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8

BCD SPECIAL REPORT ON

HISTORIC CHURCHES

23

RD ANNUAL EDITION

THE GOVERNMENT’S ROLE

The ‘obvious’ solution is for the

government to take full responsibility for

caring for these churches, as happens in

some other European countries. However,

hoping that the government or, indeed,

some other white knight will ride in and

save the day is quite unrealistic.

What might be possible is some

long-term programme of financial

assistance from the government, which

could be grant aid for repairs or some

other form of monetary support.

The case that has been made for such

financial aid from government is that

these historic buildings are being looked

after by sparse populations, and that the

buildings have value in supporting wider

community work. Perhaps we also need

to emphasise to government that, unlike

village halls, volunteers pay for these

much-loved public buildings out of their

own pockets and that it is only every

few decades that help is needed, when

a particularly large repair bill is faced.

Also, unlike other visitor attractions, it is

exceptionally difficult to charge visitors

for entrance.

Guaranteed financial aid for listed

church buildings would be hugely

valuable, even though it would not help

directly with people or purpose. But,

however generous the government is in

the future, this is only part of the answer.

Mechanisms are needed which make it

easier for the wider community to play a

role. There are a number of models, some

of which are discussed below.

SUPPORT

Parish council support

In many rural

communities there is a parish council

or parish meeting and many towns have

an equivalent town council. Yet despite

an awareness of the importance of the

church building to the community,

councils rarely seem to contribute to its

upkeep. There is indeed real doubt as to

whether they have the right to do so.

There is scope here not only to sort

out this confusion, but to include this

opportunity in the guidance circulated

to councils. Furthermore, the church

building can become integrated into

general community planning by ensuring

that the congregation becomes involved

in drawing up any parish plan, which also

helps to clarify and publicise the purpose

of the building. Of course, as well as

money, parish councils can provide access

to enthusiastic and committed people.

Support from Friends groups

Friends groups are one of the great

untold success stories of the past few

decades. From a standing start, there

are now about 1,000 stand-alone parish

church friends groups registered with the

Charity Commission, plus an unknown

but possibly equivalent number of groups

which don’t qualify as separate charities

because they form part of a parochial

church council. This is despite the absence

of active central support, although

in recent years guidance has become

available on the websites of the Diocese of

London and the National Churches Trust.

The income of these groups varies,

but half of them raise between £1,800 and

£8,000 per year, which is the same order of

magnitude as typical annual maintenance

and repair bills (as major repairs tend to

occur only infrequently). Many groups

organise activities which both raise money

and bring people together, some of them

in the church building, thus giving it a new

purpose. So friends groups can provide the

all-important pounds, people and purpose

discussed above.

One-off support

Another success

story of recent years is the work of

professional support officers. These

officers help congregations to develop

their churches for new purposes, engaging

with local people and finding sources

of finance. These posts typically last

three years, although several have been

extended beyond that, and are normally

based in a diocese, half-funded by the

diocese and half by Historic England.

Unfortunately, government cuts to

Historic England have put future funding

for these posts at risk.

In an interesting variant, the diocese

of Norwich recruits unpaid volunteer

‘ambassadors’ who have been through

a major building project with their own

church to help other congregations with

their projects.

COMMUNITY USE

Almost every discussion of the future

of church buildings mentions the

opportunity to use them for community

purposes. The core idea is that the

congregation makes the building

available for wider use. In addition to

being an expression of neighbourliness

and mission, this provides an income,

and will also mean that there is a wider

stakeholder group if major repairs are

ever required. There are many examples

where the future of a church building has

been transformed through being regularly

used for a variety of purposes.

But there are four reasons why

this type of extended use cannot be a

solution for every church. Firstly, small

congregations are less likely to have the

capacity to do this. Secondly, most villages

already have village halls and may not

need the extra space. Thirdly, in some

rural areas the population is simply too

sparse to generate the necessary demand

for community use. Finally, it may not be

possible to use the church building in this

way, for heritage or other reasons.

COMMUNITY TRUST

Another model is for a community trust

to take responsibility for the church

building. The trust may use the buildings

for the type of community activity

described in the previous section. There

may only be occasional services or the

building may remain a normal parish

church. The congregation may contribute

towards the cost of the building

(for example, by paying ‘rent’ to the

community trust).

There are endless permutations of

this approach but at its core lies the

transfer of responsibility for the building

St Leonard’s Church, Sutton Veny, Wiltshire: long-abandoned and partially ruined, St Leonard’s is in the care

of The Churches Conservation Trust. It continues to hold an annual church service and its picturesque site

draws visitors throughout the year.