Interior of chancel and nave of Coventry Cathedral, view from north.
Coventry Cathedrall Church of St Michael, Priory Street, Coventry, Warwickshire. © Historic England
Coventry Cathedrall Church of St Michael, Priory Street, Coventry, Warwickshire. © Historic England

20th Century Churches - an Early 21st Century Perspective

By Dr Joseph Elders, Major Projects Officer, Cathedral and Church Buildings Division, Church of England

At the start of this century the outlook for churches built after the First World War looked bleak. This article will consider the work that has highlighted their plight and improved their outlook.

Churches built after the First World War, fall under the remit of the Twentieth Century Society rather than the Victorian Society.

In the Church of England churches of this date are in the minority. This is not the case, for example, with the Roman Catholic Church.

Anglican building stock has less than 10% (out of 16,000 churches) of churches dating to this period. Of these, just over 10% are protected by designation, which breaks down as:

  • Grade I: 5 including Coventry Cathedral
  • Grade II*: 32 including Guildford Cathedral
  • Grade II: 171

This is out of 4,500 Grade I, 4,000 Grade II* and 3,500 Grade II churches (all figures rounded; source: Church Heritage Record).

In the early years of this century the Cathedral and Church Buildings Division (CCB) became increasingly concerned at the number of churches of this period being considered for demolition or radical alteration. Discussions were held with Historic England (then known as English Heritage), who subsequently commissioned the Twentieth Century Society to compile a gazetteer of all 20th century Christian places of worship. This does not list all Anglican places of worship of this date, although there are issues of definition (rebuilds of bomb-damaged churches, mission rooms etcetera).

I wrote an internal report titled '20th-century churches - an undervalued asset?' in 2010 which looked at the issues for the Church of England, illustrated by then current case studies.  

One such case was that of Twydall (Gillingham, Kent) Holy Trinity, an unlisted church designed by Arthur Bailey in 1966. In 2009 closure and demolition was proposed, but the Twentieth Century Society and others opposed this. The CCB held that the church had high townscape value as a planned component of a post-War housing development and was potentially of a quality commensurate with Grade II designation. Historic England (then English Heritage) agreed, and it was spot-listed Grade II.

The case was locally very contentious, with some arguing that it was not economically viable to repair and run the building. A compromise was reached which allowed most of the site to be developed for housing, generating funds for the repair and careful reordering necessary to make the building sustainable as a place of worship, which is ongoing.

In 2013 the National Churches Trust, the Ecclesiastical Architects and Surveyors Association and the Twentieth Century Society held a competition to find the Top 10 churches built in the UK since 1953. The winner was St Paul's, Bow Common in London, built by Robert Maguire and Keith Murray in 1960 and listed Grade II*. This further raised the profile of 20th-century churches.

A major two-day residential conference is now being planned, to be held at Coventry Cathedral on the 30-31 October 2018, supported by the CCB and Historic England. This will explore the significance of churches from this period, including interiors, art and liturgy, and practical issues associated with materials (such as dalle de verre glass) and design. It is to be hoped that this conference will further the debate on what needs to be protected and made sustainable, and how this can best be done.

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