Heritage and mission are not in conflict  

by
28 September 2018

Those who seek to preserve church buildings are not simply driven by petty obsessions, says Emma Wells

THE debate about historical architecture v. liturgical fashion was reignited last month when the Diocesan Chancellor of Gloucester, the Worshipful June Rogers, criticised “middle-class churchgoers” for being “obsessed with architectural heritage” (News, 24 August).

The comments were made in a ruling that the pews in the Victorian church of St Philip and St James, in Cheltenham, could be discarded in favour of portable plastic chairs.

We must be cautious about creating a false opposition between “heritage and “mission”, or between the “sacred” and “secular”. There never was a golden age when “sacred” buildings were removed from “secular” activities. Medieval churches, for example, were hectic places: meeting halls, markets, bartering houses, etc. Mixing the sacred and “profane” has been a ubiquitous practice since churches began; yet they were never considered any less holy. Why, therefore, should they be so today?

Much of the current concern arises from a longstanding sense that the Victorians left us a regrettable, even loathsome, legacy, resulting from often ill-advised restoration in an attempt to recreate an imagined medieval past.

While the Camdenists and Gothic Revivalists saw many important historic details removed from churches, many modern functional elements were also introduced, including decent heating, lighting, and even pews, often deliberately designed to be uncomfortable. For some, the real problem is that their efforts had the effect of stripping buildings of their communal associations — even theology — and, instead, installed a nationally themed look and feel. Images, furnishings, and memorials — all were removed to meet the neo-medieval character that the societies deemed desirable.

THE irony is that, today, as in the Cheltenham case, many now support the Victorian Society in their effort to protect an era of church building often criticised as over-zealous, and work during which a large proportion of medieval fabric was eradicated in favour of a “modern and idealised” design. Why? Those dedicated to preserving Victorian-era interiors suggest that they are protecting them against the initiation of harm, which they are preventing others from doing.

The faculty system was created for this very reason: to restrict further “abuses” while allowing for flexibility and pragmatism at every stage, using powers negotiated by Archbishop Randall Davidson, which exempted ecclesiastical buildings from secular control in the return for the assurance that the Church would use such powers responsibly.

Yet, since many churches now need, and receive, funding from Historic England and additional non-ecclesiastical organisations, the suggestion is that the Church should also sing from the same hymn-sheet as secular bodies. Hence, statements of significance and need are the first reports required when considering making changes to a Church of England building, asking: “Why is it important?” and “How will the proposed needs impact its significance; the historical/architectural, aesthetic, archaeological, communal value?”

Attempting to freeze time on a particular era of the lifespan of a church serves no purpose. Churches should not be museums, but ever-evolving places of worship, community, joy, and reflection — palimpsests of previous generations, both physically and spiritually — regardless of their importance as “heritage assets”. We are thus only temporary custodians for a small period of their existence.

It is about striking the right balance, together with caring for a place where the memories of communities abound: where people are baptised, married, buried, commemorated, and celebrated. Therefore, developments may often be allowed so long as the work is reversible, i.e., when the time comes for the current liturgical fad to pass. As experts, we try to provide the equilibrium, based on expertise and experience.

THIS may seem like a utopian dream when even the Archbishop of Canterbury suggests that “disability and accessibility should trump heritage” (News, 20 July). When a PCC is not allowed to upgrade a heating system because of the potential for human remains below the nave, or a churchwarden struggles to enter his church because of a missing wheelchair ramp, it is not surprising that resistance to proposals is perceived as an impossible barrier.

It is not about being besotted with stained glass and church pews, but about caring that some of the most impressive and significant buildings in Britain survive, and are loved by the people around them — not only churchgoers. In fact, 85 per cent of people in the UK visit a church annually. Besides, since when has the conservation of, and attempt to retain, the overall sacredness of church space not been considered missional?

If the Church of England feels that the current system is such a problem, it could always surrender the Ecclesiastical Exemption and follow secular planning law. Heritage and mission do not have to be viewed in perpetual conflict, but, rather, as reaching for the same goal: a church that serves the needs of its community and offers a sacred space for all.

Dr Emma Wells is an associate lecturer in Parish Church Studies at the University of York.

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