Ancient churches across Wealden are in crisis. Towns and villages must all perform miraculous feats of fundraising to keep their churches open, safe and in good repair.
The burden of maintaining these landmark buildings falls on parishioners and some go to extraordinary lengths to conjure up cash needed to prevent churches from, at best, having to shut their doors or at worse, falling into ruin.
There is little or no central financial support for these buildings. They are valued by everyone, whether or not they are regular churchgoers. They are even navigational aids for people to love to walk through the countryside and take their bearings from this spire or that.
Roger Kenward, chairman of the Friends of All Saints, Old Heathfield explained: “Congregations have dwindled and repair costs have risen. But what would people say if they were told: ‘I’m sorry, the church will be closed from now on.’ There would be an outcry. We have to find ways to fund capital projects ands pay our dues to the diocese.”
Energetic ‘Friends’ have devised unusual ways of getting enough cash for vital work. Five years ago they celebrated the 400th anniversary of the date the Rector of Heathfield sailed to Virginia to support early English settlers. They arranged exchange visits - both to and from the USA - which extended support across the Atlantic. Aims to widen the All Saints community saw some pews removed (with wood used to make cupboards,) bellringing area raised and space freed to create a kitchen, social area and disabled toilet. Appeals for grants had some success - notably the local Co-op - although Roger said the church had to compete with hundreds of others to get support from English Heritage or the Sussex Historic Churches Trust.
Waldron also has its ‘Friends’ working to raise the £70,000 to pay for belfry repairs. Events included a Walk for Waldron, street parties, Jubilee weekend, charity golf match, village cookbook and several concerts.
Valerie Chidson said: “Rural parishes have funding problems due to a mismatch between the size of the congregation and demands on its purse. Where there is an old church building problems escalate because the cost of repairs, particularly if the building has been listed, can be astronomical.”
A Church of England spokesman told the Express: “What has been achieved locally is wonderful but it’s a struggle shouldered by a few to raise the funds. Finding money for the nation’s ancient and beautiful church buildings has always been a challenge. Congregations think creatively about how they maintain buildings, re-order them to suit current needs and use them for the benefit of surrounding communities.”