Selling church land to pay for new developments  

Everyone with a church that needs repairs would like to land funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, a grant from the National Churches Trust, or maybe receive a generous legacy. But sometimes, when large sums are needed for a church project, it can pay to think outside the box. One idea, which can be controversial, is selling church land for development. Hilaire Gomer, journalist and volunteer, investigates.


Raising large sums for two churches in Surbiton, Surrey

The parishioners of two major Anglican churches, St Andrew’s and St Mark’s in Surbiton,  have been discussing how to raise funds and improve facilities for at least 20 years.

Peter Stokes was parish treasurer for 10 years to 2013.  He explains, “A study of the needs of the local community was undertaken in 2003, as a result of which it became obvious that if we were to achieve our aim of serving God by serving the community, we needed to improve our buildings”.

But how to find the money? The Victorian parish church of St Mark’s, its steeple on the top of Surbiton Hill a local landmark, had an old church hall which could be pulled down and the land sold. It also had a reasonably-sized graveyard with space for a new church hall and a new vicarage.

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St Mark’s church decided to sell land to a developer to build flats – see left 

Developer Shanly Homes offered the best price of £3m for the land. It wished to build 20 luxury flats with balconies and underground parking on the site. These flats came to the market with a price tag of £200,000 – £500,000.

At the bottom of Surbiton Hill sits St Andrew’s church. Its old church hall site was redeveloped with affordable housing and a new Scout HQ.

Changes to help the two churches to work  better with the community

In all, the parish spent £5m on improvements for the two churches so that they could provide more for parishioners and local people. For this it gained a new hall attached to the side of St Mark’s church. The old 1950s vicarage (which was in the way of the Shanly build), was pulled down and a new vicarage built on the graveyard.

St Andrew’s saw the creation of two new community rooms, one strikingly made of glass and steel. The rooms are used for meetings and available for hire and also provide pre-and after-school child care.

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A new meeting room for St Andrew’s, Surbiton

The money also financed the refurbishment of both churches. St Andrew’s, a grade II- listed red brick edifice with a tower built in 1874, has a fine organ and is known for its musical events.

During 2008 and 2009 St Andrew’s interior was cleaned, revealing striped stone work on its pillars. It was given new staging (the old version collapsed during a concert). It was also given a new magnificent Italian marble floor.

Picture 017.jpgSt Andrew’s, Surbiton, benefited from refurbishment and an Italian marble floor

According to Peter Stokes the project went relatively smoothly, with Kingston Council being supportive. He said, “From planning to rededication it took about seven years to carry out the works, finishing in 2012.”

A good development – but maybe not so affordable?

Many parishioners felt that if you had to have development to refurbish and improve the churches, then the Shanly development was acceptable.

There was some dissent about why the churches didn’t think in terms of more affordable housing, rather than the luxury flats that were built. The answer from the project team was that without the Shanly offer the viability of the whole project would have been in doubt.

On the whole parishioners accepted that it was OK that “holy ground” was being developed, but the land that Shanly used was not in fact part of the graveyard. St Mark’s new church hall and its new vicarage still has the churchyard surrounding them.

The remains of about 100 parishioners from St Mark’s churchyard dating from 1845, whose grave stones had gone, were moved. They were re-interred in Surbiton Cemetery with a new memorial.


Shoreditch Baptist church

Another similar scheme took place in Shoreditch, east London. Shoreditch Tabernacle Baptist Church wanted a new building, and the local specialist Mildmay Hospital needed upgrading.

So both organisations pooled their land and were able, in this crowded, fashionable part of east London, to work out a big, imaginative scheme. It involved a new church, a revamped hospital, affordable housing and much more. Planning began in 2007 followed by a construction period of 2014-2017.

The bill came to £40m. This was partially financed by the building of 139 flats: 31 were social renting, 14 were shared ownership, 69 were privately rented via housing association Genesis Housing Group, and a quarter were sold on the open market.

