Last edited 28 Nov 2021

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Institute of Historic Building Conservation Institute / association Website

C of E buildings and their volunteers

Without the often heroic efforts of the Church of England’s churchwardens and other volunteers, a significant part of England’s heritage would be in a precarious position.

The Church of England comprises 42 dioceses, which are further subdivided into parishes, each with at least one church building. There are some 16,000 church buildings within the Church of England. Around three quarters (12,000) of the church buildings are listed (more than half Grade I or Grade II*). Most church buildings are in rural areas, where the proportion of Grade I and II* listed church buildings is much greater than in urban or suburban areas. Rural areas account for 75 per cent of the Church of England’s Grade I listed churches.[1]

Volunteers look after a significant proportion of the listed church buildings in England. The local church community has legal responsibility for the parish church building and its day-to-day care. In addition to the stipendiary parish clergy (vicar or rector) in whom the church building is vested, it is the volunteer churchwardens, elected by the residents of the parish, and the volunteer members of the parochial church council (PCC), elected by members of the congregation registered on the parish church’s electoral roll, who undertake the bulk of the work of looking after the parish churches of England. The numbers of churchwardens and PCC members looking after the church buildings represents a considerable body of people, possibly as many as 200,000. Some of these volunteers have considerable experience and valuable expertise in looking after historic assets, while others are complete beginners.

There is no overarching supervisory body within the Church of England which is responsible for the portfolio of buildings as each church is the responsibility of the local clergy, churchwardens and PCC. However, these local managers are not at liberty to do what they like. Every consecrated church and nearly every dedicated church (licensed by the bishop for public worship), together with its surrounding land (curtilage) and contents, is under the control of the Faculty Jurisdiction, exercised by the chancellor of the diocese (usually a senior barrister experienced in planning law).

These arrangements are enshrined in the Care of Churches and Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction Measure 1991[2] which has the same legal status as an Act of Parliament. The local control of the jurisdiction is exercised through the incumbent in whom the building and churchyard are normally vested; the churchwardens in whom the contents are vested; the archdeacon within whose archdeaconry the building is situated; and the bishop, the chancellor, and the consistory court of the diocese advised by the diocesan advisory committee.

This faculty jurisdiction, in the case of the listed church buildings of the Church of England, provides for the parallel but separate consent process to local authority listed building consent (LBC) known as Ecclesiastical Exemption. This is available to six religious denominations in England: the Church of England, the Church in Wales, the Roman Catholic Church, the Methodist Church, the United Reformed Church and those Baptist churches of which the Baptist Union is the trustee. Ecclesiastical Exemption was granted by parliament because it recognised that church buildings were primarily there to serve, support and enable the mission and ministry of the church, and that it was unreasonable to expect secular bodies to have control over buildings which were there to serve the church’s mission.

These six denominations operate systems of planning control to provide for the conservation of listed churches and chapels and their contents. In the Church of England each diocese has a diocesan advisory committee (DAC), comprising people with expertise in the conservation and aesthetics of church buildings, which advises the chancellor who makes the decisions. Consultation with statutory bodies and interested parties includes Historic England, the relevant amenity societies and the local authority conservation office, which are represented on the DACs. Significant matters are referred to the Church Buildings Council (CBC)[3], which will also advise the relevant chancellor.

Apart from the paid officers and the stipendiary clergy, the majority of people responsible for the parish churches of the Church of England are volunteers: churchwardens, PCC members, DAC members and CBC advisors give their time and expertise for free. Operating the consent process, which is governed by law, is dependent on the goodwill of the volunteers. Sometimes the local churches can find Faculty Jurisdiction all too burdensome and will attempt to circumvent a process which is there to protect both the buildings and the people who look after them. The challenge at times can be to get the local churches to consult with the DAC, which provides a range of expertise and pre-application advice free of charge, before they decide and act.

The Measure referred to above also requires each church to have an inspecting architect or surveyor appointed by the PCC and a routine five-year building condition survey, the quinquennial inspection (QI), followed up with a detailed building condition report, the quinquennial inspection report (QIR). For all the benefits of the QI procedure, church communities often dread receiving the QIR, fearful that it will highlight a long list of urgent works with the accompanying costs. The quality of the relationship between inspecting professional and local church community is vital to the success of this procedure. Paternalism or excessive fees can be the cause for a stand-off between the two parties, and yet an impecunious PCC will attempt to get something for nothing out of its appointed professional.

The desire to save money and time associated with professional fees and consent processes has resulted in many church buildings having any number of unauthorised repairs and ‘improvements’. Where these works have utilised ordinary Portland cement on the historic fabric, it has compounded the problems created by the Victorian scraping and removal of protective external lime renders and limewash, all of which contribute to a significant problem for the future.

Church buildings can often be viewed as a burden rather than a blessing by the volunteers who have the job of looking after them. Many of the volunteer churchwardens and PCC members lack the confidence and the experience necessary for the management of the historic assets which, they can feel, they have been lumbered with. The way the Church of England is organised can make it difficult for the knowledge and expertise to be handed on to newly elected churchwardens and PCC members.

Among the points in the executive summary of a recent discussion document that Place of Worship Support Officer [4] (PoWSO) colleagues in neighbouring dioceses and I produced identified that:

Conversations with PoWSO colleagues elsewhere confirms that a similar situation is to be found across the country, with the greatest concentration of challenges to be found in the areas of former industrial prosperity.

