THE small congregation of an ancient village church have got five years to raise hundreds of thousands of pounds to save the building in which they worship.
Work is due to be completed this month on fitting a felt roof to replace the lead that was stolen almost three years ago from the Grade I listed All Saints’, Houghton Conquest, near Bedford (News 18 October 2018). Historic England insists that it is just a temporary solution, to give the parish time to raise £200,000 for another lead covering, or about £90,000 for one in stainless steel.
The 14th-century church, which has a worshipping community of little more than a dozen, also faces further bills, however, including £40,000 to replace the heating boiler, and £70,000 for repointing.
“We slightly despair,” one of the churchwardens, Gary Mudd, said. “I am not sure that by the time we get everything done there will be any congregation left. There is talk of a reorganisation of the parishes: our incumbent retires in June; so we will be in an interregnum, and our PCC secretary and other churchwarden are due to retire around then, too.
“We hope to get some new clergy, who can perhaps get some of the people from all the new building that is going on around the village, and we’re looking at an ecumenical service once a month to try to draw in people from the village who go out to other churches. That might be a way of raising the profile of the church.
“People have been very good in helping us with donations and giving us stuff for sale, but they don’t come to worship; yet they are up in arms when it’s suggested the church might shut. They want to have their cake and eat it.”
The PCC received just £15,000 from the insurers for the lead-theft, as they had been too poor to fit an alarm. “That was a lesson learned, and we have managed to get some grants to fit one now,” Mr Mudd said. They also raised £30,000 for the felt roof.
“Historic England regard that as temporary for the next five years, until we can get a stainless-steel roof, but it is guaranteed for 25 years, and will probably last for 40, and we have other things we desperately need to do. We had to persuade them that we wouldn’t rip it off to put on a stainless-steel one straight away. We were very relieved they agreed. They are not very happy about it, but they are starting to be a bit more pragmatic. If we don’t do something about the roof, then the history of the inside is lost.”
A spokesperson for Historic England said: “In exceptional cases, felt can be used as a temporary cover where the congregation needs up to five years to develop a plan for the long-term recovery of the roof, and to raise the necessary funds. This means the building, contents, and people have protection while the community works together to repair the damage.
“We offered our advice to the Chancellor of the diocese, but it is ultimately up to the Chancellor to decide on what roofing material to use.” Its policy is set out on the Historic England website, historicengland.org.uk.
Ecclesiastical Insurance’s claims director, Jeremy Trott, said: “Where churches have had lead removed, we don’t dictate what materials they use when carrying out repairs. We do, however, highlight the relevant legislation that churches would need to comply with when arranging repairs: for example, a faculty is required whenever a church wishes to carry out alterations to the fabric, fixtures, or fittings of a church.
“If a church are considering using alternative materials following a claim, and want to know how their policy will respond, they should contact us for guidance.”