The key to the future….

An article in The Times on Saturday 29th June 2013 seems particularly apposite for us at St Margaret’s as we carry out repairs on our A listed church, and consider the best way forward for the future.   It was written by the Ven David Meara, Archdeacon of London, and is reproduced here to encourage us in our task, and to remind us again that so many parishes are facing the same problems!

Thomas Hardy succinctly summed the competing aspects of church buildings: “To the incumbent the church is a workshop.  To the antiquary a relic.  To the parish it is a utility.  To the outsider a luxury.”  To Hardy these expectations were incompatible, but that is no longer true today.

The Church of England is the custodian of 16,000 churches, 12,000 of them listed as of historic and architectural importance.  Their maintenance is the responsibility of local people – a heavy burden in small parishes.

The Society of Antiquaries of London recently hosted a conference on the theme “Piety in Peril”, bringing together statutory and national bodies to examine our ecclesiastical heritage.

The challenge is threefold.  First, while our parish churches constitute an unique architectural record and contain fixtures and fittings of national importance, they are first and foremost places of worship and mission.

Tensions do undoubtedly arise when a parish wants a comprehensive reordering or the utilisation of some part of the church for an office, a kitchen, a lavatory or a meeting space, but one of the messages of this conference was that with sufficient creativity, pre-planning and goodwill such differing needs can be brought together in harmony.

The National Churches Trust has made many grants for the improvement of facilities so that wider community use may be possible, and the revised criteria for Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) grants stress engaging more people with the heritage asset and benefitting the whole community.

This value-for-money approach, quite rightly, puts pressure on churches to make their facilities available to as wide a range of people as possible.  We need to broaden our base of community support, find new partnerships and explore new ways of managing these precious buildings so that as many people as possible can benefit from them.

The second challenge is financial.  In years to come we shall face an increasing burden of church maintenance costs right across Europe, with the decline in state funding and the drop in charitable giving as we weather the recession.

Around 70% of the money for church repairs is raised locally, supported by various grants and charities.  In the UK the HLF has given more than £400 million to over 3,700 places of worship since 1994.  This year £30 million will be available “to help breathe new life into places of worship” with individual grants of £10,000 to £250,000 for listed structures.  As well as reducing the repair backlog, HLF funding will also help provide new facilities “to ensure these important historic buildings can be used and enjoyed more widely by their local communities”.  So, alongside urgent repairs, “funding will be provided for new work to extend community use such as toilets, kitchens, lighting and heating”.

In addition the Church Buildings Council and the National Churches Trust make grants for maintenance, repair and new facilities.  There is money available from a variety of sources, and churches need to be more proactive in making application for these funds.

The third challenge is a spiritual one, highlighted by Linda Monckton of English Heritage, who drew figures from the 2011 census to show the 11% decline in the numbers of those professing the Christian faith over the past ten years, and the corresponding rise of those who profess no religion (14 million, up from 6m in 2001).  This steady process of secularisation means that there is less understanding within society about the role of the church in the community and correspondingly less willingness to see ecclesiastical buildings as deserving extra protection and funding.  As congregations in rural areas tend to be small, and the band of willing volunteers grows older, so the stewarding of our ecclesiastical heritage buildings becomes harder.

As one conference speaker said, “Congregations keep buildings alive”, and the best way to ensure our historic churches remain in good repair is to grow lively congregations committed to open their buildings to the wider community and to share their faith in imaginative ways.

One issue that no amount of money or manpower can tackle is the problem of bats in churches.  More than 6,400 parish churches are used by bats, which are protected under UK and European law as endangered species.  Unfortunately, bat droppings and urine cause terrible damage to fixtures and fittings.  At Wiggenhall St Germans in Norfolk, for example, the congregation has spent £29,000 trying to resolve the problem.  The damage and cost there and elsewhere is unsustainable, and the law needs amending urgently.

In spite of this warning, the message of the conference was a positive one.  Our churches are in a better state of repair than they have been for many years, and there are resources available to help maintain and adapt them.

Churches need to broaden their support in their communities and find imaginative ways of opening their buildings to wider use.  If we understand our church buildings better we will value them more, care for them more effectively and involve more people in their stewardship.  With energy and a more flexible mindset the incompatibilities of which Thomas Hardy spoke can be resolved, and our churches can be saved and enhanced for future generations.

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