I’ve just finished reading A Little History of the English Country Church by Sir Roy Strong, the historian and one time director of the National Portrait Gallery and the V & A. He has written an absorbing account of the ups and downs in the fortunes of the myriad English parish churches that have been at the centre of our villages for anything up to a thousand years. He describes how these buildings, and the people who have used them, have coped with and adapted to the huge changes imposed by reformation and restoration, by monarchs and Civil War, and by changing religious fashion. It is a fascinating read, especially if one has been led to believe that the church has kept the same traditions for hundreds if not thousands of years. Many practices are surprisingly Victorian!
Perhaps the most interesting and challenging part of the book is the closing chapter where the author looks to the future of our village churches, especially in villages that have already lost their school, pub, post office and so on. Although Roy Strong has made a career in conservation and preservation, he makes a strong plea that these considerations should not hamper those who have the current responsibility for village churches from making necessary changes if they are to survive the huge upheaval now occurring in village life. His plea is for adaptation and not conservation.
Roy Strong claims that 10,000 of our rural churches can only survive if they are repossessed by the community. Many will find his solution controversial: rip out the pews (in many cases Victorian late additions) and replace them with chairs, then use the space during the week to run community centres, post offices and line dancing classes.
Each community will need to make its own plans for the future – not every church needs to become a community centre; village halls have been provided in most villages now, largely because villagers were locked out of their parish churches when pews were put in (those Victorians again!). We must support our village halls and encourage their use. But each community needs to have its own strategy for the next twenty years in the life of the parish church – how will it adapt?
It has been very interesting to read this book at a time when two of our local Methodist chapels have re-ordered by removing their pews, when Mistley Parish is re-ordering its west-end, and when Bradfield St. Lawrence is about to embark on a modest extension to its building – a new entrance and lobby, a kitchen and toilet and a cosy meeting room – all changes designed to enhance the use of these buildings. Clearly the churches of the Mistley, Manningtree and Bradfield area are not inactive, but energetically looking to the future and the survival of the church in the countryside.