John Hinton meets the man behind a radical plan to save England's churches Sir Roy Strong, director of the Victoria and Albert Museum from 1974 to 1987, has launched a vigorous campaign to breathe new life into England's estimated 10,000 rural churches suffering disastrous neglect. And, as he told me at his home in Hereford, one of the solutions would be for Anglicans to share their churches with Catholics.
"I am very happy with sharing these beautiful medieval buildings with Catholics," said the distinctively moustached Sir Roy, himself an Anglican and an altar server at Hereford Cathedral. "I have Catholic friends who live in Somerset and in their local medieval church there is the Roman Mass at nine o'clock which is virtually identical to the Anglican Eucharist, and I went up and had a blessing. And at 11 o'clock, the Anglicans came in. All of that kind of cooperation is warmly to be welcomed and encouraged:" His campaign, beginning with the publication last month of his beautifully illustrated book, A Little History of the English Country Church, is full of ideas to stop the chronic drift of the churches into terminal neglect.
For, much as they stand as symbols of continuity in the countryside, most are about as lively as the graveyards which surround them.
To say Sir Roy is passionate about changing things is an understatement. He is indignant about the clerics who have to try to operate within a framework as creaky as the doors to many of the churches they serve. And they have to care for more than one.
"Most rural clergy have anything from three to 15 churches to service. I don't think any other profession would take that on. It's an almost criminal mistreatment of a profession. And what is the point of keeping an old church going with a service once a month for five old ladies over 70?
"All that needs to be sorted out. And what it is going to have to take is going to take many forms."
One of the initiatives Sir Roy is setting up, along with a national magazine, is a three-year competition for whole villages to come together the community of worshippers and the wider community to decide what they are going to do with the church building in this century. There will be three prizes in each of the three years. Out of that will emerge nine different possible approaches to give churches life.
"It already is going on," Sir Roy explained. "People are putting kitchens and lavatories into churches, most of which are the only public buildings left without basic utilities, which is ridiculous. I do have a respect for the notion that it is good for a community, whether or not people are worshippers, to have that sacred space with the people who are buried there and all the things that have happened there. Even if you are not a Christian, your mind moves on to a higher level.
"But I have no objection myself if people look at that space and want it to be released for a whole range of things to happen. In Herefordshire we have one very good example where the space can be used for worship then given over to the senior citizens' meetings, the ladies' club, the gardening club; they can hold a sale there, hold a harvest supper there, or a concert. It becomes a multiple use of space."
So, church hall and church rolled into one. This brings up the novel idea that the church hall could and should be dumped.
"A terrible mistake in the year 2000, a mistaken Victorian notion of the sanctity of the church building, was when the village halls were given grants," Sir Roy argued. "I would say sell the village hall and preserve your beautiful church. The church was the village hall. Why not have line dancing in the church? What happens in the village hall ought to happen in the church if the space is adequate.
"I believe that the churches should be returned to the communities that built them. The Government is not going to come through with a cheque, the Church of England has no money at all. The whole community, should look at that building and space and put together a strategy for the next 20 years.
"I am aware that dissenting chapels and Catholic churches are in the same position, but the basic crisis is about 8,000 to 10,000 churches which are English medieval buildings ranging from the ninth to the early 16th century. And people feel very strongly that they are beautiful old buildings and icons of England which after the Reformation evolved into the Church of England."
What other uses could the churches be put to?
"Well, don't forget we are talking about rural churches. The post office could go in there. I see no objection to a farmers' market, yoga classes and dances and internet facilities for young people. This would mean some spaces being partitioned off. Well, that's a design and architectural problem. For these buildings to go on, they have got to have in them things that people want to go and use, a space they are happy to come into and occupy. I think a very important thing is that these old churches can become a bridge linking the believing and the secular community in sharing space. The solutions will be very varied."
How urgent does he think the problem is?'"Very. The churches are in a-very bad state. Do you know a church that hasn't got an appeal?"
Sir Roy is determined to make an impact. "I will be going to York. Durham, Lincoln, Chester, Ely, Norfolk, Exeter, Canterbury, Guildford, Cheltenham the list goes on. I will give a year of my life to this. The truth of the matter is that I have got up and said, or articulated, what everybody knows to be true but no one has dared to say it."
Who would he look to for financial help?
"You would look to the community around. It would be nice if Government came through with some. They might through English Heritage. But in the present climate I would not be that optimistic. The solution lies in the community around. which in the past paid for the church and maintained it. There are many different societies for conserving and protecting churches. They are all complete failures. Look at the membership of the Historic Churches Preservation Trust. It's been in existence for 40 years and it's only got 1,400 members. The National Trust has three million.
"And there are too many of those societies. The public is completely confused. There are eight or a dozen. Ideally, there should be one national organisation comparable to the National Trust. But it won't happen."
Sir Roy speaks with experience, having organised successful exhibitions at the V&A to explain the plight of the great English country houses and gardens. Many are now beautifully restored and saved. But Sir Roy was unable to attract as much attention to a similar exhibition on England's church heritage, possibly because it is still taken too much for granted.
What about commercial sponsorship of some of the activities? "Yes, What's wrong with that?" Sir Roy asked. "I wouldn't warm to gaming machines being put in the local church, but everything must be tested on its merits. As part of the fundraising needed to keep their churches going. people will naturally turn to local industry which could be anything.
"I feel very strongly about this cause and it's something the wider public is unaware of because the gulf between church and the rest of the community is now very wide indeed.
"Yet the church is always there and in times of crisis. People always turn to it. And that is its strength."
A Little History of the English Country Church by Roy Strong is published by Jonathan Cape at 176.99