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Group saves old country churches from decay

by TERRY MATTINGLY | June 5, 2021 at 3:04 a.m.

The structure of St. Baglan's Church in North Wales is simple, with plastered stone walls and whitewashed timbers between the slate slabs of its roof and floor.

The 13th-century sanctuary was rebuilt in the 1800s, but the carved doorway lintel dates from the 5th or 6th century. An adjacent field contains the 7th-century well of St. Baglan, and for ages, the faithful sought healing in its waters.

"This church was built on the site of an earlier church and there were sanctuaries here before that. People in Wales have been coming to sites like this for worship back into pre-Christian times," said Rachel Morley, director of the Friends of Friendless Churches since 2018.

During a visit to Llanfaglan parish in Wales, this tiny, abandoned sanctuary was surrounded by sea mists and low clouds from the mountains, she said. Then the sunset light over the Irish Sea "shot under the eaves and the church just lit up inside with golden light. It was a complete sensory overload. That had to mean something."

Was the church designed so that this light would illumine the prayers of evensong? That's the kind of question members of the Friends of Friendless Churches have been asking since 1957, when Welsh journalist Ivor Bulmer-Thomas founded the charity with the help of poet T.S. Eliot, artist John Piper, British politician Roy Harris Jenkins and others.

The group's stated goal was to preserve historic, "significant" churches "threatened by demolition, decay or inappropriate conversion." By the end of 2021, the charity will control 60 churches in England and Wales, almost all of them Anglican sanctuaries.

Year after year, the Friends of Friendless Churches watch as 30 or so truly historic churches are put up for sale, and "there could be many more closed at any time," Morley said.

Some of these threatened buildings, she said, "have been locked up, but they are in good enough shape that they can last another four or five years. ... We know that at some point we will have to step in and try to save as many as we can."

There is no way to save them all, since the Friends of Friendless Churches network has only 2,000 active members and 200 volunteers, who do hands-on work to keep these treasures safe and intact. The charity receives some funding in Wales through government cultural programs.

From the beginning, said Morley, the problem has been defining which sanctuaries are "significant" in terms of history, architecture, or priceless, sacred art. However, the charity also frames its work by quoting Bulmer-Thomas, who argued, "an ancient and beautiful church fulfills its primary function merely by existing. It is, in itself and irrespective of the members using it, an act of worship. Their message is delivered -- not for half hours on Sundays, but every hour of every day of every year, and not merely to those who enter, but to all who pass by."

Efforts to save these historic churches continue against the backdrop of another crisis, as attendance crashes in the Church of England and sister churches in Wales and Scotland. In 2018, only 12% of the population claimed to be active members, and the British Social Attitudes survey found that only about 1% of those aged 18 to 24 identified as Anglicans.

Morley stressed that the Friendless Churches network has always focused on saving rural, remote churches that no longer have flocks to support them. Many of these sanctuaries lack water or electricity and -- unlike churches being closed in urban areas -- are of little value to investors seeking future art galleries, bookstores, restaurants or condominiums.

It's sad to see a suburban church "turned into a pizza place," with an attached graveyard containing the final resting place for generations of the faithful, Morley said. But it's truly tragic when people -- secular and religious -- lose priceless, historic treasures that are crucial to the "artistic, architectural and cultural legacy" of their nation.

"Some people get what we are doing, but some people do not," she said. "I don't believe these remarkable churches belong to any one people living in any one age. They belong to the people who used them as places of worship for centuries. This is what these churches represent. This is a legacy that deserves to be saved."

Terry Mattingly leads GetReligion.org and lives in Oak Ridge, Tenn. He is a senior fellow at the Overby Center at the University of Mississippi.

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