Photo by Neil Mark Thomas
Artillery Row

Death comes for the church building

The Church of England abandons historic buildings – can they have an afterlife?

St Mary-the-Less stands in its churchyard where Bury Road joins Brandon Road in Thetford, Norfolk, just to the east of the old Anglo-Saxon town, where even before that there was a Roman settlement. According to Nikolaus Pevsner and Bill Wilson, in Norfolk 2: North-West and South (1999) in The Buildings of England series, the ancient church has become “rather forlorn, and redundant since 1975”.

Although the fabric of St Mary’s includes some work from the 11th and 12th centuries and most of what stands today is mediæval, the chancel was rebuilt in Suffolk gault brick in the early 19th century, a north aisle was added in 1850, and the tower (early 14th century) lost its belfry stage in 1969-70, dropping some twenty feet in the process. Thereafter, a familiar, dismal story of the formation of “Team Ministries” ensured St Mary’s became redundant, when St Cuthbert’s became the main parish church.

For a brief period from 1980, St Mary’s became a Roman Catholic church, and then was officially declared redundant in 1987. The “redundancy” noted by Pevsner and Wilson in 1975 would appear to have dated from the last Anglican service held in the building. Various new uses were proposed, including conversion into offices (1991), a concert-hall and exhibition-centre (1994), and a private house (2003), but nothing actually materialised. 

To chop the interiors up virtually wrecks the integrity of the buildings

One of the great difficulties with historic churches, especially those consisting of nave, aisles, chancel, tower, chapels, etc., is that to chop the interiors up virtually wrecks the integrity of the buildings. Nonconformist preaching-boxes usually lend themselves rather more easily to conversion for domestic purposes, but ancient churches, on old-established traditional plans (and indeed later Victorian Gothic Revival churches formed of similar subdivisions), are extremely tricky to subdivide, a task not made any easier by the presence of mural tablets, funerary monuments, screens, sedilia, stained-glass windows, and other fixtures. 

As it happens, the screen of 1907 in St Mary’s, now has a new home in Wetherspoon’s pub in Brighton Marina, and the Norman font is now in St Cuthbert’s church, Thetford. I wonder what the donors of the fine screen would make of its new position and surroundings? This sort of thing is not unusual: I can think of several pubs where former pews and even choir-stalls now grace bars, and in one public-house in Galloway, I spotted what must have once been a very fine Gothic Revival reredos, all in splendid colour with gilding, used as wall-decoration. 

St Mary the Less, Thetford

St Mary’s, once abandoned, inevitably became a target for vandals, who managed to do considerable damage, notably to the stained-glass of the windows. Decay was rapid, aided and abetted by the owners who failed to carry out basic repairs. The speed at which costly harm assailed this historic building provides an object-lesson in the vital importance of formulating prompt and diligent care-procedures. We must find new uses for historic buildings as soon as they are no longer needed for their present purposes.

The case of St Mary’s is by no means unique: the problem is widespread, and the conclusion must be drawn that the cumbersome procedures of declaring redundancy and the transfer of the Church of England’s assets to new owners urgently requires re-examination and reform. The safeguards and processes are clearly unfit for the purpose, and instead ensure the destruction of many fine buildings. 

It is NOT inevitable that historic buildings should fall into dangerous, irretrievable disrepair, become vandalised, set on fire, and wrecked to the extent that very large sums of money are needed to recover the situation and reverse the results of harmful, often deliberate, neglect. Given that St Mary’s is a Grade II* Listed Building, its dismal history subsequent to 1987 disgraces the Church and almost every agency connected with it. 

It is not the dead who are the danger: it is the living

St Mary’s might have found new worshippers had not the heavy hand of Anglican redundancy procedures prevented such an outcome. As in other parts of rural England, East Anglia acquired large numbers of immigrants in the 1990s from the former Eastern European bloc, notably Poland and Lithuania, to work in agriculture. A large supermarket opposite St Cuthbert’s churchyard in Thetford caters for Eastern European Polish, Lithianian, Latvian, and even Russian palates, which might suggest to the open-minded that there could be a need for a place of worship as well as a shop for those whose devotion to Christianity is perhaps rather more marked than can be found among the local English populations. As Jenny Freeman, Roy Tricker, and Oliver Caroe state in The Historic Church of St Mary-the-Less, Thetford, Norfolk (published by Freeman Historic Properties Ltd, 2021), “the church that survived the Danes, the Normans, the Dissolution, and two World Wars fell victim to brutal 20th century rulebooks. A sad story for our times.”

However, the church and churchyard were acquired in 2014 (when St Mary’s was completely derelict and in an appalling state) by Freeman Historic Properties Ltd., which specialises in developing listed buildings “at risk”, in this case for conversion to five houses. Caroe Architecture was chosen for the now completed tower repairs. As Dr Freeman has said, the “task has been complex and difficult beyond expectation, but the golden glow of the repaired tower” has been her reward. Some dimwits have asked her if the burials and the tombstones in the churchyard bother her: this fatuous query about death, the only certainty in life, sums up much of what is wrong with England today. The dead lie peacefully in the sunlit churchyard it is not they who are the danger, but the living. 

It is to be hoped that Dr Freeman and her team will succeed in rescuing what is left of St Mary’s for future generations. The building’s external fabric and churchyard are of great æsthetic importance within the urban fabric, even though matters of æsthetic seem to count for nothing in these benighted times. 

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