In every edition, Church Building & Heritage Review assistant editor, Michael Winterbottom, gives his views and comments on the latest topics of ecclesiastical and architectural interest.
Issue 133 January/February 2012
Churches at risk
I recently saw a new report by SAVE Britain’s Heritage, which as the report itself says, “shines a spotlight on London’s places of worship” and which identifies those churches most at risk from decay and neglect, celebrating successful rescues, and looking to the challenges ahead.
The problem of course isn’t London’s alone and as cuts in public spending continue to bite all our churches face enormous challenges over the next decade. But all is not doom and gloom as this report proves with its recent catalogue of success stories and much-needed hope for
In 1985 SAVE also published a devastating report London’s Churches are Falling Down and, amazingly, some would say, 30 years on only one of the featured buildings in that landmark publication remains at risk – a remarkable reversal of fortunes. This latest report revisits these once crumbling Goliaths and tells the story of their rescue against all the odds, recounting how they have found new congregations or new uses, brought back to life by much-needed grants.
Which raises once again the need for historic churches that are no longer used for regular worship to be brought back into the heart of community life through:
• Community-led approaches that give new life to these cherished buildings.
• A more enterprising approach to raising income to contribute to maintenance and upkeep.
• Greater awareness from local authorities of the potential uses of historic churches in community life and regeneration schemes. They must not be sidelined because they are deemed ‘too difficult,’ especially in an era of reduced funding.
When looking at cuts in grants, Crispin Truman, Chief Executive of the Churches Conservation Trust responded by asking local communities and donors to play a greater role in funding repair and conservation work, previously covered by Government grants.
“While painful, he said, the cuts must be viewed as a catalyst for greater community led solutions to save their historic churches.
There are already fantastic examples of community led schemes saving historic churches, ranging from circus schools to mental wellbeing centres. We will be working with communities across England to develop schemes right for their community and their church, always seeking to keep the church open and in the heart of the community – where they belong.
“We are particularly concerned about historic churches in poor areas. This is where CCT makes a significant difference working with local authorities, the voluntary sector and regeneration bodies to provide extra support to these more vulnerable communities so they can keep their historic buildings open and in use. Often, in rural areas, the historic church is the last civic building left in the community.”
The Church in England began losing its religious impulse when Victoria was still on the throne. Attendance at Anglican services began its decline in the 1890s. By 1968, only 3.5% of the English population went regularly on a Sunday. By 1999, that figure had halved to 1.9%.
The social, constitutional and moral consequences of this are often debated, but perhaps the real threat, which all of us can care about, is of course, the aesthetic one.
Three quarters of England’s 16,000 parish churches are listed as buildings of architectural and historic interest in Grades I, II* and II,
with churches listed Grade I comprising 45% of all England’s buildings – castles, mansions, banks, railway stations, markets – in the same first rank. In the words of an official from English Heritage, this means that with dwindling church congregations less than 2% of England’s population is directly responsible for the care of nearly half of England’s finest architecture.
It’s a sobering thought and we would all do well to remember that nothing as glorious as these churches will ever be built in our, cities, towns and villages ever again.