Building in Churchyards


It should be born in mind from the outset that the Worcester Diocesan Advisory Committee for the Care of Churches has as part of its duty ‘due regard to the role of a church as a local centre of worship and mission’. This means that the Committee look at proposals in a wider way than the local planning authority. Because the extension of any church or the building in the grounds (and especially a medieval church) is likely to be a lengthy and costly process, all avenues to accommodate your activities within the church as it is now should be explored. The difficulty grows where the church is particularly old.

The proposal to extend your present church building or to build a separate building will probably have been suggested because of growing activities which cannot be contained within the church as it stands. For this reason it would be well worth your while spending time reading the Committee’s Paper ‘Reordering of Churches’.

This Paper, ‘Building in Churchyards’, assumes that you have fully explored the adaptation of your church and that an extension or a separate new building is the only course that can be taken. The following paragraphs attempt to answer some of the questions that must be considered when contemplating either extension or new build.

Before proceeding it is worth pondering on some words of William Morris, written 100 years ago:

“….many a beautiful and ancient building is being destroyed all over civilised Europe as well as in England, because it is supposed to interfere with the convenience of the citizens, while a little forethought might save it without trenching on that convenience; but even apart from that, I say that if we are not prepared to put up with a little inconvenience in our lifetimes for the sake of preserving a monument of art which will elevate and educate, not only ourselves, but our sons, and our sons’ sons, it is vain and idle of us to talk about art – or education either. Brutality must be bred of such brutality.

The same thing may be said about enlarging, or otherwise altering for convenience sake, old buildings still in use for something like their original purposes: in almost all such cases it is really nothing more than a question of a little money for a new site; and then a new building can be built exactly fitted for the uses it is needed for, with such art about it as our own days can furnish.”

What has happened in the past?

Down the ages churches have been adapted to meet the liturgical and fashion needs of the time. Aisles were added, towers and spires built, clerestories inserted. This has meant that churches, perhaps more than most other buildings, reflect sociological changes that have affected the community in which they are set. This is another reason why alterations need to be considered very carefully so that elements of the historical development are not destroyed but added to.

Another aspect which is worth considering is that changes in the past were often for liturgical reasons or because of the growth of the congregation. Today, it is often non-liturgical reasons that are prompting change. Space is required for coffee after services, for meetings, for the Sunday School and for toilet facilities. With the advent of more social reasons driving change, it must not be forgotten that, first and foremost, our churches were built to the glory of God. That glory can and should be reflected in all aspects of the church’s life, and this means that the quality of materials and workmanship must be of the highest order and in keeping with the existing building. Quality is something which the DAC seeks to uphold in respect of all work to our churches.

Where do we start?

The Starting point must be a complete evaluation of the reasons for wanting to commence the project. The following questions will help to make a start on this process:

  1. How would we, ideally, like to see our Ministry develop in the long term?
  2. How will this affect the present proposal and what implications are there for the future?
  3. Can our requirement be met in any other way by the use of an existing building within the parish?

Too much time cannot be spent on this evaluation since thought now may void mistakes which may be regretted later. The idea of an overall development plan cannot be commended too strongly. Once prepared it can act as a yardstick and the ultimate goal approached in phases.

Who can help with this thinking?

Your Inspecting Architect is the first person you should consult.

The Diocesan Advisory Committee must be the second body to be consulted. This should be done at the earliest opportunity and the Committee’s involvement agreed. Initially this will probably be through a site visit when first thoughts can be discussed and the committee’s wide experience be brought to bear. They will be able to help co-ordinate the process of obtaining the necessary permissions. This will also make the Faculty process easier.

Your local Planning Department should be consulted since planning permission and building regulation approval will be required for any extension or new building. Listed building consent is not required for an extension as this aspect is covered by the Faculty.

Historic England must be consulted where grant aid has been received for repairs to your church and its sensible to do so if the church is listed I or II* since the local authority are required to consult in such cases. Again early consultation may avoid disappointment later.

Amenity Societies: There are a number of these, for different periods of history, and a general one for the protection of ancient buildings.

The Council for the Care of Churches is a national body with vast expertise it can call upon. They would normally be brought in by the DAC.

The Royal Fine Arts Commission is another body who may need to be consulted, depending on the nature of your church.

English Nature is a national body that can advise on flora and fauna.

Is your inspecting architect the right person to do the design work?

