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to the community trust, with services

continuing. So on paper at least it has

the potential to provide the necessary

human and financial resources, thus

keeping the building in use. However,

the legal complications are not for

the faint hearted and I know of only

a few examples where this is being

attempted or has been achieved. In

those cases, things are going well.


The Church of England has recently

endorsed the idea of designating some

of its church buildings as ‘festival

churches’. There are many variants

of the idea, but the core feature of a

festival church (FC) is removal of the

requirement for regular services.

One FC model is that the parish

remains responsible for the church.

Although not used for regular services,

the building remains consecrated and

may perhaps be used for Christian

festivals, weddings and so on. A number

of dioceses, including Lincoln and Ely,

are considering using this model, and

I suspect it may become common.

With this model, all costs and

responsibilities remain with the parish,

which will worship in one of its other

church buildings. Although this saves

a little money, it does nothing to

involve more people or give the church

building a new purpose and on its

own it is hard to see this as anything

other than a stop-gap solution.


An influential 2013 blogpost about FCs by

Canon Anna Norman-Walker suggested

that the diocese should be financially

responsible for churches which were

no longer required for regular worship.

Each local community should pay for

use of their church building, with the fee

depending on what church services and

other types of usage they want.

On the face of it, this has the

potential to help bring in funds,

involve new people and create new

uses so long as sufficient interest can

be generated in use of the building.

However, if costs exceed income, then

the diocese will effectively be ‘taxing’

active congregations in order to support

unneeded buildings. I know of no

examples of this model, but the diocese

of Exeter – where some 90 churches

have been identified as candidates for

FC status – may be exploring it.


Another model is for a diocesan trust to

take responsibility for the church (for

example, a parish may contract with the

trust to this end). The church is more

or less dormant, but will be used for six

or more services per year in order to

preserve its right to apply for grants. The

literature on this model does not mention

community use and the implied purpose

of the building is that it is to be enjoyed

for its beauty and history and presence in

the landscape.

This does nothing to engage

more people, and it may therefore be

appropriate for churches in sparsely

populated areas. The model is sustainable

only so long as the trust has the money

and incentive to keep the building in

good repair. Such a trust has been set

up in the Diocese of Norwich, although

it is not believed to be looking after

any churches at present, partly at least

because of unresolved legal issues.


About 20 churches a year are no longer

needed for worship and are closed (or

‘made redundant’, although this phrase

is now less commonly used). A few of

these are transferred to the care of a local

community trust. Some 40 churches are

known to be in this situation, but this

is certainly an underestimate. The most

common pattern is for the church to be

used occasionally for meetings, including

fundraising events for the community

trust; sometimes it becomes an active

community hub.

The evidence shows that these

community trusts are often effective at

looking after the building and generating

a good level of involvement from local

people. Their greatest difficulty seems to

lie not in raising funds, but in continuity

of personnel. So both in principle and

in practice it seems that these trusts

are succeeding in finding the necessary

resources for the buildings, maintaining

them as public spaces.


Rural church buildings need pounds,

people and purpose if they are to survive

as public buildings for the benefit of all.

Shrinking congregations are putting them

under pressure, but the government-led

task force exploring the issue will find

there are a number of models to keep the

buildings in the public domain which are

worthy of consideration and support.

Further Information

Church of England,

Report of the Church

Buildings Review Group

, 2015, and

Released for Mission: Growing the

Rural Church

, 2015 (both available at

T Cooper, ‘The Church of England

and “Festival Churches”’ in

Law &

Religion UK

, 14 February, 2016


T Cooper,

How Do We Keep Our Parish


, 2004 and

For Public Benefit:

Churches Cared for by Trusts

, 2014

(both available at

B Payne,

Churches for Communities:

Adapting Oxfordshire’s Churches

for Wider Use

, Oxfordshire Historic

Churches Trust, Oxford, 2014

The e-newsletter of the Historic

Religious Buildings Alliance (www. will carry updates

on the

English Churches and Cathedrals

Sustainability Review


is chair of the Historic

Religious Buildings Alliance (HRBA), which

brings together those working for a secure

future for historic religious buildings.

The HRBA is a group within the Heritage

Alliance. He is also chair of the Council of the

Ecclesiological Society.

The opinions expressed here are those

of the author, not necessarily of any

organisation with which he is associated.

Kedington, Suffolk: a church which is very clearly a

public building, open to all