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Understanding the Character and Significance of Places of Worship NHPP Activity 4D1

Research carried out 2011-2015, into understanding and protecting historic places of worship within the National Heritage Protection Plan. Places of worship or faith buildings are a key part of our heritage and are important buildings within communities. Whilst many are already protected we needed a greater understanding of the significance of some aspects such as the buildings of particular faiths or periods.

Scope of the activity

Places of Worship 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.

Aerial photograph of a church
An Anglican church in its surrounding landscape © Damian Grady, English Heritage

Expected protection results

  • Places of Worship account for almost half of all buildings listed as of special value to our society. No other single building type dominates the historic environment sector in this way. This shows how our society respects these buildings. However, it is also points to the size and scale of the issue of managing nationally important historic assets.
  • The high numbers of listed places of worship largely reflect the significant inheritance of medieval buildings owned by the Church of England and cared for by its congregations. Some of the later periods of church buildings, chapels and other faith buildings are less well represented in the statutory lists. We worked towards specifically identifying and addressing these gaps.
  • There are some parts of the wider “landscape of faith” formed by the heritage of faith buildings that we needed to know more about. Identifying and addressing these gaps was a crucial element of this Activity. We considered the significance of faith buildings across the spectrum of faith groups, where evidence within the historic environment exists.
  • The nature of change and its effects on places of worship are largely managed through the listed buildings consent system or the Ecclesiastical equivalent, (often known as Ecclesiastical Exemption and used by five major Christian denominations). Therefore understanding how to assess significance and understand the impact of proposed change was a core focus of this Activity.

The exterior of a 20th century church, Ermine, Lincoln
The exterior of a 20th century church, Ermine, Lincoln. © Diana Evans

Projects in this activity

20th Century places of worship

20th Century places of worship are probably the least-understood of our faith buildings, yet they include the broadest range of groups and denominations.  A lack of appreciation by decision makers about the significance and the capacity for change of many such buildings can lead to radical and uninformed change, which can result in the loss of their special character.  

A timeline showing the twentieth-century faith heritage has been produced as a consultation tool for new stakeholders and as the first stage of a project to deliver a web-based output considering the contribution of the faith landscape to the built environment.  This will help us design specific advice and guidance on caring for, or making decisions about, this important and overlooked part of our faith heritage.

Protection of non-Christian places of worship

Non-Christian faith groups form an important and expanding part of our society. Increasing our knowledge and understanding in this area is an important and much needed area of English Heritage’s work. The buildings, which  have been adapted or purpose-built by such faith groups, tell much about the development and histories of these groups in England.

Considerable ground work building relationships with a new sector and stakeholders (especially British Islamic studies and mosque-based stakeholders) has raised the profile of the unknown heritage of non-Christian Places of Worship. This has excited much interest in new stakeholder groups including British Buddhist and British Muslim circles. We are as a result in a much better position to take this complex and new area of work forward. Achievements within the plan period 2011-2015 include:

  • The completion of a national thematic survey of mosques in Britain
  • Preparatory work for a related Introduction to Heritage Assets.
  • Scoping work on minority non-Christian faith groups to assess the current state of knowledge about the buildings and practices associated with them.
  • The successful establishment of a Collaborative Doctoral Partnership at Leicester University, funded by the AHRC (Arts and Humanities Research Council), on Sikh heritage.

Modern colour photograph showing the interior of the Shah Jehan Mosque, Woking.
The interior of the oldest purpose built mosque in England, the Shah Jehan Mosque, Woking. © English Heritage, Peter Williams

Roman Catholic heritage

There are over 3000 Roman Catholic places of worship in England. They are an important part of our faith heritage and yet in some areas these are under pressure, because of reduced numbers of congregations and clergy. They are less well represented on the statutory list. Decision makers need to understand their significance better at a local and national level in order to give them appropriate protection.

We made progress towards acheiving this through a process of ‘Taking Stock’ of what exists by undertaking thematic assessments of their places of worship in partnership with Roman Catholic dioceses. This will lead to an enhanced understanding of their heritage values, a management tool for local decision-making, incorporation into English Heritage datasets and designation results.  During the plan period 2011-2015, the Roman Catholic series of "Taking Stock" continued successfully with the following dioceses completed:

  • Salford
  • Westminster
  • Southwark
  • Shrewsbury
  • Hexham and Newcastle
  • Brentwood

Work on eight other diocese began in the same period.

You can find more information on the "Taking Stock" website.

Taking Stock for Church of England buildings

During the plan period 2011-2015 we also commissioned a similar 'Taking Stock' project for the Church of England Deaneries of Heytesbury and Sherborne, within the Church of England Diocese of Salisbury.

Nonconformist heritage

As with Roman Catholic heritage, the buildings of the Nonconformist faith groups face severe difficulties in some areas. This is because of reduced congregation size and thus reduced local support, leading to potential closure of buildings.  

Historically, there was a growth in the number of  faith groups and associated chapels, especially in the 19th century. In the 20th century, these groups tended to unify and consolidate so that there was a surplus of buildings.

We took the first step towards applying the methodolgy of "Taking Stock" to these faith groups by developing a new model of "Taking Stock" with the Religious Society of Friends.

Data Standards Pilot

The national surveys that have been grant aided and commissioned by English Heritage will produce large amounts of information on the significance and terminology of faith heritage. This small project piloted the applicability of the resulting information to English Heritage datasets: in particular, the National Record of the Historic Environment, which provides information appearing on the PastScape website. The pilot project used the Roman Catholic ‘Taking Stock’ project for the Archdiocese of Liverpool.

Links to other NHPP activities

Modern colour photograph showing the simple interior of the Quaker Meeting House at Come-to-Good, Cornwall
The interior of the Quaker Meeting House at Come-to-Good Cornwall © Crown Copyright, photographed by James O Davies.
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