Alex Coppock

Sir Roy Strong: St Peter’s blazes a trail for others to follow

by 19th May, 2012

St Peter's Church, PeterchurchSt Peter's Church, Peterchurch

Sir Roy Strong’s address read out at the meeting at St Peter’s Church, Peterchurch on 23 February 2012:

I am sitting here shivering with influenza hoping that I would feel well enough to come to Peterchurch and speak. It is with the deepest disappointment that I have had to conclude that the only place for me is in bed.

However, I have struggled to the computer to type these words. My interest in church adaptation stretches back to 1977 when, as Director of the Victoria & Albert Museum, we staged “Change and Decay. The Future of Our Churches”. That makes the association of the V & A with this evening’s event all the more appropriate.

Sadly, the response to that exhibition was muted in spite of the crisis continuing to grow during the last decades of the twentieth century. I felt a personal sense of failure for the sister exhibitions on both country houses and gardens changed the public’s perception and were recognised as landmarks. I was not to return to churches until 2003 when the dire state of them and the uncertainty as to their future returned forcefully to the agenda. There are roughly ten thousand churches in England of which 5,000 are not really needed. The crisis in the countryside is everywhere to be seen, the crumbling buildings, the dwindling congregations, the endless demands for money and the inability of villagers to come to terms with reality.

The result of that was a book called “A Little History of the English Country Church” which appeared in 2007. It had widespread media coverage and over 30,000 copies were sold. Its aim was to remind the public that churches in the past were law courts, schools, housed the local fire engine and weapons for defence. The village church, apart from the manor house, was the only communal building in any village and indeed was used as such.

I went on to the road for two years the length and breadth of England talking on the topic – urging people to think the unthinkable – the basic premise of which was that you can only keep a building going if it has a viable use. In relation to that £100,000 was raised from the Mercers’ Company for a competition on church adaptation. It was hugely successful. What was needed were examples of churches which had moved on and embraced multiple use for the community – had taken out the pews, added a loo and a kitchen, a meeting room and any other facility which added reasons for its existence apart from Sunday worship.

The Diocese of Hereford is hugely over-churched but it has been forward in exploring avenues to give them life as post offices, village shops, play centres and so on. Examples of what can be achieved are urgently needed. Peterchurch blazes a trail for others to follow. Church Wardens and other village church authorities can come here and see an example to adapt to their own circumstance.

What is so striking is that the majority of the funding has come from local sources and reflects the recent shift to the localities. I am struck by the fact that the good people of Peterchurch have risen to the occasion. The achievement here calls for the widest possible publicity. That was why I wanted so desperately to do the honors this evening. But, alas, I’m taking to my bed. I can’t express my admiration for you enough.

Sir Roy Strong FRSL, D.