Comment Opinion & Features

Thousands of medieval churches face ruin. Who will save them?

St Mary’s, North Tuddenham, could fall into a ruinous state in a few years (norfolk churches trust)

Since leaving the cosmopolitan delights of London and moving to deepest North Norfolk three years ago, I have become immersed in the question of rural churches in this most depopulated of counties.

Last week the Norfolk Churches Trust, of which I am chairman, held a national conference in Norwich about the plight of rural churches. The statistics are harsh. There are more than 1,000 churches of all denominations in the county of which the majority – 659 – are medieval Gothic churches built by Catholics but now Anglican, too many of which are struggling to survive.

There are many reasons for this. Some were built where there are now virtually no houses, maybe due to the Black Death in the mid 14th century or to the Enclosures (the process of consolidating small landholdings into larger farms). Other villages are simply over-served with churches.

In Burnham Market, for example, there are five churches for a community of 1,500 people, the majority of whom are second-homers. At the time the churches were built, Norfolk was one of the most heavily populated counties in the country, but agricultural changes such as mechanisation led to a steady decline.

Catholics have fewer than 25 churches in the county. They are mostly full, but congregations are mainly elderly.

The churches are mostly 20th century and of very poor quality. The noticeable difference is that the Catholic churches are ugly and set in car parks while the Anglican ones are beautiful but set in graveyards.

In England as a whole, there are 12,200 listed Anglican churches and 629 listed Catholic churches. Compare this to the National Trust, which owns 500 listed buildings, and English Heritage, which has 400. The income from the National Trust is £650 million a year with five million members.

The churches in the country are the heritage of us all and though Catholics thankfully don’t have the responsibility for quite so many listed buildings, we still have more listed buildings than the National Trust. So with dwindling congregations, how are all these important and beautiful buildings going to survive?

Until the 19th century, there was a tax on communities to pay for the upkeep of the parish church. This stopped when the practice was challenged by Nonconformists who convinced Parliament that it was unfair.

Tax, sometimes voluntary, of around one per cent is charged to maintain churches in many countries, including Austria, Croatia, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Italy, Sweden and the United States. In England, not a penny goes to maintain churches. The Church Commissioners are not allowed to pay for church buildings. The Lottery Heritage Fund is now unsympathetic to churches. So what is the answer?

Speaker after speaker at the conference reiterated the need for community use and involvement. Anglican churches form the heart of many villages across the country and the idea of a Norfolk village without its medieval church is unthinkable. Yet few of the people who form these communities ever enter a church on a Sunday. The post office, pub, school and village shop may have closed but at least the church survives. But for how much longer?

My dream has been that those Anglican medieval churches which are short of worshippers could be taken over by Catholics, who, after all, built them. However, in my experience, parishioners of Catholic churches lack the imagination to take on historic churches, even when offered them for free and with an endowment. It’s heartbreaking.

Churches can provide a place for communities to come together for every other conceivable use except worship. Indeed, the National Heritage Lottery Fund is more likely to give a grant to a church building if it can prove it is not really a religious building at all. Yes, churches can become places for isolated communities to come together for coffee mornings and concerts, but often they don’t have a loo or a kitchen and providing the quality facilities demanded by the authorities for a listed building is often too expensive for many of them.

The Government set up the Taylor Review to look into the future funding of historic churches and several speakers had either been on the committee or were involved in the implementation of its findings, including the cerebral Anglican Bishop John Inge.

Basically, the review thought that parish churches could continue to pay for repairs themselves. It has set up two pilot projects to trial, with support officers helping parishes by providing small grants for urgent repairs, as well as advising on extending the use of churches for the wider community. Also, it acknowledges that there are some rural churches where some form of central funding will be necessary.

St Mary’s, North Tuddenham, according to the conservation architect Ruth Blackman, has cracks appearing in its tower.

The church could fall into a ruinous state in a few years unless expensive structural repairs are urgently undertaken. The costs are high now, but if left will be enormous, running into hundreds of thousands of pounds. How can a small congregation pay for this kind of work?

John Goodall, architectural editor of Country Life, spoke passionately about why the state should provide support for historic buildings, whether intended for religious or secular use. The scale in Norfolk is extraordinary. The most important collection of medieval buildings in the whole of Europe is being propped up somehow by dwindling congregations with no state support at all.

The bill for the repair of the Houses of Parliament is £5 billion. Buckingham Palace is a mere £369 million, both to be paid for by the taxpayer. What about our 12,800 listed Catholic and Anglican churches? Nothing. Not a penny.

Having sat on the podium while a stream of well-informed and distinguished speakers talked about the problem of trying to find community solutions to historic buildings, it suddenly occurred to me that it was rather odd talking about the state of rural churches without focusing on their core reason for being.

A church is rather like a theatre, where its success or failure depends on the quality of the drama being performed. It is not just about the building. Imagine a conference where the fate of historic theatre buildings was being discussed without mention of the performances.

Anglican carol services are always well attended. Why is this? Maybe it has something to do with the carols, which are well known and easy to join in with. The churches are candlelit and full of atmosphere. Compare this with a typical Sunday, with unsingable modern music and poor preaching.

It is easy for Catholics to be complacent. One of the most attractive aspects of being a Catholic is that our churches are not empty. Since I converted to Catholicism 26 years ago, the most distinctive improvement is that I don’t normally worship in an empty church. I regularly attend the Catholic Cathedral of St John the Baptist in Norwich. This is a fine Gothic building, designed by Gilbert Scott in the late 19th century, with the most wonderful liturgy and music provided by an unpaid choir. It is full every Sunday and continues to buck the trend by providing new priests under the superb leadership of Bishop

Alan Hopes of East Anglia. The Anglican cathedral in Norwich also has fine music and dignified services and is also full.

The mere fact that a church is isolated doesn’t mean that it should not provide an uplifting experience to the ordinary parishioner. What effort are the churches, both Anglican and Catholic, making to provide the sort of conversion experience which Jesus provided for his communities? Not much, beyond boring homilies which provide no new ideas and recycle theological lessons that priests learnt as seminarians. The sermon or homily is the moment to talk directly to worshippers and inspire them. When were you last inspired?

I am inspired at virtually every church visit I make. The people I meet, both from the parish and their professional advisers, are almost without exception truly inspirational. It is shown in their dedication to caring for their churches and doing everything in their power to keep them open, welcoming visitors to experience their very special place of worship. Church visitors’ books echo this feeling.

I particularly enjoy the welcome from my local Anglican parish church, where, despite the liturgy being a bit messy, there is incense and a Catholic-style communion service. My advice to lonely people living in isolated rural communities is to go to Sunday Mass, where you will find welcoming people, sometimes singable hymns and a cup of coffee. You can even exchange the kiss of peace with your neighbour. Regular church-going is the panacea for loneliness in this part of North Norfolk.

Peter Sheppard is a director of the Catholic Herald