Let’s Look After Our Churches

The National Churches Trust preserves and protects churches across the UK

Ruth Lea

Churches are vulnerable buildings. There are 47,000 Christian places of worship in the UK, but on average one has been closing a week since the late 1960s. A recent rise in the theft of lead from church roofs is a shocking example of how these precious buildings suffer not only ageing and weathering but also vandalism and attack. But look past the headlines and a difficult question emerges: who is responsible for repairing the roof?

Unlike many other European countries, Britain has no church tax or municipal ownership of places of worship. When a church roof needs repair or its ventilation has to be improved or cracks appear in the masonry, local congregations must meet the cost. Almost half of all Grade 1 listed buildings in England are churches and a largely voluntary population can find itself managing and maintaining an important heritage site. The national picture shows that our churches simply cannot be taken for granted. The estimated cost of church maintenance over the next five years is almost a dizzying
£1 billion. 

The National Churches Trust is dedicated to the preservation and protection of church buildings across the UK, working with all denominations. It raises funds and offers grants for essential repairs and new facilities, encouraging improved access and long-term good maintenance practices. Income comes largely from gifts, donations and legacies. Created in 2007, following the merger of two long-established charities, it receives no funding from the government or church authorities.

The scale of this mission is vast, yet the National Churches Trust operates out of a small London office with a staff of ten whose eyes and ears around the country are the individual county church trusts. The chief executive, Andrew Edwards, points out that one of its greatest priorities is to make people aware of the value that churches bring to their communities, over and above their spiritual contribution: “Churches are important to people. Everyone wants these assets to be taken care of.” 

In a year, 86 per cent of us visit places of worship. Repairing, maintaining and improving access to church buildings keeps them at the heart of communal life. 

Take St Jude’s in Swansea, which received £40,000 for repairs to its roof. The church hosts its local primary school for an annual carol service, while the basement is used by community groups, including the Brownies, a youth club and senior citizens. At St Mildred’s in Whippingham, on the Isle of Wight, it is not just the local community but also thousands of tourists who benefit from a £40,000 grant for repairs to the main tower and roof, as well as to stonework surrounding the windows. 

Visitors come for guided tours of this former Royal church, which Queen Victoria attended when she was in residence at nearby Osborne House. 

We may agree about the need to take care of our churches, but how well do we actually know them? A co-ordinated national fundraising effort such as the National Churches Trust’s recent Ride and Stride saw thousands of cyclists and walkers getting to know churches beyond their immediate vicinity. Participants criss-crossed their counties from church to church, with the aim of visiting as many places of worship as possible. Churches set up rota systems to offer refreshments to the unprecedented flow of visitors. 

Churches are unique and central to Britain’s heritage. They are also a large part of my own life — both spiritual and secular. The Trust’s work reminds us that churches should be celebrated both as places of worship and as thriving, accessible centres of local history and community buildings in the fullest sense. Their neglect is quite unacceptable. 

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