Rescuing our churches

Articles highlighting the plight of rural churches

By Peter Mann

It was a good week for spotting mentions of the Friends of Friendless Churches – and the plight of rural churches – first in County Life’s Christmas double issue (11/18 December 2019) where its regular Athena column was on the subject of ‘Our rural parish churches need help’ and then a proper feature article on the FoFC in The Guardian on Saturday (14th December 2019).

As any rural vicar will tell you, money for church repairs is always in short supply – as can be congregations to provide the cash.  To quote from the Country Life article:

There exist about 15,700 Church of England churches.  Collectively, they absorb almost £100 million per year in major repairs, all of which is donated or raised by parishioners.  A rump of about 600 are presently in a poor condition with no plans for repair.

Of the full total of churches, 9,000 enjoy a rural setting, two thirds of which are listed Grade 1 (3,200) or Grade II* (3,100 [this includes Hatley St George church]).  That means that the burden of maintaining them falls vey unequally on the population as a whole.  As a further complication, church attendance in rural communities continues to decline.  In 2001, of those rural churches, 780 had an attendance of 10 adults or less.  By 2015, that number had more than doubled to 2,000.

The patterns of church repair are hard to predict, but typically, many years of low expenditure followed by a costly project, such as re-reroofing.  It is the ability to meet the latter expense that’s so important and where some kind of central support – and advice – is crucial.  Yet, at present, parishioners are being shamefully failed in both respects by the church authorities and the Government (which accommodates historic church repairs by permitting VAT to be reclaimed).

This Christmas, Athena would like to salute the parishioners and churchwardens who keep this astonishing Christian inheritance alive with so little help or thanks.  She also acknowledges the work of bodies such as the Churches Conservation Trust and the Friends of Friendless Churches, the latter currently fundraising for such projects as essential repairs to the remote St Philip’s Caerdeon, Gwynedd.  She would also like to remind our politicians, all of whom have pledged to maintain free national-museum access, that in their neglect of parish churches, they are failing to save a national collection of at least equal significance and potential.

And, if stats are your thing, in the joint Autumn 2019 Newsletter of the Ancient Monuments Society and the Friends of Friendless Churches, Rachel Morley, FoFC Director, said some stand-out points from conferences she has attended this year, were:

The National Trust has 500 properties, 5½ million members, £500m annual revenue.  English Heritage has 400 properties, 1 million members, £31m annual revenue.  In Norfolk alone there are 659 medieval churches, but have no such support; Places of worship have come to define place – at least subliminally – in a rootless world.

Back in September at an Extraordinary Meeting of Hatley Parish Council, the Reverend Hilary Young, Priest-in-Charge of the parish of Gamlingay with Hatley St George and East Hatley, explained the issues currently facing Hatley St George church and expressed her hopes of securing the support of Hatley parishioners.

As reported in the minutes of the meeting (item four), the church requires a great deal of repair and maintenance work which has been identified in an architectural inspection that takes place every five years.  The most significant issues relate to the roof and the drainage system.  There are concerns that the rising water level is a result of the original drains having collapsed and as such a full survey is required.  It is also desirable to make the church more comfortable in winter months, as the current heating system is not very effective.  The Parochial Church Council is keen to get an improvement project started in the next couple of years but requires support and expertise for such projects from the Hatley community.  Cllr Astor offered to approach a number of residents to see if they might help to kickstart a project.  [Subsequently confirmed, see item six of the October 2019 HPC minutes.]

The Guardian article

Headed ‘Divine inspiration: rescuing run-down churches – a photo essay‘, the article notes ‘Nearly half of the Grade I-listed buildings in England are churches, and around 30 are put up for sale or closed every year.’

In the context of how really fortunate we are now St Denis’ in East Hatley is in the care of the FoFC, the article finishes:

The Friends receive no public funding in England and only modest support from the Church of Wales.  Otherwise, they are entirely reliant on support from their members and donations from the general public.  Though many churches petition the Friends for support, they don’t have the budget to rescue all those that are in need.  In fact, the organisation has a long list of churches that are under threat or that in some cases have been closed and have stood locked and deteriorating for over 12 years.  “There are more churches added to our list every quarter.  Some have been on this list for well over a decade,” says Rachel Morley, FoFC Director – pictured in the front pew in the final photograph in the article.

The Friends stress that cared for and cherished should not mean fossilised, and instead they want to offer their churches for public events such as concerts, knitting groups, seasonal lectures, art exhibitions, supper clubs and the occasional religious ceremony.  They intend to carry on working tirelessly to preserve what Shakespeare described as our magnificent “sermons in stone” for generations to come.

Can you help to support our rural churches?  In his great travel companion England’s thousand best churches, Sir Simon Jenkins answers the question whether visitors should pay to look round churches (he feels we should, and I agree, for ‘every little helps’) by quoting a notice in the chapel at Swell in Somerset, erected long before decimalisation [on 15 February 1971]:

If aught thou hast to give or lend,
This ancient parish church befriend.
If poor but still in spirit willing
Out with thy purse and give a shilling,
But if its depths should be profound
Think of God and give a pound.

And, of course, the Friends of Friendless Churches would welcome your direct support by becoming a member (perhaps as a Christmas present for someone you know who likes visiting churches).

Post created 16th Dec 2019, updated 25th Dec 2019; mini-update on 4th Jan 2023.