The Isle of Man risks losing an irreplaceable part of its heritage if nothing is done to preserve its historic churches according to the Bishop of Sodor and Man, Robert Paterson.
So many of the island’s churches are crumbling and in need of significant sums spending on them to secure their long term future, more funding will be essential if many are to survive.
‘If I were being realistic, I would say in 20 years’ time we will be talking about half the current number of active churches. I would be surprised if there were more and it will simply be the cost of repair that has done for them.
‘We have 45 churches in use at the moment which given the population base is probably the highest number per head anywhere in the Church of England,’ he said.
‘The next highest is Norfolk but according to the Domesday Book half the population of England lived there at that time.
‘Most of our churches are in some way valuable but sustaining this number is becoming a burden.’
In cash-starved times, he acknowledges it is not feasible for a full maintenance and repair programme to come out of the public purse. Consequently, he sees two options.
One would be to assess all the churches and chapels, ranking them in order of importance, similar to the way in which listed buildings in the UK are categorised as grade one or grade two. This would allow limited resources to be allocated to the most important churches.
‘It may be on the site of a sixth century Keeill, it may be 300 years old, something important may have taken place in it, or it may have been built during a unique period in church building.
‘We need a grading system to recognise the significance of a building. At the moment, it’s either registered or it’s not. Then if we have two churches that both need £250,000 spending on them and one is grade one and the other grade two, it’s a simpler decision which to spend the money on,’ he said.
Apart from government, the only other realistic source of finance could be a wealthy benefactor willing to offer some support.
Currently money raised by congregations pays for routine maintenance and upkeep, but can’t stretch to address more major structural repairs which many of the ancient buildings already need, or will soon.
Mr Patterson said congregations have been declining since the mid 1960s but this did not lie at the heart of the problem.
‘It’s not a matter of declining congregations, it’s a matter of increasing building costs: the smallest repair job can reveal big problems underneath. Repairing a slate can reveal rotten roof tresses underneath, for example.’
Around six years ago Mr Paterson said the government had a pot of about £250,000 set aside to provide maintenance grants for its registered buildings and it was possible to secure grants up to £20,000.
Since then, that pot has been cut to around £50,000 with all registered buildings – churches, chapels, and landmarks such as Castle Rushen – competing for funding.
‘Take the jewel in the crown– Jurby church. It’s an icon of the island and there’s been a church on that site for 1,600 years, but at present, in the long term we can’t afford to keep it open. That’s the crisis we are in.’
A solid rock in people’s lives
‘We need to find £200,000 just to make the outside of the building watertight,’ the Reverend Clive Burgess of Onchan’s St Peter’s told the Manx Independent.
The current church was built in about 1830 but replaced a much older church on the same site which is where Captain Bligh got married. Before either of them, the site was occupied by an ancient keeill.
‘There is a lot of history associated with the church and it is a part of the community. In Douglas when you look at the Electric Railway sign, you can see the spire of St Peter’s above it, so it would be missed on the skyline.
‘On Remembrance Sunday you simply can’t squeeze any more people in there. It is a solid rock in people’s lives,’ he said.
About £100,000 is raised by supporters each year but insurance costs around £4,000, not to mention the cost of heating and lighting.
Further repairs will be needed to the building’s fabric and they would like to provide disabled access.