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THE REDUNDANT
CHURCHES FUND
COMES OF AGE


Matthew Saunders celebrates the 21st birthday of a body which will before long be
responsible for more buildings than English Heritage.
I have the conservation world’s most eccentric office in the two tower rooms of the Wren church of St. Andrew-by-the- Wardrobe in Queen Victoria Street, London. My predecessor in the eyrie-cumsub-belichamber was the body which now occupies the converted north aisle the Redundant Churches Fund, which has just celebrated its 21 years with a fairly glowing testimonial from a one-man investigation mounted at the behest of its joint funders, the Church Commissioners and the Department of the Environment.
I always think of the Fund, in its corporate identity, as a rather bashful friend, its light firmly under a bushel, performing its statutory tasks without fuss or great expenditure and with a studiously iow profile.
It was set up in 1969 as part of a complete revision of the procedure for dealing with redundant Anglican places of worship. The Pastoral Measure of 1968, which fathered it, lays down three possible fates for a redundant church: demolition, conversion to a new use or, where the building is too important to suffer either of those, vesting in the Fund. (A fourth option, that of vesting in the Diocesan Board of Finance as a controlled ruin, was introduced under the succeeding Measure of 1983.) Churches vested in the Fund are pastorally redundant in the sense that they have no priest and no congregation but the nucleus of the latter can reformulate itself as a group of Friends providing keyholders (some two-thirds of Fund churches are locked) and the potential for occasional but not systematic use. Vesting need not mean fossilisation. The Fund encourages the occasional use of its buildings for exhibitions, flower festivals, concerts and of course services (although these require the permission of the Bishop who will not allow the emergence of rival centres
to the "living” Church). For a temporary period two of them have been used as night shelters over Christmas and one has seen a meeting of the Synod.

In 1969 funding was equally divided between the Church and the state: 50% each. Since then the proportions have increased the burden on the Department of the Environment so that as from 1989 its share is 70% and the Church’s 30%. For the Church Commissioners this is a particularly good deal for a large chunk of their proportion, some £2.4 million in the quinquennium that began on 1 April 1989, comes from the sale of the site of redundant non-Fundable churches. At its crudest this can be conservation by cannibalism, with the financing of the Fund dependent in some measure on other disused churches being sold for the more lucrative option of redevelopment rather than conversion. Although performing a role much like a National Trust for Churches (in much the same way as The National Trust is geared in historic buildings terms almost exclusively to the country house), it does not enjoy the benefit of inalienability which the Trust won in the Act that established it in 1895. Properties left to the Trust as investments can and have been sold, but those passed to the Trust for the purposes of the charity remain in its ownership for ever. Devesting from the Fund has so far been conspicuous by its absence although the 1990 Review has recommended, dangerously in my view, a more liberal attitude. So far devesting has broadly speaking been benign. It first took place in 1987 when the ruins of Rickman’s church at Birkenhead were transferred to the local authority which intended to make it the focal point for a broader attraction. The most recent alienation is so far the most
worrying: the transfer of St Thomas’s, Bristol, one of the greatest eighteenth century churches in the South-West, to form a private orchestral rehearsal centre. As initially submitted to the City Council, the proposal involved the shielding of the reredos by a huge acoustical screen, the introduction of a steel space frame within the chancel and other visually disruptive alterations. Changes have been negotiated and the space frame has gone but other aspects are unaltered and during rehearsals the reredos will still be concealed. The use could of course be far worse, but the case clearly proves the unavoidability of damaging adaptation that a new use can occasion in an interior which is at present beautifully integrated in the symmetrical balance of its architecture and fittings. Planning permission, however, has been granted and the transfer looks certain. The average Fund church is older than St Thomas’s, and it is hard to imagine how the slightly uneven flagstone flooring, the bumpy irregularity of the walls, the peeling limewash and the genial sense of clutter which are the essence of their character can be safeguarded in the tidy mindedness that so often accompanies conversion schemes.
After 21 years the Fund’s portfolio is an impressive one. It now cares for outstanding medieval churches such as St Peter’s, Sudbury, in Suffolk, one of the two that command each end of the High Street; the ruins at Covehithe, also in Suffolk, much painted byJohn Piper; Holy Trinity, Goodramgate, in the centre of York, that great flagship of woolstaplers’ prosperity; All Saints, Theddlethorpe, Lincoinshire; and both of the ancient churches in the centre of Sandwich St Mary’s and St Peter’s. St Mary’s, Shrcwsbury, a building of almost cathedralesque proportions, is a recent vest
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