Changing population patterns and crumbling buildings requiring costly repairs have created a challenging environment for Britain’s network of thousands of churches, many of which date back hundreds of years.

It is a situation that has resulted in a major campaign to save these church buildings — and increasingly inventive ways of maintaining their existence such as community shops and even glamping in churches.

The scale of the problem was made apparent with the launch of the National Churches Trust manifesto “Every Church Counts.” The report, released this past January, highlighted the fact that since 2013, over 3,500 churches have closed their doors forever. Many others are facing the same prospect, if action is not taken now.

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As a result, the National Churches Trust has identified six key measures that could make a difference. These are:

— Setting up a network of professional support workers to help the volunteers and clergy responsible for the church buildings.

— Greater acknowledgement of the role churches play within in the community and the way in which they provide an ideal location for community services.

— Regular opening of churches beyond worship times, including access seven days a week whenever possible.

— Developing a historic church tourism strategy, including more UNESCO world heritage designations such as the wool churches of Norfolk and Suffolk, or the Celtic Christians sites of the West Country, Wales and northern England.

— Urgent coordinated action by the government, heritage organizations and various Christian denominations to develop a long-term national plan.

— Additional £50 million ($62.2 million) funding to save church heritage funding for the future with funds derived from public sources as well as matched funding to incentivise charitable donations.

Repairs and building maintenance can be very expensive. Merely repairing the roof of a historic church can cost over $600,000. Heating, lighting and providing basic facilities is often more costly than a congregation can afford.

In England, there are now 900 places of worship on Historic England’s At Risk Register, with 53 more added just last year. The Church of Scotland is seeking to close up to 40 percent of its churches, while in Wales 25 percent of historic churches have closed over the past ten years.

“Our vision is that church buildings across the UK remain open, in good repair with their heritage secure and being used for worship and community use.  With over 38,500 buildings, no single action can fix the problem; action is needed by churches locally, denominations nationally, and by heritage organisations and Government itself,” said Sir Philip Rutnam, Chair of the National Churches Trust.

Sir Michael Palin, Vice-President of the National Churches Trust added, “Churches are a vital and much-loved part of the UK’s history and we need to act now to prevent the loss of tremendously important local heritage.  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.”

There are certainly signs of hope on a local basis. Many congregations and organizations are proving inventive in seeking ways to aid their churches.  Local involvement is proving to be a crucial element in solving the problems of many of the U.K.’s historic churches, especially those set in rural areas. In Devon, a seven-year project to explore options for churches around the diocese led to the creation of a “Growing the Rural Church” project led by Sarah  Cracknell.

“You cannot separate the functionality of running a building from the mission of the church within the community,” she said.

In 2015, the Churches Conservation Trust launched an unusual champing initiative. The concept is simple — encouraging visitors to stay overnight in historic churches. Each booking offers exclusive overnight access, basic accommodation including fold out beds and tea/coffee making facilities. 

There are now over 20 champing churches across England, including sites like the 12th century church of St Botolph Limpenhoe in the Norfolk Broads and the towering church complete with a massive collection of medieval stained glass at  Langport in Somerset.

Demand for such unusual overnight accommodation frequently outstrips demand. Chana James from the Churches Conservation Trust said, “Champing is a great way to have a unique experience in a historic church and has been very popular.”

In Strabane, Northern Ireland, the Church of the Immaculate Conception decided to install a museum and guided tours to draw visitors. They now have 100,000 visitors a year, which has boosted the local economy. It has also meant that the congregation are working with younger people, giving them ways of finding jobs in the heritage and conservation sector.

The church of Yarpole in Herefordshire has pioneered a way in which churches can provide valuable community services.  Dismayed by the closure of their village shop and post office, locals worked with their local church to set up a village shop.  A massive fundraising campaign led to an area of the church being partitioned off for use as a shop at the west end of the nave, as well as paying for the provision of underfloor heating and general refurbishment of the building.

As a community-owned business, any surplus funds generated by the shop are used to fund local projects.  The concept has proved incredibly successful, resulting in Yarpole winning awards such as the Best Village Shop in the U.K.. Other churches elsewhere in Britain have taken note, resulting in the creation of similar projects such as St Helens at Grindleford in the Peak District set up a shop in the former vestry, while at Broad Chalk near Salisbury, the URC church opened a small café and shop to act as a village hub.

The concept is that is proving extremely popular both in rural areas and inner cities, creating new revenue streams enabling churches to offer new services and facilities such as working with armed forces veterans suffering from PTSD at a Pembrokeshire church.

Church authorities have been very supportive of such efforts, recognizing that it helps maintain the building and provides a community service. The charitable Plunkett Foundation has been particularly active in providing help and advice through their “Places of Worship” campaign to enable faith buildings to host community businesses such as shops, cafes and libraries. 

Angela Youngman is a freelance journalist who has written for a wide range of national and international publications.