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Keeper of the purse-strings

02 November 2006


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 church."

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 funding it.

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 after.

"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)

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