When the history of the rural church in England in this century comes to be written, this competition will be seen to have made its contribution.

The six finalists, all of which I visited, threw up some important general points about the adaptation of churches under the terms of this competition. The first was the centrality of involving the whole local community, worshipping and non-worshipping, in plans. In one instance, that had not been done, and, although the adaptation was magnificent, it was only after it had been finished that any thought began to be given as to what it could offer the non-churchgoers of the parish. That relates very closely to a second issue: the importance of establishing an open threshold. People within the community can still be inhibited not only about using the building for secular purposes, but even about entering it at all.

The enterprising vicar of one of the two winners worked from the premise that to keep the church alive, he had to create a facility that would be freely available to everyone, so that it would gradually come to seem normal to use the building at any time and for a breadth of purposes. That, I think, is a most important point —to change the use of church buildings so that they no longer only spring to life for an hour or two on a Sunday if you are lucky. The most universal groans were offered up in response to the appallingly labyrinthine processes whereby any change was achieved at all. The Church and central and local Government authorities, not to mention all the preservation and conservation societies, together constitute a formidable bureaucratic mountain that is both treacherous and time-consuming to scale.

Even the simplest alteration can take years to do, far in excess of what is demanded in the case of a secular building. The simplification and speeding up of the decision-making process I would place at the top of the list for reform. Tangential to that is the, at times, wholly negative stance taken by so many of the conservation and preservation societies that do not have to live with the consequences of their dictates. They are all too often quick to say ‘No’, but fail to offer beside a negative judgment a helping hand whereby a congregation can achieve what it wants by another means. I would appeal to all these bodies to take up the cause of adaptation. Indeed, it would be helpful if some of them took that word into their titles. That would at least be a positive step forward.

The decisions imposed on some churches can be disastrous and totally paralysing. At worst, they prevent any meaningful attempt to move on, and squeeze the community in a way that helps no one. In one example, English Heritage had imposed on a church a heating system that was completely inadequate for the building. It is kept afloat financially by letting out the nave, but activities are sometimes restricted in winter because the church is so cold. This is a ludicrous state of affairs. Overall in this competition, I was struck by how few churches had been really bold in the way that the Victorians had been. Virtually all the changes were minimal, pecking at rather than solving what was a really major problem. Few had the boldness to remove all the 19th-century pews and release the space back to what it would have been in the Middle Ages, a large open hall from which pillars soared upwards.

Almost all were concerned with adding lavatories, a meeting space and hospitality facilities with the minimum disruption to what was there. Finally, a minor and subsidiary point. Most churches need what I would call a front-of-house manager. Clutter, dust, dirt, dead flowers, faded notices, children’s corners resembling rubbish tips, unpolished brass, faded fabrics and filthy, worn-out carpets only add to an atmosphere of impending doom and gloom. God, it is said, helps those who help themselves. Those in charge of the day-to-day care of our rural churches should remember that. Sometimes, when one swings open the door, the mind is filled less with ‘Lift up your hearts’ than ‘Abandon hope all ye who enter here’.

Nonetheless, this has been an uplifting and exciting competition with which to be involved. In so many places, across the shires of England, there is a desire, however frustrated, to move on. I hope that Country Life has kick-started the minds of those in whose hands the fate of our beloved country churches resides to think about the future and not, above all, to be afraid of change. Photographs: Paul Barker.

The winner

St Philip and St James’s Church, Norton St Philip, Somerset

● First Prize: £10,000
● Size of village: 940
● Total cost of work: £175,000
● Size of benefice: 6 churches

● First Prize: £10,000
● Size of village: 940
● Total cost of work: £175,000
● Size of benefice: 6 churches

A steel, glass and wood structure known as The Hub has transformed the use of this parish church. It stands in the north aisle of the building, which was cleared of pews to accommodate it. The Hub contains a vestry, loo and upstairs meeting room. A kitchen opens off one side into the aisle, so that part of the church interior can serve as an area for entertainment, as well as for receptions after events such as funerals.

The Hub was born out of a determination to place the church in the heart of village life. Norton St Phillip already had a village hall that could receive large groups of up to 60 people, but there was no space for smaller meetings. In discussion with the wider community, it was determined to answer this need within the church. To give focus to the whole project, it was decided at the outset to give it an identity, hence the name The Hub. This was thought to sum up the ambitions for the future role of this structure in the village and community. Fundraising began on May 1, 2004, when the vicar was suspended in a box for the day in the church.

This stunt attracted a lot of attention and raised £35,000. Further money was provided by the diocese (£22,000), the church reserves (£15,000) and interest free loans from parishioners (£32,000).

The remainder was raised in the village. George Chedburn, an architect based in Bath, designed The Hub. It is Modernist in spirit, well detailed and sits unobtrusively in the building. The meeting room is comfortable and enjoys attractive views across the church interior. It was completed in 2005.

The Hub has greatly intensified the use of the building and it is a regular venue for small meetings. There are no fees for using the room on such occasions. In the view of the vicar, Nigel Done, the villagers have already paid for this building through their support of the fundraising effort and they should use it. As well as local produce sales, the church is now the venue for the Grabbit and Shout Youth Group and a Christmas fair, plus concerts and lectures.

The photocopier in the The Hub is also used to print the parish magazine which is not merely a church magazine on behalf of the village. As a final mark of its success, the loans for the construction of The Hub were paid off in May 2007.

RUNNER-UP

St Peter’s Church, Whatcote, Warwickshire

● Second Prize: £5,000
● Size of village: 150
● Total cost of work: £63,000
● Size of benefice: 5 churches

● Second Prize: £5,000
● Size of village: 150
● Total cost of work: £63,000
● Size of benefice: 5 churches

St Peter’s has been adapted to serve its small community in exemplary fashion by the adaptation of the tower to create a loo and storage space, and the erection of two cupboards at the back of the church. The cupboards discreetly placed as well as plainly and attractively designed respectively contain a kitchen and a vestry. Meanwhile, to make the nave in which they stand a more flexible space, the font and small organ have been resited and the pews replaced with chairs.

The recent changes to the church, overseen by the architect Charles Brown, were prompted by the need for repairs to the tower. As the church had heating (installed in 1999), and, in the absence of a village hall, was used already for some community events, this seemed an opportune moment to think through a complete project for regenerating the building. Fundraising began in August 2001, and work began in January 2004.

Donations and fundraising in the locality raised more than £20,000, and most of the remainder came from grant applications, which were submitted in 2003. The church is now put to a diversity of ecclesiastical and secular uses. In the past year, church events included a harvest lunch, a concert, a slide show and a Deanery Synod meeting, as well as a service every week.

Village events have included parish meetings, Moving Pictures bringing cinema to rural villages, a Live & Local performance, whist drives, a haggis night, an Easter-egg hunt, a monthly Cuppa club, Bluebell walk teas, flower arranging classes, a Macmillan tea afternoon, quiz nights, a senior-citizens’ Christmas lunch, a demonstration of birds of prey, a 70th birthday party and an Italian evening. Villagers are charged £5 for the hire of the building, and outsiders the same sum per hour of use.

The costs of heating and electricity are also charged in addition. At his dedication of the newly completed church interior on St Peter’s Tide (June 29) 2004, the Bishop of Coventry commented that the community had ‘gone back to the future’ in opening up the interior and turning the church into a meeting place of ordinary people.