Interiors of Places of Worship

The following guiding principles will help you to consider internal alterations and rearrangements within older places of worship. They also explain our views and recommendations on certain issues.

Firstly we recommend that you take account of the spatial qualities and main architectural lines of your building’s interior. This includes assessing the significance of individual fittings and the existing arrangement as a whole.

Most places of worship can accommodate some internal change. For example, a small kitchen can often fit well in an historic interior if it is well-detailed and crafted and of appropriate size and position.

Generally, the rarer or more complete an historic interior, the stronger the case for its preservation. There will, however, be cases where the nature or quality of the interior means that there is little scope for internal adaptation. These cases should be identifiable as you prepare your Statement of Significance.

Image of the interior a church after being reordered to become a multi-functional space for the community. There is a large open space in the nave.
Interior reordered to ensure the church is a multifunctional space for the community. © Historic England

Furnishings and features

The following guiding principles will help you to consider internal alterations and rearrangements within older places of worship. They also explain our views and recommendations on certain issues.

If your place of worship has high quality furnishings like altars, pulpits, choir stalls or reading desks, these are likely to make a significant contribution to the special interest of the building.

In the past, changes driven by liturgical considerations have sometimes involved the removal or harmful adaptation of important historic fittings. You can avoid harmful changes either by reducing the prominence of such items (for example, in the way they are lit) or, in some cases, by carefully adapting or relocating them.

For churches specifically, chancel screens are generally important to the character of a church and its theological significance. They are often important objects in their own right and show traditional liturgical use. We would encourage you to keep them in their original position.

Where liturgical change has left a significant chancel little-used we recommend that you keep it as a chapel.

Organs

Many organs are among the most significant features of an interior, not least because of their size. Some were designed as part of the fitting-out of the building and many display considerable quality in design and craftsmanship.

If this is the case, we encourage you to keep them in situ. We are not able to offer advice on questions relating to the musical value of pipe organs or their relative merits when compared with electronic alternatives, but many denominational bodies do have specialist organ consultants.

Image of the interior of a church showing a new organ gallery made from wood and steel.
A new organ gallery St Michael and All Angels Church in Tirley, Gloucestershire © Historic England

Seating

The majority of historic places of worship have fixed seating for the congregation. This is often seen as barrier to change. Depending on its importance, however, decision makers and advisory bodies may support some removal or rearrangement to suit your congregation’s needs.

We recommend that major re-seating schemes should not run counter to the main architectural axis of the building. We also recommend that new seating should be of good design and construction and appropriate to the character of the building.

Medieval and immediately post-medieval fixed seating in its original state is very rare and we will always argue for its retention. Complete preaching interiors with benches or box pews, prominent pulpits and galleries are also comparatively rare and we encourage you to keep them.

Most historic places of worship have Victorian or Edwardian seating, which can vary greatly in significance. In assessing the significance of congregational seating we recommend that you consider:

  • Its relationship to the character of the building’s interior
  • Its historic interest, which might relate to the history of the building or to liturgical or social history
  • Its aesthetic character
  • Quality of materials and craftsmanship
  • Completeness of its survival as a seating scheme

Some rearrangement of Victorian or later seating is often possible unless it is of very high quality and is either contemporary with the building or forms part of an important historic scheme of re-ordering or restoration. The total removal of a good Victorian or later seating scheme will be harder to justify.

If you are considering portable benches, these have the benefit of being more robust than most chairs, while allowing for relatively easy re-arrangement. Since the removal of fixed seating will reveal the floor beneath, you will need to give careful thought to new floor finishes and colours.

Although aimed at Church of England Churches, you may find the ChurchCare guidance on seating useful. 

Subdivision and creating new space

You may want to create new space, for example, to make a meeting room, toilet or crèche. To do this successfully, you need to understand your building. You will need to consider which areas are most sensitive and which offer opportunities.

Your place of worship may already have a space which you can easily divide from the rest of the building. This may be the base of the tower or the area beneath a gallery. In interiors without galleries or discrete spaces, it may be possible to form a room at the liturgical west end, perhaps at the end of an aisle.

Single storey spaces are generally easier to create and design accessibly than structures with multiple levels. Facilities like tea-points can be housed in specially designed pieces of furniture, which can have less impact than creating new subdivisions.

We recommend that you place any new internal partitioning so that it respects the main spatial divisions and avoids damage to the building fabric. This may involve setting partitions back behind arcades or gallery columns and avoiding damage to mouldings. You could also, if the detailing of an arcade is quite simple, set a partition on the centre line. It is often best to treat partitions as panelled screens, in keeping with the tradition of screened enclosures within churches.

If you are considering fitting glazed screens, there are issues to consider. Large areas of glazing can be out of scale and character with historic church interiors. They can also lack the visual interest that even simple panelling has and their design can be compromised by unsuitable brackets or fixings.

Internal glazing cannot achieve complete transparency in all light conditions so we recommend their solid presence is acknowledged with appropriate framing.  Consider the effect of lighting on the appearance of any glazed screens.

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