The development made a genuine beneficial difference to the area. Before there were dark unfriendly alley ways, now anyone can walk through –  a light, attractive public space.

The development is deemed a success because many different needs from different organisations and parts of the community were satisfied, and it provided much needed affordable homes.

Deciding to sell church land is sensitive

Catherine Townsend, Grants Manager for the National Churches Trust comments, “The future for church funding is quite concerning. With the Heritage Lottery Fund reducing the funds it has available for Places of Worship, churches need to consider alternative ways to raising funds.

“We have seen a few churches approaching us for grants who have chosen to sell under used buildings or land, but this won’t be a suitable solution for every church. Church buildings are often entwined with emotion and sentiment, and there will always be a balance of opinion and benefits if a church does decide to dispose of assets.”

Clergy, church goers and church lovers want churches to thrive and most accept that some development of church land, if sensitively done, may be needed. Selling a little-used ancillary building is an attractive option for churches.

Given that parishes want facilities such as lavatories, meeting rooms, underfloor heating and a general upgrade of their old and not-so-old church buildings, developing church land, especially in the centre of cities, is already happening, and it is likely to be an increasingly popular option.

Of course, anything to do with disturbing graves and selling chunks of the actual graveyard can be sensitive. Not surprisingly there is also concern if a church does not consider providing affordable housing in a development.

What do you think about churches raising funds from non-traditional sources? Do you think there are controversial issues to be debated? Please let us know by commenting on this blog or by emailing us at

The Temple Church in London – History, Architecture, Art

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The Temple Church in London – History, Architecture, Art

 Edited by Robin Griffith-Jones and David Park

Publisher: Boydell Press

First published 2010

Paperback edition Nov 2017

Price £19.99

It is impressive to allot 219 pages to a single church – the Temple Church – which has stood between Fleet Street and the River Thames hard by the Inns of Court, London, since the late 12th century.

It was built by the Knights Templar as their London headquarters and is characterised by having a round nave modelled on the fourth century Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and because of that a favourite choice of the Templars for their churches.

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The Templar Churches round nave beloved of its makers.

The book is a collection of nine essays by academics from the universities of London, Oxford, Leicester, Cardiff, York, and Santa Cruz in California. With a chapter each, they trace the evolution of this remarkable church which boasts among other treasures an important collection of 13th-14th century stone effigies.

Not surprisingly the church, one of the most important medieval churches in London, has been changed, rebuilt in parts, adapted and refurbished over time, including work by Sir Christopher Wren reflecting changes in the perception of the church’s significance in the 18th century.

It underwent a major overhaul in the 1840s. Then came the bombing of May 1941 and the devastating fire that ensued, making extensive re build and restoration necessary.

The 109 black and white photographs are interesting, particularly a group taken in 1885 taken by the architectural photographers Bedford Lemere, which give some idea of what the church looked like in high Victorian times.

The fact that the book sprang from a conference experts on the Temple church held at the Courtauld Institute explains why it is shaped as it is with versions of the papers presented at the symposium.

6. Military effigies x 4 since 1842, photos by Bedford Lemere, c.1885

Some of the Templar Church’s 13th-14th century Knight effigies.

Robin Griffith-Jones, Master of the Temple at the Temple Church and David Park professor, Courtauld Institute of Art, are the book’s editors and they also contribute a chapter apiece. The books was partly inspired by the fact that Temple Church has not attracted much literary or scholarly attention to date, despite its importance.

This is a book for church and church architecture scholars, there is not much ‘popular’ about it with its ample detail and extensive foot notes. There is little orienteering for the ordinary reader but there is a welcome summary at the very start of the book.

However, the lay person interested in the church itself, ancient London churches, the Templars, Wren, Victorian refurbishment and the Blitz – should find it  full of information and interest with the text greatly enhanced by a generous number of colour and black and white photograph.


