Church architecture – a dual view

Corpus Christi Chapel

Corpus Christi Chapel

My involvement with church architecture began early when, as a choral exhibitioner at Corpus and the only architect in my year there, I was a sitting target to do a lot of the donkey work for the chapel re-ordering which was then under discussion. My main labour was to produce a survey drawing of one bay of the interior, including Blomfield’s dark oak roof. This was taken away by one of the fellows, Malcolm Burgess, who reappeared a few days later with my drawing, coloured in the riot of sky blue, peach and gold which has enlivened the chapel ever since.

In two very significant ways though this experience was fundamentally different from most church architectural work. First, most parish churches struggle financially and second, extraordinary as it might seem, the Byzantine processes of decision making in a Cambridge college are simplicity itself compared to processes for buildings under the direct guardianship of the Church of England. These days, as an architect and a churchwarden I have an unusual dual perspective on these problems and others.

About 30% of all the Grade 1 listed buildings in England are parish churches (about 4000 of them) and my own church, St Etheldreda’s in Hatfield is one. It is a large and splendid building – you may well have spotted it from the train, up on the hill next to Hatfield House – and, as with all such churches, the only regular maintenance funding comes from the congregation. We are quite lucky with a regular and growing attendance of over 100 but many magnificent churches are in tiny villages with dwindling congregations. This is clearly a major problem right now for the many parishes concerned but it is also a looming crisis for the whole country that we have no sustainable source of funding for such a large portion of our heritage. When you need to find half a million pounds for roof repairs coffee mornings and church fetes are never going to be the answer.

Congregations may not have the funds to maintain their marvellous buildings, but they are not allowed to ignore the need to do so. Every church must be inspected once every five years by an architect or surveyor – the dreaded quinquennial inspection – giving them, at least in theory, a better level of protection than non-ecclesiastical listed buildings. Quinquennials are not great business for the professionals and often result in dozens of recommendations which are never implemented, but they are better than no protection at all and they are at least getting safer. I recall using an un-restrained 48-foot ladder for roof inspections which can now be done using drones.

St Etheldreda’s, Hatfield

St Etheldreda’s, Hatfield

Enhanced safeguards also apply whenever work is needed or if any sort of change is proposed. There is very little which can be done without at least a letter of authority from the Archdeacon and work of any significance is likely to require a faculty, an arcane alternative to listed building consent. For an architect who has painfully gained experience of normal planning and listed building procedures, entering a whole new world of archdeacons, chancellors, consistory courts and faculties can be a baffling and frustrating experience. It can all feel a bit like plunging through a wall at Kings Cross and finding yourself in Hogwarts.

Not only is the faculty system very different from normal planning procedures, it is also less predictable, much of it being dependant on Diocesan Advisory Committees. While planning officers are professionals operating within a framework of policy, DAC decisions sometimes seem to be based much more on the personal preferences of the knowledgeable but mostly amateur committee members.

Key players in all of this are the churchwardens, willing volunteers from the congregation who, after they have been elected, gradually realise what a huge and complex task they have taken on, as a stopping place for innumerable bucks. With many meetings both during the day and in the evenings, and lots of paperwork, to which the C of E brings the same ritual elaboration that characterises its services, the churchwarden post was never an easy one for anybody in full time employment and with retirement ages rising the numbers of energetic retirees to do the job is gradually reducing.

So three growing problems for the Church of England and for the country: first, the fact that there is no sustainable funding for the maintenance of a major portion of our built heritage, second that church architects have to steer their way through strange and complex procedures and third that the supply of candidates for the important but very challenging role of churchwarden is gradually reducing. More and more people love to visit our churches and cathedrals but there is going to have to be some major re-thinking to ensure the preservation of these wonderful buildings for future generations.

St Etheldreda’s Alter

St Etheldreda’s Alter

On the funding side one obvious possibility is to adopt the French system where, despite the separation of church and state, church maintenance is a government responsibility. I’m sure any such suggestion would be met with howls of anguish, both from inside the church, where the loss of independence would be regretted, and from outside. In the long term though the mathematical inevitability of spiralling costs and dwindling membership is not going to reverse, and a certain level of state responsibility is inevitable if we want many thousands of churches to survive.

On the architectural side there is a certain amount of change in hand, but progress is slow.

Simplifying the role of churchwardens so that they can focus on the tasks which matter most may be slightly easier. Firstly of course the church needs to recognise the problem and then it needs to review and streamline many of its procedures. I have for instance just completed the annual check on the church inventory; twenty pages with hundreds of items – thuribles, pyxes, riddel posts and many others – all of which need to be identified and signed for. All told this has probably taken a day out of my life and to whose benefit? Surely once every five years would be enough?

Why not delegate? I hear you say, but to whom? In my church most members are pulling their weight already. No, the answer has to be in a comprehensive review of wardens’ responsibilities so that they can focus on the most important tasks and help ensure the survival of our heritage.