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Addressing Challenges of Roman Catholic Heritage: Funding, Policy and Capacity-Building in England and Wales today


Recipient of the British Academy Innovation Fellowship (Route A), 2022-23 (IF2223\230040), in partnership with the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales (CBCEW)


A major recent review, part funded by Historic England and overseen by the Patrimony Committee of the CBCEW has identified and catalogued almost 2,800 Catholic churches and chapels in England and Wales that are in regular use for worship by the public (Taking Stock, 2022). Of these, 25% are Grade I or Grade II Listed properties, and this number is set to increase as the results of the review are acted upon (ibid.). Some of these churches date from the medieval period, having survived the English Reformation as private chapels on the estates of important Catholic noble families. The vast majority, however, were built in the 19th and 20th centuries: the Second Catholic Relief Act (1791) allowed Catholics once again to build churches, and full Catholic Emancipation (1829) and the restoration of the Catholic hierarchy (1850) coincided with mass immigration from Ireland in the wake of the Irish Famine, providing new momentum and enthusiasm for church building across the country (Little 1966; Martin 2006). Changes in Roman Catholic religious practices ushered in by the Second Vatican Council (1961-65) also led to deeper aesthetic engagement with modernist styles in art and architecture in the mid-20th century (Martin 2006). These churches evidence the changes that took place in British religion, art, and architecture from the late Georgian and Victorian periods through to the Edwardian and Modern periods, and include exemplars of Gothic revival, classical, Romanesque and Byzantine style buildings produced by such important British architects as Augustus Pugin, John Francis Bentley, and Francis Xavier Velarde (ibid.). Smaller parish churches – especially those located in the North of England where the majority of Irish migrants initially settled – speak to the changing religious and social fabric of Britain in these centuries. As such, Roman Catholic places of worship constitute a significant component of the nation’s religious and architectural heritage from these periods, and are important evidence of the artistic and social history of England and Wales.

These churches and chapels are also crucial foci of Catholic religion and identity today. An estimated 3.8 million adults (8.3% of the adult population) identify as Catholic, with 28% of these saying they attend church services at least once a week. The percentage of Catholics in the total population has also remained relatively stable over the last 30 years, in contrast with the Church of England, which has seen its numbers decline by half since the 1980s (Bullivant 2016). As a population, British Catholics today skew younger than the Anglican church, and are of more diverse ethnic and social backgrounds, owing to immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe, Africa, and Asia (ibid.). As such, contemporary Catholic churches are not just heritage sites whose value pertains to their place in British history: they are also active, living, and dynamic places of worship that are integral to the spiritual lives of many individuals, families, and diverse communities across the country.


THE CHALLENGE: Catholic Heritage in a Changing Funding and Policy Environment

Despite the importance of Catholic churches as sites of heritage and contemporary spiritual life, Catholic heritage projects can struggle to secure funding from trusts and programmes. Pilot research (see below) indicates that recent changes in the funding and policy context may lead to expectations on the part of funding bodies that Catholic projects can and should approximate those undertaken at Church of England places of worship, yet this is not always possible or appropriate.  

In 2017, the National Lottery Heritage Fund (NLHF) closed its Grants for Places of Worship scheme to new applications for heritage projects. Since that time, religious heritage projects have had to compete for NLHF funding through its general open grant programmes, pitching them against a wide range of proposals, often with very different, secular heritage values. Although this change in principle enabled non-listed religious buildings greater access to funding, religious heritage organisations were concerned that it had been made without sufficient consultation, and that it would have an overall negative impact on the maintenance and conservation of the physical fabric of Britain’s historic places of worship (Historic Religious Buildings Alliance, 2017). This change also coincided with the publication of the UK government’s Taylor Review of the Sustainability of English Churches and Cathedrals (Department for Culture, Media & Sport 2018). Key findings of the Review, which focussed exclusively on Anglican properties, were that greater community use of all historic places of worship needed to be developed, and that “new and different uses for buildings may need to be considered and new income streams developed to sit alongside the longstanding function of the building as a place for Christian worship” (Ibid., 15). The conclusions of the Taylor Review and the changes instituted at the NLHF, as the single largest heritage funding body in the UK, have meant that “community use” is becoming a highly important factor in the success of applications across the religious heritage funding sector as a whole (see Historic England 2019).

