As the lockdown starts to ease, there is considerable debate about when and how churches should be reopened. There is also concern about what will have happened while they have been closed. So many key volunteers in churches are over 70 and many will have been shielding.
Our Vice-President Jean Wilson wrote about this in Salon, the fortnightly newsletter of the Society of Antiquaries. She recently wrote to the Times (13 April) to comment on a discussion about the closure of churches, which had focused on the the ‘opportunity to hear sublime sacred music performed in inspiring buildings’ (Richard Morrison) and the unprecedented phenomenon of ‘empty pews’ throughout Easter (leader). Wilson’s concern was bat excreta: no longer ‘kept at bay … by regular cleaning’, they ‘may cause extensive damage to the national art heritage [the buildings] contain, to which the Church has, on the whole, shown itself to be indifferent’.
‘Why the churches cannot be opened for streamed services and maintenance checks’, she added, ‘baffles me: to spiritual bankruptcy the church authorities have added practical incompetence.’ The editor of Salon thought the newsletter should allow Wilson to expand on her point, she agreed, and sent an advocacy of parish churches as important repositories of art and cultural history (though her piece does not, she notes, ‘include any consideration of the spiritual impact of the closures of the churches’):
‘An unforeseen consequence of the decision to close and bar all Anglican churches during the Covid-19 lockdown may be a crisis in conservation. British churches contain much of the nation’s cultural heritage – sculpture, paintings on stone and wood, glass, metalwork and textiles. All are vulnerable to theft, damage and neglect. What we have is underestimated and underappreciated. We are exercised at the spoliation wreaked on other societies during the colonial period: parallel destruction is currently occurring in our churches, and the Covid-19 measures will only make things worse.’
To read the full article, go to https://us6.campaign-archive.com/?u=5557bc147d34993782f185bde&id=867504416d#mctoc2
The article produced some debate, and letters both for and against: these are from the following issue of Salon.
‘Can I add my support to Jean Wilson FSA’s plea about churches,’ writes Bruce Bailey FSA (Salon 447). ‘Living in Northamptonshire I am aware of the disgraceful position regarding Horton church [which Wilson wrote about], and there is another similar building with monuments at Little Oakley. They are blots on the record of the Diocese of Peterborough, which otherwise via its DAC does excellent work.’
‘The contribution from Jean Wilson’, writes Robin Milner-Gulland FSA, ‘reminds me of a fine occasion at Sussex University in the 1990s, organised by David Park FSA and myself, to commemorate the centenary of the uncovering of the Clayton (Sussex) wall paintings.
‘We devoted a session to the destructive effect of bat droppings on ancient wall paintings, which Jean Wilson doesn’t mention, but is of the same order as the things she does. Has anything improved since? Unlikely. No one has anything against bats – which enjoy highly-protected status – but the fact is that they used to live in barns and now, with the conversion of almost all old barns into dwellings, they have nowhere much else to go than into churches, if they can get in.’
And now a more positive report on what can be done, from Andrew Pike FSA (who adds that Salon ‘is much appreciated, even more so in these “interesting” times’):
‘It is, I feel, somewhat unfair to suggest that damage caused to church furnishings and monuments by bat excreta is something “to which the church has, on the whole, shown itself to be indifferent”. Whilst the present situation is undoubtedly causing problems to churches, as a member of and archaeological adviser to Hereford Diocesan Advisory Committee I should state that the matter of bats and their effect on churches features frequently on our agendas, and is of considerable concern to congregations.
‘There are 17 species of bat resident in the UK. All of them, together with their roosts, are legally protected. With the conversion of so many old barns and other redundant farm buildings in recent years, bats have often found churches to be the only “des res” in a given area. In Hereford we have been actively liaising with the local Mammal Group, the Bat Conservation Trust and county wildlife trusts, and our architects are actively exploring ways in which the effects of bat droppings can be minimised – often as part of a programme of roof repairs. Special ridge tiles can be installed, creating roosts within the roof void but excluding bats from the main church interiors, or bat boxes can be placed in towers.
‘Diocesan Advisory Committees work tirelessly both to protect our ecclesiastical heritage and also to ensure that our church buildings continue to be adapted to accommodate current needs in a manner sympathetic to the historic fabric. To say that “the Church of England has for years engaged in a melancholy long withdrawal from its protestant history… and its responsibility for the heritage”, is simply untrue, and disheartening to church councils and diocesan advisory committees; perhaps the blame lies with the Oxford Movement in the 19th century. It is sad to see churches closed during the current crisis, but English Heritage and National Trust properties, museums and hundreds of privately owned houses normally open to the public have also had to shut their doors – as, indeed, has the Society of Antiquaries itself!’
The debate continues …