Last week, I found out that the biggest church building in my care, St Agnes Cawston, had been listed by the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) as having one of the twenty most significant ancient floors in the United Kingdom. Here's some of the coverage:
This news goes with our inclusion on Historic England's Heritage at Risk Register and our Grade One listing. The medieval church building in Cawston is clearly of great historical importance, and in a state of relatively poor repair.
My comment, which the North Norfolk News reported in full in their print edition, illustrates the nature of our biggest tension:
‘It’s a great privilege for Cawston Parish Church to be mentioned in this list of historic floors. Parts of our floor at Cawston are truly ancient and impressive, but we need to work to stabilise it for future generations. There’s always a tension with old church buildings between the preservation of our heritage and the practicalities of a public worship space. We hope the publicity of being on this list will bring more visitors to Cawston and raise the profile of this important church building and help us to preserve it for the future.’Looking further at the information published by SPAB this week, as part of their 'History at your Feet' campaign, there's a sense of lament for those cases where stewards of ancient buildings feel compelled to make major changes to ancient floors, and I understand this heritage view of ancient artefacts and buildings. It seems to be of objective value to preserve our built heritage; I wouldn't wish to challenge that ideological standpoint.
However, the church building in Cawston was built and dedicated to the glory of God through the worship and community events it facilitates. Worship of God was the primary function of the building from its beginning, and practical changes through the years show us that this has always been the case. The medieval backless pews were (mostly) altered for comfort by the later addition of backrests (though a large number of backless pews remain), the floor in many parts of the building has been levelled for safety, and a dais has been introduced to facilitate a tasteful nave altar as the character of Christian worship has evolved. All of this points to the fact that churches change over time; buildings and people. It has been this way for 2000+ years.
Our floor in Cawston (pictured on page 17 of this guide) is something of a patchwork. Some parts are thought to be medieval, whilst others are much later. The oldest parts of the floor actually give us problems. They are terribly uneven and loose, posing a possible health and safety risk to users. The bricks are also decaying quite quickly, being of a relatively soft and crumbly composition.
The heritage approach would be to repair it where needed, but to leave largely alone (SPAB advise against relaying bricks apart from in the most extreme cases (See this guide to caring for ancient floors)). But this would leave us with an entire side-aisle which is essentially 'off limits' for many of our congregants due to the risk it poses. Even the people who come to see the medieval floor would have to view it from a distance to avoid its further degradation. Clearly the preservation of our ancient built heritage, whilst objectively laudable, cannot be at all costs! In my view, it should not be at the cost of the building's primary purpose, to facilitate the worship of God (which continues to change and develop over time).
As I said in my comments to the press, we can only hope that increased attention from the heritage bodies will help us attract further funding from new sources, but I can't help feeling that retaining the missional focus of this building along with the changing nature of our church community (with Messy Church, Café Church and other community events) will be an uphill battle. Hopefully the church’s faculty system should help to balance the heritage view of the building with the genuine need for adaptation to the changing missional context.
In a strange sense, I relish the challenge of working creatively with Historic England, SPAB, the DAC and other heritage organisations. We're about to embark on an ambitious programme of major repairs and improvement to this magnificent building. Our plan, like that of the medieval people who built the church, is to keep working at the building so that it continues to help us give glory to God, adapting to the changes in the community of the church.