Church demolition and preservation revisited


In early January 2018, the church of St Lambertus, Immerath, North Rhine-Westphalia was demolished. The pictures were remarkably similar to St Jacques, Abbeville, demolished in 2013, except this time, with social media in a much more developed state, the pictures spread throughout the world. Like St Jacques, St Lambertus was big, but not exceptional. However it was enough of a local landmark to be nicknamed “Immerather Dom” (literally Immerath Cathedral). It was begun in 1888, designed by a certain Erasmus Schüller, continued in 1890 by prolific architect Theodor Ross. It was Neo-Romanesque of the truest kind: rather pedantically based on the blueprint of 12th-13th century Rhenish architecture like the Church of the Assumption, Andernach. Like St Jacques Abbeville, it replaced an actual medieval church that was too small for the modern population, but unlike St Jacques, it was not inaction and neglect that doomed its successor, but greed. The church had only become redundant because its whole village has been moved to make way for the 30km² open-pit Garzweiler coal mine. This will yield lignite, commonly called brown coal, which is easy to access but so inefficient it’s not worth exporting. It is used by Germany as a stop-gap for its own energy crisis, producing up to 50% more kg of CO2 per kilowatt hour of electricity.


The destroyed interior of St Lambertus, Immerath (©Arne Müseler)
So really, the destruction of St Lambertus, Immerath, is part of a much bigger problem, and its spectacular demise was rightly used by environmentalists such as Greenpeace to draw attention to the man-made natural disaster occurring in the Rhineland. But it’s still significant in itself, and it causes me to reflect on that post from way back in 2013 when St Jacques was demolished. The argument of that post was perhaps not entirely straightforward, but on re-reading it, I still stand by it. We can’t keep everything. And I would like to clarify it a little more. A church building’s importance is more than its presence in the built environment. Its interior is just as important. If not more important, for the unique space of transcendence it provides. And we are losing many of the interiors, especially across London, to property developments and unfriendly church plants.

St George (former), High Street, Brentford, 1887 by A Blomfield (© David Gallimore)
All over London in particular, there are church towers that do not signal an oasis for the weary traveller seeking aesthetic pleasure and peace. Instead, they signal an investment opportunity. Take, for instance, St George, Brentford. It’s a rather undistinguished work by rather eratic Arthur Blomfield from 1887. Its main character is its octagonal tower of 1913, which, to be frank, is actually rather ugly. It closed in 1959 and was re-appropriated as The Musical Museum which kept it open to the public. Since that museum has moved down the road into roomier accommodation, the church has been (eventually, after a pause in development following the 2008 recession) converted into 20 two and three-bedroom apartments. And this is what it looks like.

St George, Brentwood
St George, Brentford. Promotional image by Ellis Miller Architects.
St George, Brentwood2
Promotional image of church from N, showing N aisle removed for patio.

The tracery has been taken out of the south side to the road, and the north aisle removed for a garden. Anything other than its general, lumpen shape, has been lost to the public. What’s left isn’t good enough to assert a presence: it just looks pathetic. Whatever interior details the contracted architects preserved are imprisoned in various flats. By London prices, they aren’t that expensive – I mean, I found a three-bedroom flat on the market for a fiver short of a million – but quite frankly, I would have preferred if they knocked the whole thing down and built some actually affordable social housing. Also worth pointing out is that the developers always insist it’s in Kew. It’s north of the river, my dudes. It’s in Hounslow.

Some HTB-allied church I’m going to leave anonymous but it gives you an idea

But not all inaccessible churches in London are thus because they are flats. There’s a creeping problem in the Church of England, and that is the Evangelical church plant. In desperation to keep churches running, congregations and their clergy are given the go-ahead to have churches turned into a living room, with full carpets, sofas, and equipped with a stage and music equipment. Most of these plants are linked to the very influential Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB). But my main gripe about these churches is not their aesthetics, or lack thereof. Each to his own, of course: it’s said that while low churchmen make their churches look like houses, high churchmen make their houses look like churches. But it’s that these domesticised church-plants are open for worship only. They are never left open for private prayer, as the congregation do not believe that Earthly matter ought to be used for contemplation of the divine. It has even got to the point where the plant in the City church of St Sepulchre Without Newgate have disallowed any “secular” booking, threatening its historic identity as “the musician’s church”. Now we have freedom of religion in this country. People can have whatever faith they wish. But the Church of England is our state church. Its buildings are for the use and enjoyment of all its citizens and visitors. If you want to push your borderline iconoclastic ideology via aggressive congregationalism, build a shed and do it in there. Don’t do it with our shared heritage.

