ROBIN PHILLIPS
Beyond outrage
The Chapels Society sees itself as a determined minority, seeking an even-handed approach to the history and future of England’s religious buildings.
The Grade II* former Unitarian chapel at Upper Brook Street, Manchester. Built by Sir Charles Barry in 1839 and reputedly the frst gothic revival building erected for nonconformist congregation, it has been in the ownership and care of Manchester City Council for over 30 years. (Photo: Roger Holden)
It is almost unavoidable, given the complicated religious history of these islands, and especially of England, that a society which concerns itself with religious buildings should find it difficult to explain to others what its remit is. More of this difficulty can be seen when we look up the word ‘chapel’ in a dictionary. The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary gives nine meanings. The first four are: 1. A place of Christian worship not being a parish or cathedral church, an oratory. 2. A private place of worship. 3. A place of public worship of the Established Church subordinate to the church of the parish. 4. Places of Christian worship other than those of the established church of the country (1662).
The date of that fourth definition will immediately remind anyone with a sense of history of The Book of Common Prayer, the 3rd Act for the Uniformity of Public Worship, and the Great Ejectment of 2,000 nonconforming ministers from the parish churches – the end of the Puritan Revolution.
Founded in 1988, the Chapels Society concerns itself with ‘chapels, meeting-houses and related structures for nonconformist and allied congregations, and of any other places of worship and former places of worship in the United Kingdom’. As Ireland and Wales no longer have any established church, and that in Scotland was replaced as long ago as 1690 by the Presbyterian system, the Chapels Society in practice concentrates its interest chiefly on England.
The society’s founding arose out of outrage and increasing anger at several instances where trustees of
historic buildings had insensitively stripped out internal fittings, and from the problems which kept arising from the working of ecclesiastical exemption, by which the authorities of certain churches, under specified conditions, are permitted an exemption from the normal process of listed building consent. The arrangements for ecclesiastical exemption, modified after the Newman Review, are still not understood by all local authorities, still less by the general public. At present the exemption applies in England and Wales to most places of worship owned by the Church of England, the Roman Catholic Church, the Baptist Union, the Methodist Church and the United Reformed Church. Other denominations are dealt with wholly by the secular system.
Today the whole planning system is in flux. The government white paper The Future Protection of our Heritage, published early in 2007, was followed in May by proposals for the wholesale reform of the planning system, so the upshot of both sets of proposals, and the new procedures to take their place, are awaited.
The Chapels Society strongly supports some of the changes proposed: the unifying of the designation system, the greater emphasis on archaeological aspects of buildings, the prospect of interim protection before designation, and the removal of class consent for agricultural workings. But it has many reservations, chiefly doubting whether the government has the will to put adequate resources into the new system, not only in terms of money but of staff. Certificates of Immunity from listing, and pre-application discussions, both seem
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Robin Phillips is
honorary secretary of
the Chapels Society,
chapelsoc/.
suspect to the society, and risk disenfranchising the amenity societies. Voluntary organisations and their expertise are a vital resource.
Let us look at two examples of the society’s casework, one simple, the other complex. Tewkesbury Borough Council, looking to prune its expenditure, proposed in 2005 to mothball the 1620 Old Baptist Chapel. Owned by a local trust linked with the congregation at the modern Baptist chapel, this is used as a religious museum for educational purposes rather than actual worship. Fearful that its closure would unavoidably bring deterioration and rot, the Chapels Society objected. At the same time the Baptist Times ran an article reporting on the situation. Great was the relief when the society heard from the tourism and economic development manager that closure was not an option and that other sources of funding are being explored.
The second example is that of altering the seating at the New Room, Bristol, built in 1739 and listed Grade I. The intricate history of the chapel involves not only Methodist denominations but also, for 120 years of its history, the Welsh Calvinistic Methodists (Presbyterian Church of Wales). The proposals of 2000 from the managing trustees would have meant the removal of the ground-floor pews. ‘They want to be able to have a knees-up’ was a less-than-sympathetic reaction from a member of the Chapel Society’s council. The proposal was turned down by the listed buildings advisory committee, but the trustees appealed. A modified scheme was eventually approved, allowing the removal
of the front two rows of pews and a pew frontal. Since that final decision, the interior has undergone complete redecoration, which has been widely applauded.
The society works under several difficulties. Statutory amenity societies such as the Georgian Group and the Ancient Monuments Society enjoy the advantage that all planning applications must by law be notified to them. The Chapels Society, by contrast, may be uninformed until it is too late, or only alerted sidelong by helpful friends in the Historic Chapels Trust. The society attempts national coverage. Its membership is spread thinly around the whole country.
The society can expect no one to listen unless its comments are well founded. It needs to keep its powder dry for the cases which are really important, working whenever possible with national or local amenity societies, offering those involved – planning and conservation staff, church trustees, owners of buildings and architects – the specialised resources and experience and historical understanding that it can share.
The Chapels Society is a minority, and always will be. Every time a white paper mentions ‘the church’, the society wants to insert ‘or chapel’. One of its founding members described the society as ‘the Anti-Anglican Society’ — a caricature indeed. An even-handed approach to the history and future of our religious buildings is something the Chapels Society hopes for, but something which will need a good deal of work from everyone.
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