Peter Ainsworth

 

Extract from a speech given in 2020.

We are a national charity – with a national collection of buildings of international importance. But each one of those churches is unique and individual and individually loved, supported and cared for – by you and thousands like you.

I don’t pretend that the task we share is easy, or getting easier.

We now have 356 churches in our care. The number creeps up every year. Of course on one level they belong to the CCT; they have been vested in the CCT. So we have a responsibility to make sure that they are looked after.

But – just as importantly – they belong to where they are. To where you are. That is why our Strategic Plan involves a much closer engagement with local communities. The CCT’s task is to help local groups to look after what matters to them. To you. For now and forever.

Inspired by faith and certainty

“Placemaking” has become a fashionable buzz-word. Each one of these churches has a powerful spirit of place; the place it occupies. The spirit is invisibly connected to those who laboured to build, craft, and make these places; and who are buried nearby. They were inspired by faith and certainty. Those are not fashionable buzz words today.

And that is a problem. It’s not a new one. In his great poem “Dover Beach” Matthew Arnold wrote that:

“The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full,
And round Earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled;
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night wind, down vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.”

That was in 1867.

In May 1954 the Archbishop of Canterbury launched “Save Our Churches Week”. He said that the decline in congregations meant that “over 2,000 churches must be helped at once to be saved from decay and ruin”.

And now, in 2020, there are some 12,000 listed churches in England. The vast majority are in rural areas with small populations and a rapidly declining number of active Christian worshipers. Did you know that the Church of England is responsible for 45% of all Grade One Listed buildings in England?

Protecting our national heritage

The Parish system, for centuries the mainstay of religious, cultural and social life, simply cannot cope – although there are a few exceptions – with the burden of it built inheritance. That system hasn’t coped for a few generations now and it is unlikely to do so in future. I wonder how many current church wardens are under sixty years old.

What happens next to the historic parish church is probably the biggest single question facing anyone charged with a duty to protect our national heritage. It’s not just a problem for the Church of England or the Government. Our historic churches are an emblem of what and who we are in our own eyes, in our own communities and in the eyes of the world. So what is to be done?

The story of our country

We are keen to demonstrate that we have the people, the skills, the knowledge, the access to the crafts which will be needed to help sustain our historic places of worship. We know all about rotten roofs and gutters and damp and woodworm. We have been tackling this stuff for over 50 years. We believe that we have ideas and techniques and commercial contacts which can help.

We cannot convert people back to Christian faith. That’s not our job. But we can demonstrate the connection which exists between a sense of history and access to beautiful places and thoughtful happiness and a sense of wellbeing and a pride in where we live. Our churches tell the story of our country, ourselves, in every place where they stand – or fall.

Peter Ainsworth was appointed Chairman of The Churches Conservation Trust in July 2016 and served in this position until his death in April 2021. His involvement in heritage dated back to 1995, when he was appointed Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Secretary of State for National Heritage. He was a member of the DCMS Select Committee in 2009-10.

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