Statements of Significance transformed

Posted on: 08/04/2013

HeaderIf your church is an old building, or even remotely interesting, then when you propose changes to it you will need to write a Statement of Significance. There have been a variety of attempts to provide guidance on how churches should approach this (including on this site), but the quality of the result is often very poor – at one extreme some churches photocopy a page from an architectural history, or at the other extreme submit an expensively commissioned piece of work by an external consultant. Neither of these delivers an enduringly useful document, one that the church takes ownership of and sees as important in informing their use and care of the building. The root of the problem is that few in the churches can see the point of them.

Getting StartedThe wonderful Christianity and Culture is hoping to address these deficiencies with a new web-based tool, developed with significant financial support from English Heritage, who see this as a major priority. A workshop took place in mid March to test drive the format and detail of the tool with a real-life example of a church (St Peter’s, Norton on Derwent, outside York), and this post reports on two exciting aspects of the discussion – firstly giving you preview of the tool itself, and why it is such good news for churches with historic buildings, and secondly presenting some thoughts about what the tool could become, which is even more exciting!

The ToolProgress

The first key innovation is that the tool breaks the Statement down into a series of sections, which enables the work to be shared, as different people can be given responsibility for each self-contained element. Furthermore, because it is web-based, the document is always accessible, and can be updated as new information is discovered and as personnel change; it therefore can become a shared point of reference that can be accessed and amended as required.

Having registered on the site, you have a choice of starting a new Statement, or open an existing one you have been working on. The current structure is split into 8 sections:

  • Step 1 – General Information – this identifies the building and its location
  • Step 2 – Existing Scheduling and Orders – this is where you put the text of any listing description etc.
  • Step 3 – The Church Setting – a description of the area around the church, both built and natural.
  • Step 4 – Churchyard and Site – the external space that belongs with the church, including any built, natural or archaeological features.
  • Step 5 – The Church Building -Inside – This section allows you to add specific features, including a photograph and a description, to include any important furniture and fittings.
  • Step 6 – The Church Building – Outside – As for step 5, but for the outside of the building.
  • Step 7 – Social History – particular people associated with the church, and community comment and memory.
  • Step 8 – Your Sources – where you got your information from.

Each section will be supported by guidance and examples, including images and short videos. This itself will be of great value in helping to clarify the type and extent of information that will be of value.

All of this is great, and should help these Statements to become something other than an imposed chore. Having put all the information in, you will then be able to export a formatted pdf document for printing and electronic circulation. It is anticipated that the tool will be launched later this year. If you cannot wait to get your hands on this, and want to contribute to its development you can contact C&C for login details to gain access to the prototype.

The Potential

So far, so very good. But what is really exciting is the prospect of giving broader access to anyone and everyone to view the collected information. This would allow anyone in your local community, or indeed the world, to look at your church, and to get a feel for its character and history.

General InfoBut then imagine what would happen if it became interactive, and we were allowed to leave comments, like a digital visitor’s book. Suddenly the site becomes a community, and mere interest starts to become active involvement.

And then what about using the site for recording additional information that comes to light in the process of researching the building? What about oral history, for example the account of the family that was bombed out of their East London home and lived in the church for a week? These personal accounts are gold-dust, for both present and future. Or what about a brief video tour? This material is a really valuable part of the significance of the building, of the narrative of the church in its particular place, yet the audio file would never make it into a Statement of Significance, let alone be publicly available. There is huge public interest in this additional material which is often the part of ‘heritage’ that is easiest for people to engage with, and which tells the building’s story most eloquently.

Without doubt these digital visits would in turn drive more physical visits. The ability to contribute, to shape a community around the church, would stimulate interest and potentially give that wider community a role in looking after your building. Which is to be welcomed! And when you did come to propose changes to the building, not only would they be better considered, you would also be able to demonstrate (in most cases) that the church hasn’t always been the way it is now. The commenting facility would also be one valuable means of community consultation, which will give those that must approve your proposals confidence that the community had been given a voice.

Imagine if we could use a site like this to build a social history of the community. Imagine if I am sitting in Australia or Canada and were able to upload a photo of my grandmother’s wedding in the church, or of the party held at the Queen’s coronation, or whatever.

The Righting of Wrongs

What makes this so powerful is that it allows the readmission of the broader community to its church. In my view it was one of the greatest crimes of the Victorian age to remove the community uses from our churches, which have therefore come to be seen as the ‘religious club’, to which you either belong or not – in or out – saved or damned. This is a relatively recent aberration; by contrast, the medieval model was much more nuanced, allowing the wider community to engage with the church.

