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Dear Mother, dear Mother, the Church is cold . . .

07 February 2020

‘A good local pub has much in common with a church, except that a pub is warmer and there’s more conversation,’ William Blake wrote. Pat Ashworth explores attempts to disprove the adage


An old Victorian ‘Gurney’ warm-air stove, one of several in the side aisles of Ely Cathedral. It was designed by Sir Goldsworthy Gurney during the 19th Century

An old Victorian ‘Gurney’ warm-air stove, one of several in the side aisles of Ely Cathedral. It was designed by Sir Goldsworthy Gurney during the 19t...

THE Revd David Twomey has acquired a new skill set since taking up his post as Priest-in-Charge at Seaton Hirst, in Newcastle. When he arrives early on a Sunday for a service at St Andrew’s, his first task is to descend to the boiler room and tackle a blower system installed in the 1970s.

The system is now highly temperamental. Winter is always difficult, and there is now a cold-weather protocol: if the heating decides to take the day off, they take portable halogen heaters into the Lady Chapel and hold the service there.

“Most churches that had these systems put in have had them taken out,” Mr Twomey says. “We have a local guy who comes to fix ours, and he’s really supportive; but we’re getting to the point where he’s struggling and isn’t going to be able to get the parts he needs to fix it.”

St Andrew’s, built in the 1930s, stands at the heart of traditional miners’ housing (News, 8 November 2019). The mission action-plan here is to grow it as a much-needed community space, giving local groups a stable base, and they are currently working with the archdeacon and bishop to enable that to happen. The reordering would incorporate a new heating system. It is early stages, but the future looks brighter, and warmer.


THE performance at Seaton Hirst will strike a chord with parishes up and down the country, especially in rural communities and areas of deprivation. Who wants to come to a cold church?

“Heating is a big issue,” the Diocesan Advisory Committee (DAC) secretary for Southwell & Nottingham, Jonathan Pickett, acknowledges. “It’s a major worry and a headache for churches quite often with ageing, wet systems, and failing boilers, with damp issues, large cold areas to heat — and big heating bills.”

KEITH DODDMr Dodd at St Mary’s, Brixham, checking the water flow rate with a non contact thermometer after the completion of works to improve the heating system. He advises that “existing systems can sometimes be improved at a relatively low cost”.

With myriad heating possibilities and a plethora of different needs, the Church Buildings Council is the Church of England’s recommended first port of call for general guidance. In an ideal world, church buildings in active use would be maintained at a carefully assessed low level of background heating all the time; but many are used too infrequently to make that practical or affordable.

A good guiding principle, the council advises, is to try to warm the people and not the building. If congregations cannot have the feeling of walking into a cosy space as soon as they open the door, they can, at least, feel reasonably comfortable while they’re sitting.

A common pitfall for those designing a church heating system is to focus on heating the air. In a typically tall building, this is likely to result in “expensively heating the rafters, and pulling cold air in under the door”.

Attend to the simple things first, the council’s experts say: repair broken windows and draughty doors; use door curtains, and stop leaks.

My own church has had a smart new boiler installed after six winter weeks without heating. On a cold day, however, the draught in the chancel is still enough to set the candles guttering, and flip the thin paper of our hymn books.

A manual on the sustainable heating of churches, resulting from technical studies in the Netherlands ten years ago, drew particular attention to windows. This is the part of church that loses the most heat, creates down-draughts, and perhaps even doubles the heating bill. It recommends Plexiglass as a cheaper solution than double glazing.


ALL forms of church heating come with pros and cons, whether the energy source is oil, electricity, gas, liquid petroleum gas, biomass, ground- or air-source heat pumps, solar thermal panels, or photovoltaic panels (converting sunlight directly to electricity).

Radiators, heated pipes, convectors, storage heaters, portable heaters, and electric local heating all heat the ambient air. Underfloor heating heats the floor and the air immediately above it, and is of benefit if used to provide ambient background heat, but requires continuous use to be effective.

This is what they installed successfully in Manchester Cathedral, which is open 365 days a year (News, 21 December 2012). A £2.3-million reordering project, completed in 2013, necessitated the whole of the floor being taken up and replaced. Underfloor heating had been installed in the nave 40 years earlier, and the pipes now needed replacing: a massive job that entailed breaking up the 18 inches of concrete above them.

In Manchester, ground-source heat-pumps use natural energy stored in the earth; so this is a green solution enabled by geothermal technology. The pumps supplement the heat provided by the existing boilers.