St Helen Bishopsgate, from W.

The worst church in London for this is St Helen’s Bishopsgate in the shadow of my favourite skyscraper there, the Gherkin. Infamous among London churchcrawlers, it cannot be considered a church plant in the same way because it gradually developed a very Low Church congregation and eventually became one of the few City churches to have a congregation of any sort – never mind a strong one. The Bishopsgate Bombing of 1993, as well as the 1992 Baltic Exchange bombing that literally made way for the Gherkin, caused serious damage to the church, and was used by the congregation as an opportunity to redo the interior as an Evangelical MegaChurch. Now the thing is, St Helen’s Bishopsgate isn’t just a nice Victorian church, or even a classic Wren one. It’s one of the few medieval churches in the City that survived the Great Fire of 1666.

St Helen Bishopsgate, N nave from W

It’s a rare example of a double-naved church where a parish church was alongside a Benedictine nunnery. It has excellent carvings and medieval monuments. Sadly, this means nothing to its congregation and clergy, who hired Neo-Georgian brute and favourite of the Prince of Wales Quinlan Terry to wreak Neo-Reformation havoc on the building. Like the Puritan levellers, the floor has been made consistent, burying column bases and carving to allow for a single preaching space with an immersion baptismal pool in the centre. The interior has been whitewashed like a painting by Pieter Saenredam of a Dutch Calvinist church. A 13th century lancet has been bashed through for a Neo-Georgian door. I would accept all this for the good of keeping the church open: if they would ever let you in it.

St Helen Bishopsgate, S transept, mid-14thc. Permanently full of rubbish.

Because the church doors of St Helens Bishopsgate are indeed hardly ever open. As are the doors of St Andrew Undershaft round the corner, now little more than their church hall. Yet the lights are often on and there are clearly people in the office. It’s very confusing for a curious first-time visitor. If you knock on the oddly suburban door of the 3-storey church offices bunged on the church in the 1950s, a cheery person will undoubtedly answer. If you ask if you can look round the church, they will almost certainly cheerfully deliver a reason why you can’t go in at the moment. Usually it’s because half a dozen people are sat in a circle talking about the Bible in it, and you will have to wait till they finish. This sends out a poisonous message about the Church, especially one in the centre of the City: you’re only welcome if you become one of us. And I make no apologies for saying this here because I’ve been told the Eucharist is “wrong” by these people, and rebuked for saying I attended Mass at High Church St Bartholomew the Great. They are a sect masquerading under the banner of the Church of England that want nothing to do with what makes it special: its rich tapestry of tradition. Let me clarify that Anglican Evangelicals aren’t necessarily bad: many who identify as Evangelical have much to offer in theological discourse, as well as being perfectly fine people. But this sort of protective, exclusive attitude is, and it will harm the Church of England’s reputation in the long run – because it isn’t all just about bums on pews.

So while you might be shocked by the destruction of a landmark like Immerather Dom, it is just as bad if a church sits in the townscape as little more than an ornament. Whether it contains luxury flats or a private church where unbelievers aren’t welcome. The Church of England is our country’s church. If we’re going to keep these buildings, they need to be open to all.


  1. I thought the essential point of Evangelicalism was to evangelise and get as many people as possible through the doors, so resolutely locking the doors seems to be a strange move.

    I was in Stamford recently, and the only locked architecturally significant church was evangelical, or at least I assume it was based on the horribly disfiguring happy-clappy posters all over the outside. At least posters are only temporary, unlike most of the other alterations you so depressingly detail.

  2. When I managed to get into Bishopsgate a few years ago the fine Crosby tomb was covered by coats! In Surrey the interesting, if over restored church of St Mary Magdalene, Reigate, is virtually never open and generally I’ve found it far harder to get into evo churches. But some of the FiF mob are not much better: I live about 100 yards from St Anne, Derby a good example of a backstreet Anglo-Catholic church. Access has to be negotiated with the churchwarden, who is more than a little strange and very suspicious of anyone who can cope with women priests. St Luke , Derby, of a similar persuasion is also virtually inaccessible, as is St Werburgh, now home to a a HTB plant.

