MOST churches can have a viable future, provided that congregations are willing to engage with their communities, Sir Paul Britton, who chairs the grants committee for the National Churches Trust (NCT), says.
Writing in the NCT annual review, published on Saturday, however, he warns: “Our splendid inheritance of churches is under great threat from dwindling congregations, probably to be accentuated by the current pandemic.
“One fears that many churches currently closed will never reopen. Some people in the Church of England in particular see this as an opportunity to be rid of the buildings which they regard as an encumbrance. That seems to me to be a mistake, and I say this not just as someone who admires these buildings but as a committed Anglican.
“The importance of the National Churches Trust and other organisations which campaign for our churches and chapels has therefore never been greater. But despite the threatening horizon, I remain optimistic that the great majority can have a viable future, provided that their congregations are willing to engage with their communities and make these buildings useful for both secular and religious purposes.
“Luckily, that is now widely understood, not least because of the Trust’s efforts.”
A report, The House of Good, published by the NCT in October 2020, estimated the economic and social value of church buildings to be £12.4 billion each year — a figure that equates roughly to the total NHS spending in England on mental health in 2018 (News, 23 October 2020). It represents an average of £300,000 per church building. These buildings “provide the social glue that keeps our communities together”, the report concluded.
The NCT, which receives no regular direct funding from the Government or church authorities, provided £1.7 million in grants for last year for urgent repairs to churches and chapels, essential maintenance, and the installation of community facilities. It attributes the increase of 28 per cent on the previous year to be, in part, because of its new partnership with the Wolfson Foundation.
The review notes a particular threat to pipe organs in churches and chapels, and calls for a new strategy to identify the most important instruments at risk, and to find new homes for these, — or at least safe storage until a new home can be found.
The journalist and presenter Huw Edwards, himself an organist, is vice-president of the NCT. He describes, in the review, what confronted him when he ventured into an abandoned Welsh Presbyterian chapel in Caernarfon. The richly decorated pipes of a three-manual Victorian organ, by Peter Conacher of Huddersfield, were all that remained after the console had been ripped apart, and the soundboards and ranks of pipes had been torn out.
Mr Edwards described this as “just another familiar case of vandalism in disused chapels and churches across the United Kingdom. Organs are favourite targets for vandals, and, even when they are not vandalised, most are left to rot and fall apart. They are seen as worthless boxes of pipes: relics of a despised age when organised worship was central to the life of the community.”
He urges: “Don’t be deflected by the ignorance or indifference of others. This is a vitally important part of our cultural story. These church and chapel organs are a direct link with previous generations — our ancestors — whose cultural values and priorities are all reflected in the buildings they funded. They are a musical window into a very different world.”
More than 80 per cent of NCT funding in 2020 was used to support places of worship in England, where the majority of the UK’s church buildings are situated. It provided 259 grants, totalling £1,718,419, to keep churches and chapels in good repair and with up-to-date facilities.
Twenty-six churches were removed from Historic England’s Heritage At Risk Register with the help of grants. Forty per cent of the total value of grants supported churches located in the most deprived areas of the UK. Demand for grants was described as extremely high: 722 applications were received — an increase of 40 since 2019.
Excluding endowments, NCT funds amounted to £3.5 million at the end of 2020. Total income increased by £650,000 in 2020, compared with 2019; increasing grants and donations were offset by a significant reduction in legacy income and lower gains on investments.
The NCT chairman, Luke March, writes: “Our work keeps churches in good repair so that the magnificent ecclesiastical heritage we see from Cornwall to Northumberland can be safe for future generations. We also want to make sure that church buildings can continue to be ‘Houses of Good’ and we continue to provide funding to install loos and kitchens so that places of worship can better respond to social need.
“Looking to the future there is much to be done and the challenges are ever increasing. Climate change, for example, is seriously affecting churches, in bringing more rain and stronger winds. Inspired by our vision that church buildings across the UK are well maintained, open, sustainable and valued, we will continue to make a difference to the many millions of people who care for and use churches every year.”
Read the NCT annual review here