Of these five churches, only two seem to be well situated in terms of their long-term futures. South Wootton appears to be thriving; Castle Rising is conveniently close the the English Heritage managed castle. Both seem prosperous. Sculthorpe is a disproportionately large church in a tiny village. It seems well cared for but I can only imagine that the normal congregation - and, therefore, the income it generates - is ridiculously small to support such an edifice. It is received wisdom that congregations are both dwindling and aging all over the country and many new Christians prefer the more “relevant” style of worship with plenty of movement and music. Many villages are now “dormitory towns” where shops, pubs and Post Offices have already disappeared as residents take their custom elsewhere (and of course raise hell when they lose the facilities they had hitherto ignored).
Toftrees (in particular) and Shernborne reek of under-funding. It is idle to compare religious houses with other institutions because they have a unique part in a community and its heritage and they invoke special affection even amongst those that do not support them. I am minded of the analogy of professional football clubs: only when they are threatened with closure do they realise how many passive (and financially non-contributing) “supporters” they have.
Toftrees made a particular impact. The church is locked except by arrangement, information on forthcoming events and services is scant. Its pretty exterior hides a rather sad interior made much worse by the plague of bats that make life so difficult for parishioners. The way things are going, the bats will have the place to themselves, though a notice in the church itself mentions some talks that are continuing to try to find a generic solution to the dilemma churches face with these delightful but messy flying rodents.
Locked churches are now commonplace. Increasing numbers have to share clergy and celebrate services on some kind of rota. The problem is not going to get any easier. Yet churches such as Shernborne and Toftrees, as we can see here, house architectural treasures that should be regarded as nationally-important works of art. If the churches close what happens to these treasures? The Churches Conservation Trust can’t take all redundant churches over! Nobody surely would suggest that Norman fonts and other treasures would be allowed to decay within abandoned buildings? To remove them from their original homes to other churches might be a pragmatic answer, but what a dreadful notion it is to remove the oldest symbol of a villages heritage to another site.
This seems to me to be a time bomb for a part of our national heritage that is not obviously on anyone’s radar except the long-suffering Church of England and its clergy and churchwardens. Some cathedrals, controversially, now charge admission either directly or via hefty “suggested” donations. This obviously is no answer even for the most famous of parish churches - the “footfall” can never be sufficient and charges might well deter what few visitors many churches get.
Governments can’t afford to bankroll churches on a national scale even if they want to - and listen out for cries of “me too” if they ever did.
Many churches are a bit like football grounds: expensive facilities used once a fortnight. Maybe the answer is in using them more for secular (and chargeable) uses but of course so many are really unsuitable or would require investment for movable seating and so on. But many villages will have village halls already used for those purposes.
I can’t think of an answer, but there are already stories appearing in the press about the problems in maintaining non-viable churches. At some time a high-profile or historically important church will be threatened and it may then become a national issue. Maybe the National Lottery might divert some of the money lavished on “saving for the nation” paintings by Italian and Dutch artists to saving buildings by British craftsmen? And pigs might well fly!