Norfolk's rural churches are in need of repairs, funding and protection

Peter Wade Martins says urgent action is needed to save our rural churches

Peter Wade-Martins says urgent action is needed to save our rural churches - Credit: Archant

Norfolk archaeologist Dr Peter Wade-Martins analyses what can be done to save the county’s churches

The Norfolk countryside is full of medieval churches. From higher ground you can sometimes see two or three church towers at one time, some standing by themselves in fields with the village a mile or more away.

At the time of the Norman Conquest Norfolk was the most densely settled part of the country, and at least 921 churches were built between the 11th and 16th centuries.

About 610 churches are still intact. So, our countryside is still an extraordinary treasure house of medieval architecture. The upkeep of so many churches does put a great strain on the Church of England, which has a declining income and an impossible number of Grade 1 listed buildings to maintain.

A surplus of churches
Rural parishes are grouped into Benefices, and for many of these the number of churches in use could be reduced considerably. In our own Benefice of 13 churches in central Norfolk, two are already in the care of the Diocesan Churches Trust.

Five are apparently closed or are seldom used. One continues to have services but that depends on the energy of just one person. This leaves only five out of 13 with a chance of being viable in the longer term, and this situation is not unusual.

No funds available
Our parish church is a magnificent building, built by the Bishops of Norwich in the 11th and early 12th centuries.

It can seat 300 people, yet the regular weekly attendance is 10 to 15.

Heating the church would be impossible without the support of a generous benefactor, but with global warming, should we really be using all that oil for so few people? Maintaining this great structure has become challenging even for our village which has a population of 2,000. Few attend a service except at Christmas and for weddings and funerals.

Billingford St Peter church

Billingford St Peter holds no services, and there is nobody officially responsible in the community for looking after it. An increasing number of Norfolk rural churches are now in similar circumstances - Credit: John Fielding

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Much of the work of our Parochial Church Council and our churchwarden is taken up with keeping this great building in good order. Back in 2010 it was relatively easy to carry out a major repair on the roof with a grant from the then English Heritage.

That sort of support has gone, and Historic England is only a funder of last resort. Three times recently we applied for grants from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) to repair the roof and to install new facilities, and three times we were turned down.

The reality is that the HLF is no longer a replacement for Historic England grants, and their ring-fenced allocation for churches has gone. With government funding dwindling and with the re-named LHF now spending its money elsewhere, there is little left for so many churches.

The clear and unambiguous commitment made by John Major’s Conservative government when the Lottery was set up that the funds it raised would not replace existing government support for good causes has long been forgotten.

Successive governments have since largely eliminated state funding in all its forms for church repairs. Rural congregations give what they can, but that is now seldom enough.

Some rural parishes find that they do not have enough support in their communities to pay their parish share to the Diocese and to raise the funds for the upkeep of their fine buildings and to pay the insurance premium.

At worst, these churches can be abandoned and left open, and sometimes they are kept locked. This is a situation which some of us have foreseen for 30 years. While the situation is worst in Norfolk it is also part of a wider national problem.

What is the solution?
The Norwich Diocese has commendably transferred 13 churches into the care of its own Diocesan Churches Trust since 2015.

It seems that the Trust is not accepting any more at the moment, although the Diocese is looking for ways the Trust can take on more in the future. The national Churches Conservation Trust is looking after 28 in Norfolk, and the independent Norfolk Churches Trust has valiantly taken on 12 since 1978, That makes 55, but there are many more which are truly vulnerable.

Corpusty St Peter church in the care of the Norfolk Churches Trust

Corpusty St Peter church in the care of the Norfolk Churches Trust - Credit: John Fielding

While our Diocese uses the slogan “Committed to Growth”, the realities in the countryside are quite different. Church attendance is declining.

The Bishop of Thetford in his report released for consultation in September 2020 called Deployment Review 2020 rightly focussed on the church’s core activities of mission and ministry which is supported by a dwindling number of clergy.

He did address the problem of churches which are no longer needed under his Principle 6. In that he says where a church is not normally needed it can be designated as a ‘Festival church’. It can then just be used for major festivals but should remain “a local asset and responsibility”. That is just not realistic and avoids facing reality.

These communities are hardly likely to have the resources to keep the buildings watertight and in good repair where there is no longer a functioning PCC and no regular worship. The 2017 Taylor Review Sustainability of English Churches and Cathedrals also came up with no options for churches with no viable worshipping communities.

The Diocese has plenty to do other than maintaining ancient monuments. So, what is the solution?

Pudding Norton church

Pudding Norton ruined church surrounded by the earthworks of a deserted medieval village. How many more will go the same way unless new ways are found to care for these important parts of the Norfolk countryside? - Credit: John Fielding

A case for state funding
Heritage tourism, which certainly includes visiting churches, is a major source of income for this country and should be recognised by government and used as an argument by our bishops for reviving state aid for repairs. We should all urge the bishops to start very urgent talks with government or to face not just the closure, but also the gradual decay and ruination of parts of our great rural heritage.

The Church of England is, after all, the Established Church, with the Queen at its head. So, a new government-funded commission, an enlarged English Heritage or an enlarged Churches Conservation Trust with powers to maintain many more redundant churches as Guardianship Monuments seems to be the only hope for many of those buildings which are really worth saving.

The state needs to honour the commitment made by John Major’s government.

Church repairs are funded by the state over much of Europe. Unless state funding is soon recognised as a solution, permanent closure and sale will be likely in many cases.

Looking ahead
We understand that the new Bishop Graham has proposed that there should be a Church Buildings Review for his Norwich diocese, although the Terms of Reference are not available. 

Heckingham St Gregory church in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust

Heckingham St Gregory church in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust - Credit: John Fielding

With our diocese having the highest number of rural churches, it is best qualified to take a lead where others may well surely follow. At least half of our rural churches need to be taken out of regular use straight away. Some would say that should be two thirds. Benefices could be restructured and based on our expanding market towns to recognise changing population patterns.

The Church of England and Historic England really need to work together quickly to devise a new system of state support to keep open and in good repair the vulnerable and historically important buildings for all to enjoy. 

Those not judged by a panel of specialist architectural historians to justify retention on heritage grounds could be offered for sale for conversion for residential use (with restrictions to protect burials).

The best of the church silver could, presumably, be safeguarded by being moved to the Cathedral Treasury, and the parish registers to the county Record Office.

We have many precious medieval church buildings in the Norfolk countryside that we need to safeguard for future generations. Wherever possible these great monuments should be conserved and protected as they are.

If we all start to work together on this now, the number which would need to be converted or demolished in years to come could be kept quite small. For many churches, the Bishop’s buildings review cannot come fast enough.

Dr Peter Wade-Martins was Norfolk’s County Field Archaeologist from 1973 and then Director of the Norfolk Archaeological Trust until 2014