation. Is this standpoint confined to religious buildings, or is it a utilitarian objection to any old structure which has outlived its original purpose? Whatever the truth of that, it’s worth noting that some people, at least, look at a church in the centre of their community and heartily resent its presence. The word ‘useless’, that unites both these comments, is probably the mildest of the epithets that might have been applied.