Interview: Peter Ainsworth, new chairman of the Churches Conservation Trust

01 July 2016

‘Churches affect the way we think about ourselves’

Churches can’t be ignored. They affect the way we think about ourselves. Even when they’re no longer used for regular worship, they are a dominant physical presence in communities. They demand a response.



These fine buildings are assets, not problems. When they become neglected, it shows. An empty or derelict church preaches an accusing message of neglect, with all the bad social consequences which follow.



The Churches Conservation Trust (CCT, formerly the Redundant Churches Fund) is the national charity which aims to save historic churches at risk of neglect or dereliction.



It looks after nearly 400 churches — a unique collection of architecture, archaeology, and art — keeping the buildings open to the public and enabling them to play a living role in their communities.



The CCT works with churches that are still consecrated and used for occasional services,
but its mission is to find new ways of attracting people to use them for secular purposes. These churches can host concerts, exhibitions, craft fairs, farmers’ markets, school visits, even beer festivals.



There’s nothing new about this. For centuries, churches were local centres for art, music, having fun, and learning. For more than a thousand years, they’ve been at the centre of communities, and, in many rural areas, where pubs and shops have closed, they’re still the mainstay of civil society. They are also very beautiful, and that is so important.



The past chair, Loyd Grossman, has done a great job. I want to help sustain his legacy and to support the excellent work of the trust’s staff. 

 

The CCT reckons that, each year, its work generates more than £12 million for local economies, through tourist visits, community events, and by supporting traditional building and craft skills. That benefits people, too.



I don’t think churches should be maintained through taxation. That has enough on its plate already. Of course, the support from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport is vital, and the cause of churches is a great one, but it’ll never realistically compete with any government’s priorities, such as the NHS, education, growing demands on social services, defence, and security. So I remain forever grateful for the establishment of the National Lottery, whose explicit purpose was, and remains, the support of causes that will always be at the bottom of the Treasury’s list, but which hugely enhance the quality of life for millions of our citizens every year. We’re also supported by trusts, foundations, and individuals who want to see these amazing buildings kept going.



All the time, the trust is working on other sources of income.
For example, this summer it is going to host the first commercial music tour in some of its churches.

 

“Champing” is a new concept pioneered by CCT, which encourages any and everyone to spend the night in one of ten Grade I and Grade II listed English churches. It’s a great idea. Of course, I hope it’ll raise some funds for the trust’s work. And, yes, I’m tempted. It draws on a long tradition of the faithful slumbering in these hallowed places. They were made to be used. The purpose of CCT is to keep them useful.



I really can’t tell you of a particularly favourite church — there are so many of them. I’m looking forward to going to Norfolk soon to see some of them. In Suffolk, there’s Dennington St Mary, with the only example of a carved sciapod: a mythological creature which sleeps under the shade of its own foot. Also, in my previous constituency, East Surrey, the church of Chalden, with extraordinary wall-paintings of death, salvation, and a ladder going down in the other direction. No, I can’t answer that question: there are too many.



All my life I have tried to connect aesthetics with the world around us — the environment and culture, for want of better words. The two issues are indivisible. Ask Wordsworth.



Having been quite determined not to follow my friends into the City,
I eventually sold out, put on a suit, and joined a firm of stockbrokers. I was offered jobs in advertising, but the stockbrokers were nicer people; so that’s where I went. I told myself that I’d do the City for ten years, and I did. I saw the arrival of the Americans after the so-called “Big Bang” [the Thatcherite reforms of the City], the destruction of “My word is my bond”; and the arrival of spreadsheets designed to bamboozle and dazzle people. I moved from being an investment analyst to working in corporate finance, raising money for businesses which actually create the economy in the first place. I still think that the City has a moral purpose.



I was lucky to be Shadow Secretary of State for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs — twice. One of the first things I did as a new MP was to introduce a Bill to protect hedgerows, which annoyed farmers. Later, I was closely involved in campaigns to introduce what is now the Climate Change Act.

