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High Street History: Religious heritage

Updated Friday, 26th September 2008

While some places of worship have been repurposed, they can't shake off their religious roots.

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Religious Heritage

Is Britain’s religious heritage threatened? We concentrate here on the physical fabric of Christianity – not because synagogues, mosques, and temples aren’t part of national heritage, but because it is mostly the declining practice of the Christian faith that seems to have put the historical legacy of religion at risk. Within living memory, the doors of most churches were almost constantly open. Now, that’s a rarity.

As working churches have begun to decline or have switched to more limited services, the dangers of theft, vandalism, and plain neglect have become more apparent. This problem is a mainstay of public debates about national heritage and what should be considered historically valuable. The BBC television series, Restoration, for example, featured many religious buildings in need of major repair; whilst the Daily Telegraph launched in 2008 a campaign entitled ‘Save Our Churches’.

Practising Christians might be concerned about such things, but should we be bothered if we are not? Ultimately, it needs careful thought on the individual’s part, but we ought to consider that churches are historically valuable for a whole variety of different reasons.

Architectural legacy Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Stuart Mitchell

Architectural legacy

Take St. Bride’s in London: a church whose value is as much architectural as it is historical. Re-designed by Christopher Wren after London’s Great Fire of 1666, the unusual shape of its spire is thought to be the inspiration for another great cultural tradition: the wedding cake. On a more serious note, it still bears the marks of the hit it took in the 1940 blitz, for instance, and so carries a physical reminder of history being played out.


All Saint's church, Pontefract Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Stuart Mitchell

Historical evidence

And that’s another consideration. What happened in these churches and what clues do they offer about the past? This is Pontefract’s All Saints Church: one end of it was virtually in ruins when this photograph was taken.

The damage was done in 1644, when the church was besieged by parliamentary forces in the civil wars. Recently, a debate centred on whether to build a low-level community hall inside the ruined section. Local campaigners suggested that such development might uproot historical treasures, such as seventeenth century siege works, buried beneath the church. (Those in favour of the development won, albeit after inserting suitable caveats into their plans.)


Lost causes Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: BBC

Lost causes?

Both St. Bride’s and All Saints are well-attended working churches, so it might surprise you that both have had to launch public appeals in recent years in order to undertake necessary restoration work. And here we have the ruined end of Newstead Abbey, which was featured in the 2004 BBC TV series Restoration. Terrific television, of course, but what happened to the buildings that were unsuccessful in securing grants as a result of the programme – as the Abbey failed to.

They do not necessarily get completely forgotten, but they do eventually pass out the public eye and perhaps ultimately succumb to decay. Neither a sizeable congregation, nor historical importance, is enough to guarantee endurance of parts of the UK’s religious heritage.

So disputes over national heritage don’t simply take place in the rarefied atmosphere of the National Trust’s headquarters, but often involve many different people acting at a variety of levels – from local councils, through church committees to local history societies and individual campaigners.


Taking it further

You may be interested in the BBC’s Restoration series. The Open University has also developed a new short course which appraises just these sorts of issues that you can do entirely online: Heritage, whose heritage? (A180). Also, why not check out the university’s free learning resources on religion and secularisation today. Or if you fancy learning more about the civil wars in the British Isles, try our online unit The origins of the wars of the three kingdoms. Finally, the role of religion in the past is comprehensively covered in the courses Exploring History: medieval to modern 1400-1900 (A200) and Religion in history (AA307).





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