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Hundreds of churches, chapels and synagogues will be added this week to the dismal inventory of historic buildings at risk, after the first attempt by English Heritage to assess the health of England’s places of worship – the largest and most important category of listed buildings.
However the report, to be released on Wednesday, is not as bleak as many feared. It is expected to show that one in nine (11%) of all places of worship are in poor or very poor condition and therefore at risk, based on a representative sample survey of almost 1,500 buildings. The remainder are in fair or good condition, greatly valued both by the worshippers and the surrounding community, and often well supported and maintained through heroic efforts by tiny regular congregations.
Diana Evans, head of places of worship policy at English Heritage, insists that the report and a booklet that has been sent to every listed place of worship in the country carry a message of hope, not despair.
“We are encouraging them to do very small things as well as they possibly can, instead of doing nothing and allowing a very very big job to accumulate. Patch the lead, put the slipped tiles back, clean the gutters. Do not put your head in your hands and hope that a problem will go away, it won’t,” Evans said.
The English Heritage chief executive, Simon Thurley, said the fact that almost 90% of all places of worship were in good condition was “an extraordinary testament to the energy, enthusiasm and hard work of thousands of volunteers up and down the country”. He knows the problems of fundraising and maintenance at first hand: the parish council of his own local church, in King’s Lynn, cunningly elected him to take charge of the building condition, at a meeting held in his absence.
The survey reveals a predictably depressing roll call of rotting timbers, vandalised stained glass windows and stolen roof lead and copper, sagging walls and churches that have had to be closed for fear of the building collapsing on the heads of the congregation. But there are also churches that have found surprising new roles at the heart of their communities, including one in Kent that now houses a flourishing weekly farmer’s market; another in Sheffield now shared by a Methodist, two West African and an Afro-Caribbean church; and one in Herefordshire that shelters the village shop and post office.
The pattern is worse for some types of buildings and places. Considerably more of the highest graded I and II* buildings (14%) are in poor condition, probably because they are older, bigger and more complex to maintain.
Isolated rural churches, such as East Anglia’s extraordinary inheritance of hundreds of medieval churches, and some of the huge Victorian churches built in northern cities for a long-vanished population of densely packed factory workers of the industrial revolution, are particularly problematic.
Generally, inner-city churches are in better health than rural ones, but in Birmingham 28% are at risk, and in Tower Hamlets and Hackney, in London – which have some of the areas of greatest deprivation in Britain – one in five churches are in poor or very poor condition. Synagogues are also at higher than average risk.
Evans said: “Many parishes feel there is nothing they can do to engage the wider community unless they can raise a huge sum to put in toilets and kitchens. There may well not be any way of doing that without prohibitive costs and impinging on significant historic features – but is there anywhere they could put a sideboard-type kitchen cupboard, and just plug in an electric kettle to make a cup of tea? Instead of having events every night, or every week, could they have a great once-a-year concert, by candlelight if necessary.”
Evans knows what she is talking about: she was speaking in a break from the maelstrom of strawberry teas in the churchyard, raising money towards the roof of her vicar husband’s 14th-century church in Rutland.
Three places of worship with problems
• St Barnabas, Birmingham, 1822, Grade II-listed: lost its entire roof and all but one of its famously beautiful stained glass windows in a fire three years ago.
• Prince’s Road synagogue, Liverpool, 1872, the first Grade I-listed synagogue outside London for its exceptional interior: extensive restoration after severe damage in 1979 arson attack, now in need of expensive repairs to roof, masonry, glass and dry rot.
• Colchester Garrison Orthodox church, Essex, 1856, Grade II*-listed: originally a military hospital in the Crimean war, the last of its type, empty and in search of a new user since the army moved out in 2007.
Three with faith in the future
• St Leonard’s, Yarpole, Herefordshire, 14th-century, Grade II*-listed: now open full time and housing the village shop and post office.
• St Giles, Shipbourne, Kent, 1879, Grade II-listed: the last village shop closed 30 years ago, but the church now houses an award-winning weekly farmer’s market.
• St John’s, Belper, Derbyshire, 1260, Grade II-listed: closed as a church in 1986, but now in use as the town council chamber and heritage centre.