The potential here is therefore to turn church buildings into forms of social media. I wouldn’t suggest this is all that a church is or should be, but, if you think about it, this has always been a part of what a healthy church traditionally was. By means of this tool, Statements of Significance, which started out as a misunderstood burden, could become a means of radical re-engagement with the broader community. Bring it on!

A Tale of Two Conferences

Posted on: 07/11/2012
Internal view of St Paul's Old Ford

Internal view of St Paul’s Old Ford

As with buses, so with church conferences! Within the space of 10 days there are two significant conferences that are relevant for anyone thinking about churches – particularly how they are used and how they should be changed.

The first if these, New Work in Churches, took place last week (October 31st) at Lambeth Palace. It was organised by the Church Buildings Council, and brought together a range of speakers, most of them architects including Eric Parry (St Martin in the Fields), Sophy Twohig of Hopkins (Norwich Cathedral Refectory) and Oliver Caroe (Lichfield and St Paul’s Cathedrals). As you may have gathered from the churchbuild site and from these blogs, technical solutions and beautiful outcomes are not (for me) the greatest challenge – more important are the processes of arriving at a coherent vision for what a given church in its locality is called to be, and then articulating that vision to build consensus both within the church and across the broader community.

Hence it was particularly refreshing to hear from Sophia de Sousa, chief executive of The Glass-House Community Led Design, and the one non-architect to speak. As she pointed out, a church building will generally be loved within its community; proposals to change a church will therefore bring out this sense of latent ownership, which if not handled properly will be expressed as opposition. Change, and particularly proposals for partnership, will challenge perceptions. For example, local people might:

  • see the church building as places only for those practising religion;
  • be wary of mixing religion and enterprise;
  • be wary of changing a building that is in the collective memory of local historical value.

Sophia used one of our favourite examples of a church reimagined with community engagement: St Paul’s, Old Ford in Bow, East London, which includes 3 floors or community facilites including a cafe, meeting spaces, an educational charity and a gym all within and alongside the continuing church functions.

Michaelhouse, Cambridge

Michaelhouse, Cambridge – Cafe in the Nave

The forthcoming Sharing Sacred Spaces Symposium will take place on Saturday 10th November at Michaelhouse in Cambridge; I understand tickets are still available. By contrast to the New Work conference there are no architects due to speak – it is likely therefore that the symposium will have a more practical focus on process and the sharing of client experience. The speakers are professionals with a variety of roles (mostly within the church) all focused on helping churches with the adaptation of their buildings. Of those I have heard speak before Andrew Mottram, Heritage Buildings and Community Development officer at the Diocese of Worcester, promises to be particularly engaging with his understanding of the interrelation of the operation of church buildings with their theology.

The Symposium bills itself as being for those – church wardens or incumbents, architects, development officers – who either have already adapted a church, or are actively thinking of doing so, and wish to share their experiences and problems. The fee of £60 includes a hot lunch, which will be hosted at the nearby Trinity Hall. Further details and booking form can be downloaded from the Michaelhouse website. And if you’re unable to make the symposium but find yourself in Cambridge, Michaelhouse is highly recommended for a cup of coffee or a light lunch!

Why VAT changes matter…

Posted on: 26/04/2012

Alongside various political own goals in the pasty tax and the granny tax (to name but two), George Osborne’s budget on 21st March contained one proposal that is particularly toxic for the church. Without any consultation, the government now proposes to drop the zero-rated VAT allowance on approved alteration on listed buildings. This affects all of us, across the denominations, whether your church is a listed building or not.

You may have seen the YouTube video created by Pamela Greener, wife of the Dean of Wakefield Cathedral:

This is great entertainment deployed to make a serious point, and has received widespread media coverage, including on Radio 4’s flagship Today programme.

Why does this matter?

There are some 12,500 listed Anglican churches alone, and of course others from other denominations. Ancient churches have constantly changed in response to the changing needs of successive generations, and have rich multi-layered stories to tell. In our own times, the church is faced with the urgent need to modernise its facilities in order to respond better to the changing needs of our culture, and to continue to play its role in what is now termed “The Big Society”. Whether it is the installation of a single WC and somewhere to make coffee, or a large scale reordering and extension, these projects often make the difference between the burgeoning life of a community building with a future, or the sad management of decline. In rural locations these churches are often the only remaining community building in a village; in cities they equally valuable. To slap an additional 20% onto the costs of such projects is nonsensical in the context of the avowed aims of “The Big Society”.

