Vicar Graham Nelson can’t resist a chuckle when parishioners call him “The Demolition Man.”
Having served at half a dozen churches which have been knocked down, he concedes it is a pretty fair nickname for someone with his record.
But Rev Nelson can also appreciate the serious side of the story, not least for the Church of England as it fights the good fight to hold on to its congregation.
“Almost every church I’ve been involved with has closed,” he said. “I don’t know whether that says more about me than it does about the Church of England.
“But when you stop and think, it can get quite depressing really.”
As Preston’s longest-serving vicar, Rev Nelson is “between jobs” right now as he waits for another parish to come along. He fills his time as the Deanery’s supernumerary, standing in for clergy who are either ill or away on holiday.
“When I turn up they must say to themselves, ‘Oh no, he’s here to shut us down.’ But I’d like to think the next church I get could be a bit more long-term – both for me and the parish. We are fully-staffed right now in Preston. So that’s got to be a positive. I don’t know of any churches at the moment that are teetering on the brink.”
The decline of Anglican congregations in the city has been halted of late, with clergy insisting things are not looking too bad, for a change.
“The Church of England hit a high point in the 1950s and then suffered a massive decline in the sixties,” explained Rev Nelson, whose brother Chris is also a vicar at St Mary’s in Penwortham. “I suppose the sixties was when people found television and other things. Whatever those other things were they stopped them coming to church.
“What the Catholic Church has been going through in the eighties, nineties and 2000s, we went through in the sixties.
“There are the prophets of doom who say we have gone over the cliff edge. But I honestly don’t believe the Church is going to disappear, certainly not here. We were losing only around one to two per cent a year, if that. But we have actually had a few years where numbers have gone up.”
Rev Nelson has served in Birmingham, Lancaster - including the prison chapel - and, for the past 17 years, at various churches in Preston. He admits he has left a trail of demolition along the way.
“I think it was because I was prepared to go to places where others might not have gone, doing jobs that they might not have fancied.
“In one place I was living on a council estate which had rows of empty houses. The whole place was eventually knocked down, not just the church.
“The happiest time for me was between 1997 and 2010 when I was in Deepdale, but both my churches there were closed. It was a Cathloic priest who first called me The Demolition Man and the name just stuck.”