The ecclesiastical system
By Matthew Saunders Published 11 December, 2012
Matthew Saunders is Secretary of the Ancient Monuments Society and Hon. Director of the Friends of Friendless Churches
Places of Worship in their Original Use
Historic places of worship in use are now the only building type that enjoys formal exemption from listed building consent, conservation area consent and Urgent Works Notices. This is a great privilege, one never enjoyed by bodies like the National Trust and one that was given up some years back by The Crown. The exempt denominations argue that they have earned the privilege by offering their own system of protection of historic fabric and fittings which draws directly upon relevant expertise and which is broader in its scope than listed building consent. Their control covers moveable fittings like historic candlesticks or altar frontals where listed building consent can only embrace fixtures.
However Exemption has been granted only to churches and chapels belonging to 5 denominations :
1. The Anglican Church, that is Church of England places of worship and those of the Church in Wales
2. Roman Catholic Church
3. Methodist Church
4. Baptist Union (some Baptist Churches, for example the Strict and Particulars are not included)
5. United Reformed Church (these may still have tablets which refer to predecessor denominations such as Congregationalists and Independents). The URC in Wales has declared its wish to surrender the Exemption but this has not yet been done.
In Scotland, there is a form of Exemption but it is limited to interiors www.historic-scotland.gov.uk/listed-building-control-churches.pdf
The Exemption doesn’t apply to associated buildings not in use for worship, for example a rectory. However, after a recent change, the Exemption has been extended to cover listed curtilage structures like monuments, lychgates or boundary walls.
Neither does the Exemption apply to planning permission or Building Regulation approval. Any works of (external) “material change” ranging from window guards, to a change in roof covering or a full-scale extension need permission from the planning authority.
For current Government guidance on the Exemption (updated July 2012) see www.culture.gov.uk/images/publications/OPSEEguidance.pdf
Decisions on any changes or repairs in the Anglican church are taken by a “Chancellor”, who, despite the financial inference in the name, is always a lawyer. Administrative support is provided by a “Registrar”. The chief source of expertise available to both comes through the system of Diocesan Advisory Committees (DACs), one per each of the 48 English and Welsh dioceses. No-one serving on a DAC is paid as such, apart from the Secretary and support staff and yet the best Committees bring together people with profound knowledge of all the arts and skills that are so important to an historic church – everything from the architecture itself to organs, monuments and stained glass. The Joint Committee of the National Amenity Societies enjoy the right of nomination to all such Committees. The decision handed down by the Chancellor, having taken on board DAC advice, is known as a “faculty”. In rare cases decisions are taken after a Consistory Court, which is akin to a court of law. In more dramatic versions the Chancellor will sit enthroned on the chancel steps, bedecked in his or her wig, there will be formalities and sometimes costs can be awarded. So if you are summoned to such a court, other than as a judge’s witness, it might be prudent to seek professional advice.
The best guidance on the care of churches is obtainable at www.churchcare.co.uk and at the associated library of the Church Buildings Council.
The systems operated by the other exempt denominations are less dependent on Committees. The Methodist Church, for example, has just one for the whole country (with executive powers given to a paid Conservation Officer) although with all the others the decisions are taken regionally.
All non-Christian denominations and those Christian communities, like the Meeting Houses of the Quakers and the chapels of the Unitarians, not included among the 5 just mentioned, are covered by the secular controls administered by local planning authorities.
Historic England and the National Amenity Societies have published a great deal about the treatment of places of worship – SPAB www.spab.org.uk and Victorian Society www.victoriansociety.org.uk both have dedicated Churches Officers. SPAB in particular has published guidance on Church Extensions and this is a subject on which there is particular expertise at the AMS firstname.lastname@example.org. See www.english-heritage.org.uk/pow and www.english-heritage.org.uk/publications/new-work-in-historic-places-of-worship
Redundant Places of Worship
When an historic place of worship closes, Ecclesiastical Exemption generally lapses. Certainly any new use that is proposed, except handing it over to another denomination, will require planning permission (and,where alterations are proposed, listed building consent). There is a theoretical continuation of the Exemption when the Church Commissioners (who decide the fate of all redundant Anglican churches) announce an intention to demolish a listed redundant church. However, the Secretary of State is then given the chance to convene a non-statutory public inquiry into the proposal. Non-statutory means that in theory the Commissioners can ignore the findings but in all the years since 1975 when this system was introduced they have never done so (even though they have lost in the great majority of cases).
There are a number of possible fates for a redundant place of worship – demolition, new use, passing to a conservation trust, either set up for that building alone or a serial safety net, (see “Preservation Intact” below) or passing to the adjacent landowner (quite common for former “estate churches”). However it is not unknown for a minority of buildings to remain in limbo for years.
The best introduction to conversions is given in “New Uses for Former Places of Worship”, updated by Historic England in 2012.
There have been very adventurous and yet visually satisfying new uses but those that work best involve minimal subdivision and exploit the nature of the interior as a purpose-built auditorium.
There is separate guidance on the degree to which the denominations are bound by the need to dispose of the property at full market value/optimum viable use. Generally-speaking this not a problem with the Anglican church where the goal is the best solution in conservation terms not the most lucrative. The transfer of churches to Churches Conservation Trust and the Friends of Friendless Churches is without charge.
It is important to note that some churches are too important, too sensitive in their character, to take any systematic new use and they should be preserved intact (much like the National Trust preserves country houses, and their contents, intact).
A handful of historic churches have gone to Historic England and the National Trust. However there are 3 bodies set up specifically to care for redundant places of worships
a) The Churches Conservation Trust www.visitchurches.org.uk which owns 341 former Anglican churches in England
b) The Friends of Friendless Churches www.friendsoffriendlesschurches.org.uk which owns 46 churches, half of them in Wales. The Friends can take former private chapels into care.
c) The Historic Chapels Trust www.hct.org.uk, which owns 20 non-Anglican chapels and churches. Their holdings cover former Catholic, Quaker, Unitarian, Baptist and Methodist chapels, churches and Meeting Houses and they can in theory embrace non-Christian buildings buildings such as synagogues.
For Cathedrals see www.churchcare.co.uk
For Churchyards and Cemeteries, see www.english-heritage.org.uk for “Caring for Historic Graveyard and Cemetery Monuments” and “Paradise Preserved”
The Victorian Society www.victoriansociety.org.uk has published extensively on 19th century cemeteries and their buildings.
For further information on all matters to do with churches :
The Ecclesiological Society www.ecclsoc.org
Society for Church Archaeology www.archaeologyuk.org/socchurcharchaeoly