And we are all affected by this, whether or not we worship in a listed building. Like it or not, these listed buildings are often the most visible buildings in our community – if they close, or even if they cannot afford to change, then this impacts on our society’s impression that the church is closed for business.

What Can You Do?

Tell everyone you know. Write to your MP. Sign the petitions on the Downing Street website, and make sure all of your church knows about this and encourage them to do the same. Note there are two of these petitions:

Bring back zero-rate VAT on alterations to listed churches – this was created by Janet Gough, who is Director of the Cathedral and Church Buildings Division of the Archbishops’ Council.

Save our heritage: say no to VAT on work on listed buildings – this was created by Jonathan Greener, who is Dean of Wakefield Cathedral.

These two overlap, so I suggest you sign both. If we can raise a petition of over 100,000 signatures, this will force a debate in parliament on the issue. We have a limited period of time to do this…

Don’t be fobbed off…

The government has proposed an extension of the Listed Places of Worship Grant Scheme, but this is wholly inadequate, for three reasons. Firstly the amount of the overall pot is capped at a much lower level than the demand (after all, the aim of the change is to save money). Secondly, the applicant does not know in advance how much if any of the money will be given back in grant – the proportion depends on who else is applying within that quarter, making it very difficult to plan. And thirdly the full value of the VAT needs to be raised and paid out before some of it can then be reclaimed. The LPWGS therefore does not in any way replace the current zero-rated arrangement.

Click here to see the letter written by The Bishop of London, Richard Chartres, to the Treasury immediately after the Budget.

VAT Ditty – The Sequel

This second video was published in the last few days. Perhaps not as sharp as the first, but it is nice to see the ‘George Osborne sextet’ in action…

Why Metal Theft is Good Business (but not for you…)

Posted on: 14/07/2011
Metal Theft Sign

New Forest District Council

At a recent Capacity Building Seminar in Birmingham, Dr David Knight, Senior Conservation Officer at the Church Buildings Council presented a report on metal theft from churches – you can access his presentation here. The issue is a very live one, and David’s talk highlighted aspects that are both worrying and interesting in equal measure.

The problem of metal theft from buildings is a growing one due to the increase of raw commodity prices over the last decade or so, principally from economic growth in China – and this problem does not only affect churches. As well as rising demand there is very limited supply, which will mean that we will run out of lead within perhaps two generations. And many sorts of buildings are affected, not just churches – in general, however, it is historic buildings that are the principal victims of this crime.

A Tale of Two Strategies

So what can we do to address this problem? The first strategy  is to make theft more difficult – this can be done in a number of ways, all of which are helpful:

  • Regulation of scrapyards: The aim of this is to remove easy access to cash. The proposal is for the government to introduce mandatory licensing for dealing in scrap lead, requiring the recording of registration details of each vehicle entering the yard, and making anonymous sale illegal. The Church Buildings Council has held meetings with the Home Office and has submitted a report which is being actively considered.
  • Alarms – there are various systems, using sound and/or light which have proved a useful deterrent – systems need to require multiple activation, to avoid being set off by a falling leaf.
  • Metal Theft from church roof

    Metal Theft from Church Roof | New Forest District Council

    Watermarking – Painting at least a fraction of each metal surface with ‘Smartwater’ provides a forensic marker on the lead which will allow any lead stolen from your building to be traced back. There have been successful prosecutions of thieves by this method; however, this will only stop a theft if you advertise the fact that your material is protected in this way, and if the thieves understand this and believe you.

Ecclesiastical Insurance has a web page dedicated to Metal Theft, with an excellent report in pdf form.

Harvest time

We must confront the fact that for those that do the thieving, the metal is there for the taking – they are in effect harvesting what they see as a free resource. Replacing that resource like for like without at the very least increasing security along the lines above will simply result in repeated return visits. In his talk David also presented the following graph (from Ecclesiastical Insurance), which shows the trading price of metals against the level of insurance claims over a period of 4 years. What the graph shows is that metal theft is a planned crime.

