Legal Protection Places of Worship

Jonathan Taylor


  The Bengali-style tomb of Raja Rammohun Roy at Arnos Vale Cemetery, Bristol
  The tomb of Raja Rammohun Roy at Arnos Vale Cemetery, Bristol was designed by William Prinsep in 1843 and is listed Grade II*. Roy was a great Hindu reformer and thinker who had died of meningitis 10 years earlier while on a visit to Bristol. In the distance is the non-conformist chapel.

From a secular perspective, historic church buildings, from cathedrals to non-conformist chapels, are a vital part of our heritage. They are visited by thousands of people from home and abroad. They contribute to the character of the places that we live, work or visit, and they are loved by many who have no religious affiliation or interest.

From a religious perspective, the importance of the fabric of a church or chapel goes beyond its historic significance or its practical value as a purpose-made structure designed for a very specific function: it is, at the least, an expression of the faith of those who paid for its construction and upkeep. For some, the fabric is itself venerated and may even be considered to be sacred. In the case of the Catholic Church, God’s love is seen in the sacredness and beauty of religious patrimony, which includes places of worship, religious furnishings and texts.

It is as a result of this unique relationship between the people and their church that, over the centuries, so much time and skill have been lavished on the design and furnishing of places of worship.

Today their importance is reflected by the fact that churches account for almost half the Grade I listed buildings in England, and the Church of England is by far the largest single custodian of listed buildings in the country, caring for over 13,000 listed places of worship.

The legislative system which now protects these buildings is particularly complex. In essence there are three types of consent which may be required for an alteration: planning permission, conservation area consent, and listed building consent. In addition, scheduled monument consent may also be required where a churchyard includes a scheduled monument. This situation is made more complex as the need for conservation area consent and listed building consent varies across the UK according to country and denomination.

Planning permission: extensions and new buildings in the grounds of a church will require planning permission, as does the alteration of any existing building in a manner that materially affects its external appearance. All churches in the UK are affected by this requirement for planning permission, whatever their denomination.

If the building is not listed, alterations to the interior do not require permission. However, proposals to carry out a development which requires planning permission or consent under the building regulations may alert the local authority to its historic or architectural importance, and trigger its assessment and subsequent listing, as in the case of the Elim Pentecostal Church in Bath (see 'The New List Entries', below).

Conservation area consent: there are approximately 10,000 conservation areas in the UK, often including the historic core of an urban area or village centre. Within these areas consent is required for the demolition of any building, whether it is listed or not. The local authority also exercises some control over the types of development likely to be granted planning permission through its policies and guidance.

Listed building consent: if a building is listed, consent is also required for any alteration which affects those special qualities for which it is listed. This includes the removal or alteration of any historic feature, inside or out, which is considered to form part of the fabric of the building. Listed building consent may also be required for alterations to any structure within the grounds or ‘curtilage’ of a church, depending on its age.

Over 30,000 churches are listed in the UK. The listings are graded according to the architectural or historic importance of each building. In England and Wales Grades I and II* are the most important, with the majority at Grade II. In Scotland category A is the most important (the others being B and C(s)), and in Northern Ireland the most important are Grade A or B*, with the remainder at Grade B1 or B2. The grade or category does not change the extent to which alterations are controlled.

Work requiring consent includes the removal of pews and other alterations commonly entailed in the reordering of a church.

Strictly speaking, ‘like for like’ repairs do not require consent, but there is no precise definition and interpretations may vary. For example, the insertion of a number of matching tiles to repair a roof slope would normally be accepted as being ‘like for like’ but a proposal to replace a window with one matching it in every respect of detail and materials might well require consent. It is always important to establish contact with the relevant authority in advance of an application, particularly where there is doubt about whether particular work will require consent, or if the proposals involve alterations or additions.

Scheduled monument consent: churches and other places of worship are invariably listed, not scheduled, although some features within the grounds of an historic church may also be protected as scheduled ‘ancient monuments’. These are usually features which cannot be described as buildings, such as an ancient burial mound or a churchyard cross, although some monuments may also be listed individually. (Chest tombs, for example, would usually be listed, not scheduled.) All works affecting a scheduled monument or the ground surrounding it require scheduled monument consent.

  Ornate red and gold angels at the church of St Kyneburgha, Castor, Lincolnshire
  15th century angels adorn the roof of the church of St Kyneburgha, Castor, Lincolnshire.

