Sir Roy Strong – 2002 AGM

Annual General Meeting 2002

Address by Sir Roy Strong, Hon.D.Litt, FSA, FRSL.


This is the twentieth anniversary of the Romney Marsh Historic Churches Trust. It was Lady Bracknell, however, who remarked that age was no guarantee as to respectability of character. I do note that 1982 was five years on from one of the more unsung exhibitions mounted during my fourteen years as Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. Change and Decay; The Future of our Churches was staged during the Summer of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee and ran concurrently with a blockbuster on Fabergé for which the public queued. So, to an extent, the churches’ exhibition was a lost cause. But if you asked me where my heart lay, it was in that exhibition, which set out to bring to a wider public the crisis facing the survival of the many thousand parish churches scattered across our island.

I wonder whether there is any connection between it and the inauguration of the Trust? Years later I was to write; “Change and Decay;The Future of our Churches should not pass unremarked. Over twenty thousand people went to it, and it was instrumental in Government at last coming through with grants, via the Historic Buildings Council, for churches. That was a major achievement. This was a really important exhibition, empty for much of the time, while the mob fought to see the jewels.”

It was in fact the second in what was to have been a quartet of polemical shows devoted to threatened heritage. The others were The Destruction of the Country House in 1974 and The Garden in 1979. The fourth, which was never staged, was to be on towns and cities. That was because, with the arrival of the Thatcher government in 1979, the climate changed.

Now what is striking is that the exhibitions on the plight of historic houses and on gardens, can be looked back on as real landmarks, turning points which shifted public perception. A generation on, we don’t have a country house crisis, pace Tyntesfield, and that is in the throes of being rescued thanks to the National Heritage Lottery Fund. We no longer hear of them being blown up or demolished, which was common until the 1960s. Rather the reverse, for renewed prosperity and a new generation of owners has brought about a positive revival in their fortunes, while the National Heritage Lottery Fund provides a safety net, non-existent prior to its creation in 1980. Historic parks and gardens too have benefited hugely from that Fund, but also from the fact that gardens are now subject to listing, and that garden history and restoration, both then in their infancy, are burgeoning. But what about the churches?

In March of this year the present Archbishop of Canterbury called for an end to what he called the ‘scandal’ which witnesses the Church of England spending almost one sixth of its £750 million annual budget on repairs to the nation’s churches and cathedrals. Dr. Carey described this £120 million annual bill footed by the Church as a ‘crushing burden’ that diverted funds from the most pressing needs of the ministry. When I was told the other day that no less than sixty posts in the Diocese of London were frozen due to lack of funds, the truth of what he said was brought forcefully home to me. In our own area of South Herefordshire re-organisation has thrown together even more churches, with fewer and fewer clergy rushing from one to the other each Sunday, and the ever-escalating use of the laity to take services. As the Bishop of Guildford, the Right Reverend John Gladwin, succinctly put it:”At present it is the people who attend week by week who are having to sustain the nation’s heritage.”

What struck me was how little we had advanced since 1977 in the case of our churches as against our historic houses and gardens. Not for nothing did Dr. Carey issue a warning that unless substantial funding was received soon, many dioceses could be forced to abandon their ancient churches and cathedrals. I don’t sense a crisis with the latter, for there has been a renaissance in the case of cathedrals, places where good liturgy and good singing have been maintained, and, as a consequence, they are filled with those driven from their local parish churches by the endless changes in services.

To me the future of our historic churches looms large as the great heritage crisis of the twenty-first century. But so many people seem oblivious of the fact. Not long ago, I sat next to the new Director-General of the National Trust, Fiona Reynolds. She is doing a splendid job in reformulating the Trust’s orbit to embrace a far wider conspectus of properties from Victorian workhouses to urban allotments. I mentioned churches to her and recall her wide-eyed amazement. I said that the twin icons of the English countryside were the country house and the parish church, and that the twentieth century had been about saving the former, just as the twenty-first would be about preserving the latter. The Trust, I said, would have to think about what its role were to be, if and when this happened. I didn’t elicit a response, but at least I’d delivered the message.

What is so striking today is that here in Romney Marsh you are ahead of the game by two decades. You have an organisation and a structure to preserve and protect a great swathe of churches within a single area of England. This has been the result of the foresight and vision of a small group of people who, fearing acts of redundancy, drew together and launched this Trust. It has been a huge success and, indeed, presents a prototype applicable to other areas of the country. This has been a remarkable achievement.

But where do you go next? I can’t answer that for you. All I can do is suggest pointers as to where we are. There are at present two points of view as to the state of our churches. One school of thought, familiar with the terrible state that they were in for example during the eighteenth century, says that they have never been in better condition. The opposing school of course, paints a picture of imminent crisis and decay. What I can say is that funds which are more or less governmental in source are stll remarkably mean when it comes to churches. The Heritage Lottery Fund used only to give £10 million a year in grants to churches, and English Heritage a parallel £10 million. Together that used to total £20 million, nothing like enough to ease the Church of England’s appalling burden of £120 million. The imbalance in this grant-giving by public bodies was already a crying scandal, and it is particularly inimical to the future of what are listed as Grade II churches, which often have features within them which are Grade I and of major historic and aesthetic importance.

But this year has seen a dramatic change which at first seemed for the better. That change revolved round the dread topic of VAT on repairs. That runs at 17½% and any attempt to alter that resides in the mysteries of the European Union, and is therefore wrapped up in Brussels. At first it seemed that this VAT problem had been ameliorated by a Treasury grant scheme in which any place in use as one of worship could reclaim back 12½% of the VAT on repairs. That only came in, I understand, on April 1st. But that seemingly generous gesture by Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, was cancelled out by English Heritage’s 2002 contribution being cut by £7 million to £3 million. The Heritage Lottery Fund intends to pick up some of that shortfall by raising its own contribution from the previous £10 million to £15 million, but that still leaves historic churches £2 million worse off than before.

To that we must add further problems. One will be picking up the bills to meet the demands of the Disability and Discrimination Act, which lays down that reasonable measures must be taken to secure access for anyone who suffers from any form of disablement. That has to be achieved by 2004. I shudder to think of the problems of introducing ramps into some churches, and what damage could be done to ancient architecture.

Then there are the longer-term threats. At present there is no sign of a revival of Christian belief in this country, and for these buildings to survive, they must more and more engage the affection of those who never come to them in order to worship. Add to that the fact that history is now virtually not taught in our schools. Children are no longer provided with a time frame on which to hang things. I find that the deliberate attempt to wipe out our past, which has been so typical of the present Government (who would like our history to begin on May 1st 1997) is perhaps the most disturbing trend of all. A country ignorant of its own history, cannot understand its present or formulate its future.

But all these are clouds gathering on the horizon. Their effect has yet to be felt, but forewarned is forearmed. In the case of the Romney Marsh Historic Churches Trust you can bask in what is essentially the achievement of a single generation of people. The problem I commend to you is the ability to pass the torch on to those who will carry your success to your fortieth anniversary, for which occasion I am unlikely to be present.

To what does the Romney Marsh Historic Churches Trust owe its success? It is somehow apposite that its twentieth anniversary coincides with the Golden Jubilee of Her Majesty the Queen, which we celebrate this coming weekend. That has evoked tribute to qualities which made this country great, but which for so long have been dismissed: duty, service, obligation and responsibility. The Trust would not have come into being, or indeed exist today, without its members having a keen sense of those old-fashioned virtues. I give thanks that they still exist here, and for their expression through the work of this remarkable Trust.