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What does the future hold for our churches?

What does the future hold for our churches?

More than half the UK population say they have no religion, statistics from The Guardian have revealed (The Guardian 2017). Similarly, last year it was recorded that the number of people attending Church of England services fell below 1 million for the first time (The Guardian 2016).

These facts have to raise the question as to what will happen to these buildings as they fall out of use. When thinking about our historic buildings, a key element to ensure their future could be their continuing usefulness in modern society. Perhaps, this is one of the reasons so many historic homes have survived the turn of time, as they continue to be useful as dwelling places. Similarly, it is easy to see how out-of-use factories can be easily regenerated into modern trendy housing, and how public buildings such as halls can be re-purposed for community arts venues etc. But what is possibly harder to see the survival of are the purpose specific church buildings.

One reason for this could be that the original intended function of an ecclesiastical building is so ingrained into the design and layout of these structures that it is difficult to see how such a building could be used as anything but. However, despite these buildings original uses declining in many areas and with society seemingly becoming less religious, the historical significance of these structures deserves to be recognised.

If you search Historic England’s listed buildings list with the keyword “church”, there are 72,589 (Historical England 2017). For a building to be suitable for listing it is judged to hit several key indicators including (Historic England 2008):

Evidential Value –    the potential for a place to give evidence about past human activity

Historical Value –    places which can illustrate how past people, events and life can be connected to the present

Aesthetic Value –    places where people can draw sensory and intellectual stimulation from a place

Communal Value – the meanings of a place for the people who relate to it, or for whom it figures in their collective memory or experience

Places of worship can be considered to display all of these values, indeed Historic England themselves point out that

“With their strong claims to special architectural, archaeological, artistic, historic and cultural interest, places of worship deserve considerable respect and care” (Historic England 2011, 2).

Throughout much of time churches, and other places of worship, have been a recognisable and important feature of our landscapes playing a huge role in the fabric of our lives. Indeed, Historic England recognises that:

“People feel strongly about them, whether or not they are active members of a worshipping congregation, and they are often repositories for the collective memories of the local communities, and their historic place of burial” (Historic England 2011, 2).

How are these important structures to be saved if they no longer remain relevant to people in their lived experiences?

One such answer may be found in the approach taken by the Churches Conservation Trust (CCT). They work with local communities where a church at risk is situated to keep it open and in use so that it is “living once again at the heart of their communities” (Churches Conservation Trust 2017a).

What their approach stands out for is that they are keen to recognise:

“what these buildings can contribute to modern life; whether as a heritage gem to discover during a walk in the country, a place to meet or learn, a cultural venue or a destination to visit as part of a day out” (Churches Conservation Trust 2017a).

This means that although some churches in their care are restored simply as working churches, other under-used churches are regenerated through reuse projects.

For example, at All Souls Church in Bolton, the CCT rejuvenated the church to become a centre for its surrounding community. This included building two three-storey pods into the centre of the church which contains offices, conference and meeting spaces, a coffee shop and a multimedia exhibition on local history (Churches Conservation Trust 2017b). At St Paul’s church in Bristol, the CCT worked with a company called Circomedia to restore and adapt the building to become a venue for a wide range of events and activities, including as a space for learning circus and theatre skills (Churches Conservation Trust 2017c).

As can be seen in the CCT’s approach, there is much potential for these buildings to be reused and rejuvenated. I believe that by adapting churches and their use to reflect the needs of modern society, these important historical buildings can again become treasured buildings worthy of saving and deserving of their place in the physical pattern of our communities and lives.

By Helen Simmons, Project Manager

As featured in the Social History Curator’s Group News Issue 79


Churches Conservation Trust. 2017a. About Us [Online]. UK: Churches Conservation Trust. Available at: https://www.visitchurches.org.uk/what-we-do/about-us.html [Accessed: 05/09/17].

Churches Conservation Trust. 2017b. All Souls’, Bolton [Online]. UK: Churches Conservation Trust. Available at: https://www.visitchurches.org.uk/what-we-do/regeneration-and-communities/regeneration-projects/all-souls-bolton-regen.html [Accessed: 05/09/17].

Churches Conservation Trust. 2017c. St Paul’s, Bristol [Online]. UK: Churches Conservation Trust. Available at: https://www.visitchurches.org.uk/what-we-do/regeneration-and-communities/regeneration-projects/st-pauls-bristol-regen.html [Accessed: 05/09/17].

The Guardian. 2016. Church of England Attendance Falls Below 1m for First Time [Online]. UK: The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jan/12/church-of-england-attendance-falls-below-million-first-time [Accessed: 05/09/17].

The Guardian. 2017. More than half UK population has no religion, finds survey [Online]. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/sep/04/half-uk-population-has-no-religion-british-social-attitudes-survey [Accessed: 05/09/17].

Historic England. 2008. Conservation Principles, Policies and Guidance. UK: Historic England.

Historic England. 2011. Places of Worship [Online]. UK: Historic England. Available at: https://content.historicengland.org.uk/images-books/publications/dlsg-places-worship/places_of_worship_final.pdf/ [Access: 05/09/17].

Historic England. 2017. The List [Online]. UK: Historic England. Available at: https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/results?q=church&searchtype=nhle [Accessed: 05/09/17].

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