Hilaire Gomer


Writing Cathedral History

In a special guest blog, Nicholas Orme, emeritus professor of History at Exeter University and an emeritus lay canon of Truro Cathedral, writes about his new book, The History of England’s Cathedrals. The book is published by Impress Books, in paperback and hardback, and has over 90 maps and illustrations. On sale at £20, our supporters can get a 35% discount by visiting and typing in the code FRIENDS.

Every so often, books appear about England’s cathedrals. Their authors follow a well-trodden path. Essentially they write about the buildings: when they date from, the interesting features they have, and what you can see when you go there. They always have beautiful photography. But there is something missing.



The book’s cover depicting John Constable’s 1823 version of Salisbury Cathedral.

The standard cathedral book is about beginnings and ends. It explains the cathedral came into being as a building and what it is like now. It does not usually tell you the story in between, or say much about people. What went on in the building in, say, the Middle Ages, or under Elizabeth I, or George III, or Queen Victoria? What would you see if you could go back, and whom would you see as well? Who would be leading the worship? Who would be coming in, and why would they do so? To pray, to listen to music, to look around, or even to steal? All these things have happened in the past.

From Roman Britain to the present day

A couple of years ago I set out to write a history that would cover those kinds of questions. It was only when I finished it that I realised it had never been done before. The reason is, perhaps, that you need to be rather stolid to try to tackle a topic that runs for 1700 years, from Roman Britain to the present day! But having done it, I am glad that I did. It revealed things about cathedrals that you never discover by studying them one by one, or by dealing only with their architecture. Let me show you what I mean by taking you back in time, very briefly, to show what cathedrals have been like at various stages of their history.

It is the early 1400s. We visit what we think of as ‘the church’ or ‘the minster’ or, in London, ‘Paul’s’. We cannot call it the cathedral, for the word does not exist. That is because as well as cathedrals there are great monasteries, which look much the same. All that marks a cathedral is a bishop’s throne and some bishops’ tombs. We enter the church through the nave. In front of us is a great stone screen – the pulpitum – shutting off the choir from view. We can listen to the services inside it but not take part in them.

There are side altars, all screened off, where Masses are said, and images that we can venerate. There are probably two dozen statues of Christ, Mary, and various saints. We can kneel before them, we can walk around, but there is hardly any seating. We experience religion in a spiritual rather than an intellectual way. The services are in Latin. If we say prayers ourselves, they are in Latin too: the Paternoster, the Ave Maria, and the Creed.

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The Ethelred Gate. Norwich Cathedral.

Now let us move on 150 years to the 1560s. The Reformation has happened. But the building is still here – amazingly so. All the monasteries have disappeared. Cathedrals might have gone the same way, but Henry VIII liked them. He protected them and their lands, and he added five more to their number. People now think of them as special places. The word ‘cathedral’ comes into use for this reason. Inside, there is still a pulpitum and a choir, but all the images have gone. Some have been removed; others have been smashed and left to warn us against superstition. We can no longer do any private devotions because there is nothing to venerate. There are only morning and evening services in the choir, with sermons on Sundays, all now in English. The building is emptier. It has lost the images, side altars, and chapels. The vacant spaces are being filled with tombs of the nobility and gentry. This shows us that the Church is now under the control of the crown and the powerful laity.

Greece and Rome

Another 150 years or so now pass, and we are in the eighteenth century. This is an age that takes its standards from Greece and Rome: in architecture, art, and literature. The medieval Gothic building seems an anachronism. We would prefer it if our cathedral was like St Paul’s, but there is no money to replace it, so we have made the best of a bad job.

The choir, where services happen, has been made as classical as possible. There are square horse-box stalls to sit in. The holy table is neatly railed in. There is modern painted glass in the windows and sometimes painted curtains on the east wall. An elegant organ case sits on the pulpitum. If you come for a Sunday service, you walk through a cold empty nave. When you reach the choir, you are in the company of well-dressed middle-class people from the cathedral city. Make sure that you bring a shilling, or you will not get a seat. The stalls are locked, and you must tip the verger to open one.

