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5.6 Statements of Significance

What Is A Statement Of Significance (…And Why Is It, Well, Significant)?

If you are planning a new building then you can ignore this chapter completely! A Statement of Significance is needed when making changes to a listed church (and unlisted churches in a Conservation Area), so usually relate to the conservation of historic buildings; it provides a summary of the historic development and main features of the building. But beyond that it is good practice to prepare one anyway, and in any case to do so before you come to ask for permission for alterations to the building.

But why is this important? Our churches are ʻmulti-storied placesʼ where the life of previous generations of our community of faith are overlaid. A good Statement of Significance therefore begins with historical research, understanding how a building has changed and hopefully grasping the meaning of the different parts of the building. Above all we need to listen and to learn from the preceding story – it may well help us define better questions for our current generation, which we then set about addressing. The point of the Statement is to uncover the ‘grain’ of the building so that, whether our interventions are bold or timid, we will be working with the building, not against it.

What Should Be Included?

Note the document is a summary, not the final word! A good Statement of Significance should be long enough to cover the important aspects of the building, but short enough that people will want to read it. How long that is will depend on the building – for a simple building it may just be a few pages. The point is to identify the key elements and demonstrate that you have a grasp of the particular areas of importance in the building under your care.

The Statement should be a document that you revisit at regular intervals – a working document that is kept under review. It should therefore become an excellent source of information for all those interested in your building and should encourage good stewardship of it. It could also form the starting point for a short guidebook, or an existing guidebook might form the basis of your Statement.

An Outline For What The Statement Should Include:

Grade of Listing: (i.e. Grade 1, Grade 2*, Grade 2 or unlisted but in a Conservation Area) and the date of the Listing.

List Description: this is most easily found at British Listed Buildings Online

A Plan of the Church: if the church as grown by stages, the plan should if possible be shaded by date to show the ages of the various parts of the building.

Historical: A section to explain the present built form of the church, starting from it’s earliest recorded origins. Include names of any significant benefactors, architects and craftsmen if known, and relevant dates.

Geographical: how the building sits within the landscape of the area and parish, wether urban or rural. What contribution does the church make to the physical character and quality of its surroundings? Does it have landmark value on an eye-catching site? How does the church relate to its surroundings in terms of scale and architectural language?

Architectural: The Statement should show when the various parts of the building were constructed and when notable additions were made to the interior, for instance the pews, the pulpit, organ or stained glass (if these are important). Some churches hold an important place in the development of ecclesiastical architecture – if so this should be stated. In general do not include details of furnishings etc – i.e. movable items – unless they are of considerable significance. Comment briefly on materials and the current state of repair.

Environmental: Include details of your churchyard, or whatever landscape setting there may be; is this significant in its own right? In a churchyard, identify your oldest graves, particularly if separately listed. Consider the age of any trees, and whether any has a TPO (Tree Preservation Order) – your Local Authority Trees Officer will advise.

Community: Who else sees the church as significant? How is this demonstrated?

Use: A brief comment on how the heritage aspects above are used within the mission of the church.

Four Ways Not To Do It, And One Lifesaver

There is a huge variety in the way individual churches approach their Statement of Significance. Here are some of the ways to do it badly:

  1. The ‘Back of a Fag Packet’: Fits on half a page and concludes that there is nothing of any significance – but only because whoever wrote it hasn’t looked;
  2. The ‘Blue Peter’: Simply copy out the relevant page from the Pevsner guide or similar book;
  3. The ‘Heath Robinson’: Fill in a standard form with a few details; cut and paste from other documents;
  4. The ‘Rolls Royce’: Pay an external consultant a good deal of money to go away and produce this document for you.

None of these, including the last, makes for a good Statement. Why? Because fundamentally your Statement of Significance is the means by which you as a church demonstrate that you understand your building and value the important bits. No-one expects your understanding to be perfect, but it is important to engage with it.

Thankfully there is a fifth possibility that is currently being developed by the wonderful York-based organisation Christianity and Culture, with backing from English Heritage. This is a web-based tool which provides a helpful structure with lots of guidance, It enables you to break the task down into manageable chunks that can be delegated to different people, and it is highly recommended. We call this ‘The Business’. If you want to take part in the public beta testing of this, please contact Christianity and Culture direct; lots more on this exciting tool in one of the Churchbuild blog posts on Statements of Significance transformed.

Why Should We Care?

The Statement of Significance explains what matters about a building, why and to whom; it includes a description of the main features of the building and an explanation of their significance. If you come to consider alterations to your church, the Statement of Significance will be an invaluable base from which to start, and will help provide a framework and reference for your Statement of Needs (see separate guide). Depending on the nature of any proposed alterations, you may need to expand your Statement of Significance on those aspects of the building that may be impacted by any proposed changes.