An architectural detail of masonry within a large church
Interior detail near chapterhouse stairs, Beverley Minster, East Riding of Yorkshire. © Historic England image reference number DP072626
Interior detail near chapterhouse stairs, Beverley Minster, East Riding of Yorkshire. © Historic England image reference number DP072626

Faith and Commemoration

This section covers Historic England current and planned research into faith buildings such as churches, chapels, mosques and temples and commemoration of the dead at cemeteries and burial grounds.

Places of worship

Faith buildings are at the heart of the historic environment. Their function as centres for faith communities means they are key buildings within society.

They are often the buildings with the longest period of continuous use in a community. Their position may inherit or reflect earlier traditions and as such, they are storehouses of collective memory, cultural identity and personal history. Their continued use, adaptation and evolution show changes to social activity, religious belief and practice, and the nature of communities over time.

In some areas places of worship are under pressure due to declining congregation numbers; whilst there has been a growth in other faith communities.

Our research is not limited to Christian churches or chapels and includes understanding the other elements of the changing landscape of faith in England.

Historic burial grounds, cemeteries and churchyards

Historic England is also working to better understand our historic burial grounds. As places of memory for individuals and communities, burial grounds, cemeteries and churchyards are extremely important to many people.

They have an almost universal social importance through the rites associated with death and a common wish for commemoration and remembering.

The existing faith communities in this country work largely on a voluntary basis, acting as guardians of our burial grounds. Burial grounds include a huge range of sites, in terms of time depth, character and visibility and so form a hugely complex area of the historic environment.

Many sites lack visible remains and are often hidden, forgotten or poorly recognised. Very ancient sites potentially allow us to understand past people, revealing the importance of commemorating the dead in prehistory, while other ceremonial sites (including Stonehenge) were clearly connected to past people's religious and spiritual beliefs, though many details of those beliefs now elude us.

Most more recent sites are characterised by visible remains or structures (monuments, headstones, chapels, lodges etc) and their landscape presence. They are highly significant for local and faith communities, especially with regard to personal and collective identity, but, they often have little direct economic value and can become neglected or overlooked.

Their full heritage significance, deriving from monumental, design and archaeological heritage values is often poorly understood.

Where archaeologists investigate them, they increase our knowledge of the past. The public response to development affecting burial grounds can show the strength of feeling many of us have about the need to protect this fragile and often highly personal aspect of our past. 

Research questions and impact

Researching these places will have impact if it helps us to find and celebrate our diverse and fascinating landscape of faith and commemoration sites, promote their continued use, and better understand their significance. It will help better understand their condition and vulnerabilities, inform statutory protection, and find new ways to support communities caring for them.

 Research questions that will help our mission include:

  • What does 21st century faith heritage look like and how are sites distributed?
  • What gaps exist in the National Heritage List for England for burial grounds, and how are these best addressed?
  • How do we ensure under-represented faith heritage is visible, through work with local congregations to understand what they value and why?
  • How do we decide what might change inside churches with many historic fittings and fixtures, while retaining their significance?
  • How can we help others to understand and enhance the significance of historic burial grounds?

If you would like to collaborate with us to answer these questions please contact [email protected]; for other enquiries about our research into faith heritage contact Linda Monckton using the address below.

Previous research

Previous research has included a consultation with nearly 70 places of worship to find out the issues faced by managers and owners, and their role in local communities. It also looked at the impact listing has on places of worship.

Key issues highlighted by the research include:

  • Concerns over funding, especially for community projects
  • Weak partnerships between places of worship and local authorities
  • Concern over the sustainability of extended use of the building

For local communities, listed places of worship have a positive impact:

  • 88% of congregation members surveyed agreed their listed place of worship contributed towards community spirit
  • 55% of trustees agreed they had received extra support from the local community because the place of worship was listed

Evaluation of grant schemes for places of worship (2010)

Many repair projects would not happen if it were not for grant aid. From 2002 to 2012 the Heritage Lottery Fund and Historic England offered the Repair Grants for Places of Worship scheme (RGPoW). The Listed Places of Worship grant scheme (LPW) has run since 2001 and provides a grant equivalent of the VAT paid for repair and maintenance.

In 2010 we commissioned research to find out more about the value and impact of these grant schemes to places of worship. Key findings include:

  • 39% found applying for grants easy
  • A significant proportion of respondents said they would not have been able to undertake the work, or at least part of it, without grant funding
  • Grant funding enables places of worship to open to the public on more occasions