Ages past, years to come
If Dorset is to retain its historic and enduring legacy of outstanding Christian churches in the 21st century, the Dorset Historic Churches Trust’s second fifty years will be every bit as challenging as the first. DHCT Trustee Peter Hodgkins considers past, present and future.
Published in May ’10
Few things in life are certain, but amongst such rarities surely the presence of a compelling article and award-winning photography featuring a Dorset town or village and its church in an issue of Dorset Life is one of them. It is a reflection of the character and embodiment of the county’s varied moods and enduring landscapes, for centuries the inspiration of fine writers and talented artists. Dorset has one of the most varied subsoils in Britain. For over a thousand years stone of myriad texture and hue has been mined, cut and carved to produce churches of all sizes, colours, age and style: from the tiny St Edwold, Stockwood, one of the smallest churches in England, to the sensational Christchurch Priory, the longest parish church in England; from the golden Abbey Church of St Mary at Sherborne to the almost white St George’s, Reforne, which when built in the mid 18th century was the main church of Portland; from pre-conquest St Martin’s, Wareham, with its strange effigy of Lawrence of Arabia, to one of Street’s best churches, St James’s at Kingston; from the isolation of the 13th-century chapel of St Aldhelm’s, Worth Matravers, to the urban sophistication of 18th-century St Peter and St Paul in Blandford – the list is almost endless. Each church is unique as a building, as a recipient of local and national history, as a continued source of solace and strength to the local community and pleasure to the visitor.
Romantic as such ecclesiastical imagery may be, sadly but inevitably reality is forever its travelling companion. Thus the Dorset Historic Churches Trust might be described as ‘romantically realistic’, sentiments shared with Sir Christopher Wren’s observations 350 years ago about a church: ‘Much damnified by faulty guttering; one shilling seasonably expended prevents great charge later’.
May 2010 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Dorset Historic Churches Trust, which is one of 34 county Trusts that raise funds for the maintenance, repair and preservation of Christian church buildings in England. It was founded in 1960 as a voluntary charity by the distinguished soldier, history don at Cambridge and finally Queen’s Librarian Sir Owen Morshead GCVO, KCB, DSO, MC who, fortuitously for Dorset, retired to Sturminster Newton from Windsor Castle in 1955.
In the introduction to the Dorset Trust’s first ‘appeal’ leaflet in 1961 Sir Owen wrote: ‘Masonry crumbles and wood decays. Beetle, that prevalent cancer today, establishes itself in the roof beams. Lead, which swells in the heat and shrinks in the cold, loses its virtue and lets in the damp. Causes vary, but one factor remains constant: the parish has to provide and raise money, and more today than yesterday. For costs are now so high as to tax the energy of large parishes and outrun the purse of the most devoted small ones.’
Happily, but not without much vision, application and endurance, things have progressed since 1960. Even though contemporary circumstances have become more competitive and complex, Dorset’s churches in 2010 are mainly in good order thanks to quinquennial inspections, the hard work of churchwardens and parochial church councils, regular and routine maintenance and local generosity as well as grant-making bodies like the Dorset Historic Churches Trust.
Throughout its first fifty years, the Trust has advised and assisted over 300 county churches and chapels of all Christian denominations with grants and interest-free loans for fabric repairs and structural maintenance totalling in excess of £1,000,000. Short on bureaucracy and long on experience, it is swift to make decisions and often the first port of call and pump-primer for many, sometimes beleaguered, parochial church councils.
Currently it is awarding annual grants totalling around £100,000, typically divided amongst 18 to 25 churches. In addition to its financial role, including signposting other significant donors such as English Heritage, the National Churches Trust, the National Heritage Lottery, and most recently for Dorset, the Erskine-Muton Trust, the Trust also offers guidance, support, and fundraising ideas.
Except from the National Churches Trust, the DHCT receives no financial support from the Salisbury or Winchester Dioceses or from Dorset County Council and is a wholly independent registered charity that depends on voluntary giving.
The greater level of grants of recent years has only been made possible by the success of the annual sponsored ‘Ride & Stride’ each September (now in its twentieth year), by an increased number of donations, legacies and bequests, boosted in value by Gift Aid, by a revival in the number and generosity of the Friends of Dorset Churches and by illustrated talks and church tours. It is also important to acknowledge the contribution of the many local fundraising events organised each year by the goodwill and efforts of individuals and parishes throughout Dorset.
Last year saw the publication of a number of studies by the Government, the Church of England, English Heritage and other bodies about ‘keeping our churches’. All recognise that the key factors are to broaden the use of church buildings for community purposes and to make them fit for such purposes by providing modern facilities and amenities expected of any public building in the 21st century. Such adaptation or re-ordering must be sensitive, practical and cost-effective. To date the DHCT, and most other church building charities, have been unwilling to make grants to alter buildings, as the need to provide funds for structural repairs has had to have priority over use and comfort. Whilst conservation and restoration remain the principle aim, the Dorset Trust now recognises that in many cases there are strong arguments both for conserving and for adapting, so that recently a few grants have been made towards both repair and improvement of a church. This seems a logical way for the Trust to develop its policy
for future grant-giving as funds and priorities permit.
What of the next fifty years? There are more than a hundred church building charities in England, including the 34 county Trusts and the National Churches Trust, all broadly sharing the same objectives as the DHCT, ‘to give grants for the repair of church buildings’. With 16,000 or more churches in England, including 615 in Dorset, 80% of them listed and none, except those made redundant, supported financially by either the Church of England or the Government, it is surely extraordinary that those charities which do help with the maintenance of churches in use are so many, so fragmented and nearly all managed by volunteers. The incumbent Chairman of the DHCT, Major General John Alexander, fully supported by the Trustees, is convinced that there is a clear and present need for much closer collaboration between the church charities, a requirement for more effective and professional full-time management back-up, improved public relations and fundraising. Together with the National Churches Trust, the DHCT is currently studying possible ways to develop the management and organisation of the County Churches Trusts so that more funds can be raised to preserve the priceless inheritance of Dorset’s and other beautiful English churches for future generations.
The 50th anniversary of DHCT will be celebrated with a Festal Evensong at Sherborne Abbey on 4 July, when the preacher will be the Very Revd Robert Willis, Dean of Canterbury.
Further information about DHCT can be obtained from the Honorary Secretary, Patrick Moule, Ryalls Ground, Yetminster, Dorset DT9 6LL, telephone: 01935 872447, e-mail: email@example.com
You can find out much more about the Trust and see over 200 churches by visiting the website, www.dorsethistoricchurchestrust.co.uk
The Dorset Parishes Ride & Stride 2010 is on Saturday 11 September. Details from Anna Butler on 01305 260004, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
3. Peter Booton
4. Mick Young for NCT
5. Dave Penman