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Keep church doors open, not closed

29 June 2018

Churches built by the Victorians are still needed, say Gill Hedley and Eddie Tulasiewicz


ANGLICAN churches are largely medieval or Victorian in origin, and often a much-loved mongrel mixture of both. Changes in society and its wealth in the agrarian and wool-rich Middle Ages created a landscape of important churches; the period of industrial development after 1770 gave eventual rise to a second, very different, concentrated period of church building.

Many of these new churches have become associated with the years immediately after the victory at Waterloo in 1815, when only half the population in England belonged to the Established Church.

Faced with a rapidly growing population in the new industrial towns, the growth of Nonconformity, and the fear of revolution, the Church of England set about building and enlarging churches. In 1818, it was estimated that only 19,950 people in Birmingham’s population of 79,459 could be accommodated in Anglican churches: 20 new churches were needed there and in many other industrial centres.


BETWEEN 1818 and 1856, a group of more than 600 new churches, often called the “Commissioners’ churches”, were built throughout England and Wales with £1.5 million of public money.

In parallel, the Church Building Society, formed in 1818 and becoming the Incorporated Church Building Society (ICBS) ten years later, raised £1.6 million (although over a much longer period) for the building and improvement of churches, with an emphasis on church extension and “free seats for all”. Its preferred architectural style was the neo-Gothic.

Between the same dates as the Commissioners’ “600 churches”, the ICBS contributed to the building of nearly 500 completely new churches and the rebuilding or enlarging of more than 1500 others. Between 1818 and 1982 — the period covered by the ICBS archive at Lambeth Palace library — it funded 14,356 grants and loans to churches.

The ICBS also enabled nearly a million new seats in churches, of which 700,000 were available free of charge. Free seats made Anglican worship available in a dramatic new way: the poor were no longer forced to stand, and, together with the removal of galleries and box pews, the reorientation of worship towards the east was permitted.

So much for the number of churches and seating. But during the 19th century, the heyday of the ICBS, was this meeting, outpacing, or anticipating demand from churchgoers?

The evidence drawn from local and national sources, and provided by Robin Gill in The “Empty” Church Revisited (Routledge, 2003) is that, after 1851, despite the growth in population, on average only one third of churches in urban areas were full for Sunday service. In rural areas, the situation was no better, as the exodus of population meant that, by the end of the 19th century, there was a considerable excess of church seating.

It was as if “the Victorian notion of sacred progress was measured in ecclesiastical bricks and mortar,” as S. J. D. Green wrote in Religion in the Age of Decline, rather than in filling churches with large numbers of new adherents to the Established Church.

A century later, in the 1960s and ’70s, when churchgoing was spiralling downwards, many argued that the Victorians were to blame with their impractical buildings and rows of inflexible pews. Reorderings and closure became the order of the day. Those with too much love for the old architecture were characterised, as Thomas Hardy had once put it, as antiquarians interested in churches as “relics” rather than as “workshops”.


TODAY, at a time when there is less money available from government and the Heritage Lottery Fund for the upkeep of church buildings, some may say that the closure of significant numbers of churches will soon become inevitable.

Yet the churches built and restored by the Victorians, partly due to their ubiquity, provide an entry point into sacred space which can affect individuals in several ways not just confined to aesthetics or architectural history.

Ensuring their future, as the Church of England’s 2015 Church Buildings Review concluded, means allowing them to “live and breathe”, and adapting them in a manner that is sensitive to their heritage and which enables both contemporary worship and service to the wider community (News, 16 October 2015).

That may need more money from a variety of public and private sources to add to the estimated £100 million that parishes already raise themselves for repairs. But it also means giving more priority to the better maintenance of church buildings, as putting off a small repair or regular maintenance can lead to a big repair bill later.

And, as fewer people now attend church services regularly, it is more important than ever that it is made easier and more attractive for non-churchgoers to visit churches by making sure that they are regularly open, and that they tell their stories in new and exiting ways.

In 1818, the ICBS was set up to “remedy the deficiencies of places set aside for Public Worship in our towns and cities” by increasing the number of churches. The task we now face is to keep them open for worship and in good condition for the benefit of society, now and in the future


Gill Hedley’s Free Seats for All is published by Umbria Press at £15 (Church Times Bookshop £13.50). Eddie Tulasiewicz is head of communications for the National Churches Trust.

The work of the ICBS is today continued by the National Churches Trust, which supports church buildings of all denominations throughout the UK.

A list of churches that have received funding from the ICBS can be found here.

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