National Churches Trust

Many societies are concerned with a specific aspect of church heritage (monuments, sculptures, or wall paintings, for example) but the National Churches Trust (NCT) is arguably the most holistic, raising money for places of worship of all denominations and in all their aspects.

Writing in Prospect magazine in August, NCT Chairman Philip Rutnam reminds us that these historic buildings are under threat. Wales has lost two-thirds of its chapels, while 15 per cent of its Anglican churches have now closed, with nine currently for sale. The Church of Scotland is preparing to close a third of its churches (400 in all) by 2025. The Church of England has a £1 billion repairs backlog that is growing by £75 million a year.

Paid for by patrons: Chiselhampton church, Oxfordshire, was built in 1762 by an unidentified local builder, paid for by Charles Peers, the ancestor of Sir Charles Reed Peers (d. 1952), England’s first Chief Inspector of Ancient Monuments

Every church or chapel that closes is a tragedy for local communities and damages our collective inheritance. As readers of Nicholas Oram’s book Going to Church in Medieval England will know, those buildings belong to us – they were built by patrons and the community. The rule that the people paid for the nave and the priest the chancel is misleading, because the priest’s funds came from heavily policed tithes, and from the eye-watering amounts that everyone was expected to donate on Sundays and feast days. Chapels were often built using the money and labour of the least-wealthy members of the community.

Spilsby church, in Lincolnshire, benefited from the lavish expenditure of the Willoughby family whose emblem – two wild men – adorns their massive monument

The same remains true today – church and chapel congregations maintain the buildings through contributions to the (nowadays digital) collection plate and their fundraising efforts. It is a heavy burden, and the NCT is calling for the National Lottery Heritage Fund to allocate a ring-fenced sum for church and chapel maintenance, as it did until 2017.

The NCT is itself the recipient of a £1.9 million Lottery grant for its Cherish project, which will pay for support officers in Wales, Scotland, and north-west England to provide training and advice on ways to generate income from tourism or through using these buildings in ways that do not harm their heritage – for example, as much-needed overnight accommodation for walkers, cyclists, and pilgrims.

The merchants of Boston, Lincolnshire, spared no expense to ensure that their tower was higher than those of local rivals. All images: Kate Owen

Paradoxically, while state and religion are entwined in monarchy and parliament, the UK is one of the few European nations that has no state funding for maintenance and repairs of churches and chapels. That surely cannot be right when they make up half of all our Grade I-listed (or equivalent) buildings.

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