Ecclesiastical exemption in 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.

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.

The exemption applies to works affecting the place of worship itself as well as to structures within its curtilage unless independently listed or scheduled. 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 Methodists.

Within the Baptist Union of Wales and the Baptist Union of Great Britain for example, applications are made to the Listed Buildings Advisory Committee (LBAC), which includes a minimum of eight people. In addition to the church representatives, there is a representative of either English Heritage or Cadw, another representing the English or Welsh Local Government Association, and a national amenity societies representative. Other specialists may also be co-opted to this panel. Once an application is submitted, the proposals must be approved by the Trust Corporation before they can be considered by the LBAC. Approval results in a ‘certificate of authorisation’, and when works are completed, a before and after photographic record must be submitted with a ‘certificate of completion’ to the LBAC.

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 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.

Ecclesiastical exemption in Scotland: 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, the exemption is limited to the interior of churches only. Alterations to the exterior fall under secular control and require listed building consent.

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 (formerly Scottish Congregational Church).

Proposals affecting the exterior which would usually require consent are dealt with under the usual 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 the Historic Scotland inspectorate, 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).


In England some changes have already been introduced following the Heritage Protection Review. In particular, English Heritage has largely assumed responsibility for listing buildings from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Further changes proposed in the DCMS white paper, Heritage Protection for the 21st Century in March 2007 are aimed at simplifying the system. The proposals include:

  • a unified national designation system devolved to English Heritage
  • a unified national heritage consent system
  • statutory heritage partnership agreements offering strategic management and prior consent for large and complex sites
  • statutory local historic environment records
  • strengthened protection for world heritage sites, conservation areas and local designated assets.

Publication of the draft Heritage Protection Bill is expected early in 2008.

Recommended Reading

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




Planning Policy Guidance Note 15: Planning and the Historic
Environment Planning
Policy Guidance Note 16: Archaeology and Planning

Northern Ireland

Planning Policy Statement 6: Planning, Archaeology and the
Built Heritage


Memorandum of Guidance on Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas


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



England & Wales

The Ecclesiastical Exemption (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Order 1994


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



One of the first achievements of the Heritage Protection Review in England was to make list entries more useful by introducing a ‘summary of importance’ for each new entry to set out the reasons for listing it (now called ‘reasons for designation decision’), accompanied by a map showing the extent of the listing. This format provides a much more comprehensive account of each building than a typical list entry and is the forerunner of the ‘historic asset record’ which will include both architectural and archaeological assets following enactment. The following extract from the new entry for Elim Pentecostal Church in Bath illustrates the scope of the endeavour.

Elim Pentecostal Church, Charlotte Street, Bath: GV II* Church. By H E and A S Goodridge. Dated 1854

MATERIALS: Limestone ashlar, with leaded and Welsh slate roofs.

PLAN: The church is ingeniously planned on a tapering site, with an outwardly centrally planned chapel actually comprising a tapering worship space, narrowing towards the pulpit with a vestry behind. There is a screen front to the street, with a centrally planned octagonal church within.

STYLE: Lombardic/Romanesque style.

EXTERIOR: The facade and secondary elevations of the church are of two storeys, with a screen front to street, incorporating a central gabled section flanked by short wings ending in towers carried up for further storey. The ground floor has blind Romanesque arcade of five bays, set on a plinth incorporating five wrought iron lattice-work vents, flanked by an additional bay and then by a Lombardic porch projecting forward below gable at each end of facade. The upper storey has large central arched recess flanked by columns in-antis (recessed) with a rope order. This device frames a rose window (repeated opposite on the south side) of twelve lights, with inscriptions in corners, `PERCY CHAPEL’ and date `MDCCCLIV’. Strip pilasters frame and articulate the upper storey, with a corbel table at eaves level. The rest of the walling blank, except for a single round headed window over either porch lighting the stair to the galleries. The towers have moulded stringcourses at both sill and springing level for windows, paired within arched recesses infilled with delicate masonry open work divided by colonettes with composite capitals. The towers are finished with a heavy projecting cornice and pyramidal slate roofs. Behind the central gable rises the octagonal drum over the space within, forming the clerestory for the church. Each face has a four-light arcaded window, with a corbel table and deep eaves overhang going round building above, all under a pyramidal slate roof. The hidden flat roofs linking facades and the clerestory drum are covered in lead. The other elevations are hardly visible, though that to the rear is of limestone ashlar with a rose window lighting the gallery to the south and a large ashlar masonry stack venting the boiler to the rear. The interior is formed by a polygonal space on the ground floor with a gallery above surmounted by the octagonal clerestory carried on eight slender Purbeck Marble columns with delicate composite capitals, all linked with semicircular arches with basket-work carving to the soffits.

