Simon Thurley, of English Heritage, spends state money on churches.
There should be more of it, he tells Prudence Fay
SIMON THURLEY is awe-inspiringly fluent when he’s in full flow on the
subject of changes to church buildings. And since he is the chief executive of
English Heritage, one of Britain’s most powerful organisations, and one that
gives millions annually to maintain and repair parish churches, we’d do well to
listen to him.
He’s not, he says, against change: "The 1950s, ’60s and ’70s saw some very
creative changes in churches, and I’d be disappointed if that didn’t continue.
Because one of the defining characteristics of English parish churches is that
they are a repository of local history.
"In France, for instance, you find village after village with complete
Romanesque churches, but you’d never get that in this country. Successive
generations have always wanted to leave their mark on our churches, and that
should continue to happen.
"The key issue, for us," Dr Thurley goes on, "is a question: ‘What capacity
does the building have for change?" Some Grade I buildings, he says, are listed
principally for their "landscape value": it is the exterior that is important,
whereas the interior arrangements were long since swept away. "Such a church
could bear a great deal of change. And there are thousands of them. Equally,
there are thousands of others you wouldn’t want to change too much. Most
churches are in between."
This question of the building’s capacity for change is at the root of the
Statement of Significance that all churches must now draw up when applying to
make alterations. On the subject of these, Dr Thurley opens the throttle. It’s
clearly something he has explained many times, and is a concept that he loves.
"I want there to be this virtuous circle. If a PCC understands the church’s
historic surroundings and assets fully, they will value them. What you value,
you care for. What you care for will be kept in good condition, and you’ll
enjoy it. What you enjoy, you want to learn more and understand more about.
Which completes the circle."
The point of drawing up the Statement of Significance, he has said, is to
help daily worshippers and users of the church understand just what it is about
the building that they cherish and enjoy. "As I’ve said, churches are
repositories of local history. Take pews, for example — often a contentious
issue. Maybe the pews in a particular church were made by a local joiner. Maybe
they were made out of local oaks blown down in a storm. If parishes come to
recognise the pews as a link with their past, then deciding whether or not to
remove them might be easier to do."
IN HIS new book, Lost Buildings of Britain, Dr Thurley says that
uncovering the legacy of the past has always been an obsession. He describes
how, as a child, he dug a trench in his parents’ garden in Godmanchester, and
by lucky chance struck a rubbish pit in the Roman settlement on Ermine Street,
where it crossed the River Ouse. "Full of pottery, bones, nails, oyster shells
and other discarded domestic waste, it was a treasure trove for a
nine-year-old," he writes. The young Simon Thurley was set on his life’s path.
During the summer, still boyish-looking at 42, he made a television series
for Channel 4 with the same title as the book that has followed it, considering
such varied vanished treasures as Whitehall Palace, Glastonbury Abbey, the
Millbank Penitentiary, and Garrick’s Theatre Royal in Drury Lane.
He combines a lively reconstruction of the look of the building, and life
that went on inside it, with the erudition of a historian who has been, during
the past decade, Curator of the Historic Royal Palaces, and Director of the
Museum of London; and it makes for a good read.
He sees now, he says, a "horribly close" link between his passion for lost
buildings and his present job. "If English Heritage [EH] doesn’t do its work
properly, we’ll end up reading about more lost buildings."
What he’s after is the balance between conserving what’s there now, and
dealing with the present and future needs of the individual church. In a vast
number of cases, he says, the changes needed to allow for more varied use of
the building are not drastic: converting a side chapel, inserting a mezzanine
floor in the west tower. "These are all quite small changes in the history of a
The C of E, he says, has proved itself generally to be "a very good
custodian of its buildings". The Department of Culture, Media and Sport is
presently reviewing the issue of ecclesiastical exemption, one of the options
being to do away with this and apply secular planning laws instead.
