What is the future for North Dorset’s churches?

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Rachael Rowe looks at the perilous state of many English churches – especially small village churches ‑ and the struggles to preserve them

A major project is under way at Ibberton to save the parish church from– quite literally – falling off a chalk escarpment

More than 3,500 churches in England have closed their doors in the past decade – 900 more are on Historic England’s Heritage at Risk register, according to the National Churches Trust (NCT). The NCT believes the future of church buildings is the single biggest heritage issue in the United Kingdom today.
With declining congregations and buildings becoming harder to maintain, how can churches future-proof themselves?

The pew row
Apart from declining congregations, one of the biggest issues facing churches today is climate change. Ancient guttering, roofs and downpipes are unable to cope with the increase in rainwater.
Ageing populations find churches less accessible. Traditional pews are awkward for people with mobility problems. Many churches do not have loosand provision of them is often cause for debate.
Serveries and loos have been found to increase attendance, as has the use of church buildings as food pantries and other community resources. Communities want the church to be there for traditional hatch, match and dispatch events.
But declining attendances make their future more vulnerable.In 2020, the village of Okeford Fitzpaine shot to international fame when the media descended on the village to report on a story about the church pews being removed. Less reported was how the “Pew Debate” caused deep and significant discord in the village. When work finally started to remove the pews, the wooden floor was found to be so rotten that it could have collapsed at any time – yet another example of how much work is needed for churches to have a sustainable future. Restoration work is progressing – as is fund-raising for the installation of a loo … The Rev Andrew Gubbinsk, vicar of the Okeford Benefice, says: ‘Churches need to be thought of less as a building and more as a community space. A building speaks silently as to how it should be used, even before the vicar has opened their mouth. The church’s task is to demonstrate to the wider village that it is vibrant. You are only as good as your latest generation, and the community needs to see the value of supporting the church – not just going to a church service but attending a concert or social event, whether you believe in God or not.’

Trouble on trouble
The Church of the Holy Rood at Shillingstone is undergoing a major restoration project, run by some committed volunteers. The first phase was to replace the vestry and North Aisle roof which, thanks to tireless campaigning, is looking significantly better. Unfortunately, leaks appeared as the north aisle roof was being repaired.Scaffolding for the current work made the roof easier to examine and its fragility was discovered. Phase two is now under way as a needed campaign to save the chancel begins.
The parochial church council (PCC) aims to raise £110,000 for the repairs. PCC treasurer Anne Powell said: ‘When we saw the collapse of the north aisle roof in November 2022, we were desperately worried by the situation that faced us. But the generosity shown by our community gives me great confidence that we will succeed with this second phase.’
Andrew Gubbins says: ‘What a lot of people don’t realise is that churches receive no government funding or subsidy at all. ‘Everything has to be raised from the local congregation, and the local church has to pay the priest’s salary before any other work like restoration. That’s why there isn’t a full time priest in rural parishes – communities can’t afford them.
‘So when a major restoration project comes up, funds need to be sourced from other grants and fundraising.’

As the north aisle roof of the Church of the Holy Rood at Shillingstone was being repaired, significant rain-water was spotted running into the North Wall below, requiring urgent restoration

Dropping off a cliff
Most people who lead a church restoration programmes in the community are unpaid volunteers. In Ibberton, Annette Newman heads a major project to save the parish church from – quite literally – falling off a chalk escarpment.
‘A summer of fundraising is planned in Ibberton to help stabilise the walls of the north aisle of the Grade II* listed St Eustace Parish Church. The 684-year-old church, dedicated to a pagan Roman general who converted to Christianity after he had a vision of the Cross while hunting, looks out over The Blackmore Vale from its perch on a chalk escarpment. Since 1957, signs of failure in the north west corner of the North Aisle have become more marked, with cracks and movement around a window and at the keystone of an arch. The corner appears to be rotating away from the building, which is approximately three metres from the cliff edge. If it detaches, it will tumble over a footpath and land in a neighbour’s garden approximately 20 metres below, clearly making the entire building unstable and unsafe for use.
In the early 1900s, the community faced a similar situation when three of the four roof sections collapsed (see Roger Guttridge’s Then and Now from 2021 here). At that time £1,500 was raised to save the church – that’s equivalent to £153,000 today!
As local churches are in such a challenging state, is it time to view them as community assets that can be so much more than a religious building?

You can contribute to Shillingstone’s The Holy Rood Church project here: peoplefundraising.com/donations/Shillingstone-church-roof-appeal.
Ibberton’s fundraising events include a summer concert by the North Dorset Singers on Friday 19th July in the church (7pm – free entry with a donation plate). There’s also a Ceilidh with Tim Laycock and Friends on Saturday 27th July – 7pm at Ibberton Village Hall, £10 per person with cash barbecue and bar.

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