It’s a drama often replayed in English church life, pitting a vicar and congregation against heritage activists. The vicar and the congregation worship in a pretty but not very functional building with stained-glass windows and many wooden pews.

They see opportunities for ministry and outreach. Could the space house a food bank? Could it be remodeled for meeting spaces? In opposition are people who do not worship at the church but want the space to be preserved in its original state.

A ruling by a Church of England judge has resolved a conflict that has dragged on for 17 years. Ministry has finally won out in a battle with architectural purists. The parish of St. Philip and St. James-Hucclecote in Gloucester has won permission to install heated floors and glass pods to create meeting rooms.

Judge June Rodgers, chancellor of the Diocese of Gloucester, wrote in her verdict that the congregation’s plans were being thwarted by “professional objectors,” people who “can be indifferent to the actual use of the church” but “besotted with the purity/rareness/example of a particular architect.”

In their submission, parishioners claimed that “pews have stolen the Church of England from the people of England, creating often empty spaces and a requirement for church halls.”

The church, they argued, needs “flexible hospitable space” capable of hosting exhibitions, concerts, a cafe, and temporary night shelters in winter months.

This ruling in an important precedent. Anglican parishes are not required to seek secular planning permission for building and church renovation. Instead, each diocese has an advisory committee to evaluate plans, and there is a system of consistory courts in the event of a dispute. In the case of St. Philip and St. James, the Victorian Society led opposition to the plans.

The Rev. Nick Davies, vicar of the parish, expressed frustration that the case had blighted the ministries of his four predecessors. “We are the ones who live in this community. We are the ones who have a vision for the future, and we are the ones who pay the bills,” he told the Daily Telegraph.

“There is a danger that conservation organizations can end up undermining the very thing they are working toward, which is opening up access to these buildings.”

John Martin

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