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BCD SPECIAL REPORT ON

HISTORIC CHURCHES

23

RD ANNUAL EDITION

5

the wake of their congregations, which

have relocated from the centre of town.

The consequence is that there is no

substantial local congregation any more

for Middle Street. This, exacerbated

by an absence of parking and modern

facilities, has resulted in the search for

a new purpose for Middle Street. It is

a building marooned from its users,

and the same story plays out with

churches and other places of worship.

There are over 50,000 churches in

the UK, 16,000 of them are listed. 1,700

churches have been made redundant since

1969, when The Churches Conservation

Trust was established. And since then

over 350 have been demolished. The

difficulty of such a threat is that it is a

slow, insidious process. A congregation

rarely moves

en masse

, but gradually

fades, and it is not until the elastic of

a maintenance budget (likely to be

high in the case of a historic building)

finally breaks that action is taken.

In this context the research carried

out by Dr Peter Brierley on the growth

or decline of different Christian

denominations makes fascinating reading,

and broadly records which types of

church are most likely to face redundancy,

while pointing to future trends. The

indispensable

UK Church Statistics

points to static church membership

in England over the past decade, but

this hides a growing number of new

Christian denominations (340 in total in

2010 against 275 in 2005) and therefore

new churches, particularly Pentecostal

and new smaller denominations, at the

expense of the traditional denominations,

such as the Baptists, Methodists,

Presbyterian and Anglican congregations.

The number of Catholic churches in

England and Wales shrank from 2,813 in

2000 to 2,457 in 2010. The same pressure

may be anticipated with synagogues,

given that membership has declined in

the UK from 110,000 members in 1983

to 83,000 members in 2010. Conversely

the number of mosques has grown,

with nearly 1,700 Masjids identified

in 2015, while there has been a more

modest growth in the number of Hindu

temples. Translate these trends into the

implications for historic buildings and the

prognosis is clear: an increasing number

of churches and synagogues will require

new, non-religious uses to survive. And

of course the impact is not even – there

is a significant variation, split between

regions, towns, countryside and cities,

mirroring broader demographic changes.

Sometimes the threat is tied to

economic growth and land values, placing

pressure on a church or place of worship

A David among Goliaths: St George’s, Aldgate was

built in 1763 for London’s German community. Its

Lutheran modesty and simplicity, compounded by

the loss of its bell-tower in the 1930s, have left it

struggling to stand out among the gangling high rise

development that surrounds it.

either through the redevelopment

value of the plot, or because of the

knock-on impact on the style and

scale of surrounding development.

St George’s, Aldgate, built in 1763 by

the sugar refiner Dederich Beckmann,

is the oldest surviving German church

in Britain. Located in what was once

known as Little Germany, on the edge of

the City of London, this modest building

struggles to stand out among the gangling

high rise development that surrounds

it. It lost its bell-tower and weather

vane in the 1930s, rendering it even less

distinctive than its modest Lutheran

architectural ambition prescribes.

It is a David among an ever-growing

number of Goliaths. The city has grown

around it, changing the scale of the

streetscape, so that it is in danger of

becoming dwarfed. Among these giants,

and without an active congregation, it is

fading into the background, struggling

to find a sustainable new use. Yet,

inside it is stunning – a place that tells

the story of German sugar refiners

and a lost community. It has character

and its survival is important, not least

because it is something distinctive and

authentic that differentiates this part

of London from Hoxton, Spitalfields

and other parts of the East End.

How do you resolve a problem like

St George’s? Clearly, making the case

against inappropriate development is

part of the strategy, but more proactively,

you focus on the things that make the

church special and distinctive – using

conservation to draw out its character and

to enhance the neighbourhood. This means

restoring the bell-tower and weather

vane, complete with St George and his

dragon, conserving the facade as well as

parts of the interior and adding facilities

that help the church’s viability as an event

venue. Fortunately St George’s is in the

good hands of the Historic Chapels Trust

which is working to deliver such a plan.

This leads us neatly on to the ethical

issues posed by how we deal with the

aftermath of destruction through war

or arrest the decay induced by the

struggle to find a new economic use.

This one has taxed conservationists

and others for centuries.

The recent debate about

reconstructing Palmyra after the

demolition of selected monuments

by Daesh, has stirred up memories of

Arthur Evans and his highly contentious

reconstruction of the Palace of Knossos

in Crete. Should we leave a building or

monument in its destroyed state, should

we be selective in our repair, or should

we reconstruct? Each approach raises

both practical and ethical issues: zero

intervention, after making safe, is an

honest testament and marks a story.

St Michael’s in Coventry was the

largest parish church in the country,

becoming a cathedral in 1918. On

14 November 1940 four incendiary bombs

destroyed the roof, the internal structure

and all the fittings including the fine

medieval misericords. Only the tower and

the shell of the outer walls remained. In

1941, the Council of Coventry Cathedral

elected to build a new cathedral, seeking

to incorporate the remains of the

medieval structure in the new building.

It wasn’t until six years later that a

design was put forward by Sir Charles

Gilbert Scott, but this would destroy

most of what remained of the building’s

medieval predecessor. It was rejected.

Instead a new cathedral was approved

which would combine both old and new

alongside one another, complementing

and respecting, rather than conflicting

and dominating. Basil Spence’s

remarkable new building was completed