I have swapped my London life for Norfolk, where I am restoring a house built by Lord Walpole in the early 18th century. At the same time I have taken on the chairmanship of the Norfolk Churches Trust, an immensely successful charity caring for churches of all denominations.
The Trust makes grants to virtually every important Norfolk church in need. It has given more than £8m in grants, with £150,000 distributed this year in a very thorough and careful process. The Trust was founded by the indomitable Lady Harrod in the 1970s. Although the biggest task is looking after the medieval churches which are Anglican, it cares for Catholic ones too.
Norfolk has more than 600 working medieval Anglican churches and 200 ruins – the largest collection in the world, assembled when Norfolk was one of the richest counties in England. By contrast, there are about 20 Catholic churches spread thinly over 2,000 square miles and which, with the exception of the fine gothic cathedral of St John the Baptist in Norwich, are mostly rather poor quality brick buildings.
Some Anglican benefices have up to 10 parish churches often less than a mile apart. Given the general depopulation of Norfolk and ageing Anglican congregations, churches can be lucky to have one communion service a month. Many have been closed.
As these churches are often listed, local congregations are expected to look after them. Medieval wall paintings which are cracking and ancient carved stonework which is worn out add to maintenance costs. There is concern about villages losing their post offices, shops and pubs, but nothing would change the physical appearance more than the loss of the churches with their round towers, spires and churchyards.
But what do you do with so many important churches which have a tiny population of non-churchgoing residents and parishioners who are literally dying off every year? One thing is to make them useful for the community. But this means installing lavatories and a kitchen as no one will hire or use a building without them. In the past, there has been great resistance to this from church authorities because they are more concerned about churches’ architectural integrity than their usability. Often a shed with a composting loo is the only compromise.
Catholics who have rather poor quality churches could take over a failing medieval Anglican church. These churches were built for Catholic worship and were in use for centuries before their desecration.
Consider the case of Burnham Market (known as Chelsea-on-Sea because of its influx of second-homers from London). It has four medieval churches within spitting distance of each other, and even with very small congregations the Church of England has to keep them all going. The only Catholic church in the area is that of St Henry Walpole, a utilitarian 20th-century brick hut which disfigures the main street.
The Catholic diocese has been offered the town’s Anglican church of All Saints with a substantial endowment, but for the moment it has declined it. It is a rather plain but dignified 13th-century Gothic church where Edmund Nelson, the father of Horatio, was Vicar. It is set in a picturesque churchyard in the centre of town. It would require a little imagination and effort to pull together a deal, but the Diocese of East Anglia could take over All Saints and sell the ugly brick hut for residential development. The proceeds could then be shared between the churches.
While the majority of Norfolk churches are medieval, most of the Catholic churches are 20th-century unlisted buildings, often in good town locations. If only we could find a way of moving Catholic congregations to pre-Reformation medieval churches and selling the ugly ones for redevelopment.
The Catholic cathedral in Norwich, under the excellent management of Bishop Alan Hopes and his Provost, Canon David Paul, is an inspiring place to worship, with its soaring stone interior, fine music sung by a dedicated choir, impeccable liturgy and top-notch preaching. It also has a remarkable record for ordinations. No wonder it is full. It is part of a pattern across England where cathedrals are outperforming parish churches.
Wouldn’t it be good for all Catholic churches to be inspiring both architecturally and liturgically? I remember as a child that, as a member of the choir and a server at the Sunday High Mass, I learnt that there was a world that was not mundane. We need to inspire children and take them to this different world.
Last week, the Requiem Mass for Professor David Watkin took place in the Anglican Minster church in King’s Lynn. It was beautifully celebrated by Fr Ronald Creighton-Jobe and Fr Julian Large from the London Oratory, using the Tridentine Rite. It was accompanied by the Mozart Requiem with the London Choral Sinfonia under the direction of the hugely talented Michael Waldron. It was quite extraordinary the way that this Anglican church, which had probably not had a Catholic Mass for half a millennium, sprang back to life.
Catholics in the countryside are poorly served by their church buildings. This is our opportunity. In partnership with the Church of England, we can make amends. Let us restore the churches that were desecrated during the Reformation and that the Cof E no longer needs and make them Catholic once again.
Peter Sheppard is a director of the Catholic Herald
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