Hundreds of England's historic churches face decay and closure in the face of a £925m repair bill, according to a report.
The first full audit of England's listed churches, carried out by English Heritage, found that the estimated cost of bringing them up to scratch is £185m every year for the next five. That exceeds the amount of money raised by Britain's dwindling congregations by around £118m a year.
Simon Thurley, the chief executive of English Heritage, which published the findings yesterday, called for a proper strategic plan, backed by new government cash, to save the country's crumbling heritage. "These figures show for the first time the extent of the crisis. When you have a 13th-century church... supported by a few people who are pensioners, it's a crisis."
The new campaign, called Inspired!, aims to make people understand the situation and take action before the full extent of the problem kicks in, he said.
About 14,500 churches and chapels are listed in England, but 2,000 have been lost in the past three decades. "If something isn't done, we will find them disappearing left, right and centre over the next 10 years."
This was not only an issue for regular church-goers, Mr Thurley said, because 89 per cent of the population had visited a church in the past year, for quiet contemplation, marriages and funerals, as well as for regular services. "There are very few things that are so central to people's lives."
But the cost of preserving this slice of the national heritage places an impossible burden on the parishioners responsible for their local church. Outside support is needed, he added.
The campaign is supported by Andrew Motion, the Poet Laureate, Jools Holland, the musician, Richard Briers, the actor, and Rabbi Lionel Blue. Holland said: "These are some of the most important and beautiful buildings in all England, like dear old friends or relatives in our landscape. It is our duty to treat them as such with care, love and respect, and be interested in what they have to show us."
English Heritage has devised a five-point plan to tackle the problem. This includes a request to government for a total of £26.5m to make the problem more manageable by establishing a system of annual maintenance grants and funding training programmes and advisers.
The most pressing issue is for all Grade-I listed places of worship to have their list description updated so the information becomes useful, rather than being a hindrance, to congregations. At present, all list descriptions are simply inventories of features without any attempt to highlight what is important and must not be altered. This makes it difficult for congregations to know how they can adapt their buildings for modern use, making it more likely they will fall out of use. All listed buildings are to get more useful descriptions in future but the campaign is calling for churches to be made a priority.
Inspired!, which is sponsored by the church insurer Ecclesiastical Insurance Group, is also asking for the public to make covenants or offer time and expertise to support their church.
Mr Thurley said: "You may not be a regular worshipper but imagine your village or town without its places of worship. With pubs and post offices disappearing and social problems growing, these buildings often provide the only remaining physical, cultural and spiritual focus for a community."
Richard Briers said churches were too often taken for granted. "They can be just the 'wallpaper' in our country villages - often unseen and unappreciated but, in fact, adding so much silent beauty and grace to England's landscape."
Places of worship under threat
St Mary Magdalene, Paddington
Designed to take advantage of an awkward site near the Grand Union Canal in London, the church dates from 1867-78 and has an exquisite later crypt. It is regarded as an exceptional Grade-I example of High Victorian Gothic, but incoming water threatens the internal decoration. English Heritage has offered a grant of £500,000 to repair the roof, which has reached the end of its useful life, but the church, with backing from the Poet Laureate Andrew Motion, above, has to find matching funds. Only 46 per cent of the community have any Christian allegiance.
St Alkmund's Church, Shrewsbury
A mainly Georgian church with medieval tower and spire, Grade II. Close to redundancy for a decade with ageing congregation. English Heritage and lottery grants of £120,000 have paid for some repairs, mainly to cast-iron windows.
St Mary Of Charity Church, Faversham, Kent
This Grade-I church, which includes 16 medieval stalls, attracts more than 6,000 visitors a year, but the gutter and drainage systems need replacing and the tower and spire need masonry work. An English Heritage/lottery grant of £110,000 is funding a programme of repairs.
St Columba's, Middlesbrough
This grade II church, shared with the Greek Orthodox community, was designed in 1902 by Temple Moore. He designed it to look like a dove when viewed from above - the symbol of St Columba. The roof and tower need to be repaired. It is to receive £161,000 in grants.
Sheepy Magna Church, Leicestershire
Faced with rotting floor and crumbling walls, this 600-year-old Grade-II church was in a poor state three years ago. But with the village post office due to close, the vicar began a postal service from his vestry. Post Office, county council and private funding has paid for repairs.
Church Of St John And St Mary Magdalene, Goldthorpe, Yorkshire
Viscount Halifax, a colliery owner, donated the church to this mining town in the early 20th century. The Italianate style and use of reinforced concrete were highly unusual for an Anglican church. In the 1990s, acid rain began to leach through the concrete and the metal inside began to rust. The Grade-II listed church also suffered from a leaking roof. The significant repair bill was beyond local means but the Heritage Lottery Fund has paid for vital repairs.