If you have an interest in the heritage found in churches, innate curiosity, a sense of humour – and in winter warm clothes – you’ve got what it takes to become a Church Recorder, writes Elizabeth Chalmers.
The voluntary work involves a team of at least ten people researching and documenting the artistic and historical heritage of a church and then recording the content in a detailed illustrated Church Record book which is presented to the church.
How did Church Recording start?
In the winter of 1970-71 the Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A) held an exhibition entitled Victorian Church Art. But when the curator was at the planning stage, it was found that there was no reliable record of the contents of the nation’s churches - and that some of the churches were not even sure about the whereabouts, origins and value of some items in their possession. This was a matter for serious concern - and that’s when, following a conversation on a train between Shirley Bury, Assistant Keeper of Metalwork, on her way to give a lecture to Chiltern Decorative and Fine Arts Society, and Helen Lowenthal, a National Association of Decorative and Fine Arts Societies (NADFAS) Vice President, NADFAS took up the challenge and Church Recording started.
Initially there were three pilot groups in Buckinghamshire which each made a basic record using card index cards and taking film photographs. These were then shown to Sir John Pope-Hennessy, the Director of the V&A, who liked the outline but wanted more. And so the basic template for a Church Record was agreed and, although it has become more detailed and professional over the years, the archival format itself has remained unchanged.
Office? What office?
In the early days of NADFAS there was no NADFAS House to bring us all together and indeed until 1989 the NADFAS copies of Church Records were kept in Beaconsfield in the house of Jane Wright who was Church Recording Chairman from 1983 to 1988.
In 1989 Church Recorders were provided with their own office by the Diocese of London. This was in Regency Street, Pimlico and was shared with the local pigeon population and, in due course, declared not fit for purpose! In 1992 we moved to North Audley Street, a posher address, where we had our own office, complete with an upright piano in the bathroom!
In recognition of the Diocese’s help, the Church Recorders helped to check the contents of all the Church of England parish safes in the Diocese of London to comply with the Parochial Registers and Records Measure, 1978.
Eventually, in 1994, twenty years after Church Recording started and when NADFAS had moved to Guilford Street, Church Recorders moved in there too.
Very quickly it was found that there was not room to house all the bound copies of the Records but fortunately we had a contact at the Royal Commission for Historical Monuments (now Historic England) which agreed to take the NADFAS copies together with the photographic material to be stored in the archive at Swindon. This arrangement lasted until 2020 although, some years back, space also became a problem in Swindon and recent Records are held electronically instead of as hard copy.
So what is a Church Record?
It is a researched and detailed record of the interior and artefacts of a church, most of which are measured, dated and photographed. Information is provided wherever possible about the craftsmen, from medieval tilers and bell founders to stained glass artists and silversmiths. We research biographical details of donors and those commemorated on memorials - and finally, after perhaps two or three year’s work, produce a work of professional standard for distribution to the Church, the County /Diocesan Record Office where the Church’s archives are stored, the V&A Art Library (where it all started), and the Church Care Library (and the equivalent for non-Church of England churches).
Finally, in 2020, Church Recording Society, a new charitable organisation, was registered in England and Scotland and, from 1st January 2021, became the national umbrella organisation for Church Recording in place of The Arts Society (NADFAS).
48 years on, in 2021, there are 90 active Church Recording groups across the UK and over 2,000 Records have been completed. Two years of semi-isolation due to Covid has resulted in the ‘early retirement’ of some groups but, with the stimulation of a new Society and the return to properly active recording, recruitment is high on the agenda.
So what does it take to be a Church Recorder?
Interest in the wealth of heritage found in our churches, innate curiosity, commitment, team spirit, a sense of humour - and warm clothes.
More Church Recorders are urgently needed - you can find out more on the Church Recording Society website .