Slide Shows on Cathedral and Church Architecture - by Michael G Hardy

return to home page          go to list of slide shows


Modernising Influences on England's Churches

Some Personal Opinions by Michael G Hardy


There are all sorts of influences on Parish Church Communities these days. They come from the hierarchy in the Church of England itself, from within individual dioceses, from the appointed clergy, from PCCs and, of course, from parishioners themselves. This is without the influences from the rest of our increasingly 'global lifestyle', and the ever forceful mediums of newspapers, radio, television and advertising that are constantly trying to influence us all, and trying to persuade us that we all need what others have, and we must do the same as others do.



Most people think that the Reformation and the founding of The Church of England was purely the idea of King Henry VIII so that he could conveniently change his wives. The truth is that there had long been different styles and tastes of Christian Worship, which were not really allowed to develop until after the Reformation. Henry VIII really just made sure that England stood alone in trying to break all connection with the church in Rome. Over the next four hundred years, those with different tastes were catered for a wide variety of Non-Conformist Churches and Chapels, as well as the return of Roman Catholicism. Religion went through phases of popularity and decline, culminating in the great religious revival in Victorian times. This coincided with the great expansion of towns and cities for the industrial age, and consequently the building of vast numbers of new churches for new and increasing populations. All these changes really lasted until the middle of the 20th century, when it was surely still the normal for most people to attend church services, at least on a weekly basis.

Since then there has been a great decline in church attendance. Even within the Church of England, there has long been a wide variety of styles of service, individual churches were always described somewhere along the scale between "very high church" and "very low church". Particularly in towns there was often the choice to attend a different church, where one would feel more "at home". However over recent years younger generations have adopted their own tastes in all walks of life, including their church services. So now there are forms of Christian worship taking place in all manner of buildings, that are completely unrecognisable to many people. A great diversity in types of service, and thinking, has penetrated the established Church of England as well, which may well suit and encourage some congregations, but also drives others to look elsewhere, or decide not to attend at all.

The relevance here is that I have been into churches which look as if they have been converted into some form of modern entertainment centres, festooned with wiring, loudspeakers, screens, projection equipment, multi-coloured lights, drum sets, banners, and all manner of items which would never have been seen anywhere 50 years ago, let alone in a church. Such churches tend to be in the suburbs of large towns, so they are often Victorian buildings, which in recent years have received a long awaited increase in interest by those who study church architecture. However elements of this type of equipment can be now be found in churches of all ages, and in many parts of the country, apart from the most rural areas. In a medieval building, some of this type of equipment can look terribly out of place, but in some churches simple measures have been taken to make items more discrete, and this can make a vast difference.

For example, many churches now have a sound amplification system, and speakers tend to be fitted to arcade piers. They are usually a harsh white or black, but I have seen them covered in a cloth which roughly matches the stone of the arcades, making them far less obtrusive.



I firmly believe that church buildings should be used for local activities other than worship. After all, they certainly were for many hundreds of years when they formed the only public buildings in most parishes. This mainly ceased with the religious revival of the Victorian era, when it was thought the whole church should only be used for worship, rather than just the chancel. I am pleased to say that this is now changing, and particularly parishes without a church hall are often willing to use their church as a venue for other suitable meetings and events such as concerts. However this understandably leads to other facilities being needed, such as kitchens, toilets and meeting rooms.

Even new lighting and heating is not always done in a sympathetic way, although it is obvious that cost implications have had to take precedence in many schemes that one can see.

Sometimes a church may be able to provide the completely new rooms that they want within existing structures, one popular option seems to be screening off the west end of a nave. This is certainly often the most logical, and can produce satisfactory results. However it can destroy the unity of a church building, as in one example I know where a vast amount has been spent, but the westernmost arcade piers have been hidden. Unfortunately these particular piers were essential in completing the alternating pattern of piers that had been fitted by Sir George Gilbert Scott. Some people involved with the church do not even seem to have noticed how different these 'lost' piers were.

An increasingly popular way of providing separate rooms is to use space in the tower, particularly by making new floors when a tall tower arch has led into a large open space. Each case has to be considered on its own merits, as the impact on different churches could be negligible or quite disastrous. I know one example where this has been done, completely changing the character of a fine Early English tower, and all to provide facilities that appear to duplicate similar ones in an old school building that is used exclusively by the church, and is just a few steps away.

Other churches have made individual rooms by screening off an aisle, leaving a blanked off arcade that always looks rather sad. The most essential condition of any such alteration to a historic building is that it should be reversible, allowing re-instatement at a later date if required.

Many churches are increasingly opting for completely new extensions to provide the facilities they want. The desirability of this will depend on the importance of the exterior and the interior of the church, its setting, its materials and the comparative size, design and materials proposed  for the extension. Extensions are proposed and built to exactly match existing buildings, to be in sympathy with them, to contrast with them, and sometimes to be in a completely modern style. There are of course many important churches which would be completely ruined by drastic change inside or any form of extension outside. There are other churches which would not really be spoilt in any way by a reasonable extension in the right position.



But all these types of proposals are open to very different views by people with their own opinions and objectives. The debate which can follow proposals for such changes to a church's fabric can sometimes completely split communities apart, and can involve all manner of people, not just those actively involved with he church and its activities. In extreme cases it can lead to permanent rifts between people, which can force them to make drastic changes to their lives. I say this because planning applications to make changes to churches can generate far more interest than any other type of planning application, the outcomes of which are now regarded by many people as inevitably going to receive approval.

Anyone who has read through much of this web site will say that I am firmly in the 'conservation' or ' preservation' camp. As far as our historic churches are concerned, I would very much agree that I am. It is not because I cannot accept any change, but I strongly feel that it is our duty to keep the historic churches in our care in good repair and without drastically altering the signs of how they have developed over the years. Always remember that they were provided by generations of benefactors over the last thousand years for the use of their local people, and I regard it as the established Church of England's duty (together with the state) to keep them as such.


return to top of page

This page last modified on 15th December 2005