…I write now to convey our strong objection to the proposed reordering, which would constitute far too heavy-handed an intervention into what is a remarkably intact and characterful nineteenth century interior…
The privilege of ‘ecclesiastical exemption’ from listed building consent extends to five church denominations in the UK. Secular planning authorities are deemed not to have sufficient understanding of church liturgy so, provided there are stringent procedures implemented by the respective denominations, they are permitted to determine applications for changes to the fabric of listed church buildings.
Part of the stringent procedures includes seeking advice on design proposals from national conservation amenity societies including Historic England, The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, The Victorian Society, The Church Buildings Council, the local authority Conservation Officer as well as local community interest groups and early and regular input from the denominational listed buildings advisors. You might expect the ‘privilege’ to weigh heavily in favour of change that supports the mission of the church however, the test of reasonableness usually has to be hard fought by the church applying for change.
The letter quoted above is a disheartening though not unusual response from one of the amenity society consultees. It marks the beginning of a journey of negotiation, compromise and lateral thinking and often includes the need for more and more robust justification of the proposals. It’s not an undertaking for the faint-hearted or the impatient! Negotiations can take years and can cost thousands of pounds in professional fees not to mention building construction inflation increases – the cost of which is usually borne by committed church members. Some churches retreat and scale down their expectations to expedite the urgent needs, some rise to the challenge and prepare for battle.
The problem is that the appropriateness of change is measured by balancing the needs of the church with the significance of the historic building or elements therein. Churches themselves are best placed to determine their need for suitable accommodation to resource mission but this balance is not measured by defenders of the Christian faith but by specialists in historic building conservation. The ‘privilege’ of ecclesiastical exemption is suddenly and fiercely diluted.
In the case above, the church are desperate to release the potential of the beautiful space for mission-focused activities; the case for change is compelling. The problem is that they have an exemplary Victorian internal arrangement of wall to wall fixed pews with repurposed medieval panels for bench ends, no toilets, access challenges, poor heating – typical of many such churches up and down the country. Compromise has already been made and many pews are to be retained but at what point does a church decide that battles over the future of the building is not investing in the future of the church? At what point do they hand over the keys to the building in order to pursue its real mission of discipling all peoples?
Unwittingly, church authorities and those influencing the extent of change to our historic places of worship have a stranglehold on much of the established church in the UK. Well-intentioned defense of our built heritage has increasingly hindered the impact of our Christian heritage. Medieval, Tudor, Victorian and Modern societal needs were nothing like those of contemporary culture; it is absurd to expect any organisation to survive, much less thrive, in such outdated building stock, using historic furnishings and technology.
The church in the UK is custodian of the vast majority of the country’s built heritage assets and has an implied duty to preserve and conserve it as an ongoing legacy for future generations. The tension is that the church alone defends the country’s Christian heritage; the very reason these churches were built throughout history is also the imperative for continual change. Historic churches are not suited to the needs of contemporary church communities and the churches who occupy and steward them are battling with posterity which in turn limits their effectiveness to fulfil their mission.
Does this mean that historic church buildings have no place in the future of the church? Well that probably depends upon the ability of the church and secular authorities to take a broader view of the church’s need for suitable accommodation and the flexibility afforded by sensitive but much-needed adaptation of those historic buildings to help preserve our nation’s Christian heritage.