Project Route Map

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!

Storytelling Technologies

Posted on: 20/12/2012

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending the Churches Tourism Association convention. The final morning featured a ‘Using Technology’ session which featured of presentations on a number of relevant technologies. I’m hoping to do a short series of posts looking at some of these in turn.

What Did Google Ever Do For Us?

We’re all familiar with Street View on Google Maps – a great way of checking what an unfamiliar place looks like before you get there. And of course it only shows you the outside of buildings, right? Not any more! Google Business Street View is an extension of plain old Street View into the interiors of publicly accessible buildings. Google’s idea is to let you see the inside of commercial buildings such as restaurants – Google has some information here. Fine for businesses (for which Google developed it) but it turns out this technology is great for churches too!


View Larger Map
Street ViewChris Jones of LeicesterPhoto Design demonstrated the technology, using the example of the medieval St Mary De Castro Church in Leicester, for which he was the commissioned photographer. The tell-tale on Google Maps is when you come to a double arrow – see the picture to the left – which indicates that you can ‘cross the threshold’ into an accessible interior. Chris has some information on this service here. (If the above example doesn’t show for any reason, go to Google Maps and enter the postcode LE1 5WH.)

So why is this technology interesting?

For historic buildings Street View is a new way that enables them to tell their story (in visual form at least). Clearly this doesn’t give the ‘visitor’ the full experience of being in the space, let alone the historical detail. But as a taster it is fantastic. And this is relevant whether your church is steeped in history, or is “post war charmless” – either way it helps people who have never visited the building before to feel more comfortable crossing the threshold. Not knowing what to expect is a powerful disincentive for people unused to church – and church buildings – to engage with us. This is a great example of one area where the church can learn from the world of retail. Even better, it is an area where the Church of England is leading retail – Chris is one of 20 accredited photographers who have agreed a national pricing structure with the Anglican Church, and the group will shortly be doing a test shoot for the National Churches Trust.

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!

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