"I regret the use of the word ‘exemption’ in that title: it gives the
impression that the Church is exempt from planning controls. And that’s not the
case at all. The draconian faculty system, far from giving churches leeway,
applies to the smallest of changes and is infinitely stricter than anything
that English Heritage or the secular system would advocate.
"So I very much hope that the Church will be allowed to maintain its
parallel system, because I do think looking after churches is different from
caring for secular buildings. But I equally think that, as the relentless tide
of regulation covers more of all our activities, it’s wise to help local
planning authorities, who have not generally dealt with ecclesiastical matters,
to have some appreciation of what’s going on."
As he told the annual conference of diocesan advisory committees last year,
any external agency with regional, national or European government money to
spend will want to be assured that the democratically elected local authority
is behind a project.
Now he says: "If you don’t manage to convince environmental health officers
that you know what you’re doing, you may suddenly find they want to do
something like stop you serving tea and coffee after the service."
It is partly because of English Heritage’s confidence in the faculty system
that the future-approval condition attaching to its grants has been withdrawn.
This condition, which often aroused resentment, meant that churches that
accepted a grant from English Heritage for one piece of work were obliged, for
all time, to get EH’s approval of any future work, whether or not EH was
Relations between English Heritage and those caring for churches seem easier
now than they have been in the past. Michael Henshaw, for the Central Council
of Church Bell Ringers, for instance, says he finds "the people at English
Heritage are more inclined to help find solutions. Where there are problems,
it’s often been because they were consulted too late."
Dr Thurley appears genuinely gratified to hear this. "I’m glad they think
we’re not obstructive, because it’s important to me that we communicate in
reasonable language, and have a reasonable way of looking at things."
One problem mentioned by Dr Henshaw, though, was that of some inconsistency
in decision-making around the country. How did Dr Thurley deal with that?
Consistency, he concedes, is "really important"; he has made changes
accordingly. "The most important thing is that those empowered to make
decisions on the ground should have nationally agreed guidelines and thoroughly
discussed and understood policies to refer to. Too often it has been left to
the individual judgement of inspectors and others."WHEN WE come to the subject
of money, Dr Thurley pours out facts and figures. He says more than once that
EH and the Heritage Lottery Fund give between them £30 million a year to help
churches, and that that is a great deal. But figures put out recently by the
Churches’ Heritage Fund show that this sum, together with reclaimed VAT, meets
less than 30 per cent of churches’ repair cost.
So, does EH lobby the Government for more funding?
"Of course we do," Dr Thurley says. "We spend a lot of time doing that. We
would very much like to be treated in the same way as, for instance, sports,
the museums, or the Arts Council, and be given the kind of increases in funding
that they are. Sports, for instance, this year received a more than
100-per-cent increase; the museums got 50 per cent; we’ve only had three per
cent. We are shocked at this; we think it’s a scandal. But that increase
represents the importance that the general public puts on the things we look
"So, in making the Church’s case, it’s not enough just to ask for more
money. It may be the established Church, but, as Bishop Richard Chartres has
said, compared with other countries in which the state looks after places of
worship, it’s actually the most disestablished Church in Europe.
"The case I think we need to make is that, while, of course, churches are
about Christianity and the cure of souls, they’re also about communal focus,
communal identity, and communal memory. And these things are important in a
society that is increasingly fractured and rootless. If you want to help
restore a sense of belonging, you often need look no further in a community
than the parish church.
"We have to make the point that parish churches are for everybody." He
refers to an opinion poll in 2003 which showed that nearly nine out of ten
adults, 86 per cent, had been into a church or place of worship in the previous
year — and that included 80 per cent of non-believers. "If we
start to think about churches as being also for all those people — and though
there are lots of churches that do, there are some that don’t — we’re getting
closer to being able to make a case for state support."
A last question: what, for him, when he visits a church, makes for a good
experience? Dr Thurley doesn’t hesitate for a second. "A good experience is
when you find the church door unlocked.
Lost Buildings of Britain is published by Viking at £18.99
(CT Bookshop £17.10; 0-670-91521-1)
To place an order for this book, email details to