If we leave this time behind and continue another 150 years, we are in the second half of Queen Victoria’s reign. This is an era of change: of industrialisation, rising population, and political reforms. Cathedrals have also been reformed. Since 1840, most of their property has been taken away to fund new churches in the industrial towns and to improve the stipends of the poorer clergy. The cathedral now has only a dean and four full-time canons. We have regained a love of the Middle Ages, and the Georgian furnishings have come to look tawdry and dull. So we have refitted the choir with stalls of a Gothic design. These are still usually occupied by the clergy, the choir, and respectable people, but the vergers are now paid and do not ask for tips

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Rochester Cathedral: rebuilt at the time of the Conquest.

The nave and choir have changed again. The great stone pulpitum has often been replaced by an open-work screen designed by Gilbert Scott. There is seating in the nave for the first time, and the nave is no longer cold and dim because there are gas lights and huge Gurney stoves to give warmth. This allows more people to watch the worship in the choir, and in the evenings there are nave services for the ‘artisan class’ who would not fit well with the Sunday morning and afternoon congregations. Cathedrals are trying to reach out to the population, more than they have done in the past.

The Twentieth century

Another century and half pass, and we are in the present day. If we know about cathedral history, we can see how things have changed in the twentieth century. The choir is still used, but it no longer houses a sung service of matins except perhaps on Sundays. That is because the adult choir members are no longer full-time cathedral employees, and the choristers cannot miss school for the purpose. We have kept sung evensong, however, and this allows the Anglican tradition of prayer and music to be maintained. Otherwise, the main area for services is now the nave, to house a larger congregation. Additional stalls are provided there for the clergy and the choir, and since the 1970’s there has been a nave altar because the main Sunday service is now  celebrating the Eucharist.

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The Vicars’ Gate, Wells Cathedral, demonstrating their importance as a property owning group.

Ornaments which were ruled out after the Reformation and were still controversial in Victorian times have come back, and cause no surprise. Candles on altars. Vestments for clergy. Images of saints and even Orthodox icons. The furnishings and services remind us that we live in an age of equality. There are now women deans and canons, and most cathedrals have girl choristers – sharing with the boys, and allowing them to spend more time at school. Lay people take collections, bring up offerings, and read lessons (something hardly imaginable in 1870). Nobody has a personal seat; you sit where you like.

All around us there are signs of how cathedrals are reaching out to society. Chapels are dedicated to social work, the Mothers’ Union, and the armed services. Display boards feature cathedral work, or that of a charity, or an African diocese. And after the main Sunday service, there are refreshments. The congregation mingles more equally than it could ever have done in the past.

Not only buildings but communities

To go back in this way is valuable. It reminds us that cathedrals are not only buildings but communities. They exist, and always have done, because of people: those who run them and those who visit them. Because they are communities, they change as society changes. The religion of the Middle Ages changed drastically at the Reformation, and more gradually in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries.

Cathedrals have done well in adapting to change. Through studying their history, we can appreciate not only what they are like now, but what they were like in the past; what they once meant to people, and how they were cherished. Our ancestors passed them down to us. It is an awesome inheritance, but history gives us confidence that problems can be overcome, change can be beneficial, and the wonderful legacy we have inherited can be passed on to be precious to those who come after us.



A Living Tradition

In a special guest post, Sarah Harrison, Executive Director of the Lettering Arts Centre, writes about how Britain’s tradition of memorial art and letter-carving is being kept alive.

As W.H. Auden wrote, “art is our chief means of breaking bread with the dead.” And the art of the memorial, with its powers to help assuage the sense of loss, is perhaps the most important way in which one generation can break bread with another.

