Grade I listed church in Wanstead appeals for help amid funding cuts and low congregation numbers

St Mary's church in Wanstead

St Mary's church in Wanstead - Credit: Archant

The future ownership and use of an 18th century church in Wanstead - the borough’s only Grade I listed building - is currently under review.

St Mary's church in Wanstead

St Mary's church in Wanstead - Credit: Archant

Low congregation figures, high maintenance costs and funding changes have prompted the Wanstead Parish to review what options they have to keep the church of St Mary the Virgin, in Overton Drive, open.

The church - which relies on charitable donations and income from hall rental and occasional offices - costs around £30,000 to run per year with an estimated £150,000 needed for restoration.

The parish has so far identified three main options which they hope will ensure the building continues to be used as a church and is not deconsecrated.

One is for a charitable trust in the borough to take on ownership of the building, be it an existing trust or one set-up specifically for the church.

St Mary's church in Wanstead

St Mary's church in Wanstead - Credit: Archant

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A second is to place the building on the market and to advertise it for alternative religious use such as by other Christian denominations.

A third is to entrust the building to the Churches Conservation Trust, a charity which protects churches deemed to be at risk.

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Wanstead Parish’s Parochial Church Council, in consultation with church members, aims to decide which option to take in September.

“We would very much like to see Christian worship continue at St. Mary’s and are still praying about and exploring all of the options to help increase worshipping numbers at St. Mary’s,” said Rev Dr Jack Dunn, the Rector of Wanstead since September 2016.

All options mean the church will cease to be a Church of England church of regular use, meaning that weekly worship may fall to six times per year depending on who the next owner is.

This would not limit occasional functions, such as baptisms, weddings and funerals being held there.

As well as St Mary’s, Wanstead Parish also owns Christ Church, in Wanstead Place.

More family-friendly and centrally located, Christ Church sees an average congregation of more than 200 each weekend in comparison to a 31-strong congregation at St. Mary’s.

St Mary's church in Wanstead

St Mary's church in Wanstead - Credit: Archant

Over the past 20 months, that church has held more joint services in St. Mary’s in a bid to build up congregational numbers, but to limited effect.

However, worship has taken place on the St Mary’s site for more than 800 years.

Consecrated in 1790, the iconic Georgian building was designed by architect Thomas Hardwick, and features listed 18th century box pews and the famous painting The Deposition of Christ.

In January 2016, St Mary’s was visited by Oscar-nominee Thomas Hardy, featured as a backdrop to the BBC drama Taboo.

In 2014, a £135,000 renovation was completed which included repairs to plaster work, lighting and full redecoration of the church’s interior.

Christ Church, which is Grade II* listed, also has high maintenance costs, with around £300,000 needed for restoration work to its bell tower and stonework.

These costs are harder to meet after the government announced last month that it would scrap its £25m Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) dedicated to repairing listed places of worship.

Money for the maintenance of church buildings now comes out of the HLF’s overall programme, meaning that churches must compete for funding against national museums.

Rev Dunn added: “One of the questions that we are also now asking is whether there are people in our wider community who may not wish to worship in the building but who may care deeply about its preservation and flourishing and therefore who might now be willing to step forward and help us to secure its future.”

The church is also working with local councillors, planning officers, local and national trusts and associations, Wanstead MP John Cryer, members of the diocese of Chelmsford and representatives from the Church of England to identify other options.

Wanstead Parish has no plans to sell the church land, which is maintained by church volunteers and the borough and which is still open for the burial of cremated remains.

To find out more on how you can help secure the church’s future email

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