NORTH EAST NEWS AND PICTURESThe marquee erected inside St Michael’s, Byker

“Think of the decision [to install new heating] as a matrix with several headed columns,” the Church Buildings Council suggests. “Ongoing efficiency, disruption of historic fabric, environmental impacts, relative carbon values, potential for upgrading the old system, cost of installation, relative capital and maintenance costs. Create a points system and score your potential heating solutions. It will help you decide.”

They do not mention putting a marquee in the nave to shut out the cold: a winter solution at St Andrew’s, Greystoke, near Penrith, in Cumbria (News, 8 December 2010) — something also in place at St Michael’s, Byker, in Newcastle (Features, 10 May 2019).

Or “hot bott” cushions: chemically triggered reheatable pads that stay warm for 90 minutes and can be either sat on or cuddled (News, 8 November 2013). Or heated curtains, which disrupt the air, and are suggested for occasional use; but they do not stop air and moisture passing through, and the advice is: “Consider a real curtain, instead.”

The council’s guidance is clear and detailed, outlining the different stages in the process of choosing the right heating system, and providing a checklist of key actions at each stage.


BUT you can’t beat talking to a heating engineer. Keith Dodd, who has been on the DAC in the diocese of Exeter for 20 years, and — to the despair of his wife — continues to do so in “retirement”, started work in 1969, and what he doesn’t know about church heating is not worth knowing.

He served his apprenticeship with G. N. Haden, something that comes to light when I mention the great cast-iron stoves that are still functioning in cathedrals such as Peterborough and Ely, as well as Bath Abbey and Tewkesbury Abbey. The firm started in Trowbridge in 1816, and its founder had worked on steam engines. It advertised itself thus: “Mansions of the Nobility and Gentry and Public Buildings warmed and ventilated.” Many churches are listed among their contracts, and several of the stoves are still running: some are modified to run on natural gas. “They’re not the most efficient, but they do the job,” Mr Dodd says.

The majority of the systems that he is called to look at now, he says, were installed when he was a young engineer. Many have never been replaced, but he is still coming across heating systems that were installed in the 1890s. These might have had a new boiler, but the pipework dates from that sort of age, and he reflects that the new generation of graduate engineers “have no idea what’s going on” when confronted with these.

Old systems can still perform well, however. Wrexham has the largest medieval church building in Wales, St Giles’s. Here the heating is on 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The team vicar, the Revd Dr Jason Bray, is admiring of the Victorian engineers who “had the foresight to dig trenches round the church for the heating pipes”. A modern gas boiler now fires this underfloor heating, and the church treasurer, he says, excels at finding good gas deals — they have just undertaken a new fixed-rate, five-year contract.

If they were to allow the building to go cold, it would take 24 hours to warm up. Not only does the warm building enable a host of activities to take place — everything from community choirs and memory cafés to toddler groups and lunch clubs — but it makes the church always open to others. The British Red Cross are the latest to be considering meeting in church, with a suggested bereavement group.

“Rather than a meeting-room, people like the ambience of the church,” Dr Bray suggests. And, given that shelters operate only at night, a warm building in winter is somewhere for homeless people to sit.


THERE is little chance of, or indeed any point in, 24-hour heating in the many rural churches in Devon which have small congregations, and where it becomes, Mr Dodd suggests, very much a question of heating the people and not the space. The aim is for “something that can make the conditions bearable”. Small convector heaters under or attached to the pews just heat the surroundings and are the lowest-cost option, although one complaint can be that they heat the lower and not the upper part of the body.

ALAMYMy First Sermon (1862-1863), John Everett Millais’ painting of his five-year-old daughter, Effie, keeping her hands warm at All Saints Church in Kingston-on-Thames

“Overall, it’s a case of determining what can be afforded and what fits in with the historic fabric. But, if you want to heat a church properly, then radiators off a boiler are probably the best way of doing it,” Mr Dodd advises. Ideally, this works on two temperature stages, with a low of about 10ºC maintained during the week, rising in a cold spell. It’s all about retaining the heat in the walls. Engineers do not just look at the air temperature, but at the combination of air and radiation temperatures that produce the environmental temperature. Combine the two, and you can predict what the comfort level is likely to be.

