EXTENSIVE data on the condition, management, and use of more than 300 of the largest listed parish churches in the Church of England has been collected for the first time in a new report from Historic England.
The 73-page document, Sustaining Major Parish Churches: Exploring the challenges and opportunities, published last week, concludes that these churches (spanning 1000 square metres or more) have offered events, services, and welcome “beyond what was usually expected” of a parish church.
But this, it suggests, has come at a cost. In an online survey of representatives from 63 of these churches, half stated that their income did not meet their expenditure last year. And data from 50 case studies listed in the report suggests that 37 per cent of overall expenditure went towards the costs of urgent repairs. The average cost of a significant development to these buildings was £550,000, of which an average of £350,000 was contributed by Heritage Lottery Fund.
Of all the largest churches identified in the report, 35 per cent were in areas of high social and economic deprivation, and, last year, 16 per cent were on the Heritage at Risk register as a result of neglect, decay, inappropriate development, or vulnerability to these. This was compared with 6.8 per cent of all C of E parish churches.
But, although a handful lacked accessible lavatories, kitchens, meeting spaces, and, in one case, running water, more than 70 per cent had “good physical access”. A quarter of them ran a shop; 23 per cent, a café; and five per cent, a museum. Half of all the largest churches in the report also had an average weekly attendance of 141 people, and the average number of visitors per year was 23,200.
The research was funded by Historic England, in partnership with the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Greater Churches Network, the Church Buildings Council, and Doncaster Minster, to understand better whether the larger C of E churches were harder or easier to maintain than its 14,790 smaller listed places of worship. It was also an opportunity to praise the work of the communities who sustained them, the chairman of Historic England, Sir Laurie Magnus, said.
“We can demonstrate how proud congregations are of these impressive buildings, and how hard they work, 365 days each year, to provide space for great cultural experiences, practical and emotional support, and vibrant worship.”
More than 60 per cent of the representatives who took part in the survey said that the history and architecture of their church was its “special” feature, while more than 94 per cent said that they actively helped visitors to understand this heritage.
Of a further 12 “in-depth” case studies conducted for the report, 80 per cent were regularly open outside of service times. This included Christchurch Priory, Dorset, which receives an average of 100,000 visitors a year, and is supported by more than 200 volunteers.
The Bishop of Worcester, Dr John Inge, who is president of the Greater Churches Network, said: “Our cathedrals are the jewel on the crown of our national built heritage — our major parish churches are equally significant, but sometimes overlooked. I am delighted that this research provides, for the first time, a clear picture of their state, and how precious they are to the nation and the communities they serve.”
To read more about the survey and watch an introductory video, visit historicengland.org.uk/research/current-research/threats/heritage-in-changing-society/major-parish-churches/