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Major Parish Churches – Perceptions and Expectations

Research identifies the depth of the issues facing a distinctive type of church building.

In 2016, Historic England commissioned research into the sustainability of the Church of England’s major parish churches.

The project was conceived by Doncaster Minster and supported by the Church Buildings Council, the Greater Churches Network, the Heritage Lottery Fund and a team of expert consultants. The resulting research report sought to understand the particular challenges set by the need to sustain these buildings as active places of worship; it also analysed the opportunities they present.

The evidence it provides confirms that these churches bear a great weight of responsibility. They will require additional resources if they are to remain sustainable in the long-term.

The term ‘major parish church’ was developed by the Church Buildings Council as a way of defining those churches which are comparable to cathedrals in scale of significance, size, and prominence but do not have the same level of recognition, resources, or support. Such a church has all or some of the following characteristics:

  • it is large – with a footprint of over 1,000 square metres
  • it is on the National Heritage List
  • it is open to visitors daily
  • it makes a significant civic, cultural, and economic contribution to its community

There are approximately 300 such churches in England, compared with the Church of England’s 14,500 other listed places of worship.

The methodology collected data (both hard and anecdotal) on the condition of the built fabric; access to resources (such as paid staff, funding, and advice); visitors; and wider support. Eighty major parish churches were asked to participate in an online survey covering a range of themes, from the constraints and opportunities of managing a listed building to the challenges and opportunities created by the need to welcome visitors. Fifty of these churches then became the subject of a written case study.

At least one representative from each was interviewed over the telephone and asked to describe the challenges, frustrations, opportunities, and joys of life in such a building. Twelve were selected for further, in-depth consideration, which included meeting on site with representatives at the church itself. The wider experiences of strategic decision-makers were also captured, through contact with diocesan support officers, archdeacons, and church architects. The perceptions of the local community were captured as part of an associated film.

Children dancing round a mypole outside a major parish church.
Community activities taking place at a major parish church. © Rebecca Burrows


Some of the headline findings were anticipated – but others were more unexpected.

Historic England’s Heritage at Risk register (2016) included 16 per cent of major parish churches, compared to just 6.8 per cent of listed churches overall.

Half of the churches do not generate sufficient income to meet expenditure, and major parish churches spend on average a staggering 37 per cent of their outgoings addressing urgent issues with their built fabric that had been identified in their compulsory quinquennial inspections.

However, a major parish church’s most challenging characteristics are often also its biggest asset: almost 90 per cent of representatives believe the scale and significance of their church is a ‘help’ to mission and ministry.

A bucket is used to catch drips from a leaking roof at a major parish church.
A bucket is used to catch drips from a leaking roof at a major parish church. © Rebecca Burrows

Major parish churches dominate the environment in which they are set, and welcome visitors from all over the world.

Beverley Minster is the symbol of Beverley. Bath Abbey is an icon of Bath. They are like cathedrals. Except they are not. The retention of pre-Reformation titles, as with Hexham Abbey and Christchurch Priory, or the use of recently-bestowed honorific titles, as with Leeds Minster, have little practical bearing but can reinforce assumptions about status, function, wealth, and profile. Bath Abbey attracts around 400,000 visitors per annum, but the average number of annual visitors to major parish churches is a modest 23,200. By comparison, the average number of annual visitors to each of the Church of England’s 42 cathedrals is 238,000.

‘A major parish church must jostle for attention with its fellow parish churches when seeking diocesan advice’

Cathedrals are each blessed with a minimum of three clergy. Among major parish churches, 88 per cent have to share their clergy with other parish churches in their group or benefice. It is usual for a cathedral to have a dedicated Fabric Advisory Committee, and support from the national Cathedrals Fabric Commission for England. A major parish church must jostle for attention with its fellow parish churches when applying to its Diocesan Advisory Committee for advice about the building. Nearly all major parish churches operate within the parish system and with parochial resources, no matter what cathedral-like expectations they shoulder.

If it is perfunctory to compare major parish churches with cathedrals, comparing them with each other can throw some stark differences into relief. Dorchester Abbey is located in a village in an area of low deprivation, and its parish expects it to sustain a cathedral-standard programme of cultural activities. By contrast, St Agatha, Birmingham is located in an inner city area of high deprivation, and has had to learn how to deliver an appropriate missional response to occasional acts of extreme violence in the parish.

Scaffolding within a major parish church.
Internal scaffolding during a substantial repair project at a major parish church. © Rebecca Burrows

The common challenge all such parish churches face is financial.

Running costs can be £1,000 a day. 43 per cent of major parish churches cite parish share (or its equivalent) – an annual sum a parish is asked to contribute to diocesan running costs – as their largest item of expenditure, and 44 per cent cite building repairs.

The average cost of a major repair and development project for a major parish church is £550,000. It is therefore surprising that approximately two-thirds of major parish churches have not received a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the principal funder of heritage and conservation repair projects in England. For those that have received a grant, the average award to a major parish church has been £350,000 per project.

Many major parish churches employ paid staff such as directors of music, administrators, and youth workers. Friends groups and trusts help raise funds for these churches, which also enjoy the support of, on average, 57 volunteers (though some find recruitment of volunteers difficult). The dedication of such individuals is unequivocally among a major parish church’s greatest assets; a lack of diocesan and external support is arguably its greatest threat.

Major parish churches are prominent manifestations of the Church of England within communities, a fact reflected in their high attendance figures at Christmas and civic services. But they are also acknowledged to be embodiments of history and servants of the wider community, as well as being nationally important heritage assets.

A detail from a stained glass window within a major parish church
Ancient artefacts such as these pieces of medieval glass are part of what makes major parish churches distinctive © Rebecca Burrows

The report’s findings thus illuminate a group of culturally and socially significant historic buildings that cannot be considered to be sustainable within the current parish system. It provides vital evidence for everyone who cares for and about these buildings, including national policy makers such as those behind the government’s recent Taylor Review, which examined issues of sustainability in English churches and cathedrals.

The major parish churches report and the Taylor Review are just the first steps towards a sustainable future. Considered strategic planning, increased moral and financial support, and the sharing of best practice will be useful facets of future sustainability strategies for such buildings.

Detail showing part of a tracery screen and painted roof inside a major parish church.
The sheer scale and volume of significant historic fabric, such as this painted roof and decorative screen, sets major parish churches apart © Rebecca Burrows

The Authors


Rebecca Burrows

Rebecca Burrows (BA (Hons), MSc, IHBC)

Rebecca is Associate Heritage Consultant at Purcell, covering the north of England. She specialises in unlocking the potential of challenging heritage sites, from places of worship to industrial heritage at risk.

Ben Stoker

Ben Stoker (BA (Hons), MPhil.)

Ben is a freelance Arts and Heritage Consultant, specialising in nationally significant buildings and collections. Ben has particular expertise in ecclesial art and design and nineteenth and twentieth-century painting and sculpture.  

Further information

Rebecca Burrows 2017 Major Parish Churches: Exploring Challenges and Opportunities. Swindon: Historic England

The Major Parish Churches Project, introductory video

The Taylor Review: Sustainability of English Churches and Cathedrals:

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