Worth saving: Britain must invest in restoring its crumbling houses of worship, argues Rutnam. © Nick Hamer

Can Britain’s churches still be saved?

Woven into our culture and community, historic churches still have so much to give. Rescuing them from neglect is our greatest heritage challenge, says a former civil service permanent secretary
August 3, 2023

For over 30 years, architect John Bailey has dedicated his life to the repair and upkeep of historic churches. For him, as for many others, Britain’s churches are probably the greatest collection of historic buildings in Europe.

One of his most recent projects has been renewing the roof and façade of Grade I listed Newport Minster on the Isle of Wight. There has been a church here since the 12th century, but the current building owes its origins to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. They wanted a grander building to house the tomb of Princess Elizabeth, second daughter of Charles I, who died on the island in 1650. It was Elizabeth, aged 13, who saw her father on the eve of his execution and wrote a moving account of the visit. She was later sent as a child prisoner to Carisbrooke Castle after an uprising in Scotland created new fears in parliament. She died soon afterwards.

By the middle of the last decade the Victorian church was showing serious signs of stress and age—the roof and stonework were failing, and most basic facilities were lacking. Newport is not a prosperous place: despite its beautiful setting, parts of the town rank among the most deprived areas in England. But it was fortunate to have an exceptionally energetic church community that was determined to give the building a future. And in the end there was a happy coincidence to their fundraising: one silver lining of the pandemic was the government’s Heritage Stimulus Fund, set up to support heritage sites affected by Covid-19, which supported major building programmes and provided one-off funding for repairs to churches and cathedrals. It was this that provided £600,000 to repair the roof and make the building watertight.

As a result, the extraordinary marble tomb of Princess Elizabeth is safe again, and the church has been able to turn its energy to the interior, raising more funds to add accessible toilets, better catering facilities and heating. By the end of 2023, Newport will have a church and civic building ready to host exciting activities and a proud landmark will have been saved for the town. It is a result all the more worth celebrating because such an outcome is rare—and increasingly so.

What is remarkable about this story is not the exceptional heritage or potential to be found in one church. That is a story repeated tens of thousands of times across the United Kingdom. There are 39,000 buildings used for Christian worship across the country, almost 20,000 of them listed, almost all of these parish churches and chapels. And those churches and chapels include nearly half of Britain’s most important historic buildings (Grade I or equivalent).   

The contents of those buildings are also—as Simon Jenkins puts it in England’s Thousand Best Churches—“a dispersed gallery of vernacular art… without equal anywhere in the world.” If it is not a royal tomb (admittedly not vernacular) it is works of sculpture, painting and glass vastly exceeding in quality and number the contents of all our museums. Occasionally a building or an item is well known, but far more often it is not: who knows that the greatest masterpiece of 18th-century English sculpture sits in the parish church of Wetheral, five miles east of Carlisle? 

Newport Minster is also typical in being at the heart of its community—physically, psychologically and practically. Our church buildings are much the most important base for voluntary and community activities in Britain—activities of just about every kind but all serving to reduce social isolation, build community spirit, and enrich our communal lives. There are more food banks than there are branches of McDonald’s, very many of them church-based, while churches are also the single most important venue for music performed in leisure time. My own church in London, to take just one example, hosts a daily nursery school, a weekly Mum and toddler group, regular support groups for vulnerable adults, rehearsals by a (very good) amateur orchestra, extra education classes for kids, and supports a food bank hosted by another local church that feeds 300 families a week.

The House of Good”, a recent independent evaluation for the National Churches Trust—using the same methodology for appraising projects as that found in the Treasury’s “Green Book”—conservatively estimated the economic and social value of the activity in church buildings at around £55bn a year. I say conservatively because even that huge number attributed no value to beauty and heritage, nor to the way activities other than worship reduce loneliness, nor to churches’ role as “warm banks” in winter and “cool spaces” in summer—nor to the sustainability argument for using existing buildings better so we need fewer new buildings in future.

In truth, there is just one aspect in which the story of Newport Minster is unusual: the church community managed to raise the money needed for major repairs. And that was even more unusual given that the Isle of Wight is far from wealthy. The Heritage Stimulus Fund was a bright spot in a very gloomy landscape. Take a wider look around and there is abundant evidence of a crisis affecting our church buildings. Stately homes may have been the cause célèbre of the post-war years: we now need to recognise church buildings as the greatest heritage challenge of our time.

In Wales, at least two thirds of the chapels that were once open have now closed. In the last two decades, the Church in Wales has closed 15 per cent of its churches and expects the rate of closure to increase in coming years. At the time of writing nine can be found for sale on the Church in Wales website, from Monmouthshire to the Menai Strait. The Church of Scotland—guardian of many of the country’s most important buildings—is bracing for the closure of perhaps 30-40 per cent of its churches. Some have already appeared on its website for sale, including Old High Kirk, the oldest church in Inverness. Others are still going through the process of closure—like St Monans in Fife, endowed in the 14th century by David II, King of Scots, which served as a Dominican oratory by the sea and stands as one of Scotland’s most important mediaeval buildings. In parts of England, too, the current model of maintaining these buildings is under obvious strain, above all in places that are poor, or isolated, or both. The Church of England says its backlog for repairs is at least £1bn, and one estimate says it is growing at £75m a year.