The pandrels above retain their decorative paintwork, as do the walls above the timber dado panelling behind. The floor of the gallery is raked, though some of the pews have been removed. The mid C19 roof structure survives complete above. The gallery is reached by two sets of stairs located in the towers; these are of masonry with wrought iron balustrades. Below, the gallery is carried on ten iron columns carrying massive supporting beams on which rest a series of shaped and cantilevered timber joists supporting the floor of the gallery. The gallery rail has a cornice with dentils and a pediment over the clock, set in the eastern face of the rail, opposite the raised integral pulpit, so located as to serve those below and those above in the gallery.

A modern suspended ceiling, set on the top of the gallery rail and suspended by wires from the roof of the clerestory high above, regrettably divides the once unified space. Below the main hall there is a substantial basement taking advantage of the sloping topography of the site; the floor above is carried on a system of iron and stone columns and vaults. Here was installed the boiler and early air handling system designed and installed by Hadens of Trowbridge. The boiler has been removed, though the ancillary system has been ingeniously modified to suit modern environmental management.

HISTORY: One of the most flamboyant Non-Conformist chapels of its day, the Percy Chapel was founded by the Congregationalist secessionists from Argyle Chapel, Bath, after the appointment of the Rev W H Dyer to succeed the retiring incumbent, the Rev Jay, who then took a considerable number of affluent members of his congregation with him, leading to the construction of this chapel on the then western fringes of the city. The name of the chapel was taken from Jay’s residence in Percy Place. The First Pastor was the Rev Richard Brindley, and the Chapel opened 13th December 1854. It had a capacity of 1000. A prominent cupola-topped ventilator on top of the roof has been removed since 1945. The present congregation (the Elim Pentecostal Church, was founded in Monaghan, Ireland in 1915) has been based here since 1955.

SUMMARY OF IMPORTANCE: The Elim Pentecostal Church, formerly the Percy Chapel, built in 1854 to the designs of H E and A S Goodridge, architects, is of outstanding architectural and historic interest on account of its confident architectural articulation of the distinctive Lombardic Romanesque style adopted for its design, the creative planning employed to accommodate such a building on a difficult site, and the innovative use of air handling technology utilised to heat the large volume of the church. Built to the designs of Henry Goodridge, it compares well with his best work in Bath such as the Beckford Tower (listed Grade I) and Bathwick Grange (listed Grade II*). The associations with Reverend William Jay, one of the most influential preachers of his day, adds additional interest. It also forms part of an important group of listed buildings on the western approaches to the historic city, within both the City Centre Conservation Area and the Bath World Heritage Site.

Facade of Elim Pentecostal Church, Bath Top: H E and A S Goodridge’s church in Charlotte Street, Bath. Previously unlisted, attention was drawn to its importance when the church contacted the local authority with a proposal for flood lighting. The introduction of a suspended ceiling (middle right), which is described as 'regrettable' in the proposed list entry, has not affected its grade of listing (II*) as it is reversible, and the denomination which now uses the church may well reverse it. The map (bottom right) shows the extent of the listing. (Map by permission of English Heritage and Ordnance Survey on behalf of HMSO © Crown copyright. All rights reserved. Photos by permission of Elim Pentecostal Church)
Rose window over main entrance The modern suspended ceiling
English Heritage map showing extent of listing marked in purple



  • J Orbach, Card Index of Bath Architects and Streets, Department of Environment and Property, Bath and North East Somerset Council, 1978
  • The Builder, 1855, 75 (illus)
  • N Jackson, Nineteenth Century Bath – Architects and Architecture, Bath, 1991, 217
  • H Colvin, A Biographical Dictionary of British Architects, 1600-1840, London, 1978, 352
  • C Stell, An Inventory of Non-Conformist Chapels and Meeting‑Houses in South-West England, RCHME 1991, 164
  • C Stell, South-West England: Norwich, 1994, SOM 15
  • M Forsythe, Pevsner Architectural Guides (Bath), Yale University Press, London and New Haven, 2003


This article is reproduced from Historic Churches, 2007


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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