Cold radiating from the walls of the building is one of the things that makes the conditions uncomfortable. Mr Dodd points out: “If you’re in the side pews, quite close to the walls, you’re hardly ever going to feel comfortable in a poorly heated church. If the heat is kept in the walls, that radiant temperature is raised, and so it feels a lot better.

“What we advise parishes is not to wait until the church gets really cold in the autumn, but to put the heating on at a lower temperature earlier — so the heat doesn’t come out of the walls. It acts like a big night-storage heater.”

The Grade-I listed priory church of St Mary and St Bega, at St Bees, in West Cumbria, did just that, installing a new heating system in 2015 which ran continuously for the first year to warm its stonework, and set an ambient temperature of about 12ºC, which is boosted for services (News, 13 February 2015).

Mr Dodd encounters varying degrees of stoicism as he talks to parish councils. “Some say they’re not worried about being cold.

“But the bottom line is that younger people have got used to offices being heated to around 21ºC, and anything less than that feels cold. If you’re using the church for events like concerts, which go on longer than a service, then if the temperature is only between, say, 16 and 18, you do begin to feel it. We try to say that if they’re raising money this way, they have to provide conditions which people want to come back to.”

Grants for heating are few and far between, unless it is part of a significant reordering. Seventy per cent of the time, therefore, it’s a question, Mr Dodd says, of working with what is in the church already — with the proviso that you need someone “who really knows what they’re looking at. It’s dangerous if someone tries to service these who hasn’t been trained by the manufacturers, or doesn’t really know what they’re looking at.

“It’s not a case of just putting a new boiler on the end of the pipework. We look at how the pipework is arranged, and what radiators or heating methods they’ve got, and try to find ways of modifying the system so that you get better results out of it.”


IN AN ideal world, it would all, of course, be green. This month, the General Synod will debate a motion calling on all parishes to achieve net-zero emissions by 2045. A background paper notes that, to achieve this, energy use for heating and lighting will need to “radically reduce in all our buildings”, with a move away from gas and oil to electric heating powered by green electricity, and “focusing more on heating people rather than heating spaces”.

MANCHESTER CATHEDRALThe Bishop of Manchester, Dr David Walker, and the Dean, the Very Revd Roger Govenda, inspect the underfloor heating

There is a higher capital outlay attached to green schemes such as ground-source pumps: installation money has to be put in up front to achieve some lower running costs in the end; it is “a big bill before you get into the church itself”.

But there is much wisdom to be found in Shrinking the Footprint, the C of E’s national environmental campaign that seeks to help churches to reduce their carbon footprint. Choosing a green energy supplier is greatly enabled by Energy Basket, from the Parish Buying Scheme. In the UK, wholesale prices for gas and electricity have risen steeply, but, on average, those for Energy Basket members have increased by only 11 per cent for gas and 15 per cent for electricity. It is 100 per cent green, with all the electricity sourced from UK renewable sources accredited by OFGEM.

And there are encouraging stories of parishes that have overcome the odds and managed to get their churches warm again and thriving. When the Revd Michael Childs arrived as Vicar of St Barnabas’s, Morecambe, in September 2018, the heating in the church had broken down. His first Christmas at the church was a cold one. The heating was not restored until January, and then only with a temporary fix.

His parish is in a deprived area of the town surrounded by poor housing; but the small congregation is faithful and lively, and the church — which he describes as beautiful — hosts the local foodbank and provides a base for a homeless action charity. “It’s a typical Anglo-Catholic parish, here to show a little of the glory of God to people in their lives,” he says.

The church’s very old boilers had long since given up the ghost. Two new ones, along with new pipework, had been approved. There had originally been a heating fund, and some money had been earmarked from some longstanding legacies and investments; but then asbestos was discovered in the boiler room, and removal would add £10,000 to the cost.

They had a second cold Christmas with hand-warmers and blankets. Someone suggested making a video of Mr Childs and some of the children, illustrating how cold it was. It was simple, and informally filmed on an iPad. It drew a sympathetic response, and, in the space of six weeks, generous people contributed £20,000 to the appeal.

Now, the church has an ambient temperature of 13ºC, which is raised for services. It is energy-efficient, and gas and electricity bills have been reduced by about 25 per cent.

“Open churches throughout the day is one of my big things,” Mr Childs says. “How can you go into a church and pray when the door’s locked? I can’t keep it open all the time, but I keep it open as much as I can, and people come in who might never come to services. Where else can you go in a community and be peaceful and warm and sit in silence?”


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