“To the incumbent the church is a workshop; to the antiquary it is a relic. To the parish it is a utility; to the outsider a luxury. How to unite these incompatibles?”
Thomas Hardy, Memories of Church Restoration (1906)
Recently there has been a lot of chat about the way that church buildings are looked after. This includes coverage of the roofing case at All Saints, Pickwell, in Leicestershire, where a Parochial Church Council member has been charged with costs for failing to get permission for a polymer roofing system to replace stolen lead. It moved on to coverage of a case in Cheltenham where an ecclesiastical judge warned that, in her view, “Artistic heritage, on occasions, can appear to become [a] professional middle class substitute for religious observance or belief.” Catherine Pepinster, writing for the Telegraph, then contributed her own views in an opinion piece ‘Our churches must stop trading in their precious pews for shabby Ikea chairs’. On a different but related tack, the Archbishop of Canterbury has spoken of his frustration that, in his experience, heritage concerns can overbear accessibility proposals. There will be more that I have missed. There is much to say on this topic, and many people willing to say it.
This series of events hasn’t come as a shock. In fact, these debates are well over a century old. That doesn’t make them obsolete, but neither does it mean we have somehow failed to find a solution.
We don’t need everyone to agree on the best way to look after a church. We need everyone to keep on caring. If that care leads to disagreements then so be it. Far, far worse would be the silence of indifference.
When we talk about taking care of and developing our churches, it helps to be clear about what, and who, a church building is for. And the answer is: the act of bringing together. Churches are for the collective, they are for the masses, they are for those who are inside and those who are not. Christianity allows a personal relationship with God, but only within the context of the group. That’s why England developed the parish system. Nobody living here is outside the scope of their church, a fact that comes with no obligation to join in, or even to like it. Church buildings represent a belief in the equal, unfailing, unquestionable right of everyone to be part of something bigger than themselves; to be an individual in the context of a community.
The quote at the top of this piece comes from a speech which Thomas Hardy gave to the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings in 1906. Hardy was not at all sure that restoring churches, particularly in the Victorian model, was at all a good thing. One of his key concerns was that by restoring, or changing the building, you lost the sense of deep continuity that it gave. Nobody can deny that churches are places where memories are made: where you got married, where your grandmother is buried, where the village came together after a local tragedy, where the end of the war was celebrated, where a beautiful piece of music was first performed, where a king is buried, where a saint once lived. The list goes on, and back in time. It cannot be detached from its building, or ignored or dismissed when it becomes inconvenient.
It is for this reason that I will never dismiss opinions ventured by those whose primary interest in churches is architectural or historical, and who see that as one of the key functions of church buildings. They have every right to hold that view. Similarly I will never say that objections to changes which come from a heritage-driven perspective should be given any more, or less, weight than the well-identified and thought-through needs of the communities using the church today. This is why the first things a Church of England church considering making changes to its building is asked to do is to produce a statement of significance – what have you got, why is it important, what is its historical, aesthetic, community value? – and a statement of needs – what do the people using the church wants and need, why do they need it? Ideally it is only after compiling these documents that anyone would look at how the needs can be achieved in the context of the significance. Church buildings have always changed and been developed. Nobody is arguing this should stop. It is all about getting the balance right.
Care of church buildings has a long temporal reach, backwards in time as well as forwards. No-one ‘owns’ these places, not really. They are in our care for only a small portion of their existence. Decisions must be made that recognise not only what went before and what might happen next, but also the way those things interact with the moment right now when an explorer or a pilgrim pushes open the door and steps inside. That is what it means to be part of something.
All of this probably seems idealised and ridiculous to a parish priest who cannot access their chancel because there is no wheelchair ramp, or to a PCC whose church roof has been stolen for the fourth time, or to a historian who cannot appreciate the place where an important event happened because the church interior is so changed. It is not intended to belittle these very real, and often distressing, circumstances. In my job I see cases like these on a daily basis. I know funding is hard to come by, and help is difficult to find, and the pressure of serving a church in any capacity can be huge. In that context it is not surprising that opposition to plans is seen as an impossible roadblock. It is not surprising that some of those who commit their own time and effort to understanding and appreciating architectural history are brought to despair by those self-same plans.
The guidance the Church of England provides on making changes to church buildings is as flexible and pragmatic as possible. Truly there is no one-size-fits-all. Solutions, whether that is minor alterations or a full-scale re-ordering, should follow a balancing of needs with all the other factors involved in caring for a place where the memories of communities abide.
Despite what it feels like, and in fact the way our ecclesiastical planning system makes us behave, there are not two sides fighting it out over the future of church buildings. Everyone who has taken the time to think, the time to visit, the time to respond, is intrinsically linked to their care. We must consider how to understand and work alongside one another, not belittle or ignore those who present a view that is not our own. Whilst voices are raised in both detraction and support of changes to church buildings we can be assured that there is a community out there that cares enough to shout out loud. I, for one, welcome that.
 For more on Hardy’s views on church restoration see Benjamin Cannon’s excellent article “‘The True Meaning of the Word Restoration’: Architecture and Obsolescence in Jude the Obscure.” (Victorian Studies, vol. 56, no. 2, 2014, pp. 201–224)