With this transition towards more secular, “community use” values, Roman Catholic places of worship find themselves at a disadvantage when competing for funding (Curti 2018). Many Anglican parish churches are located in villages and small towns where members of the larger community consider them part of their own history, even by those who have no interest or connection with the Church of England today. In contrast, many Catholic churches are located in urban areas, where larger and more diverse communities may not as readily recognise them as their own local heritage, especially when they do not match the public’s vision of religious heritage as the quintessential medieval church building. Further, Church of England places of worship have been able to develop a wide repertoire of “community use” activities by hosting everything from social coffee mornings and baby play groups to high-profile exhibitions that charge entrance fees, such as Peterborough Cathedral’s current Tyrannosaurus Rex exhibition, a collaboration with the Natural History Museum. However, such activities cannot take place in Catholic churches: according to Roman Catholic Canon Law, only “those things which serve the exercise or promotion of worship, piety, or religion are permitted” in the sacred spaces of Catholic churches and chapels, because it is the place of the reservation of the Blessed Sacrament (Code of Canon Law 1210). The position that Catholic sacred spaces must not be used for secular activities was recently re-emphasised by both John Arnold, the Bishop of Salford, and James Crowley, a Church historian who sits on the grants committee of the National Churches Trust (Curti, 2018). As such, the more obvious “community use” opportunities, in which church spaces are made available to the wider public for non-religious activities, are impossible in Catholic places of worship on theological grounds.

This challenge therefore also raises urgent ethical questions about whether these changes in the policy and funding environment have the potential to undermine Roman Catholics’ freedom of religion or belief, a characteristic protected by The Equality Act (2010). In other areas of heritage management in England and Wales freedom of religion and liturgical independence are supported by legislation. The Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act (1990) affords what is called Ecclesiastical Exemption from the regular planning procedures administered by local government councils that pertain to listed buildings. This exemption enables religious denominations to manage alterations to their listed buildings themselves (through appropriate procedures that protect the heritage value of buildings and their contents), without the oversight of secular planning officials (Historic England 2022). In principle, the Ecclesiastical Exemption reinforces religious equality by allowing the Catholic Church to prioritise its own beliefs, values, and regulations within its churches and chapels, on level footing with the Church of England and other exempt denominations. In practice, however, the recent changes in the funding and policy environment described above mean that Catholic churches find themselves less likely than their Anglican counterparts to be able to undertake immediate repair work or invest in conservation activities precisely because their beliefs, values and regulations are at odds with the ways that funders and policy makers increasingly interpret “community use” and social value. As such, this situation could result in indirect discrimination against Roman Catholic heritage applications, and could put the physical integrity of British Catholic heritage at risk.

This challenge presents issues and opportunities on both sides: on the one hand, the policy and funding environment of religious heritage appears to be moving in a direction that is increasingly incompatible with Roman Catholic religious beliefs, practices and regulations. On the other, Catholic dioceses need to find new ways of approaching the idea of “community use” in order to develop convincing proposals that will be compatible with their religion and beneficial to the communities outside of their doors, if they are to be successful in an increasingly competitive field for limited heritage funds.  



The collaborative research programme will investigate the challenge presented above through three central research questions:

(1) What values and priorities are most important to different Catholic stakeholders with regards to their built heritage and material culture, and in what ways can religious and heritage values inform and support one another? 


Many studies in “material religion” emphasise the importance of the built environment and material culture to religious experience and religious communities today. Research has also shown that there is significant overlap between religious perspectives and experiences and those emphasised by heritage understandings in Western societies. At the same time, these points of view are not always entirely compatible, and a diversity of expectations and experiences can constitute both religious and heritage perceptions (Gilchrist 2020; Isnart & Cerezales, 2020). It is important to take such synergies and diversity into consideration when seeking to understand Catholic places of worship and their developing roles as sites of religious heritage. Key questions include:

-In what ways do built heritage and material culture contribute to Catholics’ experience and identity in Britain today?