 

Perhaps I went native. But the point about the environment is that it’s not a cause, or an issue: it’s where we all live. Once you get that, everything else falls into place. I am only sorry that, in front-bench politics, I was only ever a “Shadow”. That’s how the dice fell.

 

My father joined the Royal Navy straight from school at the outbreak of the Second World War, and my mother was a WREN. He was a good cricketer for Worcestershire, and, on leaving the Navy, signed up to coach cricket as a part-timer at a school in Berkshire. He did it for the rest of his life. That’s where I was brought up.



He tried to teach me maths, and completely failed. I was very fortunate in both my parents, and miss them all the time.

 

My wife, Claire, and I met at university. We have three grown-up children: an environmentalist, a doctor, and an actor.



My biggest regret is that I never learned to play an instrument; but I’m very good at playing CDs. I fell in love with Elgar for the very first time when my parents had the incredible good sense to take me to see Sir Frederick Ashton’s ballet of the “Enigma Variations” when I was very small. I absolutely loved it, and never looked back. When I was a teenager, my father took me to a veteran’s game in Worcester, and I saw the Malvern Hills from the stands. I snuck off, and discovered Elgar’s birthplace museum. I fell in love with it, and ended up showing visitors round and sleeping on a brick floor with a smelly old Labrador. Go there! It was a privilege to become the foundation’s chairman, and I’ll always be grateful to all associated with that very special place.



Plantlife is another remarkable charity I was involved with.
It’s the only UK charity wholly dedicated to the conservation of wild plants in their natural habitats. It is run by wonderful people and volunteers, and, while always grounded in science, is making a growing impact on policy-makers. Have you noticed how our road verges are more beautiful these days? If you have, that’s partly Plantlife’s persuasion of the Highways Authority and local councils not to mow Britain’s most beautiful wild flowers. Next stop: churchyards?

 

I don’t do politics any more. Eighteen years was quite enough.

 

I don’t think that I have ever experienced God. I mean, going back to Elgar and The Dream of Gerontius, you only meet him orher once you’re dead, surely? And that’s if you’re lucky. I’m still alive, for the time being.

 

My favourite sound is birdsong. Not the local great tit outside our house in Battersea, though, which wakes me up every morning at about 5.30 with a dreadfully monotonous call.



The greatest influence on my life
was my English and drama teacher at school, Charles Lepper. He saved me from the scourge of maths, and enabled me to get to Oxford because he believed in me. He was a wonderful teacher and performer.


I am not sure that I could survive at all
without The Oxford Book of English Verse.



Both sides in the Referendum debate made me angry.

 

I’d love to say I’m happiest in Skye, or the Ring of Kerry, or Orford, or on top of the Malvern Hills, or the Piazza del Campo in Siena. All of those would be a bit true. But the answer is definitely: home. I know this is a really boring answer.



Elgar inscribed his First Symphony to
“a great love of mankind and massive hope for the future”. That thought is worth praying for.



Lord Byron, definitely, would be my chosen companion if I were to find myself locked with someone in a church. His genius was actually comedy, and he was hugely influential in European politics. He’s probably more highly regarded in Europe than here. Whenever I think of Greece and its difficulties, I think of Byron. He gave his life in the cause of Greek freedom. He was hilarious. Clearly not a good man, certainly not a Christian man, but he enhanced the gaiety of the whole of Europe, and continues to be influential, in my view. Though many of his diaries were burned after his death, the ones that survive spring from the page as if they were written yesterday.

 

Peter Ainsworth was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

www.visitchurches.org.uk

Forthcoming Events

21-22 February 2020
Church Times Festival of Faith and Literature
With Sam Wells, Catherine Fox, Mark Oakley, Suzannah Lipscomb and many others. 
See the full programme

26 March 2020
Theology Slam Live Final
Hear three of the UK’s best up-and-coming young theologians as they reflect on the most pressing issues of our time.  Book tickets

Welcome to the Church Times

​To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read five articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)