Churches no longer needed for worship

There may come a time when a church is no longer needed for regular public worship.

We can help find a suitable new use for it or, if it is important to the nation’s heritage, preserve it as it stands.

Exterior view of St Andrews church Handsworth

Closing a church

There is a formal process for closing a church. This is governed by Church law and managed by the diocese with the help of the Church Commissioners.

Not all cases necessarily end in closure. The process can sometimes lead to new ideas and opportunities for sustainable use of the building. Or it may lead to a solution which involves sharing the building for worship and other uses.

If a decision is made to close, then the Church Commissioners and the diocese will seek a new use for the church building and a suitable buyer to take it on.

The Church Buildings Council has an important role to advise on the heritage implications of this. We have a dedicated committee to identify what is special about a church that ought to be preserved after worship has ended and the building has passed out of the care of the congregation.

Giving the building to a trust or community group

Some church buildings are of such great architectural quality and historic interest that they deserve to be preserved as they are, with their furnishings intact and the churchyard unchanged.

In these cases, the best option may be to give the church to someone who can maintain it and open it to the public. For example:

Under this kind of ownership, the church usually remains available for occasional worship and light-touch uses such as concerts and exhibitions.

Accommodating new uses

In most cases, the church can accommodate a new use without harming its significance. But it may need to undergo some changes.

We advise the Church Commissioners on how a new user might do a conversion or adaptation project that respects the qualities of the building.

The key factors are:

The form and massing of the building and its presence in the street, area or landscape
The materials and architectural style
The rooms, spaces and inside layout
The sensitivity of the built fabric

Where a church has little or no heritage interest, we advise whether demolition is acceptable, in heritage terms. This might be at the beginning of the process, if the situation is clear-cut, or it may follow a search for a new use in which no suitable proposal comes forward.

The church furnishings

It will not always be possible or appropriate to keep the church’s furnishings in the building once it has been put to a new use.

We advise the Church Commissioners and the diocese on the historic, architectural and artistic interest of the furnishings.

They will also take other factors into account including their importance to the parish and wider community and the sacramental significance of certain items.

The other key factor is the nature of the new use: if it is public or charitable, there may be more scope for certain items to remain.

Font, altar, communion table and plate
Fixed items (e.g. ledger slabs, monuments, pulpit, pews etc.)
War memorials
Stained glass
Organs
Bells
Clocks

Otherwise, in broad terms, the guidelines in place for disposal of items in open churches apply to those in closed churches.

Find out more about disposing of church items

New uses for the churchyard

We help the Church Commissioners understand the implications of new uses for the churchyard.

We advise them on:

Its character, amenity value and role as a suitable setting for the church
The protection of burials and archaeological remains

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Monuments and gravestones
The natural environment
Other outdoor space

What do we base our advice on?

We base our advice on the church buildings report – a document we prepare early in the process.

It includes:

  • A detailed survey and description of the building
  • Details of existing protections (e.g. listed building, scheduled monuments, etc.)
  • An assessment of the significance of the church, its furnishings and the churchyard

Our advice on the scope for change draws on a wealth of imaginative and sensitive ideas of conversion projects which have been carried out in recent years.

Find out more in this excellent guide to new uses in former churches

We normally advise that significant churches are professionally recorded before disposal or conversion. Recording normally takes the form of a photographic survey in line with Historic England guidance.

Also of interest

Diocesan strategic reviews

Integrate church buildings into mission and ministry planning

Ideas for new uses

Inspiration from Historic England

Closed church buildings available for new uses

A list of closed churches currently available for disposal

Church Building Reports

How we go about assessing the building

The closure process

Find out more about the formal process