After two years of Covid and in the midst of massive social and economic change, and like many organisations, the Church of England in Cornwall is thinking carefully about the future.

As part of that, local churches have been asked to consider how they might be fruitful and sustainable in the 21st century. That includes considering how we can continue our widespread support for children and families, how we care for the environment and work with the poorest communities, how we help people explore faith and meet God and how we find ways to do all that in a changing world. As part of that planning for the future, we need to think carefully about how we care for the church buildings that we look after.

On the Way encourages and supports local churches, working together in their deaneries, to face the reality of the challenges in front of us.

On the Way is not a ‘one size fits all’ process. It is also not a plan designed by others for the local church. We think that people in our churches are the best people to make decisions about their futures. We trust them and believe they are best placed to understand their communities.

On The Way advisors support deaneries to enable church communities and those that they serve to dream, pray and plan for the future.

St Sampson’s in South Hill is one church that is currently involved in On The Way. It has taken innovative and proactive steps to ensure it is fruitful and sustainable for the future. There is currently a half a million pound restoration project underway at St Sampson’s and those involved have turned problems into blessings.

Judith Ayers, Reader and PCC Secretary at St Sampson’s, said: “Church restoration often starts with the faith community wanting to ‘fix’ their building.  For us this has had an amazing knock-on effect.  We needed to think what we could do with the building and community consultation came up with over one hundred ideas.  To do any of these we needed to make the building warm, dry and draught free, with works to the roof, ceiling, windows, floor and heating – and we needed to put in a toilet and kitchen.  From the start we realised it was not a building project but a mission project.  An opportunity to open the church for all to use and for people to experience the awesome sacred place which is St Sampson’s Church.”

The Rt Revd Philip Mounstephen, Bishop of Truro, said: “I am delighted when people catch a fresh vision for what is possible in their local church community. That’s just what’s happened at St Sampson’s and I’m an enthusiastic supporter of all they are doing there. I’m overjoyed to see that happening in many other places too.”

The On the Way process includes a consultation process of around six to nine months when the deanery team share the emerging plan with their local church communities for input and feedback.

Their local churches are the first to see the proposals and only when that stage is complete is it shared with others including the bishops.

Church buildings are a significant part of Cornwall’s heritage. Across the whole of Cornwall, local congregations are responsible for 301 churches, the majority of them listed buildings and many of them the oldest buildings in their area. We love these buildings that have been entrusted to us; they speak of God, prayer and community, and we maintain them to a very high standard.

The responsibility and burden for maintaining these ancient churches falls to the congregations. The Church of England, locally, across Cornwall and in the nation as a whole, receives no central funding for the care of these ancient buildings. Instead it is for the congregation, which may be small, to raise the money required for their upkeep. In some places and from time to time however, it is impossible for small congregations to continue to raise the huge sums required for repairs and maintenance or to find people with the time, energy and skills to do this work.

There are also legal requirements in terms of officers of the Parochial Church Councils. In some places it is becoming harder and harder to find people to take on these roles.

St Torney in North Hill is a different story to the two previously mentioned but by no means a sad one. The church closed its doors in 2020 after its small congregation found it was no longer able to meet its financial obligations, including routine items like insurance and utility bills. Two years later and the church is set to be signed over to the Churches Conservation Trust, which will care for the building. And the congregation? It merged with those in Lewannick and is now served by the church of St Martin, which adapted to make it more flexible for community use including a community café.

The On The Way programme is not about money or closing churches, but rather giving those in the local communities the opportunity to decide for themselves, how best to lead their church communities into the years ahead. If the wider local communities wish to get involved and help keep the churches open with donations of time, money and energy, they would be welcomed with open arms.