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 retention. There will be cases where the nature or quality of the interior means that there is little scope for internal adaptation. Your Statement of Significance will help you to understand if and where changes can be made to meet your needs.

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 such as 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 for which the building was designed. We would encourage you to keep them in their original position.

Chancel rails are generally similarly important, especially when they are part of the historic design or refitting of an interior.

Where liturgical change has left a significant chancel little-used we recommend that you keep it as a chapel or a space set aside for private prayer. We advise against its use for storage or offices.

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.

Seating is often an aspect of a place of worship which is under pressure when considering change. Any proposals for change need to be based on a realistic expectation of what the congregation or a new owner is trying to achieve. Generally, we do not encourage wholesale replacement where retention, adaption or reordering is possible. Solutions can vary in the extent and type of change proposed and these options should be informed by an understanding of the building’s capacity for change and expanded upon through the design stage of the process.

In terms of minimum intervention, this could include the cleaning, restoring or adding a cushion to pews in order to make the seats more comfortable. More involved solutions could include adapting the seat and back to improve the comfort of the pews. Shortening pews or removing a number can help to create a flexible space while retaining the critical mass of seating and overall appearance of the interior.

Where sufficient justification can be made for a more comprehensive reordering, then options that consider making the pews themselves moveable could be explored. Movement can be improved through the use of casters or rollers.

In cases where pew removal has been agreed, the design and quality of the replacement seating requires careful consideration. In many places, pews form a positive contribution to the aesthetic quality of the interior and new seating should continue to do so. Replacing seating can raise challenges, particularly regarding the design and finishes of new additions to ensure that they respond positively to the interior. The introduction of uncharacteristic and less durable materials such as upholstery can result in changes to the character of the interior and also lack the longevity and durability of other types of seating.

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.

It is also important to consider whether any reflections onto or from internal glazing will have a negative impact on the interior.

Finally, it is important to remember that glazed screens and internal glazing can gather dust and fingerprints very quickly, which can be unsightly if left to accumulate.

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