Vested, now reinvested

by
18 August 2009

It used to be where old churches went to die. Not any more. Rebecca Paveley investigates the Churches Conservation Trust, now 40 years old

Preservation: interior of St Mary’s, Shrewsbury COULD NINE

Preservation: interior of St Mary’s, Shrewsbury COULD NINE

NOT MANY organisations, celebrating their 40th birthday in the 21st century, would want to hark back to the Middle Ages.

Yet, for the Churches Conservation Trust, the future is contained within the Church’s medieval roots, when the parish church was the centre of the local community, and had a variety of uses as well as worship.

Many small parish churches are following this model already, turning the nave into community space for parish council meetings, toddler groups, and post offices. This could be crucial, believes the Trust’s chief executive, Crispin Truman, to the future of Britain’s 16,000 church buildings.

“Some churches which are in the middle of a field now, cannot, of course, be kept going for ever. But, for a large number, a church has a life cycle — it may go through a bad period for ten or 20 years, and then come up again.

“In rural areas, where the pub has gone, the school has gone, there is more need than ever for the church. We need now to go back to this medieval model of the church as central to community life; when the parish council met in the vestry and there were animals in the nave.”

Currently, the number of churches being made redundant — they are passed to the Trust by the Church Commissioners — is about 30 a year, a figure which has held steady for several years, taking the total vested in the Trust to 342. Now, for the first time

in the Trust’s 40-year history, some re­dundan­cies are being reversed, and dioceses are reclaiming churches.

In Toxteth, in Liverpool, St James’s, built in 1775 and used by the city’s slave traders, was closed 36 years ago. Now, it is being taken back by the diocese to serve a new congrega­tion in the city centre.

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In Toxteth, in Liverpool, St James’s, built in 1775 and used by the city’s slave traders, was closed 36 years ago. Now, it is being taken back by the diocese to serve a new congrega­tion in the city centre.

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The Bishop of Liverpool, the Rt Revd James Jones, appointed the Revd Neil Short as a pioneer minister of St James’s. His first task was to build a congregation, and, second, to refurb­ish the ancient building — there is no running water or electricity.

A steady congregation of more than 20 has built up, and is expanding. They meet in St James’s in the summer, and in Liverpool Cathedral in the winter. Plans are now in place for a community centre, which would incorp­orate sheltered housing and respite care.

Mr Truman believes that what is true of St James’s could also be true of many other churches. “St James’s was struggling before

it was closed, but it was really killed off by a motorway scheme, although the motorway was never built. There has really always been

a need for that church in the community.

“We are just beginning to understand the damage that bad planning can do. More of our churches could go back into parish use, but it is very hard to put them back; there isn’t a financial imperative to take them back for diocese or parish. What parish will take back responsibility for those costs when they do not have to? They can leave them to us.”

The Trust has a budget of about £5.5 million, funded by the Church Commission­ers and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, but this has been frozen for several years. And, with a total of 342 churches to look after, it is forced to limit the number it can accept.

The Trust began life in 1969 as the Redun­dant Churches Fund. It was formed, after protests about the closure and demolition of some parish churches, by activists such as Ivor Bulmer-Thomas, who became the Fund’s first chairman. Back then, fresh from battles to prevent demolition, the churches it was given to look after were treated “mostly just as pieces of architecture”, Mr Truman says.

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The Trust began life in 1969 as the Redun­dant Churches Fund. It was formed, after protests about the closure and demolition of some parish churches, by activists such as Ivor Bulmer-Thomas, who became the Fund’s first chairman. Back then, fresh from battles to prevent demolition, the churches it was given to look after were treated “mostly just as pieces of architecture”, Mr Truman says.

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But under recent leadership, particularly that of the Labour MP Frank Field, it began to change and be brought up to date. Now, the emphasis is on prevention of decline in the first place, and the Trust will launch its “Re­generation workforce” this autumn — a project which will work with two or three churches a year, in partnership with dioceses and the Church Commissioners, to try to halt decline before it becomes terminal.

Churches are passed to the Trust by the Church Commissioners, but, the process can take three years, during which time the buildings can deteriorate further. The aim is now to get involved sooner, and work to breathe new life into the buildings while they are still open.

The current chairman of the Trust is the television presenter and chef Loyd Grossman. He is committed to the new emphasis on halting decline early on.

“In the old way of doing things, not just historic churches but all historic buildings expected that, every now and then, some huge truckload of money would arrive to fix a hole in the roof, or whatever. But because of the in­creasing demands of old buildings, as more and more age and get so expensive to run, we have to figure out ways to make them sustain­able.

