A tribute to the life and work of Brian Torode

Our Listed Churches and Cathedrals in a Secular Age

Our Listed Churches and Cathedrals in a Secular Age

Malmesbury Abbey


Commitment to the development of a more secular society in which there are no unfair privileges for faith groups is an important aspect of my life and, for the last year, I have served as Chair of Gloucestershire Humanists. For many years beforehand I was a Roman Catholic priest and I have served for a time on the Historic Churches Committee for the RC dioceses of southern England. I have also been a member of the Ecclesiological Society, Friends of Friendless Churches and many other amenity societies concerned with the maintenance and conservation of church buildings. During my career I have worked briefly for the Church Commissioners and for a conservation builder who specialised in undertaking ecclesiastical contracts.

However, I do not see the thousands of listed parish churches and cathedrals around the country as being simply ‘Church of England’ or ‘Roman Catholic’. For me they belong to all of us and they represent an important part of our local and national heritage. Historic chapels and meeting houses are part of our social and religious heritage too. My generation has had the enormous privilege of enjoying this legacy and, hopefully, we will pass on this precious patrimony intact for the next generation to enjoy.

Churches are often focal landmarks in towns and villages throughout the country and they are places where we can enjoy ‘high’ culture, they are the appropriate context for  much irreplaceable sacred art, for the monuments of our ancestors, for celebrating our local history and so much more besides. In many English villages ancient medieval churches bring people together as volunteers passionately arrange flowers, ring bells, sing in choirs, cut grass and raise money irrespective of whether or not they have a religious belief. The church is a valued symbol of the continuity of the community, and it is a place where we can be quiet, where we can light a candle or attend a concert. Use for worship on Sundays and for ceremonies is often of secondary importance especially in places where one pastor has care of numerous places of worship.

Our wonderful cathedrals and larger churches generate tourism and contribute to the local economy. However, like their rural and suburban partners, they too depend heavily upon volunteers and worshippers. Understanding the cathedral as an artistic and cultural amenity means factoring in the cost of running choir schools, the care of cathedral closes and so much more that we easily take for granted.

Churches are fragile and they are becoming increasingly vulnerable as we face climate change, rising sea levels and pollution. During the nineteenth century many churches were completely restored and renewed and, today, this work is also in need of serious conservation. A skills shortage has meant that repair costs have risen sharply and the insistence on architects having appropriate credentials has increased these bills still further. For those who struggle to keep these buildings open, when things go wrong, they face the prospect of filling in complex grant application forms which very often involve the hire of professional fundraisers if successful bids are going to be submitted.

I help to clean a Grade 2 star listed church in Cheltenham, dating from the 1870s, and much of the stonework is deteriorating. It has recently needed to be re-roofed, its tiled floors re-laid, new gutters installed, glazing repairs carried out, boundary walls completely rebuilt and I could go on. Now an arch has started to collapse in the First World War memorial chapel and there are only forty or fifty in the congregation to bear the cost of this essential repair.

On top of this there is an increasing problem of vandalism and theft; important legislation concerning access for all and other health and safety matters has required a response from all of our churches and chapels. The constant call for greater public use through organising concerts, exhibitions and community events has necessitated controversial schemes for toilets, kitchens, comfortable seating and much more. Expensive work, indeed, for those who are responsible for these beautiful listed buildings.

All of this is happening in the face of declining and ageing congregations. For many decades bands of devoted volunteers, in many towns and villages, have kept our churches alive and they have given their time and money sacrificially. These people can no longer be taken for granted. Many of those who struggle on wonder whether they have wasted their time and their talents when they turn for help to a rising generation which appears to have little interest in the preservation of this precious heritage.

A further problem is that the modern Church of England does not always consider medieval or more recent listed buildings as assets but sees them rather as liabilities. The modern evangelically-minded Anglican would actually prefer to have fewer, cheaper more flexible community spaces and this historic architectural patrimony is seen increasingly as a hindrance to mission. Many services have been moved to the village hall where there is a more family-friendly environment. This is bad news for the village church and this trend can only be reversed with the injection of new public money and an imaginative strategy that will protect and give relevance in an increasingly secular age.

There needs then to be a review of how we are going to use listed churches and chapels. We need to reassess the significance that we are going to give to many of these buildings and that doesn’t necessarily mean that they should have to earn their keep or be radically altered. The conservation and, in some cases, transformation of this building stock will be costly and we will need to support the Church of England, especially, during this period of transition.

What is certain is that we can no longer assume that church people are going to continue to dig deeply into their pockets or bear onerous responsibilities on our behalf.   After all, why should the few dozen people who turn up on Sunday be expected to pay for expensive repairs to the listed gravestones of my ancestors in the churchyard or the repairs to the town clock in the tower?  Public funds must be made available to help conserve and adapt, without destroying, our wonderful churches and cathedrals. More public money should also be made available for bodies that care for redundant churches and chapels such as the Friends of Friendless Churches, the Historic Chapels Trust and the larger Churches Conservation Trust.

As for using Church Commissioners money to accomplish this – it would be unfair. As we all know that money has to fund a massive pension pot as well as contributing, amongst other areas, to the increasingly stretched Churches Conservation Trust. If the Church Commissioners money were directed away from the day-to-day running of the Church of England then parish levies would increase dramatically and, in turn, existing congregations would be even less inclined to engage with fundraising for church repairs and conservation schemes. If local people fail to do this we all suffer – numerous closures would result and the present crisis would be further exacerbated.

Yes, I would like to see the Church of England disestablished and, for that matter, I am a republican too. However, for our ecclesiastical patrimony it is a critical time and the recent campaign advocated by the National Secular Society and Humanists UK which questions further grants for churches from the state is most unhelpful. Maintenance and urgent repairs should never be postponed or delayed as further deterioration means that costs soar – after all ‘the stitch in time saves nine’ is always the prudent approach.

Rather than questioning further grant aid perhaps we should be saying a big “Thank You” to all those Anglicans and others who struggle to preserve this irreplaceable heritage on our behalf.

Richard Barton

February 2018


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