Our churches exist to provide a place for the people to gather to celebrate the Liturgy, the source and summit of Christian life. These buildings are not only the places where the community gathers for worship but where, in its gathering and its worship, the community encounters the risen Lord of Life. Thus, our churches deserve our appreciation, care and enhancement in their sacredness and beauty and for us to see in them a revelation of God’s love, an expression of faith and worship and a resource for the vitality and continuation of the Church’s mission.
Our Diocese of East Anglia covers around 5000 square miles including 51 parishes and 83 places of worship of which 25 are listed Grade II or above and a further 28 are assessed to contribute to conservation areas or are eligible for local listing. It is a considerable challenge for parishes to maintain their church buildings and to develop and enhance them in harmony with both contemporary liturgy and the historic or artistic merits of the church. Parishes need a source of advice and guidance on what can be done, what should be done and what may be done. The Diocesan Historic Churches Committee provides this support to those parishes with listed churches or churches with particular merit or which are located within conservation areas.
The Committee includes both experienced clergy and expert members providing architectural, historical, artistic, conservation and planning expertise. Its formal role is to grant the ecclesiastical equivalent of listed building consent. Generally, changes to a listed building require consent from the local authority. However, the principal Christian denominations are legally permitted to make changes to their listed churches without local authority approval. This privilege is known as “the ecclesiastical exemption from listed building control”. The Committee is established under the authority of the Bishop in accordance with direction from the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales and is independent of the local church or parish community.
The purpose of the ecclesiastical exemption is to enable the living sacramental purpose of the church building to be given full weight when applications for alterations, additions or other works to a listed church building are being considered. Approvals for works are given in the form of Faculties under the authority of the Bishop and these may be conditional. The Government requires the Church to have documented procedures for making changes to its listed churches. The controls must be open and transparent, with similar levels of consultation with local communities and statutory bodies as in the secular control system. Changes affecting the exterior of a listed church may still require planning consent from the local authority.
The process of application and consultation is managed through the Catholic Historic Churches website which includes guidance notes for parishes on: making an application; the supporting evidence required; the implications of decisions and the process for appeal should that be deemed appropriate. However, the Committee should not be seen simply as the administrator of a bureaucratic process. It has considerable experience and expertise amongst its members and a wide range of potential helpful contacts. The Committee works closely with the Diocesan Architects Caroe Architecture Ltd and early discussion with the Committee through the Secretary can help parishes both avoid the pitfalls of the process and provide access to professional expertise to help develop successful and sustainable parish schemes.
The capabilities of the Committee to assist parishes will shortly be increased by the recruitment of an Historic Churches Support Officer. This post, jointly funded by Historic England, will work closely with Parish Priests and the Parish Finance Committees (PFCs) of listed churches to build the capacity to plan and fund appropriate developments, organise repair and conservation works to a suitable standard and ensure that the practical requirements of the modern users of a living place of worship and mission are met in a way that complements and celebrates its historic value and respects its sacred space.
For more information, you can contact the Secretary of the Committee, Cedric Burton, on firstname.lastname@example.org
You can view the Catholic Historic Churches website on www.catholic-historic-churches.org.uk
The job advert for the Historic Churches Support Officer is here: www.rcdea.org.uk/vacancies/historic-churches-support-office/
Pictured above is Beccles Minster. Image: Architectural History Practice