The Victorian Society arranged a fascinating conference on "Shaping the Future of Rural Churches" in the Merchant Taylors' Hall on 10th and 11th November 2005.
Dr David Neave spoke about the churches built and restored by Sir Tatton Sykes I and his son Sir Tatton Sykes II (whose photograph is to the left of this text). Many of these lie in East Yorkshire and a few just into North Yorkshire. They are a jewel in the crown of Yorkshire's many fine churches.
Trevor Cooper, of the Ecclesiological Society, has written about "How do we Keep our Parish Churches?" and told us everyone, all round the country, faces the same problems, but that different solutions are being found. For example, one area operates a kind of repair insurance scheme, in which all churches pay a regular contribution which funds repair work when they need it. A stitch in time saves nine: these churches then have much lower repair bills. He supported his talk with statistics made easy to understand in some excellent graphs.
Paula Griffiths, of the Council the Care of Churches, pointed out that many, many people loved the peace and quite a church offers, even if they don't want to attend a religious service, and that 86% of the population want to keep their churches open.
David Baker, of the Advisory Board for Redundant Churches, explained that the Board provides advice and assistance for churches considering redundancy. Once redundant, churches are not eligible for VAT on repair work, so it becomes harder to maintain a church. Once a church is made redundant, the Board will consider alternative uses, and, if there are none, may well demolish the building. Fewer churches now are demolished than were in the 1960s, but it can be very difficult to find alternative uses, and many alternatives have not proved satisfactory.
Sarah Brown and Richard Halsey, of English Heritage, which funds the repair of many fine churches, talked about what can be done to help them, and stressed the importance of involving the community.
Matthew Saunders, of the Friends of Friendless Churches, showed us how this can be done, with wonderful photographs and stories of communities using redundant churches for all sorts of community use, including a hustings meeting! One lady had even replaced a coracle which had hung in the church beside a river for use at times of flood, after the coracle had been stolen.
Phil Thomas, of the Diocesan Advisory Council in York, who provides advice and help to any church who asks him, told us how two redundant churches were rescued by private trusts, at Ellerton and Warter, and how they provide all sorts of community use.
Crispin Truman, of the Churches Conservation Trust (formerly the Redundant Churches Fund), which has acquired over 330 redundant churches, explained that it no longer had funds to rescue more churches, and was developing new ideas for saving churches in community-led partnerships. The only one of the Sykes churches which is redundant was acquired last year by the CCT: that at East Heslerton, the last church built by the great Victorian architect, G E Street, for Sir Tatton Sykes II.
On the following day, there was a most interesting visit of four of the Sykes churches: East Heslerton, Kirby Grindalythe, Fridaythorpe and Sledmere itself.
This well-attended and successful conference showed that there is, indeed, a future for our rural churches, and that there are many excellent and helpful ideas about, and many people willing and able to assist.