From Meeting House To Mosque

1st April 2010

and just about everything in between…

Grace Fuller reports on an English Heritage initiative to support congregations looking after listed churches, chapels, synagogues, meeting houses, gurdwaras, temples and mosques.

English Heritage, the Government’s advisor for the historic environment, is known for its custodianship of some of the most important monuments of our history, such as Stonehenge and Hadrian’s Wall – but it also has an interest in, and a responsibility for a range of sites and buildings that are, in some cases literally, more parochial.

As part of its Heritage at Risk programme, EH is carrying out the first national survey of Places of Worship at Risk. On 30 June it will be announcing the results of a sample survey offering an insight into the condition of England’s listed religious heritage and assessing how many buildings are at serious risk of decay.

We’re used to surveys that analyse attendance, faith, belief – but this changes the emphasis. There are two big questions: what condition are England’s listed churches and other historic faith buildings really in, and what will most help the congregations whose task it is to maintain them?

Preliminary results show that most of the country’s 14,500 listed places of worship are actually in good condition, and are a huge asset to their communities, thanks almost entirely to the work of volunteers. Some are struggling simply to keep open, but many have adapted dramatically to the changing geography and lifestyle of the 21st century, particularly in rural areas, and now incorporate crèches, cafés and even post offices alongside services of worship. The cost of maintaining these beautiful buildings is an on-going challenge, not least because what makes them special within our landscape is also what makes them more costly to repair than less spectacular buildings.

Most – around 85% – listed places of worship are Church of England. The remaining 15%, though, covers an extraordinarily wide range: Catholic parish churches, plus Methodist, Baptist, United Reformed Church and other Nonconformist chapels, Quaker meeting houses, synagogues, mosques, temples and gurdwaras, as well as several buildings now used by faith groups but built as schools, cinemas or shops.

Research so far has involved looking at a representative 10% sample of listed places of worship of all kinds. Now EH is asking congregations what really matters to them about their place of worship – and what they really need to help them turn what some see as a burden into a building in which they can take pride and joy.

Anyone with an interest and/or involvement in their local historic church or other place of worship is invited to tell EH about the various challenges and successes. It’s a simple process via a dedicated page on the organisation’s website (www.english-heritage.org.uk/powar).

Based on the results of all this research, and in partnership with a wide range of faiths, denominations and heritage groups, English Heritage will then publish a practical guide bringing basic information on looking after your building into a single leaflet for all faiths. In fact, much valuable information already exists but the guide should be an easy first step to finding it, via the publications, websites and telephone help lines of EH’s many partners and associates. Reflecting what it believes to be the main concerns of congregations, the guide will point people towards help with key issues of maintenance and fundraising, plus welcoming visitors, widening use, making changes, ensuring sustainability and managing security. EH hopes that this leaflet will reach as many listed places of worship and interested individuals as possible. Everyone who signs up on the website will receive one.

Dr Simon Thurley, Chief Executive of English Heritage, is keen to acknowledge the work already done by congregations up and down the country in shouldering the huge responsibility of maintaining historic religious buildings.

“We’re bringing all the faiths and heritage organisations together,” explains Dr Thurley, “not to impose what we think but to respond to what church wardens, ministers, property stewards, trustees, members of parochial church councils and others in congregations tell us they really want.”

The Places of Worship at Risk project will provide a snapshot of the national picture; through an analysis of this, EH hopes to deliver viable local solutions. Increasingly churches and other places of worship are being recognised for the role that they play in the wider community as the home to and inspiration for a range of voluntary services. In helping to maintain historic places of worship, EH is not only preserving buildings – often beautiful buildings – that have been both the focus of community life and the repository of local memory for generations past, but is also aiming to ensure that they can continue to provide wide public benefit for generations to come.

EH has been providing grants to individual faith buildings (latterly in partnership with the Heritage Lottery Fund) since the 1970s. In 2008 it started offering funds to help dioceses and faith bodies employ staff to support congregations with locally-identified needs. It has worked with pilot projects in London, Suffolk and Gloucester to explore how regular maintenance on challenging buildings can be made easier.

The current research means that a very important part of the historic environment (45% of grade I listed buildings are places of worship) can be added to a wider view of the condition of England’s heritage. The Heritage at Risk register already includes listed buildings, parks and gardens, battlefields and scheduled monuments, along with protected wrecks and conservation areas.

The register is designed to help everyone galvanise action, direct limited resources to areas of need and focus attention on saving the best of the past for the future. Eventually it will make England the first country in the world to have a comprehensive picture of its heritage at risk and to understand and address the challenge that represents.

See www.english-heritage.org.uk for further information.
Sign up at www.english-heritage.org.uk/powar to ensure that you
receive a practical guide to looking after a listed place of worship.

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