  3. A really interesting exposition on a theme we cannot escape from – what price will we pay, architecturally and historically, to ensure continued use of churches as churches? I agree that churches should be open as much as possible, and I also believe they should be open for as many uses as local people can make use of – private prayer, a café, a library, debt advice, a playgroup, dementia care, you name it.

    I explore some of this here:

    • I agree that all the posts Dr Cameron has published have been highly informative and very droll. However, I don’t quite agree about St George’s Brentford being demolished – it was a relatively old foundation (1762), and its closure was regrettable (though, of course, not nearly as old a foundation as St Lawrence, which should also not have been lost): FYI, church attendance is mostly disastrous in most of western Middlesex (absent the occasional congregation that has a decent demographic profile, such as Isleworth or Ruislip: the attendance statistics for the London diocese flatter to deceive to some extent).

      As to Bishopsgate, it has waxed mightily under the leaderships of Dick Lucas and William Taylor, but I have two serious criticisms: it has wrecked the interiors of all of the churches over which it has assumed control, and it tends to concentrate its energies where it can be assured of a ‘return’ (HTB, by contrast, seems to be somewhat less mercenary). I make no comment on its theology, save that its strident neo-Calvinism has a definite Marmite effect. Dr Cameron’s criticisms re St Helen’s are justified, I think; it is true that St Andrew Undershaft is used mainly for Bible classes but there is the triennial service commemorating John Stow, whose quill pen is replaced (where Mr Taylor actually wears surplice and scarf for the benefit of the Lord Mayor and Corporation, in which guise he preaches at them at some considerable length before the service actually commences). The saddest intervention has been at the very ancient foundation of St Peter Cornhill (perhaps the site of a Roman temple), where the fine fittings were largely stripped out: it is used for Chinese services on Sunday afternoons, but is otherwise dedicated to Bible classes. We should, however, be grateful for the recent rehabilitation of St Nicholas Cole Abbey (gutted during the Blitz and used subsequently by the Presbyterian Church of England and for many years a conspicuous eyesore).

      However, Bishopsgate have not been alone in compromising the interiors of City churches: think of the Varah-Palumbo assault on St Stephen’s Walbrook; the empty ambience of St Mary at Hill after the 1988 fire (where the surviving box pews were left in store) or St Edmund King and Martyr (with its abortive use as a well-stocked Christian bookshop or, more recently, as a centre for spirituality), etc.

      I have read Becky’s very thoughtful piece (thank you). I’ve attended services at more than 4,000 churches across more than thirty dioceses over the last decade. The position is well beyond catastrophic and is indeed hopelessly irremediable. I have come to the regretful conclusion that the Church simply cannot be trusted as a responsible conservator of the nation’s stock of church buildings. Fresh Expressions and R&R will barely even dent the current rate of decline in almost all places. This is not because the Church is necessarily inherently negligent (though it has been at times), but because it relies on a funding system – the parish share – that is set to collapse along with the extinction of more than 95% of congregations within the next few years. None of the proposals that I have seen come even close to addressing this creeping disaster; the Taylor Report was a serious disappointment, and appeals to alternative uses – whilst handy in a few places – will not work in those large parts of the country where church buildings are not, and never will be, at the heart of the communities they purport to serve. This is not only true of the thousands of churches which are physically distant from local centres of population, but also of those many communities that either do not care, and probably never will care enough to save the churches in their midst for the benefit of the public. For instance, I recently wrote in to oppose the disposal scheme for the conversion of the medieval Grade II* church at Astwood in Buckinghamshire as a residential unit. I abandoned my opposition when it became evident that not one single person in the village (several hundred people) was prepared to write in for or against the scheme (it has monuments to the Cranmer and Lowndes families). This will keep happening in a good many places (viz. the recent examples of Wolferlow in Herefordshire, Saxby in Leicestershire, Upper Gravenhurst in Bedfordshire, etc.). Also, closures have nothing to do with ‘pastoral need’ (the phrase used in the jargon of pastoral schemes) and everything to do with money: see the justification published in the recent scheme for the closure of the ancient chapelry of Lindale in Lancashire over the Sands – proving that, despite the rhetoric, the Church is frequently an institution run by and for the benefit of the middle classes.

