A poignant sign hangs on the wall of the Church of St Helen’s in Biscathorpe, located near Louth in the Lincolnshire Wolds. Beneath a layer of plaster dust and cobwebs it pleads:

‘Please Help. We have no income for the upkeep of this church’. 

St Helen’s dwindling congregation may have led to its eventual disuse, but the request for funds to support its precious and beautiful fabric are echoed by many church communities.  A recent report from the Church Buildings Council titled ‘Struggling, Closed and Closing Churches Research Project’ comprehensively unpicks the causes which culminate in a church closing its doors; the report concludes this is largely driven by demographics, and notes Victorian and Edwardian churches pose the greatest challenges in terms of maintenance of fabric.

However, there is no denying that churches of all ages suffer with leaking roofs (tragically often caused by lead theft), rotten timbers, failing ferramata and spalling stonework.  The threat of spiralling capital costs, a growing conservation deficit and the pressure of raising funds must weigh heavily on many a Parochial Church Council.  Grant making bodies are willing to cover capital costs, but conditional upon a guaranteed ‘sustainable’ future offer more often than not taking the form of community engagement, serving under-represented audiences and diversification of income. All of these are proper and admirable objectives but church communities often lack the capacity and the experience to effectively deliver such worthy objectives. Preserving a church for its own sake, or undertaking routine repairs, is unlikely to secure the level of funding many churches require.  The prospect of researching, preparing and managing a project that will benefit a church, its congregation, community AND meet the exacting criteria of funders can seem daunting at the best of times, never mind if a crisis point has been reached. No wonder the plaintive cry is heard, Please Help.

However, whilst challenging circumstances can readily feel insurmountable, they can also be a driver for positive change.  Irving Patrick Consulting is currently working with two churches who are proactively seeking to secure their future, albeit in very different circumstances.  The key to helping them find a solution is based on their most valuable asset – the enthusiasm and dedication of their respective communities.

The Church of St John the Baptist in High Toynton, located near Horncastle in Lincolnshire, was built in 1872 and designed by Ewan Christian. It replaced the medieval church that had been remodelled in 1772.  Some 12th century masonry still survives; the church building is Grade II listed.

On the morning of Sunday 19 January 2020, the tower of this much-loved parish church suddenly collapsed. Whilst the structural integrity of the tower had been a concern for many years, the complete loss of the tower was unanticipated. Fortunately, no one was injured, and the remainder of the building is standing.  However, this devastating event has resulted in significant structural damage and the enforced closure of the church.  In an immediate response to the situation, residents of the village and the surrounding area raised over £32,000 to stabilise the structure.  However, significant funds are required to cover the necessary structural repairs to bring the church building back into use. As shocking and traumatic as this event has been, it has brought into sharp focus the importance of the church building to those who worship there and to the community for whom it is an essential resource; galvanising the community’s determination to see the Church reinstated at the very heart of village life.  

Whilst the immediate problem is the prospect of significant structural repairs to the south-west corner of the church, the community quickly recognised that an opportunity presented itself to undertake other fabric repairs and install essential facilities, all of which will allowing the church to serve its community and successfully diversify its income.  Congregants and village residents have come together to share their ideas, hopes and aspirations for the Parish Church; the High Toynton Renewed project is the result.  It presents a vision for the church as a place which is vibrant, animated, welcoming and inspirational; a place of learning and well-being which sits at the heart of village life; an asset for those who pass by telling, the story of a community’s life over many years and a place of refreshment for the traveller. The community’s vision is for this much loved – and formerly much used, church building – to serve High Toynton once again and the surrounding area.  Essential repair works and investment in its facilities will enable it to be a place of worship and importantly an essential community resource.  Further to this, it is hoped it will act as a social history hub: a place where people of all backgrounds and walks of life can learn about, and draw inspiration from, current and former residents of High Toynton and stories of the wider community’s past and present.

Another church which is exploring how it can better serve its community and become sustainable for the long-term is St Laurence’s in Kirby Misperton, North Yorkshire.   A church building is understood to have stood on the site from as early as the 10th century and a number of wheeled crosses and fragments of a tomb headstone bear testimony to that earlier structure. Uniquely, at a time when most church buildings were wooden structures, that early church is though to have been one of the few stone-built churches to have existed in Yorkshire at this time. The present, Grade II* listed building dates back to the 14th Century with the porch belfry and chancel being rebuilt during the 19th Century – the latter by C Hodgson Fowler in 1875.

Today, however, the village of Kirby Misperton is known not so much for its beautiful and historic church as for being the site of Flamingo Land Resort! A destination for over 1.6million visitors a year attracted by a winning combination of theme park, zoo and holiday resort. 

With its long and fascinating history and contemporary context, the church is now looking to the future and how best it can make its mark at the same time as securing a sound future. It is not without irony that through misfortune the church is now looking to move forward with some ambitious plans for the future: a lead theft two years ago energised a group of local people to project manage a repair scheme which necessitated finding the required funding, recruiting professional help and successfully delivering the project. 

It is from this misfortune that they are now committed to moving forward with an even more ambitious scheme. This will entail going beyond mere restoration and repair to opening the church building and making it available for the whole village community and the many thousands of people passing the front door every day. Kirby Misperton, offering the thrills and spills of a roller coaster ride but also the quiet and reflection of an ancient place. To this end the church community is looking to provide the facilities that will offer an hospitable welcome to those who visit (toilets, servery, communal meeting area) as well as enticing people to learn more about the village, its church and history over a millennium and more. Alongside this – and as already stated importantly in respect to funding – activities will be planned as well as educational projects and an interpretation scheme.

Both churches are seeking to better serve their communities, preserve and protect their ‘heritage assets’, and ensure their long-term sustainability. Their success is based on amazing community support and people willing to lead and ‘own’ the process. Forward thinking and progressive, both communities are open to new ideas and ways of working, and are passionate about finding opportunities for their churches to serve modern audiences. Irving Patrick Consulting is delighted to be supporting both these projects with all aspects of their planning and preparation; we are confident that both churches have an exciting future ahead of them.