At the Church Door

Roy Strong tells York Membery why the humble English parish church is a perpetual source of fascination and refreshment.

Sir Roy Strong, one of Britain’s foremost art historians and famously a former director of both the National Portrait Gallery and of the Victoria & Albert Museum, is the author of a series of acclaimed books but is perhaps best known for his outspoken diaries which were highly critical of leading figures in the art and political establishments.

Now he’s turned his attention to that most quintessentially English of institutions – the humble parish church – in his latest book, A Little History of the English Country Church.

Two other factors also inspired its publication. ‘I met my good friend A.N. Wilson for lunch a couple of years ago,’ he says. ‘We were discussing the slippage in people’s knowledge of the things that our generations took for granted – for instance, how people don’t even know how to look at a church anymore – and he suggested I ought to write a guide on the subject.’

Finally, Strong felt that the threat facing England’s parish churches, the majority of which are found in the countryside, was now so acute that it lent the book some urgency.

‘We have reached a crisis point that that calls for immediate action if we are to save our country churches,’ says Strong,  a practising Anglican, and the passion he feels about the topic is evident in his voice.

‘Conservation, heritage and preservation are all twentieth-century words – and the twentieth century has now slipped away. There are something like 10,000 country churches, although the truth is that around 5,000 of them weren’t needed even as far back as 1900 as a result of demographic changes. Just about everything else has gone from today’s country village – the garage, the post office, the shop. Just about everything, in fact, except this one old building in the middle, and if we’re not careful the parish church will be next.’

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