The Church of St Thomas

Stanley Crook


The Church of England's Built Heritage

Churches and cathedrals are the most public indication of the Church’s role in the community, both as the places in which public worship takes place and as a focus for many events which reach beyond the worshipping congregation to society at large.  They have also been integral to this country’s history and development.

The Church of England has some 16,000 church buildings, in 13,000 parishes covering the whole of England, as well as 43 cathedrals.  Together they form a unique collection of buildings; between 12,000 and 13,000 churches are listed, i.e. are recognised by the Government as being of exceptional historic or architectural importance, and about 45% of all Grade I buildings in England are churches.  Though first and foremost a place of worship, churches are also often the oldest building in a settlement still in continual use.  Even in industrial or twentieth-century settlements, they are a focus.  Many churches – and cathedrals particularly - are the largest, most architecturally complex, most archaeologically sensitive, and most visited building in their village, town or city.

Their variety is remarkable: ranging in date from St Martin's in Canterbury, already in use when St Augustine landed in AD 597, to new buildings such as the recently completed Trinity Centre, North Ormesby, Middlesbrough; in size from St Paul's Cathedral, London, to St Swithun's, just a room above Kingsgate in Winchester; and in complexity, from buildings of a single period to many which have been altered and developed over the centuries and new buildings which are being developed in our own age.

But the historic environment is not a collection of grand set pieces, with no relevance to the lives of ordinary people. A good local environment enables creativity, self-worth, and a deeper quality of life. Power of Place (2000) and the Government’s response A Force for our Future (2001) emphasised this approach, which we support.  Four out of five people have a religious affiliation: and church buildings matter to those of all faiths or none.

What churches can offer

Church buildings today contribute as richly to the many aspects of the historic environment and contemporary society as ever.  As well as being places where God is worshipped, it is from church buildings that Christians often seek to meet the needs of God's created world.  In many cases this means using the building as a centre for community or voluntary activities outside of worship, just as they have been used for many centuries.  Increasingly, the Church is realising how much church buildings also matter to people who would not count themselves as regular worshippers.

A survey carried out for the Archbishops' Council and English Heritage in October 2003 found that 86% of those surveyed had been inside a place of worship within the previous 12 months, for a wide variety of reasons.  This included people of all faiths or none.  The survey also explored people's perceptions of church buildings, and showed how they are seen as historic places and local landmarks as well as places of worship. Also, it showed that over half the population surveyed thought that central or local taxation should provide funding towards the maintenance of churches in use.

A Way Forward for Church Buildings

Maintaining church buildings and the activities they support lies mainly with the volunteers making up the local church community.  Contrary to what many people believe, there is no guaranteed State funding for churches' care or maintenance, and UK churches and places of worship are poorly funded compared to many elsewhere in the European Union.  As a result, both the buildings and the activities they foster are vulnerable.

The Church of England has sought to address this issue through a strategic exercise, A Way Forward for Church Buildings, led by the Church Heritage Forum, which brings together representatives of national and local church bodies interested in matters relating to the Church's built heritage.  The Forum produced an initial report to the General Synod, A Future for Church Buildings, and in October 2004 published a 'green paper' Building faith in our future, which sets out a range of recommendations and actions for Church, State and other bodies.

Caring for the Church’s Built Heritage

Each Church of England parish church, like each cathedral, is located within a Diocese. The diocese will normally be the first point of contact for questions relating to the building, but the central church bodies also play a very important part.

Local congregations are advised in the care and management of churches by their local archdeacon and bodies known as Diocesan Advisory Committees for the Care of Churches or, in the case of cathedrals, by Fabric Advisory Committees.  Nationally there are two central bodies with responsibility for the care of churches and cathedrals, respectively: the Council for the Care of Churches and the Cathedrals Fabric Commission for England which are supported by the staff of the Cathedral & Church Buildings Division of the Archbishops’ Council.

These bodies are also involved in the Church's control systems over its buildings, which are designed to ensure that buildings are looked after responsibly for the benefit both of current and future worshippers. The control systems are comparable to those used by the Government to control work to historic buildings, but recognise the mission and spiritual dimension of churches. They are intended to conserve churches by allowing adaptations to meet the needs of worshippers provided that these changes are sensitive also to the heritage aspects of the building.  For more information on making changes to a listed church click here.

A small number of churches each year cease to be used for public worship, usually at the request of the local church community. A process of consultation takes place which involves the diocese, interested parties and some of the national Church heritage bodies. Great efforts are made to find suitable uses for churches no longer required for public worship.  At the national level, the Church Commissioners oversee this process.

Examples of uses for redundant churches include worship by other Christian bodies, civic, cultural or community purposes, museums and educational use, and residential conversion. Where suitable uses cannot be found, churches of particular historic, archaeological or architectural interest may be vested in the Churches Conservation Trust for preservation. Details of redundant churches currently available for suitable alternative uses are included on the Church Commissioners' web pages.

The Church's stock of buildings is by no means static. For the same reasons that it is necessary to take some churches out of use, because of population changes for example, new churches are built regularly.

Grants are available to listed places of worship of any faith group for fabric repairs from English Heritage and the Heritage Lottery Fund as well as other bodies but these are discretionary only.  The leading national charity which supports essential repairs to churches of all denominations in England and Wales is The Historic Churches Preservation Trust.  Listed churches of all denominations can now also reclaim the VAT they have paid on repairs to their buildings under the Listed Places of Worship Scheme, operated on behalf of the Department of Culture Media and Sport. For full details of the scheme, what it covers, and how to apply see
© The Archbishops' Council of the Church of England, 2004

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