Edward Waterson, YHCT trustee and Caroline Mozley at St Lawrence Church, York.
Article courtesy of The York Press article here
BRITAIN has made two great contributions to world culture, jokes Edward Waterson – the country house, and the parish church.
The sight of a church steeple dreaming amidst gently rolling hills and fields is as English as the sound of leather on willow. Whether you’re a churchgoer or not, it’s a sight that can lift the heart.
And many of our thousands of parish churches have stories to match their history: the tomb of Edward of Middleham, son of Richard III, at Sheriff Hutton, for example; or the extraordinary medieval wall paintings at St Peter’s and St Paul’s Church in Pickering.
Yorkshire has more churches than any other English county – something like 3,500 of all denominations, though no-one seems exactly sure of the precise number.
The future of many of them, however, may be at risk.
Maintaining a church is an expensive, never-ending business. And a combination of dwindling congregations and the increasing age of those who do still attend church regularly means that, especially in smaller and poorer parishes, some local church groups are finding it an increasing struggle to maintain the buildings in their trust.
In an society that is becoming more secular, thousands of such churches across the country face being declared surplus to requirements and closed in the coming years, Mr Waterson says. “Hundreds of those will be in Yorkshire.”
In 2002, St Lawrence’s Church in York came close to being one of them. The huge Victorian church, known affectionately as the ‘Minster without the walls’, was so cold and damp that engineers even recommended it should be closed and demolished.
The congregation was never going to let that happen. They set out to raise funds for repairs, and today, following an investment of more than £150,000, the church has been transformed: the roof restored, the spire rebuilt, faulty electrical wiring replaced, and underfloor heating installed.
But for a congregation many of whom are past retirement age maintaining a church the size of St Lawrence’s is a constant strain, says Caroline Mozley, a parishioner and the church hall manager.
“There’s a colossal expense involved,” she says. “There’s a relatively small congregation, and the cost is astronomical. Without the support of charities we simply couldn’t go on.”
Step forward the Yorkshire Historic Churches Trust (YHCT), of which York estate agent Mr Waterson is a Trustee.
It was set up in 1988 by a group of what Mr Waterson calls ‘Yorkshire worthies’ with the sole aim of providing grants – which can range from £250 to more than £100,000 – to help preserve, repair and maintain Yorkshire churches.
Each year, the charity gives out about £100,000 to churches across the county – a total of £3 million to over 800 churches in the last 30 years.
Not just Church of England churches, either. “We aim to help all churches of all denominations,” Mr Waterson says.
The grants the YHCT gives out are often not very big. And they’re rarely for glamorous projects such as the restoration of important stained glass. They’re more likely to be for something that sounds pretty humdrum – such as the £4,000 the YHCT gave to St Lawrence’s last year to repair drains and gutters. “That may not be exciting, but it’s essential maintenance,” Mr Waterson points out. “Every penny spent on repairing gutters saves a lot more money that would have to be spent on repairing damage caused by failing to repair them.”
If you haven’t got gutters, you haven’t got anything!” agrees Caroline.
With so many churches struggling, the YHCT is now keen to extend its reach. It wants to generate more applications from more churches – even if that means the individual grants it can give out will be smaller. “There are churches that don’t even know that we exist,” Mr Waterson says.
There’s really only key requirement if a church wants to make an application. “They must be used for worship,” Mr Waterson says. “We’re not there to help somebody do up a former methodist chapel as a private house!”