The Urban Church

A challenge and an opportunity

Andrew Edwards


Big Issue seller outside St James Priory, Bristol  
  St James Priory, Bristol (Photo: Jonathan Taylor)    

In the years immediately following the Second World War, the poor state of repair of Britain’s churches became increasingly apparent. Social change, the depopulation of rural areas and the growth of the middle class in suburbia had already contributed to a period of neglect. The war accelerated the problem; repairs and maintenance halted, whole populations were disrupted, and there was, of course, widespread destruction.

By the second half of the 20th century, churches in our towns and cities were facing significant problems. While the construction of many of these buildings in the 18th and 19th centuries was driven by large flows of people into urban centres, these population patterns did not continue. War, poverty and other pressures caused large numbers to move out again, very often leaving the centres of cities with small residential populations unable to sustain churches built for large congregations. Urban areas have also been subject to immigration, impacting on local populations and religious affiliations, at the same time as traditional churchgoing has declined. As a result, churches are often effectively in the wrong part of town and sometimes situated in the middle of major commercial centres where there are comparatively few permanent residents.

Urban church buildings also have to deal with the environmental and transport issues that come from being based in a city, and the increased likelihood of crime and vandalism. Perhaps more prosaically, they face the cost of heating and lighting large old buildings and adapting them to modern standards of health and safety. This can mean that in those cases where there are new opportunities – the past decade has seen a repopulation of the centre of some major cities, and the influx of new groups of worshippers resulting from recent immigration flows – church buildings might sometimes not be able to cope. Many urban churches have benefited from developing their role as centres of the community, particularly in providing a space for social, educational and cultural activities. However, this often requires modernisation work including the provision of basic facilities such as toilets, kitchen areas and heating.

Urban churches faced with having to raise money for building repair and modernisation have additional challenges. Higher levels of deprivation can make it much harder to gain financial support from the congregation and the local population. Maintaining churches requires money, knowledge and skill, but also support and encouragement. One source of assistance is the National Churches Trust which has a national remit to support Christian places of worship throughout the UK. The following examples highlight some of the broader challenges faced by urban congregations helped by the trust, as well as demonstrating the importance of the community focus that both the trust, and the churches themselves, place on their redevelopment.


  Scaffolded facade of St John-at-Hackney, London
  St John-at-Hackney, London (Photo: Martin Lesanto)

The church of St John-at-Hackney has been at the heart of the Hackney community for over 700 years. The present Grade II* listed building is a familiar sight to local residents with the church standing just back from the main shopping street, and the churchyard developed into an attractive park. It was built by James Spiller in the 1790s to accommodate a growing congregation, and in 1814 a new tower was added. In 1955 a fire destroyed the church roof, along with the 1799 organ and many of the pews, and major reconstruction work was undertaken.

The building seats up to 1,200 people with excellent acoustics; the space has been used for recording music as well as hosting concerts. Over the last half century parts of the church have been adapted to provide community facilities, but these have aged and are no longer suitable. The church wants to redevelop to provide more community events concentrating on the elderly, people with learning disabilities and the young. It also plans to make better use of the porches which connect the church to the churchyard, by setting up an indoor and outdoor café. Work is also needed on the main part of the church used for worship, including making it more flexible for different congregation sizes, redecorating the ceiling and waterproofing the tower. This church combines many of the key elements that the National Churches Trust seeks to support: a listed building in need of repair, but one which also plays an important community role with ambitious plans for the future. In 2009 the trust awarded it a grant of £45,000.


The largest grant awarded by the trust in 2008 was one of £100,000 to St James Priory in Bristol. Not only the oldest church in the city, it is also one of Bristol’s oldest buildings, having served its local community for almost 900 years since its foundation as a Benedictine monastery in the early 12th century. It is said that during the construction of Bristol Castle, every tenth stone brought from Normandy was given to the building of this church.

As the city and its population expanded so did the parish end of the church with the development of a larger south aisle. The monks’ end of the church was lost during the dissolution of the monasteries, but the expansion of the parish end continued throughout the 19th century. The core of the church is Norman in character and it retains Romanesque nave arcades and clerestories. A small oculus (a type of circular window opening) in the west end of the church is thought to date from the 1170s and is believed to be the earliest surviving example in the country.

St James Priory was declared redundant in 1984 but is now leased to the St James Priory Project, which offers rehabilitation and support for drug and alcohol addicts, and keeps the church open for services. The priory had previously won a £3.2 million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund and sought to raise £2 million alongside that figure to put the building’s restoration into effect. The trust’s grant took the project to the halfway point in its appeal and the project has also achieved significant support from English Heritage.

The plans for St James are aimed at enhancing the building’s community role through the creation of a new café and outside piazza providing refreshment and hospitality for visitors to the city and the local business community; the conversion of the north aisle to provide facilities for use by business, schools, organisations and individuals; and improvements to the internal layout of the building to provide more flexible space. Repairs involve conservation work to important Romanesque sculptural details and repointing of walls, plus the re-slating and re-leading of the roof. The church is an excellent example of important church heritage existing hand-in-hand with a community project of quality and value.


St Mary Magdalene Church is a Grade I listed neo-Gothic building designed by George Edmund Street. Begun in 1867, its octagonal belfry is topped by a red and white spire and is a landmark in this part of London. A predominantly red brick building, the design of the church reflects the fact that it was slotted between tight rows of Victorian terraces. It is extensively decorated inside with brasses, tiling, mosaics, stained glass and a painted ceiling.

