It is a privilege to follow Mary Gibbins as chairman of the Friends. She has done so much for the charity during her long tenure of the chairmanship and has helped it to continue as one of the most successful of the county church trusts. We are all grateful to her and I am pleased that she has agreed to be deputy chairman in succession to Richard Latham, who has also been a great stalwart of the Friends.
Although not brought up in Kent, I have lived in Tonbridge for more than 40 years and have come to love the county and its churches. I have been an enthusiastic church-visitor since I was a child and have gained enormous pleasure from looking at churches all over England. It is good now to have an opportunity to do something to repay that debt by serving as chair of the Friends.
Kent has a fine legacy of churches and chapels of all dates and denominations. These buildings are the physical embodiment of the county’s history, not just their fabrics but their fittings, glass and many monuments too. How much poorer Kent would be if many of these buildings disappeared or were converted to uses which removed them from the public realm where we can all enjoy them.
It is often said that England’s parish churches have never since the Reformation been in better repair than they are now. That may be true but their need for care and support remains very great in an age of receding faith and declining congregations. And the financial climate has become much more difficult in the last 10 years as the state has withdrawn support to historic buildings and the Lottery Heritage Fund has recently abolished its Grants for Places of Worship. The county church trusts have become more important in this adverse climate for church buildings. In Kent the Friends play a key role in raising awareness of our church heritage, in encouraging the study and enjoyment of these buildings, in raising money to support them through the marvellous Ride and Stride and through legacies and in giving grants to repair and equip churches across the county. The grants we give are, of course, relatively small but we can be part of a coalition of grant-giving bodies which will help a church to finance a major repair project and the fact that we are willing to give a grant will often encourage other bodies to do so too. Some smaller projects can go ahead just with the support that we can provide.
I have already met many members who attend the Lenham talks and the large and enthusiastic group who turn out for our popular church visits. I look forward to getting to know others of you in the future and to hearing your views about how we can continue and enhance our work.