The Diocese of Norwich has a magnificent heritage of over 600 church buildings, most of which are listed as grade I or II*. Some are in very large communities, but others are much more isolated: around 50 churches are in villages of fewer than 50 inhabitants and almost 150 churches in communities of less than 150 people. Although the diocese fights hard to keep churches open, in some places the community is so small that it has become impossible to find churchwardens or members of a PCC, and congregations have shrunk so much that they can no longer afford to stay open.
Later this year the Diocese of Norwich will launch an innovative scheme known as 'Diocesan Trust Churches'. This will allow churches that would otherwise face redundancy to remain open to the local community for occasional services, while some of their normal activities would cease. This Trust, which will be legally separate from the Board of Finance and funded other than through the Parish Share, will take on a basic level of insurance and preventative maintenance but crucially without formally closing the building or making it redundant.
It is envisaged that this will be a way of enabling church buildings to rest for a while before, hopefully, resurrecting to new life. There are many examples within the Diocese of Norwich, and elsewhere, of how just a couple of people can reinvigorate the life of a church, or where an open building has generated a worshipping community even in depopulated areas. The Rt Revd Graham James, Bishop of Norwich, said: "The legacy of our mediaeval church buildings is a glorious one but a headache in tiny settlements. We hope this scheme will avoid the pitfalls of redundancy, release local Christians from being simply custodians of the nation's heritage, while ensuring these buildings still have a witness as houses of God".
The Venerable Steven Betts, Archdeacon of Norfolk, said: "The Church of England is working hard to maintain a vital part of the nation's heritage but this is a growing challenge when there are so few people available to assist. This is not through any failure of mission and ministry, but a natural result of a decreasing population in small villages and hamlets, often with other nearby churches in the benefice. The Diocesan Trust Churches model will allow resources to be devoted to mission and ministry while ancient buildings, which form an integral part of Britain's Christian history, are looked after for generations to come."
Anne Sloman, former Chair of the Church Buildings Council believes that this creative idea from the Diocese of Norwich has a huge amount to commend it, and may prove an attractive model for other dioceses to follow. She said at the time: "The Council understands all too well the pressures on rural churches in depopulated areas and the Diocesan Trust Churches model has the advantage of enabling churches to stay open, welcome visitors, and provide essential community space. Moreover, by continuing to hold occasional services including weddings and funerals, these beautiful buildings will still be eligible for outside grants."
UPDATE APRIL 2015
The Diocese of Norwich has announced further details about the Diocesan Churches Trust which is intended to support parishes, where there is low population density and low congregation numbers, maintain some of their core functions to parishioners. See further details here.