The answer to this question is often “Yes”. However, there are occasions when a particular architect is an expert when it comes to repairs but may lack the experience needed for a new design. Again, the DAC should be consulted if you have any doubts, and it is a good idea to talk to your inspecting architect at an early stage to gauge his reaction to the project.

What is the cost of professional help?

Once it has been decided which architect you will use the next discussion should be about fees. This should be decided and agreed in writing before any work is undertaken. You should also bear in mind that other professionals may be needed such as a structural engineer and, if the project is very large, a quantity surveyor. For most building projects now you will also need to appoint a CDM Co-ordinator to look after aspects of Health and Safety. Fees for these need to be borne in mind when the total project cost is assessed. It must be remembered that all professional work will need to be paid for and, therefore, it is wise to keep initial design work simple, until it is decided that the project will proceed.

What about the churchyard?

A number of aspects must be considered where building is to take place in a churchyard:

Is the site suitable? 

This question must be asked from the outset. It may be that soil conditions will not support the proposed building without special foundations. Your architect will be able to advise how this can be ascertained.

Will graves be affected? 

If they will be, the correct procedures must be followed. These involve seeking the agreement of the living relatives. You should contact the Diocesan Registrar since the law is complex in this area especially if your churchyard is disused under the Disused Burial Ground Act 1884.

What about ownership of the land? 

This should not be forgotten. The churchyard is part of the parson’s freehold and it may not be appropriate to have a detached church hall in this ownership. Again the Diocesan Secretary or the Diocesan Registrar can advise.

Will there be need for an archaeological investigation? 

This may be necessary since the foundation may disturb ancient ground or the extension cover up an important feature of your church. Here contact with the County Council Archaeological Section will be helpful as they will be able to consult the Sites and Monument records. What must be remembered in the planning stages is that if an archaeological dig is necessary the PCC will be responsible for the cost as the developer.

What effect will the proposals have on the flora and fauna? 

Are there any special plants or animals living in the church or churchyard that must be considered during the planning of the new building? Churchyards are a haven for all sorts of plant life and creatures, from lichen to bats; and you must identify those which are protected by law from disturbance. If trees are in the way checks must be made as to whether they are protected by Tree Preservation Orders. You should also check whether the churchyard is a conservation area. These enquiries can be made of the local authority planning department. Whenever there is a possibility that the proposals would have an impact on wildlife, the parish should approach a local wildlife trust or English Nature to suggest an ecologist to examine the proposals, make suggestions and prepare a brief report which can be submitted to the DAC.

What about design concepts?

Put another way, what will be acceptable? In a general document like this, these questions are not easily answered since most situations are different. However, some general concepts can be applied.

The authorities will be looking for a building which harmonises with what is already there, does not over-develop the site or adversely affect neighbours. You should be looking for a building which will not make your existing maintenance liability worse and will not alter the existing fabric more than is absolutely necessary. It should avoid, if at all possible, the alteration of the churchyard so that it is lost as a peaceful setting for members of the community.

When such factors are considered, the concept of convenience raises its head again, especially where the linking of the existing building with the new is concerned. There can be advantages in providing a link between the buildings since VAT liability may be reduced in this way. This must be checked with the local customs and Excise Office, since the interpretation of alteration to a listed building can be a source of debate. The alteration of a listed building may be zero rated for VAT purposes.

However, the links between two buildings can cause the most difficult design and sometimes, maintenance problems. Historic England have gone as far as to say that an extension in the form of a separate block, linked to the main building by a passage of some kind, is seldom successful. Reasons for this view are that the ground between the buildings can become ‘dead’ space. The aim must be to achieve a harmony where old and new complement without detracting from each other. The design thinking must assess how the whole building is to be used. How can all the available facilities be appreciated by all?

The answer to such a question may lead to the design being altered. For example, a complex of buildings may have developed over a long period of time, with several entrances. The current alteration might re-focus the complex so that all elements can be accessed from a single entrance. Where considerable amounts of money are to be expended, such lateral thinking may save money but also result in much better building for the twenty first century.

Those planning new buildings are often most concerned about what will happen when the building has been built. This is laudable, but must be put alongside the idea that the building itself should be to God’s glory as much as what will happen inside it. This also recognises that the building may well outlast some of its uses. The structure’s impact on the community and setting will be longer lived and, therefore, must add to that community and not detract from it.