The Disraeli Room

The Disraeli Room

Blog Post

Can our generation save rural heritage in Europe?

8th June 2014

Crispin Truman, chief executive of the Churches Conservation Trust, argues for the preservations of historic churches

This year FRH Europe’s international conference is on the subject of rural historic churches, synagogues, chapels and other places of worship and their relevance to 21st Century communities. It’s an important time to be thinking about this because thousands of these buildings across Europe are at risk of being lost forever. The reasons are many: rural depopulation and changing patterns of worship are key but the changing role of the State and Church, economic development and a wider decline in participation in public life also play a big role. It could be that our generation is the one which saves these amazing survivors from history, or it could be that future generations will look back at us with sorrow – as we do the Beeching generation who lost our rural railways.

Beautiful historic churches in rural areas need to be saved now. Not just because they are ancient, lovely and tell our story and that of our societies, but also because they can play an important part in the future of civil society. Rural communities have lost so much public space, so many public buildings, that the church or its equivalent is often the last civil society building left. Without it we are left alone in our sitting rooms and cars, with nowhere to come together. Communities in the countryside need their rural historic churches just as much as their heritage needs them: to survive.

There are huge opportunities for the use and conservation of these buildings in the future. Community, arts and tourism use is central, because it widens the appeal of these great buildings to new audiences and interests. There are multifarious, sympathetic solutions which will also protect the traditions of the buildings and their historic fabric and – crucially – keep them open to the public. Promoting uses such as rural tourism also brings much-needed business to the local area (the Churches Conservation Trust has seen a doubling of visitors to its rural churches in the last decade).

We have to present rural religious heritage in radically new ways, encouraging people of all generations, all faiths and none to enjoy and understand it. It’s these solutions and others which the FRH Europe conference will explore in Halle, Germany, this October.

We are at a crossroads. All across Europe rural historic places of worship are falling into disrepair, closing their doors or being threatened by development. In many ways it is amazing how such ancient, often idiosyncratic, complex and difficult to manage buildings have survived so long: usually as a result of the love and commitment of a few in the face of unbelievable odds. Do we want to be the generation that let these buildings go, after hundreds and thousands of years of history and change? Or will we be the ones who took action to ensure the rural cultural heritage we still enjoy, will be there for our descendants? Those few – volunteers all – need our help now.

In the UK and elsewhere there is a need for a more connected, holistic policy across Government towards heritage, which recognises the positive benefit it can bring to community, planning and economic development. Building owners including religious denominations and charities need to be part of this conversation and we all need a wider culture change to allow people to see the positive potential for these buildings and escape the straitjacket created by 1960s redundancy legislation.

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