The root causes of this crisis are complex. Falling congregations are often mentioned, and yes, they play a role. But there are places where congregations have not declined, and others where, despite decline, a dynamic vicar and congregation have successfully attracted a wider range of uses to the building. The fall in volunteering also has had an effect: this is a phenomenon much wider than churches, but they are particularly vulnerable given that it is often a few key volunteers who keep a building going. Many churches are in remote rural communities in a way that defies modern logic, and this is a challenge. But these are also often the buildings that inspire the fiercest local pride. It is the poorest rural communities that find the burden greatest, and plenty of poorer urban churches face a crisis too.

A life's work: John Bailey has dedicated his career to repairing historic churches. © Nick Hamer A life's work: John Bailey has dedicated his career to repairing historic churches. © Nick Hamer

For all the complexity, there are many recent examples where it was simply the need to raise funds for a major repair that tipped a church over the edge into closure. Take Burstwick, for example. A village east of Hull, it has a magnificent Grade I listed church that had a loyal and active congregation. But the building was finally stumped by the need to raise £250,000 for repairs, including a new roof, and closed earlier this year. St James’s in Dudley in the Black Country is a fine early-19th-century church which faces a bill for repairs of £1.5m: the same fate as Burstwick seems inevitable. Theddlethorpe St Helen is one of many churches in Lincolnshire falling victim to huge structural challenges: it was unable to finance urgent repairs and recently closed. Aston Somerville in Worcestershire is Grade I listed but closed because it could not find the money to repair subsidence in the chancel.

Each of these stories—St Monans, Burstwick, Dudley—is a quiet tragedy played out far from the headlines but deeply felt locally. At a national level, each closure—often of an otherwise viable church—slowly accumulates damage to our collective inheritance and sense of community.  

So why can’t these churches and many others raise the money for major repairs? At this point it is worth understanding how extraordinary the system of funding churches and chapels is in Britain, compared with most European countries.

One of the paradoxes of the British constitution is that our state is still entwined with religion—in the context of the Westminster parliament and the monarchy at least—but church buildings today receive no regular public funding. That contrasts with the most famously secular European state of all, France. Here (outside Alsace) church buildings are in fact directly maintained by the state: by the national government in the case of cathedrals, and by local government for the rest. This explains both why President Macron saw it as his role to appoint a former chief of the defence staff to oversee the reconstruction of Notre Dame, and why in the centre of many French towns this summer you will find repairs to an ancient church accompanied by a notice announcing the Mairie as maîtrise d’ouvrage.

No other European country has gone as far as the French, but most do something to provide regular funding for church buildings. The most common is a church tax covering anyone who is “a member” of the church, whether or not they attend. Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and most of Scandinavia operate systems like this, and in each case “membership” is somewhere between common and near-universal. Italy, Spain and Portugal offer more choice but still have millions of people voluntarily paying to support churches. In Italy, for example, the otto per mille system allows taxpayers to choose where 0.8 per cent of their income tax is spent among a list of causes: more than 80 per cent select churches.

In Britain, by contrast, the burden of keeping up these buildings rests almost entirely on the congregation—the people who actually attend services. This striking policy of localism has real strengths in terms of community ownership and responsibility, but also some obvious deficiencies. And perhaps the most obvious is that a community which is modest in numbers or income can find itself facing an enormous repair bill for a major building. My own church in London, for all that it is a hive of activity, now needs to raise £5m for structural repairs, which is way beyond our means.

So what can be done to address Britain’s greatest heritage challenge? No single actor can fix this: action is needed by churches locally, denominations nationally, and by government itself. But here are five ideas.

First, the government needs to recognise that these buildings are a public good for both heritage and community, and that it is not realistic for the whole burden to rest on local shoulders. In fact, successive governments used to recognise this: from the 1970s until 2017 there was dedicated grant funding for listed places of worship, running at up to £40m a year. This ringfenced pot was abolished by the Heritage Lottery Fund, and since then the Lottery funding for churches and chapels has fallen from £46m in 2018–2019 to £11m in 2022–2023. The Fund is now changing tack in a way that is welcome, but the scale and urgency of the problem demand further action by both government and the Fund.

Second, the national denominations need to provide much more practical support to congregations, not least offering more specialist advice on building maintenance and widening the range of uses, as well as collecting much better information on the condition of their assets. The Roman Catholic Church has done excellent work on this in recent years. Churches themselves should be more strongly encouraged to be open and accessible.

Third, we should do more to realise the unexploited potential of these buildings for visitors and tourism, including for pilgrimage. In Northern France and Belgium, 56 belfries are grouped together as one World Heritage Site. Why not promote the wool churches of Norfolk and Suffolk as something similar? Or the towers of Somerset, or the Christian conversion sites of Wales and northern Britain, associated with the Irish saints who arrived in the 5th–7th centuries?

Fourth, public bodies need to stop being afraid of engaging with faith groups, Christian or otherwise. A wealth of evidence shows the positive social impacts and the reach that they can have. There are some good tools available, not least the Faith Covenant produced by the Faith and Society All-Party Parliamentary Group, which takes the form of a set of principles to promote practical collaboration between religious groups and local authorities.    

Finally, we do need to start exploring new models of keeping some of our most rural and isolated buildings alive, while recognising that this is a long-term task and no substitute for fixing the roof and supporting heroic volunteers.

The UK’s churches are a huge national asset, available for all to visit, use and benefit from. It’s time to ensure that as many as possible are properly supported, so that these wonderful historic buildings can thrive today, and tomorrow.