Understanding YOUR church, chapel or meeting house
Understanding places of worship and heritage buildings are just steps on the road to understanding YOUR church, chapel or meeting house, which in turn helps you to care for and use it to meet the needs of your community whilst protecting and enjoying its rich social and architectural heritage.
Besides being fascinating, understanding your building will really help you to make the most of it whilst enjoying looking after it for generations to come.
Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings: researching your place of worship
Church of England: understand your church
Researching and recording your building
If you are just starting your research, there are obvious places to start for basic information.
It is important that you make a clear and detailed record of what you find out, to help those who will follow you in caring for your building. You could save them valuable time and even give them information which they might not be able to find for themselves.
Original documents and books
It’s worth reading all the original source material you can find, including the official listing if your church is listed. If your church is old enough, check your village or town’s entry in the Domesday Book. Looking at the original entry can really fire your enthusiasm for finding out more! Another source of information are Pevsner’s Buildings of England books. You will be able to find your local volume in your local library or online.
Historic England: national heritage list for England
Domesday Book Online: contents
Surveys and studies
Over time your church will have undergone several surveys and studies, and should continue to do so.
There will definitely have been regular inspections by an architect, but there could also be specialist studies of particular aspects of the building or objects of particular interest. You will probably find these in the church safe or cupboards, or with clergy or churchwardens, although there may also be copies in your local archives of diocesan records office.
The National Monuments Record is the public archive of Historic England. It includes historic photographs, architectural and archaeological reports, plans and other items related to the historic environment of England. You may be able to find records relating to your church or village / town there.
Over recent years your church may have had a church survey produced by volunteers from the National Association of Decorative and Fine Arts Societies. You can check which churches have been surveyed on their website.
National Churches Trust: QIs and regular inspections
National Churches Trust: condition survey
Historic England: National Monuments Record
National Churches Trust: The Arts Society church surveys
Ask to see the church contents register, or terrier. The modern document will tell you a lot about the current building and its furnishings and fittings. You may also be able to find copies of historical registers in your local archives, or via diocesan records offices and perhaps even original and/or development plans, many Victorian and 20th century plans are online thanks to the Incorporated Church Building Society.
National Churches Trust: contents register
Incorporated Church Building Society: church plans online
Guidebooks and interpretation
If you are allowed, have a look through the church safe and cupboards. There might be hidden gems of old guidebooks and contents registers hidden in the back. You could also ask members of the community to loan you any old guidebooks or leaflets they have, or check at your local archives for copies.