“In this new environment, where everyone is scrambling around for money, and grants are frozen, we need new ways to operate,” Mr Grossman says.

The wider community around a church is key to keeping an at-risk building alive and well, Mr Truman believes. “Church congrega­tions are in a difficult situation; many are feeling overwhelmed by repairs. They can sometimes get into a siege mentality, so that

if non-churchgoers want to help they get turned away because they aren’t churchgoers. Congregations need to embrace them and let them help. Often, with help, the buildings can be kept going.”

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if non-churchgoers want to help they get turned away because they aren’t churchgoers. Congregations need to embrace them and let them help. Often, with help, the buildings can be kept going.”

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About 1.47 million people visited the Trust’s churches last year, proving their enduring popularity. Visitor numbers have increased every year for the past decade. The most popular include Holy Trinity, in Good­ramgate, York, which is visited by thous­ands of tourists each year. And St Mary’s, Shrews­bury, is renowned for its collection of stained glass from the 14th to 19th centuries.

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Another example of the Trust’s successful involvement is St Paul’s, Bristol, which is home to the circus school Circomedia. The church has undergone a huge refurbishment, thanks to a £2.3-million Heritage Lottery Fund grant. The revamp of the church is now helping to regenerate the whole area.

Despite the variety of uses, all the Trust’s churches are consecrated, and occasional worship is encouraged. They are permitted to hold up to six Sunday services a year — any more would create an “uneven playing field” with other parish churches, which are owned by the diocese and have to pay parish share and other charges, Mr Truman says.

But he is proud of the fact that each of the 342 churches could go back to being a parish church at any time. Most of them are also left open all day.

“All churches have to be open to the public, and nowadays we leave many of them open all the time; there isn’t anything in them worth taking, and what our churches have suffered from — nicking lead from the roofs — can’t be prevented anyway.

“More and more visitors are visiting, and more are becoming friends of the churches, and that is the best prevention.”

The Trust has created new schemes to attract committed members. This includes

a Friends scheme, and, more recently, a directors’ club and a patrons’ club. The clubs seek to build up future income for the Trust, as grants from its two core funders become less certain.

The Trust also has its celebrity supporters — in addition to Mr Grossman, Joanna Lumley, Jools Holland, and the crime writer Minette Walters are among its backers. Ms Walters recently appeared on the TV show Cash in the Attic, and donated the £700 raised to the Trust.

But as more small rural churches struggle to maintain congregations, and pay parish share and the repair bill, is there a case for letting some of the buildings go? Particularly as, with three-quarters of them listed build­ings, it can be difficult to find acceptable alternative uses for the buildings.

That decision belongs to the Church Com­mis­sioners — “thankfully”, says Mr Grossman.

He is convinced of the importance of keeping up these centuries-old buildings as places of worship, and sounds as fervent as

his predecessor, Mr Bulmer-Thomas. “Our churches are exemplars across Europe — they are shorthand for England. We have a respon­sibility to ensure that the next generation, and the generation after that, and so on, get to benefit from what we have.”

The Trust is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. It has more than 400 events planned, including an anniversary choral weekend on

3 and 4 October. There is also a service of thanksgiving at Westminster Abbey on 16 September. Entrance is by ticket only, but invitations can be requested online at the Trust’s website.

3 and 4 October. There is also a service of thanksgiving at Westminster Abbey on 16 September. Entrance is by ticket only, but invitations can be requested online at the Trust’s website.

www.visitchurches.org.uk

Who else is involved in the care of  English churches?

English Heritage
Offers repair grants in a joint scheme with the Heritage Lottery Fund for work to high-level elements of buildings, such as roofs, spires, towers, and masonry. The scheme is the largest single funding source for church re­pairs, offering up to £250,000. English Heritage also controls changes to churches, most of which are listed buildings.

Heritage Lottery Fund
As well running the scheme with English Heritage, it also runs a small grants scheme, “Your Heritage”, that provides grants of £3000 to £50,000 for improving access and com­munity life.

National Churches Trust
An annual grants programme of £2 million allo­cates funds for building restoration and modernisation.

Church Buildings Council
Grants are distributed for the repair of church furnishings and fittings of artistic or historical significance. It is a statutory body accountable to General Synod.

Church Commissioners
Approve new uses for old churches, or pass them over to the Churches Conservation Trust. Grants to individual parishes for repairs are not usually available.

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