Worry about the problems of the church buildings has had a detrimental effect on numbers willing to volunteer for the office of churchwarden. Many parishes are operating with only one churchwarden or indeed none, and instead have a couple of wardens across a benefice (a number of parishes) with several church buildings. In the past there has been insufficient training for churchwardens, but with an increasing amount of secular legislation affecting both church buildings and church activities, coupled with fewer stipendiary clergy, this situation is changing as churchwardens and other authorised lay people take on the running of the parish churches. In addition to the recruitment and training of volunteers to lead worship and undertake pastoral ministry, there is an increasing need to recruit and train volunteers to undertake preventive maintenance and small DIY repairs on behalf of the PCC.

There is a great deal of advice and guidance available to assist the volunteers in looking after their historic church buildings. The Church Buildings Council through its Churchcare website [6], the National Churches Trust (NCT)[7] and SPAB (Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings) Faith in Maintenance (SPABFiM)[8] provide a wealth of good advice and guidance through publications and websites. Many of the DACs publish advice and continually encourage the parochial clergy and volunteers to use the various sources of advice and guidance. With the support of a generous Heritage Lottery Fund grant, SPAB is currently piloting a Maintenance Cooperatives Project [9] to provide local practical hands-on training which can make use of the energies of community volunteers who are committed to the buildings but may be less interested in the worship activities of the church community.

Many PCCs are beginning to realise that if they are to sustain the church buildings with which they have been entrusted they need to involve wider community in looking after them. The starting point for involving the wider community is the recognition and acknowledgement that parish churches are there for all the residents of the parish and are not the private premises of a private members club. Negotiating this mixed economy – a place for both committed worshippers and others who are not – does take some sensitivity and skill, but it is a hallmark of the Church of England to be there for everyone. Some congregations will need to change their attitude towards the ‘non-attending’ parishioners and also be prepared to unlock the doors of the buildings. In my experience, the chief difference between an accessible and a shut church is not its location or the value of its contents but the attitude of the vicar and churchwardens. A parish church is a church open to all. A church shut except for services is the private meeting house of a sect.[10]

Many PCCs benefit from the active support of friends schemes which raise funds for the building from a much wider constituency than the congregation and resident parishioners alone. The success of friends schemes depends on a good level of trust and the shared understanding that a parish church is a community building in which many people have an interest. The involvement of the wider community in looking after and using the parish churches for much more than just worship fits in well with the objectives of the Heritage Lottery Fund, which has become the major provider of grants for repairs to listed places of worship.

All HLF funds have the same target: making a difference to heritage, people and communities[11]. It can be a challenge for churches to score sufficient points in the latter two targets unless they develop a programme to involve the local community. Many people may be indifferent to the services of worship and the activities of the church community, but they can have deep loyalties to a building because of its significance at some point in their life. Experience demonstrates that where the residents of the parish and the wider community are involved in any proposals to make change to the church building, the process is less confrontational and traumatic than the shock-horror headlines in the local paper or the rumour-mill monster that the vicar is going to do something to the church that will destroy what makes it so special.

Increasingly PCCs are beginning to appreciate the significance of the sacred space which the parish church represents to people far beyond the congregation. Enabling people to appreciate that conservation is the management of change rather than preservation at a particular point in time will always be a challenge. But anyone who is serious about the parish churches of England will quickly realise they have been subject to continuous and development since they were built. Taking seriously both the building and the significance of the holy place it marks is the essential starting point.

John Inge, Bishop of Worcester, quotes the geographer Michael Godkin: ‘the places in a person’s world are more than entities which provide the physical stage for life’s drama. Some are profound centres of meanings and symbols of experience. As such, they lie at the core of human existence’. Inge goes on to advise: ‘the places, city and country with which we develop a very complex and deep relationship are our very lifeblood in a very physical as well as psychological sense, and a recovery of the importance of place would do much to encourage a more responsible attitude to the environment… attention to place by the Christian community will afford great nourishment and sustenance to it’.[12]

Looking after England’s church buildings requires the volunteers to walk a tightrope of different people’s different expectations. Objectivity and balance are essential requisites if the volunteers are to survive being pulled and pushed by the varying opinions. Putting the mission and ministry of the church first, while conserving an inheritance from a different period and style of Christian discipleship and different ways of worship, is the challenge that faces these volunteers. Few of them are experts in historic building conservation or in negotiating the difficulties of the management of change. Many of them are under-resourced in terms of training and experience, and most feel fairly uncertain about the job with which they have been entrusted.

Heavy handed criticism or non-negotiable opposition to any proposals for change achieves little but their resignation. Understanding the complexities facing the volunteers is essential to supporting them in their task: without these unsung heroes, a significant proportion of England’s heritage would be in a precarious position.


This article originally appeared in Context 142, published by the Institute of Historic Building Conservation (IHBC) in November 2015. It was written by Andrew Mottram, who was responsible for All Saints Hereford when the church building was re-ordered and opened up for wider community use in 1997. In response to numerous requests for help from churches across the UK, he co-founded the specialist property consultancy Ecclesiastical Property Solutions (EPS). From 2004 to 2009 EPS provided training and support to clergy and laity of 500 churches, 28 dioceses and national bodies of the Anglican Church in England and Wales. Mottram was appointed as a place of worship support officer in the Diocese of Worcester in 2009.

--Institute of Historic Building Conservation

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