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Assessing the Challenges for Managing Historic Major Parish Churches

England has a fantastic heritage of large, historically significant parish churches. Historic England is working with partners to understand what special challenges may face people in managing and caring for this particular type of place of worship in our changing 21st century society.

There are more than 200 historic parish churches in England with a floor space of more than 1000m2. However, until now no research had ever been done to try to understand whether there are particular challenges or opportunities that make them harder or easier for their congregations to maintain and sustain than the 14,790 smaller listed places of worship.  

Historic England, Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), the Greater Churches Network, the Church Buildings Council and Doncaster Minster launched a partnership project to fill this gap in understanding. 

Interior photograph looking along a large parish church nave
The interior of Beverley Minster showing the scale of this large parish church in the East Riding of Yorkshire. © Historic England DP072620

  • This research explores the current physical condition and the resources available to maintain, repair, manage and sustain larger historic churches.
  • It focuses on highly significant buildings used by the community and nation that are expected to provide functions and services beyond those of a typical parish church (civic, cultural, ecclesiastical, tourism, etc.) but only have the resources of a parish church.
  • The research involved a carefully selected sample of large buildings, representing sites across the country, dating from different periods and serving a range of communities. In order to provide parallel data a number of other parish churches were also  included, which, though smaller in size, are significant because of their history and the expectations placed upon them.

Black and white archive photograph of a large church.
The exterior of St George's Church, also known as Doncaster Minster, from an archive photograph. The challenges of managing and caring for such a building have changed dramatically since this picture was taken. © Historic England Image Reference BB9802517

The project began in October 2015 when we invited Church of England dioceses and 80 sample parishes to complete short online questionnaires. The questions covered five topics:

  • Attitudes towards the buildings
  • Who takes responsibility or contributes to their care
  • How they welcome visitors
  • Funding and finances
  • Making changes to accommodate new activities or facilities

Fifty of those who completed questionnaires on behalf of parish churches were invited to take part in a follow-up telephone interview. Each building was the focus for a short case study. Twelve churches were chosen for more detailed investigation, to illustrate a cross-section of experiences, locations, roles and ministries. Representatives of the 12  took part in further interviews to provide a deeper appreciation of the daily challenges and opportunities associated with using these buildings. The project partners are indebted to everyone who is took part in this research.

You can find out more about the project in the following ways:

Sustaining Major Parish Churches

Sustaining Major Parish Churches

Published 11 October 2016

This project aimed to understand the potential challenges and opportunities within major parish churches. It investigated the perception of these buildings, their physical condition and the resources available to maintain, repair, manage and sustain them.This report sets out the findings of the study, based on a substantial foundation of data.

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Diana Evans

Head of Places of Worship Advice

Engagement Group