      So my least worst ‘solution’ is that about £3.5 billion of the £8.1 billion held by the Commissioners is conveyed to DCMS as a permanent repairing fund, and that title to the entire stock of: (i) foundations established prior to c. 1840; and (ii) all Grade I and a selection of Grade II* buildings established after that date, is also vested in DCMS. In return the Church would gain a free and perpetual right of use to all these buildings, and a veto on any inappropriate parallel use. If the Commissioners’ assets were to increase to an amount in excess of, say, £7 billion (at current values) then any surplus would be diverted to augment the repairing fund. The Commissioners will probably refuse any form of disendowment, but there must be some loss of capital because the state will otherwise never assume the liability in the current political and economic climate. The alternative is that the Church continues on its irresponsible rake’s progress, closing churches here and there until an even larger part of the nation’s posterity is lost, and the Church ceases to have any presence in most communities (its current, much vaunted – but occasionally, misleading claim which helps to underpin its established status). If the Church divests itself of the liability of maintaining its built heritage it can then concentrate on the mission that so mainly clergy constantly claim is its true purpose.

      It is true that, in addition to the over-stretched CCT and FFC there are a few instances private trusts can take over churches – we have recent examples of this at Besselsleigh in Berkshire or Benington in Lincolnshire, but the ability of these very small trusts to keep churches in reasonable condition is sometimes dicey (see, for instance, Wattisham in Suffolk, where the vestry is falling away from the chancel). And don’t get me started on those churches put into ‘monument’ use that become susceptible to ruin (see, for instance, Berners Roding in Essex or Stratfield Turgis in Hampshire, both listed).

      Naturally, the situation in Ireland and Wales (where the Church was wholly or substantially disendowed) or Scotland (where the Church has a relatively slender asset base) is even more perilous than in England. There really needs to be a proper national conversation, whereas the Taylor Report strikes me as laying down an unsatisfactory methodology that will allow the Treasury to save money (probably as Mr Osborne intended).

      Apologies for the length.

      • Thank you for this. I mean I touched on this in a previous post, we need a national conversation about perhaps our most remarkable and precarious heritage: but who in Whitehall is interested in anything except the big B for the foreseeable future?

        Our government has been slow to act on the exceptionally important building that has literally been crumbling around them, for goodness sake. We really will end up a poor nation if we care so little about our past like this.

  4. Yes – sorry for the repetition. I was sort of writing to Becky, as I have already inflicted this upon you. Am also astonished that Bishopsgate have not had a meaningful open church for so long. I walk past it and its other churches quite frequently, and they are never open. One of the reasons why I have attended a lunatic number of services is that is frequently the only way of getting into church buildings, and the business of running down keyholders at inconvenient times (assuming there are any keyholders) is generally best avoided.

    Also, I was much moved by your previous post on academia. I am very sorry indeed that it has been such a dispiriting experience – especially as you are so obviously gifted and learned a communicator. I note that there are some people of your age and in your field who have been able to secure permanent positions (I’ve recently finished Gabriel Byng’s ‘Church Building and Society in the Later Middle Ages’), but getting a foothold seems like a complete lottery and uncomfortably political (in terms of contacts and having the right sort of ‘patron’). Also, I wonder whether things are just going to get progressively worse in academia outside the STEM market, so I would speculate on whether this game is worth the candle.

    Perhaps the least worst options are in OUP/CUP, or parts of DCMS or Heritage England (with the former there will be a final salary indexed link pension) or in secondary education – I am thinking especially (and it pains me to write this in some ways) of the better endowed private schools, many of whom have pretty good superannuation and tied housing (which helps mortgage deposits to be accumulated with greater ease), whilst the holidays are long enough to allow for research. A number of these schools with either have creditable libraries and/or access to university libraries.

    Oh, and the other government job I would always recommend is a parliamentary clerkship: you have to do the fast stream exams, but you get much of the year off, the indexed linked final salary pension is good, the library facilities are excellent (and you will be close to all the big libraries), the hours are skewed towards the afternoons, and the heavily subsidised food is first rate.

    Please forgive my impertinence in writing this!

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