Dozens of churches in the diocese of Norwich are serving very small populations, delegates were told at the Faith and Place conference last week.
Matthew McDade, of the Norwich Diocesan Churches Trust, said that a new approach had been launched in 2015.
The trust was designed to offer a practical means of helping to remove a heavy burden of responsibility for churches in thinly-populated parishes. He said that there were more than 50 parishes in the diocese with populations of less than 50 and some 150 churches with less than 150 people.
The trust – the only way of its kind in the Church of England – has now been running for three years. It was now responsible for 13 churches and a 14th was about to join the fold, he said.
Under the scheme, it was the intention to offer at least six services a year. While the diocese took over the legal responsibility for these churches, it also aimed to maintain local support and connections with the parish.
In a second presentation on the “safety net” theme, Rachel Morley, director of the Friends of Friendless Churches, said that the charity was now caring for 53 churches and chapels. It was about to add a further five to its fold.
The charity was established in 1957 and it has supported “friendless” churches with its fairly limited annual budget of about £120,000.
While recognising the trend for encouraging more community use of churches, she said that this was not always possible especially for remote and isolated religious buildings. Hence the challenge for the Friends to maintain and manage often important churches with considerable heritage, she added.
Scilla Latham, secretary to the Norfolk Churches Trust, reported a home-grown success story with the leased church scheme. As the charity’s patron, the Prince of Wales recognised in his message to delegates, the trust currently cares for 13 churches that “might have been lost without active intervention.”
The churches leased from the diocese include the first four taken on in 1978 – Barmer, Cockthorpe, Dunton and Snetterton. The trust managed major restoration of Cockthorpe in north Norfolk a couple of years ago and has just overseen major works at Snetterton in recent months.
It has also leased a grade II-listed Roman Catholic church at Lynford in Breckland in 2009, she added.