The church now stands in a deprived inner city estate. The post-war replacement of all the local Victorian housing with both high and low-rise local authority accommodation has had a significant effect on the congregation size, resulting in the church finding itself in an environment very different from that for which it was constructed.

  The richly decorated interior of the Chapel of St Sepulchre, St Mary Magdalene  
  Sir Ninian Comper’s magnificent Chapel of St Sepulchre in the crypt of St Mary Magdalene, Paddington, London (Photo: Colin Carron)  

Major restoration work has taken place over the past few years, which the trust has supported with three separate grants. The large west window that was in danger of collapse was reconstructed, the war memorial in front of the church was shored up and the whole of the roof was re-slated with improvement to the rainwater goods.

The latest stage of work has seen the church embark on a project to rewire the building, and there are plans to replace the floodlights with reproductions of the original light fittings. The church drains also need to be repaired. Water originally drained into a nearby street but, following the latter’s demolition, the water now soaks into grass and back towards the church.

The church has worked on plans with the Paddington Development Trust to redevelop its crypt (which includes St Sepulchre’s Chapel, a fine example of Sir John Ninian Comper’s work) to accommodate community programmes and events. There are also plans to make use of the nave for cultural activities and for education (the church has close links to St Mary Magdalene school). The church defines its vision as placing itself ‘at the centre of community life on the estate, so local people feel that they have a stake in it even though they may not worship here’.


St Michael’s Church is a Grade II* listed building that serves as the main Anglican church for Camden Town. Designed by Bodley and Garner and decorated in Gothic style, with a clerestory and sanctuary, it is said that the interior persuaded a young Ninian Comper to become an architect. By early 2000, however, the church was in a difficult state both in terms of its repair and the size of its congregation. It was on the English Heritage Buildings At Risk Register and poor drainage and burst pipes had caused much damage over the years.

  The scaffolded exterior of St Michael's, bounded by a busy Camden street
  St Michael's, Camden, London (Photo: Molyneux Kerr Architects)

The repair of the building, supported by a grant from the trust, has progressed in phases dealing initially with the west window and subsidence, before moving on to repair of the interior and the introduction of new facilities to enhance the usability of the church. A new roof was completed in 2007. The church has had a particular emphasis in the local community on supporting the homeless and refugees, but given the relative poverty of the surrounding areas it has been difficult for the church to raise money for repairs. However, its community role has led to national media coverage, including an appearance in the 2005 BBC4 documentary on the Church of England The Power and the Glory and inclusion in the 2006 ‘Faithful Cities’ report of the Church of England’s Commission on Urban Life and Faith.

The National Churches Trust continues to work in close partnership with many different organisations enhancing the perception of and support for places of worship by the public, decision-makers and opinion-formers. Compared with the situation immediately following the Second World War, much has been achieved. Many of our historic buildings are now in a better condition than has been the case for over 30 years. Across cities and towns the restoration and renewal of major city ‘landmark’ churches has been inspiring. But the scale of the challenge for many remains significant and the need for organisations like the National Churches Trust to respond in a variety of different ways is fundamental. Critical to our success is the need for us to be informed and led by those actually responsible for looking after these important buildings.



The Historic Churches Preservation Trust (HCPT), now the National Churches Trust, was founded in 1952 in direct response to the post-war situation, with Ivor Bulmer-Thomas as its first secretary and chairman. The trust was set up to raise and distribute funds to churches of architectural and historical significance, and that remained the focus of its work for nearly 60 years.

The launch of the National Churches Trust in June 2007 was in many respects a recognition that the challenges facing church communities in the 21st century are different and more complex than those of the early 1950s. In an increasingly secular society, churches are now perceived by many to be irrelevant, out of touch and often ineffectively managed. The history of the church over the centuries has, however, always been one of change and renewal. Built as places of worship, churches must now find new responses to meet the varied needs and aspirations of diverse local communities.

Central to all the work of the National Churches Trust is the active promotion of the historical, architectural and community value of churches, chapels and meeting houses across the UK. The trust strongly advocates the use of these buildings not just as places of worship, but as venues for social, cultural and educational activities. Through a broad range of activities, it seeks to engage people much more deeply in the cause; to help keep churches open, accessible and of value to communities; to provide practical assistance to those managing church buildings; to raise funds for structural repairs, improved access and new facilities; and to raise awareness of the value of churches, the difficulties involved in their management and the cost of their repair and maintenance.

The trust is independent, receiving no funding from government or church authorities, and it relies entirely on individual donations, legacies and the support of a wide range of trusts and foundations to fund its work. The trust supports church buildings from any christian denomination anywhere in the UK, and has worked in partnership with many urban churches facing difficulties.

At a local level in England, the trust works in partnership with the county churches trusts. These bodies have for nearly 60 years offered financial support, advice and encouragement to churches in their respective counties. It is interesting to note that despite covering most of England, there is a noticeable absence of this level of support in some significant urban areas, in particular inner London, Birmingham and Merseyside. The National Churches Trust is now actively exploring options for the introduction of similar levels of support within these major cities. The Greater Manchester Churches Preservation Trust, despite being only three years old, is already making a noticeable impact.

For further information on the National Churches Trust and the county churches trusts, see




Historic Churches, 2009


ANDREW EDWARDS, having previously held a number of senior management positions in the voluntary sector and the performing arts, is currently chief executive of the National Churches Trust.

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