Britain has an extraordinary tradition of memorial art and letter-carving and has been a pioneer of fine lettering for much of the last three centuries. The ancient art of the stone carver continues to be passed down to contemporary artists, who are designing and making joyful, creative memorials. Memorials by Artists is an affiliation of more than 75 of the UK’s foremost letter carvers under the auspices of the Lettering & Commemorative Arts Trust, a charity which champions Britain’s rich heritage in the art of lettering.  Founded in 1988 to help with the commissioning of beautifully lettered memorials, they guide clients to skilled artists across the UK who can design and create a memorial that is personal, unique and a work of art.

The skills of the master letter carver raise what can be a drab, semi-industrial product to the level of art. No machine can match the subtlety of the trained hand and eye in making the slight adjustments in spacing which bring an inscription to life. It is a form of ‘visual poetry’ as Dr Jonathan Foyle wrote in his article on letter carving in The Financial Times.

Every aspect of the memorial, the shape of the stone, the style and spacing of the inscription, the decoration and carving are elements which work together to make a single statement, at the heart of which is the inscription itself.

Reinvigorated by craftsmen

The skills required for letter carving are hard won – the design, drawing and layout of letters take years to master. The UK has led the world in this craft in the past century, since it was reinvigorated by craftsmen like Eric Gill (pictured below) under the influence of the calligrapher Edward Johnston. The artists on the Memorials by Artists register are rigorously selected, submitting their work to a panel of distinguished experts so that only the most talented are listed.  The advisors at the Lettering Arts Trust are familiar with all the artists’ works, so that they can match client with artist.


Once an artist has been selected, client and artist collaborate closely, often using photographs, favourite texts and reminiscences to inform the design of the memorial. One of the most important skills an experienced artist offers, is the ability to help the client whittle down the layers of memories to find the most important elements to inspire and inform the design.  This process should not be rushed and the best artists demonstrate enormous patience and sympathy. Over the ensuing months, clients will often visit the studio to see how the memorial is progressing. When it is completed, the finished work will be professionally installed at its chosen site.  This gentle and intimate process; the empathy between the artist and the client; the completion and installation help to bridge the emotional journey from grief to commemoration.

As one client wrote of her experience commissioning a memorial, “The artist’s workshop was a revelation, and I was able to take my time. I was immediately aware of the great quality of the artist’s work and his wide range of approaches, choice of material and use of lettering. Every time I visit my husband’s grave I feel happy – happy memories of getting him a headstone I love, and he would have loved and happy memories of the whole experience, that took part at the lowest time in my life.”

The Great War

Not all memorials are traditional headstones.  One family commissioned a memorial bench for their garden to commemorate family members who lost their lives in the Great War. They wrote to the artist, “I don’t know how to thank for your brilliance in producing such a magnificent memorial to the children’s forebears.  The seat and your matchless stone-cutting are things of real beauty which, God willing, the children and the generations that follow them will admire and wonder over.  Thank you so very much.”

To commission a memorial, please visit email telephone 01728 688 934

To find out more about the work of the Lettering Arts Trust, its programme of lettering exhibitions and education, please visit The charity is a custodian of the ‘Art & Memory’ collection, a permanent collection of contemporary memorial art in five major sites – Birmingham, Bristol, Perthshire, Canterbury and Suffolk, the home of the Trust.



The future of the Heritage Lottery Fund

A Government review is examining the roles and responsibilities of the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) and the National Heritage Memorial Fund (NHMF).

In recent years, HLF funding has helped many places of worship in the UK. The HLF has an annual budget of around £370m and all of their main funding streams are open to churches. Full details of their funding streams can be found here.

With a £16 million budget in 2017, the HLF’s Grants for Places of Worship funds urgent structural repairs to Grade I, II* and II listed places of worship in England, with similar programmes in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Heritage organisations, and members of the public, can take part in the consultation by  completing an online survey. You can access the press release and online consultation here. There are quite a few questions, and in case you wish to plan in advance  the Historic Religious Buildings Alliance have created a pdf of all the questions – for organisations or for individuals. The closing date is Thursday 6 April.


You can also tell us your views about the HLF and its role in helping churches and chapels by emailing us at

And you can also take part in our own poll below.

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