Listed Places of Worship

Jonathan Taylor


Ornately carved stone tomb with effigy and Latin script
The tomb of George Wynter and his wife Anne, 1531, in St Peter’s church Dyrham, Gloucestershire

Historic places of worship are the crown jewels in the UK’s architectural heritage, providing a priceless display of craftsmanship from pre-Norman times to the present day. Significantly, while churches account for just five per cent of listed buildings (all grades), almost half of the very best listed buildings (those listed at Grade I) are owned by the Church of England.

What is a listed building?
Buildings which are listed are considered to be of ‘special architectural or historic interest’ and special consent is required for any alteration which affects their significance. Listing does not mean that the building can never be altered. Indeed, all buildings are protected to some degree by the need for planning permission: listing simply extends the scope of protection to include all alterations which affect the character of the building as a listed building, including alterations to the interior as well as the exterior.

However, there are two further important differences from planning permission. Firstly, it is a criminal offence to carry out an alteration which needs listed building consent without that consent, so anyone who carries out unauthorised work could face prosecution and, ultimately, a fine, a criminal record, and perhaps even a prison sentence. Secondly, while planning permission is granted by the local planning authority, in most cases listed building consent for works affecting a church or other place of worship is dealt with by the church authority itself, as described below under the heading ‘ecclesiastical exemption’.

In England and Wales the lists of buildings of special architectural or historic interest are compiled by English Heritage and Cadw (the historic environment service of the National Assembly for Wales) respectively. The buildings are graded I, II* and II, with Grades I and II* being of national or international importance, and Grade II being of more general significance. Over 90 per cent of all listed buildings are Grade II.

In Scotland the list is compiled by Historic Scotland (an executive agency of the Scottish government), and the 47,000 or so listed buildings are graded by categories A, B and C(s), with category A being the most important. The majority are split more evenly between B and C(s).

In Northern Ireland the list is compiled by the Department of the Environment for Northern Ireland. The most significant buildings are listed Grade A or B*, with the remainder at Grade B1 or B2.

Protection generally extends to include everything within the curtilage of the building (including the churchyard for example) that was constructed before 1 July 1948. The grade or category of the listing does not alter the extent to which alterations are controlled.


Alterations to churches and other places of worship are subject to the same requirements for obtaining planning permission as unlisted buildings, but where listed building consent is concerned, most churches enjoy a degree of autonomy.

England and Wales
Most churches in England and Wales enjoy exemption from listed building consent and conservation area consent so long as they remain in use as places of worship. Since 1994 this exemption has been restricted to the church buildings of those denominations which have negotiated with the government their own ‘approved system of control’. Currently, this exemption applies to the Church of England, the Church in Wales, the Roman Catholic Church, Baptist Union Church, Methodist Church and the United Reformed Church. Standard listed building and conservation area controls apply to the places of all other denominations and faiths, including synagogues and mosques for example.

It is important that the procedures which apply under the ecclesiastical exemption are properly followed because the system is still under review, and any denomination could lose its exemption if its system is seen not to be working adequately. Furthermore, anyone who carries out the alteration of a listed building without the consent of the appropriate church authority is committing a criminal offence, as in the secular system.

Currently the exemption applies to works affecting the place of worship itself as well as to structures within its curtilage unless independently listed or scheduled, although this could change if draft legislation is ever enacted (see below). Ancillary buildings which are not used for worship are also excluded, as is the complete demolition of a listed building since, by definition, a church cannot be considered to be in use as a place of worship when demolition commences.

Generally the denominations operate a two-tier system, with representatives of the statutory bodies attending the lower board, the approval being issued by the higher one. This approval is called a ‘faculty’ by the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of England and the Methodist Church.

Within the Church of England no alterations, additions, removals or repairs to a church, its fabric, ornaments or furniture may be made without a faculty. The Diocesan Advisory Committee must be consulted first on work affecting a building, and the Church Buildings Council (formerly called the Council for the Care of Churches) must be consulted if the work affects an object of particular artistic, historic, architectural or archaeological interest. The faculty is granted by the diocesan consistory court.

North of the border, churches are exempt from listed building controls under section 54 of the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) (Scotland) Act 1997. However, under a voluntary scheme run by Historic Scotland, reviewed every three years, full exemption is limited to the interior of churches only.

The denominations participating in this scheme are: Associated Presbyterian Churches, Baptist Union of Scotland, Church of Scotland, Free Church of Scotland, Free Presbyterian Church, Methodist Church in Scotland, Roman Catholic Church in Scotland, Scottish Episcopal Church, United Free Church of Scotland, and United Reformed Church Scotland Synod.

