In Defence of Beauty
You’ve heard it all before. Churches and chapels the length and breadth of the island are closing. They’re being abandoned, demolished, developed beyond recognition into pizza restaurants or carpet warehouses. We all know the problem. There are 15,700 Anglican churches in England and the Church of England is responsible for almost half of all Grade I listed buildings in this country. Of the 15,700, about 9,000 are rural. Of this 9,000, 8,200 are listed. Of this, more than 2,000 have congregations of less than ten people. Nationally, the number of people attending Church of England services each week is less than 1 million – less than 2% of the population – with Sunday attendances falling below 750,000. An all-time low. 
It’s a similar story of woe in Wales. The advice churned out since the 1970s tells us these buildings need a purpose. There’s a ferocious drive to find alternative uses. To give these buildings meaning and relevance in the 21st-century. In the past, the big-boned urban churches were threatened, now it is our rural churches which are most vulnerable. In England, 83% of churches are where just 53% of the population live. 20% of churches are where 1.2% of the population live.  This is a problem. The Taylor Review, which promised to offer sustainable solutions to the “church problem” dismissed rural churches as “non-viable”. Even if they do not attend or volunteer, most people value their local church. But it appears this is not enough, we also need these buildings to be useful.
We are told historic churches can become community centres, creches, post-offices, cafes.However, much of the activities currently undertaken by living churches are not money-spinners.Will the income generated from these new uses really be enough to support these buildings in the long term? Indeed, 85% of civil parishes already have a village hall. 54% don’t cover their costs.  Why force this failing model on our irreplaceable built heritage? Of course, if a historic building can be sensitively adapted and retained in use, that is great. And some churches – living and redundant – have successfully repurposed their buildings. Indeed, the Friends’ church at Papworth St Agnes homes a thriving community centre. But the problem is bigger than this and most churches are no longer surrounded by communities to sustain these new uses.
Most of my days are spent looking after very isolated buildings. Buildings that are special because they have survived relatively unaltered. Because they preserve a fragment of the past that is vulnerable. A fragment which is cared for, in most but not all cases, by selfless local volunteers. Our work is sustained by volunteers, membership and donations.
With a diminishing pool of funding which is already oversubscribed, funders pay attention to the schemes which appear to offer the greatest public benefit. I understand the need for public benefit, but surely the cumulative public benefit of these buildings over the past six- seven- eight- even nine hundred years has earned them the right to survive. Surely, though perhaps immeasurable, these remote buildings continue to offer ‘public benefit’, for the people that visit them, that enjoy them, however irregularly? These places have inspired people – in varying ways – throughout the centuries. Surely, they are an immeasurably valuable part of our heritage which should be preserved?
The practise of simply conserving these buildings – mending a leaky roof, sorting out the guttering, a low-key approach without any need for a ‘new use’ – is inherently sustainable. It’s cheaper than conversion, has no impact on the significance of the building – and preserves the special atmosphere you find in ancient churches.
In a world where our cultural experiences are curated, where you’re directed at what to look at, what to appreciate, where you’ve been profiled into an audience based on what sandwich you eat for lunch, I wonder why we cannot support heritage, simply for heritage sake. Art for art’s sake.
The Heritage Lottery Fund have created their new “place-making” scheme – putting heritage right at the heart of towns’ and villages’ economic and social development. Of course, the church buildings are the reason most cities, towns, villages developed in the first place. So perhaps they could be repaired and maintained because their presence and their significance is central to in the making of that place?
Further, the HLF should show a willingness to accept that, in some cases, repair or emergency protection of building fabric alone has public value and should be supported.
We often hear how churches were always used for markets, meetings, courts and feeding the poor. Yet we don’t hear quite so often about how historic churches were built with the finest materials by the most skilled craftspeople and artists or built by local hands using local materials. This is equally important.
Much of the art and architecture in parish churches is worthy of being in any national museum, but the wonderful thing is: it’s not. It’s in context – whether that’s languishing on a desolate headland, holding fort amid an oil refinery or slumped in weary majesty on a roadside.
The parish churches of England and Wales are our greatest architectural legacy. They are equivalent to the great cultural treasures of places such as Tuscany, Istanbul, Andalucía. Most of these buildings are beautiful and important in and of themselves. We do not need to justify their continued existence by turning them into a cafes or social security offices. We need to recognise what we have.
The Friends of Friendless Churches is a labour of love. We exist to protect these places. To celebrate their importance, to defend their beauty.