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Closing Places of Worship

Historic England recognises the huge efforts made by congregations and communities to keep their buildings open for worship alongside a wide range of other activities.  A combination of uses will often keep a building at the center of their community.

Historic place of worship closed and being converted to alternative use with hoardings erected and letting signs on building.
Historic place of worship in process of conversion to alternative use. © Historic England

Examples of alternative uses include:

  • Social facilities such as pre-school play sessions or lunch clubs for older people
  • Commercial activities including post offices, shops or cafes 
  • Social services like GP surgeries, adult education classes or public libraries. 

Not all places of worship are sustainable in this way.  Some buildings, simply by being unlocked, provide a peaceful space that is vital to individuals’ well-being.  Others are of such architectural, historic or aesthetic value that they cannot be adapted to accommodate such a range of uses.

Adapting historic places of worship for new use

When a place of worship is no longer required for regular worship it can still make a valuable contribution to the wider community. We support schemes that give a sustainable future to a building while retaining as much of its special historical and architectural significance. Ideally the new use will be:

  • Appropriate to the historic fabric and character of the building
  • Economically viable
  • Something that gives the public access to the building
  • Sensitive to the impact of the building in the landscape or townscape

A new use often means alterations will be needed. As with any listed building changes require permission, through listed building consent and/or planning consent, obtained through the local authority. The changes will have to be based on an understanding of the building, its history and its place in the community.

Former places of worship will often be sold with covenants setting out access, future changes of use, and other legal matters. They may also set out how fixtures and fittings such as pews, screens, monuments and liturgical features are to be treated. As these contribute greatly to the character of the building the local authority may apply conditions on the future treatment of these features.

This doesn't mean former places of worship can't be changed. The key to successful adaptation is an understanding of the most significant parts of the building so that they can be conserved whilst other elements are adapted.

Sale of closed places of worship

Church of England parish churches are subject to a particular legal process for closure and re-use, overseen by the Church Commissioners. Most other Christian denominations simply dispose of their buildings by advertising them with local estate agents.  Other places of worship are normally treated as charitable assets subject to the laws covering the responsibilities of trustees. 

The law makes provision so that, in certain circumstances, Trustees are not obliged to dispose of the property at full market value. Guidance on the options that are open to trustees wishing to dispose of places of worship no longer needed for regular worship is available here.

When closure is the only option

In a very small minority of situations a place of worship has to close. A few closed places of worship may be considered so important as heritage buildings that they are vested in a charitable trust set up to care for them, such as the Churches Conservation Trust, the Historic Chapels Trust or the Friends of Friendless Churches.  In some cases local trusts may be set up. The majority of former places of worship will be made available for other religious use.  The Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church place restrictions on such uses.

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