Proposals affecting the exterior which would usually require consent are dealt with under the planning system, with an application submitted to the local authority. If the application is successful, listed building consent is granted in the usual way. If, however, the church is unable to negotiate a solution which is acceptable, under the exemption the application will be referred by the planning authority to the appropriate ‘decision making body’ within the denomination concerned, along with any written submissions from Historic Scotland, the planning authority and others as appropriate. The final decision therefore rests with the church authority.

The denominations, like the local authority, are required to adhere to the guidance contained within the Memorandum of Guidance on Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas (Historic Scotland 1997).


The Government was putting the final touches to a root and branch overhaul of the heritage protection system operating in England and Wales when recession struck. Parliamentary time for enactment was lost, and many of the proposals are now on ice. Nevertheless, it seems likely that much of what was proposed will eventually be realised.

In April 2008 the government published the Draft Heritage Protection Bill which sets out the core proposals for updating and simplifying the legislation protecting our historic environment. Details relating to conservation areas followed in July. Some of the most significant changes proposed were as follows:

  • the separate designation systems for listing (buildings), scheduling (monuments) and registering (gardens and landscapes) should be replaced with a single system for national registration of terrestrial heritage assets
  • the associated consent processes should be streamlined by replacing listed building consent and scheduled monument consent with a new heritage asset consent, and by merging conservation area consent with planning permission
  • responsibility for registering land-based heritage assets in England is to be transferred from the Government to English Heritage
  • a new statutory framework is to be created enabling voluntary management arrangements (known as heritage partnership agreements) for owners of complex historic sites
  • the protection of unlisted buildings in conservation areas should be strengthened by requiring consent for their partial demolition as well as full demolition, and by requiring the local authorities to consider not only whether a proposal preserves the character of the conservation area, but also enhances it, where the opportunity arises.

The bill was due to be introduced in the 2008/09 session of parliament for implementation 2010/11. However, pressure from other priorities relating to the economic situation caused it to be delayed.

A draft of the proposed Ecclesiastical Exemption (Registered Heritage Structures) Order was published in May together with draft guidance on the Operation of the Ecclesiastical Exemption. This retains the key features of the existing system, but extends the exemption to include ancillary heritage structures within churchyards such as lychgates, memorials, churchyard walls, charnel houses and parish rooms, whether individually listed or not, provided that they fall within the remit of the internal system of control operated by the church authority.

Although the new acts of parliament remain on ice, the Government published a new Planning Policy in March 2010, replacing Planning Policy Guidance notes PPG15 (Planning and the Historic Environment) and PPG16 (Archaeology and Planning). Planning Policy Statement 5. Planning for the Historic Environment (PPS5, 2010) is a major step in streamlining the protection of the various forms of heritage asset, and firmly entrenches the concept of significance in the English planning system.

This new document details policy not guidance, but the accompanying document, PPS5 Historic Environment Planning Practice Guide fills many of the gaps.

Both documents can be downloaded free of charge from the DCLG website. A short overview appears on HERE.


Recommended Reading

  • Mynors, Charles, Listed Buildings, Conservation Areas and Monuments, 4th edition, Sweet & Maxwell, London, 2006

Government guidance

England Planning Policy Statement 5. Planning for the Historic Environment
Northern Ireland Planning Policy Statement 6, Planning, Archaeology and the Built Heritage
Scotland Memorandum of Guidance on Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas
Wales 61/96 Planning and the Historic Environment: Historic Buildings and Conservation Areas
1/98 Planning and the Historic Environment: Directions by the Secretary of State for Wales

Ecclesiastical exemption

England & Wales

The Ecclesiastical Exemption (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Order 1994
The Ecclesiastical Exemption (Registered Heritage Structures) Order 200X

_Order.pdf (Draft)

Scotland Historic Scotland Guidance Note: Listed Building Control for Exteriors of Churches in Ecclesiastical Use


This article is an edited version of one that appeared in Historic Churches in 2008 entitled 'Listed Building Protection'. It was updated by the author, May 2010


Update, September 2012
Recently there have been several significant changes in UK government planning guidance and policy.

In England Planning Policy Guidance Note 15: Conservation of the Historic Environment (PPG15, 1994) and Planning Policy Guidance Note 16: Archaeology and Planning (PPG16, 1990) have been cancelled by the Government. Initially replaced by Planning Policy Statement 5 (PPS5) in March 2010, current policy guidance for England is now given in the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) issued in March 2012. Further guidance is proposed, but in the meantime the guide which originally accompanied PPS5 remains in force - see PPS5 Historic Environment Planning Practice Guide.

In Scotland the principal statutory guidance on policy is now Scottish historic environment policy (SHEP), which was published in December 2011, with subsidiary guidance given in Historic Scotland’s Managing Change leaflets. These documents together replace the Memorandum of Guidance on Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas published in 1998.


JONATHAN TAYLOR is the editor of The Building Conservation Directory and a co-founder of Cathedral Communications Limited. He studied architectural conservation at Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh and has a background in architectural design, conservation and urban regeneration.

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