Church ceiling mural featuring sun, moon, stars, trees and a hand flanked by clouds, all against a bright blue background.
Ceiling mural at the Church of St Andrew, Sunderland: painted in 1927 by MacDonald Gill, to the design of E S Prior. The church was removed from the Heritage at Risk Register in 2019. © Historic England Archive DP248636
Ceiling mural at the Church of St Andrew, Sunderland: painted in 1927 by MacDonald Gill, to the design of E S Prior. The church was removed from the Heritage at Risk Register in 2019. © Historic England Archive DP248636

Places of Worship at Risk

We continue to make the case for listed places of worship as heritage in their own right, as cultural centres for communities and as faith buildings. We support the people who look after them so they can share them with their communities and make them open as places of wellbeing for people of all faiths and none.

In usual times the 14,788 listed places of worship in England provide spaces for worship as well as social and community events, allowing people to gather for a wide range of practical and spiritual reasons. They usually provide a haven for individuals needing a quiet, safe and peaceful place to take a break from daily worries, irrespective of their own beliefs or circumstances.

They will continue to accommodate celebration and grief, shared and private experiences, art, music and sculpture, toddler groups, political hustings, and self-help and addiction support sessions. These are significant spaces in which human experience has been, and continues to be, welcome.

The current situation

We work closely with groups of all denominations and faiths to monitor the condition of listed places of worship.

In total, 6.3% (932) of our listed places of worship are on our 2020 Heritage at Risk Register, 19 more than in 2019. Although 71 places of worship have been removed from the Register in the past year, 90 have had to be added.

Entries on the Register include buildings which are generally in fair or good condition, but with a significant problem with one major element, such as the tower. Others are vulnerable to becoming at risk.

The main threats are failing:

  • Roofs
  • Rainwater goods
  • High level stonework

Carrying out simple, regular maintenance is essential to prevent these buildings declining into a poor or very bad condition.

The newly restored Newington Green Unitarian Church in north London was founded in 1708 by the English Dissenters and has had a strong association with radicalism for over 300 years. The most famous member of its congregation was Mary Wollstonecraft, author of ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Women’ (1792). The church was removed from the Heritage at Risk register in 2020 following a programme of full repairs and improvements to access and facilities, funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

The challenge ahead

Historic England recognises that the care of historic places of worship relies heavily on worshipping congregations.

We continue to offer support to congregations through grants to denominational and faith bodies to enable them to employ Support Officers. Since 2008, 38 Support Officer posts have been created throughout England, helping congregations look after their buildings and giving access to a wide range of skills and advice. So far, they have provided 3,000 congregations with support and advice, and helped them to gain over £28 million in grants to deal with urgent repairs.

The Taylor Review Pilot, a project funded by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) ran from September 2018 to March 2020. The pilot project tested some of the recommendations of the 2017 Taylor Review: Sustainability of English Churches and Cathedrals by providing free support and advice for listed places of worship of all faiths and denominations in two pilot areas – Suffolk and Greater Manchester. It had five key strands:.

  • Support and advice from a Community Development Advisor
  • Support and advice from a Fabric Support Officer
  • 16 workshops (eight in each region) focusing on four different topics; maintenance, community engagement, project management, and advanced fundraising and business planning
  • A £1 million Minor Repairs Fund for minor repairs or maintenance works
  • Evaluation of the success of the pilot as a possible solution to some of the issues identified in The Taylor Review

The final evaluation of the project was published early in October (2020) and DCMS is considering what has been learnt from the pilot and the implications of that for places of worship in the future. Read our Taylor Review Pilot Update.

We continue to work closely with denominations and faith groups regionally and nationally. This year the Places of Worship Forum has increased to include representation from the Muslim Council of Britain and the Board of Deputies of British Jews, which broadens the representation of faith groups on the Forum.

Understanding significance

Historic England supports congregations and faith groups using historic buildings, whether they were built as places of worship or have been converted for that purpose.

We offer advice on sensitively adapting spaces and installing new facilities so that places of worship can be used for a wide range of purposes. We helped to produce an online tool to help congregations to prepare Statements of Significance so they can understand what is important about their building.

We also provide technical guidance. This covers a variety of topics from building repairs to making places of worship more resilient to climate change. Many congregations are also working to achieve Net Zero by 2030 and Historic England has a range of guidance to inform decisions about how to achieve this.

A guide to the range of places of worship and their architectural and historic significance is available online, as are our recently published short guides to 19th- and 20th-century Roman Catholic churches and Nonconformist places of worship and this year we have also published an Introduction to Anglo-Jewish Burial Grounds.

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