Sir Michael Palin has backed a campaign to safeguard the future of the UK's churches. The broadcaster, who is Vice-President of the National Churches Trust (NCT) is warning that unless urgent action is taken, many of the UK's churches, chapels and meeting houses will be forced to close.
The Trust has launched a new manifesto calling for an additional £50m of public money to safeguard the future of the existing 38,500 buildings. It says over 3,500 churches have closed permanently since 2013 with many more at risk.
The manifesto, called ‘Every Church Counts’ sets out six key actions which it believes are essential to ensure the survival of churches. It’s been drawn up after consultation with the public and leading heritage and church organisations.
As well as additional public funding, they include setting up a network of professional support officers to help volunteers and clergy who look after church buildings, a national matched-funding scheme to incentivise charitable giving; a strategy to increase tourism to historic churches; regular opening of churches beyond worship times and the development of a national plan with involvement from the government, heritage organisations and denominations.
Sir Philip Rutnam who is Chair of National Churches Trust told Premier Christian News the plan also includes making sure the use of church buildings for community use such as foodbank provision is recognised:
“We have more food banks based in churches across Britain than there are branches of McDonald's. There's an enormous amount of social value associated with that kind of action. Also, things such as mum and toddler groups, nursery schools, all sorts of things and recognition of that by public bodies, which actually rely on these sorts of services, would also help.”
The NCT says the yearly social and economic value provided to the UK by its church buildings is at least £55bn a year, roughly twice the total spend on adult social care by local authorities.
Sir Philip said: “This is the biggest crisis facing the religious heritage of this country for hundreds of years. They're facing closure, partly because obviously congregations have been declining, but they're also often facing closure because the volunteers who run these buildings often find they're completely exhausted by the task of raising enough money to undertake major repairs.
“Britain is different from other European countries, where often there's a church tax levy of some kind, raised by the state, which goes to support historic buildings, and historic churches. In Britain, the burden rests entirely on the shoulders of local people. So money does play a part.
“There used to be some quite important schemes which were available to help the churches which face the biggest burdens. But that got turned off in 2017, and the money redirected. We would like to see that being reintroduced.”
Sir Michael said: “Right now, many church buildings are in danger of closure. ‘Every Church Counts’ proposes a range of ways in which the future of the UK’s churches, chapels and meeting houses can be secured.
"If you care as much about the future of these much-loved buildings as I do, you’ll find that the National Churches Trust’s ‘Every Church Counts’ offers a way forward for these wonderful buildings.”
In England, there are now over 900 places of worship on the Historic England Heritage at Risk Register, with 53 more added to the list in 2023.
In Wales, about a quarter of historic churches and chapels have closed in the last decade.
Scotland’s At Risk Register includes 182 historic religious buildings, with eight added in 2023. The Church of Scotland - guardian of many of the country’s most important buildings - is actively planning the closure of as many as 30-40 per cent of its churches.