Graph Comparing the Trading Price of Metals with the Level of Insurance Claims

Graph Comparing the Trading Price of Metals with the Level of Insurance Claims | Ecclesiastical

The implications of this are huge. As far as the thieves are concerned this is a business. As commodity prices increase further, as they inevitably will because of limited supply, then it will pay the thieves to become smarter, which means that security strategies on their own will never be the full answer. If we care for our historic buildings, we therefore cannot rely on security measures alone. We must fight business with business – we must understand the commercial dynamic and respond in kind. I firmly believe that in this case that means reducing demand by specifying alternative materials, of which there are various possibilities, including:

  • single ply membrane (Sarnafil, Alwitra etc); this is  a good material, available in a wide range of colours, but while you can simulate lead roll detailing it will never look the same – in my view this is therefore best used for roofs behind parapets, or for parapet gutters;
  • Terne coated stainless steel – the surface of the material appears very much like lead (or copper), but the detailing is sharper and more modern looking;
  • Ubliflex – a non lead flashing material which can be used in all applications where lead is traditionally installed, such as valley gutters, cover flashings, step flashings etc.
Clearly not every historic building is suitable to receive these alternative materials – the choice of materials should follow an understanding of their significance. There is no doubt, however, that previous generations up to and including the Victorians would have taken a pragmatic view of this, and would specify the material that would be best for the building in the long term.
If we are to address the significant problem of metal theft from historic buildings then we need to do so from all angles, including taking the heat out of the market by reducing the demand for the ‘product’; until we do so, we leave our historic buildings exposed to increasing abuse.
Please let me know your thoughts on this issue.

My church is listed so I canʼt change anything, can I?

Posted on: 15/02/2011

photo: Natalie MaynorThat is almost never the case! The key thing is to understand the heritage value of the building and its fittings, and make the case for change in light of that. One needs to start from an understanding of why the building is listed, and to what grade (in increasing order of importance the grades are 2, 2* or 1); 90% of listed buildings are grade 2. And then one needs to understand the impact of any proposed changes on the heritage value of the building.

The established denominations (Church of England, Baptist Union, Methodist etc) enjoy what is called ‘Ecclesiastical Exemption’ which means that Listed Building issues are dealt with by the church authorities (Diocesan Advisory Committee, Baptist Union Listed Building Advisory Committee etc). Generally these folk are sympathetic to your aims, provided you can demonstrate that you have thought them through. For other churches, and where the proposals involve an extension of any kind, the Local Authority Conservation Department will also have a say.

Histon Baptist Church was listed during the course of the building project; because the building is unusually ornate for a Baptist church this did not come as a great surprise. The practical implications of this were:

  • another round of permission-seeking was needed from the Baptist Union Listed Building Advisory Committee; this took several meetings and quite some time.
  • some existing fittings needed careful reuse within the building, for example a stone pulpit which was moved and a selection of the pews.
  • the church was able to reclaim the VAT on the alteration works (but not on repairs and maintenance).

So it was not all bad news by any means, and crucially the main thrust of the scheme – creating a prime venue with flexible open space, new lighting and AV equipment – was successfully achieved.

Photo credit: Natalie Maynor

Am I stuck with these Victorian pews?

Posted on: 15/02/2011

Pews at Histon Baptist ChurchProbably not, is the surprising answer. I’m a big proponent of taking out the pews because it can revolutionise the usefulness and the feel of the church space.

Some points to consider:

  • Were the pews designed for the building or, as was often the case, were they bought from a catalogue? The Victorians tended to cram as many pews into churches as they could, because there were subsidies to encourage this! In most cases these were mass produced and of little architectural merit, so can more easily be removed.
  • Is the church listed? If so, you will need permission for changes to the fixed furniture.
  • When were the pews installed, and have they already been moved around? Some homework here can help a great deal in making the case for change.

Clearly there are some churches where you are stuck with the pews – for example if the pews are medieval, or are an integral part of a very special and particular design. In most other cases there is scope for making changes. The key thing is to do the appropriate research and then make a good case for the change.

At Histon Baptist Church, which is a listed building, all the pews were removed; these were original to the Edwardian building but were of cheap construction. Having taken them all out, some pews were stripped and refinished and then put back around the edges, leaving the main part of the space beautifully open.

Coupled with a newly levelled natural oak floor and underfloor heating the space has been transformed. Here the Listed Building Committee asked us to retain 15-20% of the originals; the remainder were sold or given away.

There is also a ‘political’ issue, which is that not everyone likes change – many people are very fearful of it. There are many village parishes where those in the community feel a sense of ownership of ‘our’ church, even if they never darken its doors. These folk should not be ignored, and their concerns need sensitive handling – ignore them at your peril!

First steps

Always start with some historical research, and arrive at an assessment of how important the pews are to the significance of the building as a whole. You should already know this if you have prepared a Statement of Significance; if not, now is a good time to write one.

If you want to get a feel for the additional space you could create, you could consider temporarily removing a section of pews, perhaps for a specific event. Often existing pews can be ‘unbolted’ and moved into storage – this makes it easier to focus people on the benefits that the change will bring.