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Interview: Luke March, chairman, National Churches Trust

26 October 2018

‘We can’t expect a tiny congregation to be solely responsible for a Grade I historic building’

We seek to keep the UK’s over-42,000 historic churches, chapels, and meeting houses of all Christian denominations in good repair, make sure that church buildings can be used for community activities by installing loos, kitchens, and disabled access where possible, and support volunteers to look after their churches.

We owe our origin to work of the Incorporated Church Building Society [ICBS], celebrating its 200th anniversary this year, and the Historic Churches Preservation Trust.

This anniversary celebrates the contribution of two centuries of philanthropists who raised the equivalent of £160 million in today’s money. The ICBS wanted to make Anglican worship available to all, and so they built or enlarged many churches in the new industrial towns and pioneered the provision of “free pews”.

It’s encouraging that the C of E proposes investing £27 million in new churches today. I hope they’ll seek to adapt existing buildings first, of course.

We’re not part of the Church of England: we’re an independent charity, though the Archbishops of Canterbury and York are our joint presidents. We regularly meet the national teams responsible for buildings in all the denominations.

Lots of people who are not Christians love church buildings, and we’re lucky to have some of them as our supporters. I think there is a growing number of people who are aware of the tremendous heritage of the UK’s religious buildings, and want to make sure they remain open for religious and community uses. We raise funds through personal donations and legacies, and we allocate money to churches on behalf of some large charitable trusts and foundations.

We support only the ongoing maintenance of churches and chapels which are open for worship and community use. We’re not involved in churches or chapels which have been declared redundant: that’s a job done well by the Churches Conservation Trust and the Historic Chapels Trust, among others.

When vicars hear about us, they’re normally at their wits’ end, even if they have lots of voluntary help. You might be lucky enough to have people experienced in buildings or finance on your PCC, but, if you haven’t, you’re up the creek without a paddle.

It’s frightening. We can support only about one in three churches that apply to us. Thanks to our supporters, last year we awarded £1.7 million to help pay for 230 projects throughout the United Kingdom. Some of our grants help fund small but essential maintenance projects; our larger grants are often the final piece in the funding jigsaw, making possible big projects like roof replacement or spire repairs.

Overall, there seems to be less funding available for churches, now that the Heritage Lottery Fund has less money, and government-funded schemes such as the Roof Repair Fund and the World War I Fund no longer exist. We’re working hard with others to try and ensure a bright future for as many churches and chapels as possible.

Each denomination has a different interpretation of sacred space. I’ve personally always taken the view that the chancel, if there is one, is sacred space, leaving the rest of the church available for appropriate community use. In many cases, churches will survive only if they’re open and welcome community engagement.

We’ve just launched a new strategy for the National Churches Trust, based on three goals: preserving heritage, promoting sustainability, and inspiring support. That will mean continuing to provide funding for urgent repairs and new community facilities. We’re rolling out our MaintenanceBooker web-based service across the UK, which makes it much simpler for churches to look after their building and avoid expensive repairs.

Our new ExploreChurches website is to help many more people to discover their wonderful heritage. We’ve worked closely with the C of E and other denominations to develop it. What use is a locked church to anyone?

The good thing is that, once we’ve funded a particular scheme, other organisations and trusts will often help. We have an independent grant-making committee, and it works extremely hard to ensure that our grants go to schemes that are well thought out, involve accredited architects, and help create a sustainable church building.

I strongly believe that churches should remain the responsibility of local people, because that engenders ownership and accountability; but we can’t expect a tiny congregation to be solely responsible for a Grade I historic building, which is such an integral part of the heritage of our country. There needs to be national and regional responsibility for funding basic services such as repair and maintenance.

I was born in the shadow of a church, and I’ve been actively involved in church life in cities, towns and countryside. My father was Vicar of Goring-by-Sea, then Eastbourne Parish Church, and finally Canon Treasurer of Chichester Cathedral. I read law and politics at Durham University, and resided at St John’s. For many years, I worked in London, and served for ten years on the Council of St Paul’s Cathedral.

Now I live near Salisbury, where I’ve been a member of my local village PCC for many years; and I’m a lay canon on the Chapter of Salisbury Cathedral, too. This would no doubt have amused my father, as there were no lay canons in his day. My commercial career in EMI, TSB, BT, the Royal Mail, and in mortgage regulation helped me to understand the management of large devolved organisations. I’ve also sat on various NHS boards over the past 30 years.

I can’t think of a first encounter with God, as I rather feel that I was born in a church (actually in Utrecht, as my mother was Dutch). I only remember my faith being significantly challenged when, in a relatively short time in the early 1970s, two close first cousins were killed on a railway crossing, my mother’s mother died, and, on the night following my 21st birthday, my father also died. My close family and my friends and my personal tutor at Durham kept me together. I’m still great friends with them.

I had a wonderful childhood, although life in a town vicarage is hardly one’s own. I was used to regular callers: homeless people who were always fed, parishioners in moments of great tragedy or great joy, and bishops who needed a bed for the night. My father was one of five, and my mother one of eight; so you can guess life was always hectic and my mother’s fairly basic cooking skills were frequently tested.

I’m now married to Sarah, who was the junior secretary at Lambeth Palace with Archbishop Coggan. We met playing tennis through a mutual friend. Her greatest love is horses and dogs.

My greatest relaxation is church music, and singing in choirs, and spending time on Salisbury Plain with our three dogs. We don’t see our grandchildren often enough, and we thoroughly enjoy holidays in south-west France.

Apart from music, my favourite sound is the countryside, which I adore.

I’m happiest in the company of friends and my family, and sharing time with people who like making progress or implementing new ideas.

Dealing with disappointment or rejection, such as the failure to seek a new appointment or recognising that an existing role is unsuitable, needs courage. I’ve had no hesitation in moving to new pastures when colleagues had different priorities or ethical values.

What makes me positive about the world is that I see, through my involvement in churches and the local community, that so many people have deep concern and care for their neighbours. And because of all this, I’m always aware of someone in difficulty for whom I pray, as well as for my family.

I always dread the thought of being locked in overnight in my own church: I frequently do the locking-up. If I was to be locked in with anyone else, one of the most interesting and active vice-presidents of the NCT is the broadcaster Huw Edwards. His schedule is frenetic, so I’ve never had the opportunity for a relaxed conversation about churches and church life. He’d be able to share his skills on the organ — and even my choral ability, behind closed doors, of course.

Luke March was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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