-What values and priorities are most important to different Catholic stakeholders when planning heritage projects? Should religious values always be the most important consideration in these processes?

-How do different Catholic stakeholders view religious and heritage values as supporting and/or contradicting one another, and how have their experiences informed their perspectives?


(2) How has the emphasis on “community use” developed in the religious heritage funding and policy sectors, and how do different stakeholders perceive the meaning and importance of this value?


“Community use” is becoming a standard requirement in heritage development and funding applications, and is increasingly viewed as way for places of worship to contribute to the community at large, at a time when overall participation in organised religion is understood to be declining. The overall impact of “community use” is assumed by many in the sector to be beneficial to the material fabric of heritage properties, to all stakeholder communities, and to society at large. While it is understandable that the sector does not wish to define or place limits on what types of activities constitute “community use,” this also means that different individuals and organisations may interpret its meaning and value in very different ways. Key questions include:

-What are the larger economic, social, and political contexts for the increasing emphasis on “community use”?

-How do different stakeholders understand what types of activity should and should not be included in “community use”?

-How do different stakeholders understand “community” within this framework?

-Is “community use” always compatible with other tangible and intangible heritage values, such as material conservation, historic and aesthetic value, or religious practices? If not, how should priorities be determined?

-What ethical and legal concerns might be raised by the new emphasis on “community use”, and how might the changing policy and funding environment impact equality of access to heritage funding?


(3) What are the social factors that influence the relationship between particular Catholic churches and the larger communities in which they are embedded, and in what ways can Catholic dioceses identify and contribute to concerns and priorities of these communities through the fabric of their built heritage?


In order for Catholic churches to produce effective “community use” proposals, the relationship between themselves and larger communities needs to be understood and clearly articulated. This relationship will vary significantly depending on a church’s location in the country, its type of social environment (urban, suburban, or rural), and the socio-economic and religious make-up of the larger community. Research in this area can provide Catholic planners with guidance about how to understand this relationship. Key questions include:

-What is the historical relationship of churches to their larger communities, and are larger communities aware of this history? How can local history be connected to the story of the Catholic church?

-What interests and values do Catholic communities share with the larger communities around them? What do they have in common and in what areas can bridges be built?

-What are some issues or concerns of the larger community that Catholic values more broadly can contribute to?


1. What a new plan to save the UK’s churches says about their purpose in society. The Conversation, February 7, 2024. 

2. Engaging Your Community: A guide for Catholic heritage projects. 

3. Case Studies Page

4. Website Review Survey


Bullivant, S. 2016. Contemporary Catholicism in England and Wales: a statistical report based on recent British Social Attitudes Survey Data: Benedict XVI Centre for Religion and Society.

Curti, E. 2018. “Open the Doors” The Tablet. December 8, 2018.

Code of Canon Law 1210.

Department for Culture, Media & Sport 2018. The Taylor Review: Sustainability of English Churches and Cathedrals.

Gilchrist, R. 2020. Sacred Heritage: Monastic Archaeology, Identities, Beliefs. University of Cambridge Press.

Historic England 2019. “New and Additional Uses for Places of Worship”.

Historic England 2022. “Ecclesiastical Exemption from Listed Building Consent”.

Historic Religious Buildings Alliance 2017. “HLF Grants for Places of Worship (GPOW) scheme”.

Isnart, C. & N. Cerezales (eds). 2020. The Religious Heritage Complex: Legacy, Conservation and Christianity. Bloomsbury.

Little, B. 1966. Catholic Churches Since 1623. Robert Hale

Martin, C. 2006. A Glimpse of Heaven: Catholic Churches of England and Wales. English Heritage.

Taking Stock. 2022. “Taking Stock: Catholic Churches of England and Wales.” Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales.

Image Credits: Mick Knapton, Thorvaldsson, and Diego Delso. Creative Commons CC0 License. All other images are © Alanna Cant.

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