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What are Festival Churches?

3 February 2016


Speaking at a meeting organised by Caroline Spelman, the Second Church Estates Commissioner, in the House of Commons on Wednesday 3rd February, Sir Tony Baldry, Chair of the Church Buildings Council, gave a briefing on Festival Churches.

The Church of England has some 16,000 churches nationwide.

As a consequence of history, not least the medieval manorial system, the majority of our church buildings are in rural areas.

Many are now in multi-parish benefices which sees a number of church buildings not necessarily being used for weekly worship, but where the church is still a local icon, a community asset, and bears witness to a physical Christian presence in that community.

Festival Churches are about trying to ensure that churches remain open.

Festival Churches are not about wanting to close churches, or even to “mothball” churches.

Festival Churches are about trying to ensure that churches can remain open, and that they can generate the financial wherewithal to do such things as pay for their insurance, and pay for essential maintenance, such as the clearing of the guttering and other immediate care of the building.

So a Festival Church is a church which will encourage as much of the whole community to come together to celebrate church festivals, such as Christmas, Easter, Harvest Festivals, local Festivals, other Festivals, such as Mother’s Day, Remembrance Sunday, and also to ensure that there is an open church for people in the local community to celebrate rites of passage, such as baptisms, weddings, and funerals.

A Festival Church will also often be available for appropriate community uses, which gives opportunities to strengthen the connections to the church building and congregation with the wider community and sometimes it will see the responsibility and technical ownership of the church being handed on to a Trust – to make it local, Diocesan or indeed National – which can manage the church building on behalf of the PCC.

To enable us to share ideas and give substance to this initiative which has now been endorsed by General Synod, it is proposed to set up an Association of Festival Churches, and support their development with advice, resources and materials.

Let me give some actual examples, showing the range of possibilities and how the Church Buildings Council is supporting local initiatives – and I stress that all Festival Churches are local initiatives.

Toller Fratrum St. Basil in the Diocese of Salisbury and in the county of Dorset, which is a single building Trust.

One of the cases which illustrated the possibilities for Festival Churches is this tiny, Grade Two Star rural church.

It stands in an isolated position in a farmyard and was served by a vicar who had sixteen church in his benefice.

However, there was a small, but extremely committed community and congregation.

This church is now looked after by a local Trust – the Friends of St. Basil – and the congregation celebrates the Festivals of the Church under licence from the Bishop.

Achieving this, however, was a some protracted legal process and it became clear that it was necessary to set up a national support body for such churches which could advise on how to achieve workable solutions in the easiest possible way.

This is to be the role of the new Association of Festival Churches, helping with legal advice, how to engage with the community and how to celebrate the Festivals, and the particular strengths and values of each local church and locality to keep these wonderful church buildings as the hub and focus of rural life.

Another example is St. German’s Priory Trust, in the Diocese of Truro, in the county of Cornwall – again a single building Trust.

Five years ago, the ancient church of St. Germanus, a large Grade One Norman building on the site of the Saxon cathedral of Cornwall, and the seat of a Suffragan Bishop was facing possible closure.

The PCC was responsible for four rural churches, of which St. German’s was by far the biggest and most historically significant but also the most expensive and difficult to maintain. It was simply too big to be the Parish Church of a village.

This indeed had been a problem ever since the Reformation ! when the village took on the Priory Church following the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

Four hundred local people signed a petition against closure and the Bishop set up a Working Group to find a way forward.

This Group was supported by the Church Buildings Council who advised that a Trust could be set up to look after and develop the building as a community resource and tourist attraction, complementing its renewed role as a place of worship.

The Chairman of this Working Group, Martin Edwards, became the first Chair of the Trust and Martin is here today if you want to hear more of his work, for which he is about the awarded the Cross of St. Piran by the Bishop of Truro.

Thirdly, of these examples, is the Norwich Diocesan Churches Trust, which is a regional, indeed, national Trust, where the Bishop of Norwich took the initiative to set up this Trust to avoid a situation where a number of much loved, isolated, rural churches could fall out of use because of a lack of local resources to do the daily grind of looking after a church such as organising insurance, maintenance and inspection.

As the Bishop of Norwich put it, such a loss of churches would “flatten the spiritual landscape of Norfolk”, and lose what often is the only community building in the village.

The Diocesan Trust takes that daily grind off the shoulders of the congregation and allows them to concentrate on using the churches for Festivals, weddings, baptisms and funerals as well as community events.

The first church to be leased by the Trust is South Pickenham All Saints, a Grade One Norman round tower church near Swaffham, and there are several more in the pipeline.

Matthew McDade from Norwich Diocese is here if you would like to grab him for a chat about the important work of this Diocesan Trust.

And I suspect that over time we will see different examples emerging in different parts of the country.

There is no one single solution.

There is no “one size fits all”.

But we hope with the Association of Festival Churches that those who want to take forward such initiatives can give each other mutual strength, share ideas and be given support by Church House.

More details about how we in the Church Buildings Council and Church House hope to help Festival Churches can be found on the Church Care website. A flyer can also be downloaded here: Festival Churches Flyer – February 2016.

Rt. Hon. Sir Tony Baldry