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Historic churches – legacy or liability?

By Marie Sherry and Paul Titus

Having a church registered as a heritage building is an honour and source of pride but it can also pose problems. Once a church is listed as a historic place in a district plan, the parish may find it has to consult with local authorities when it makes major decisions about it.

Wellington-based New Zealand Historic Places Trust registrar Nicola Jackson explains there are two categories of historic buildings in NZ. Category one buildings have the highest heritage value and tend to be grander, more public structures. Category two buildings have regional or local cultural and historic value.

“Churches often meet a number of criteria for both categories. Many were designed by notable architects. They are generally of pleasing design and were made with a high level of workmanship. And, of course, they have considerable cultural, social, and spiritual value.”

Nicola says when the Historic Places Trust registers a building in either category, it doesn’t automatically change the property rights of the owner. If a building is registered, however, local bodies are encouraged to list it in their district plans. This can mean significant alterations to it come under the Resource Management Act.

“Once a historic building is listed on a district plan, the owners are still able to do many things such as maintenance without consent. Other changes to a listed building require different levels of council consent. It would be harder to get consent to remove or demolish a listed building because it would require public process that takes into account its heritage value.”

Methodist Church of New Zealand investment board executive officer Greg Wright says the Methodist Connexion doesn’t have an identifiable policy on ageing buildings. The Church has always bought and sold property in an effort to meet the requirements of its work.

There are estimated to be about 250 Methodist-built churches in New Zealand. Many were built between the two World Wars, many others were built in the 1950s and early 1960s. The NZ Historic Places Trust has 397 churches on its register, including 48 Methodist churches.

“A number of church buildings have been listed over the years as heritage buildings. In some quarters there is a feeling of pleasure that the historical merits of the property have been realized. In an equal number of minds there is concern with the restriction of the church to deal with its property. The church has to be able to deal with its assets in a way that suits its mission.”

Greg says the cost of maintaining older churches can be huge. And most old churches contain fixed pews, a fixed pulpit, and are oriented in one direction, while modern churches are considerably more flexible.

“Modern spaces are much more likely not to be rectangular and to be multi-use spaces. Modern buildings also have better provisions for church administration. Maintenance is a lot easier as most churches are built out of permanent materials.”

Sometimes a congregation’s desire to create a contemporary worship space conflicts with a community’s attachment to a familiar landmark. Greg cites the case of a proposal to remove the Mt Eden Methodist Church in Auckland. It faced a public backlash “from people who have probably never been in it but consider they have some right to a view. It becomes a pleasant backdrop to their neighbourhood,” he says.

Currently the Methodist Church is looking at a number of properties to see whether they meet local requirements. Some have been sold because parish numbers no longer require the number of individual preaching places. “They are either too big or there are too many of them,” Greg says.

Nicola says the future of some historic churches has become a concern as parishes get smaller.

“It’s difficult because the value of churches is important, particularly in smaller places. Some small towns only have a few heritage buildings remaining. The church is an important part of their story,” she says.

The Trust considers it a shame when old churches are converted to private homes and would prefer them to be used as community centres, or something similar, if they are no longer needed as a church.

St Patrick’s Church at Burkes Pass is an example, where a small timber church was bought by the community and is now used for events, meetings and reflection.

The small weatherboard church was built in 1871. After a proposal was made to shift if to Mt Cook village local people formed the Burkes Pass Heritage Trust and purchased in 2001. A local management committee was formed to support the church in practical terms, with the venture widely accepted as a great success.

Nicola is concerned people in some congregations are misinformed and believe a heritage registration means they can’t do anything to their church. “People incorrectly think that if they get registered we won’t let them change a light bulb,” Nicola says.

“If a congregation wanted to change the interior of a church, it would depend on the rules of the district plan. The important thing is to talk to the council. It is likely changes can be made if something can be retained to indicate the formula of the original layout.”

The Historic Places Trust recognises old buildings can be costly to maintain, particularly if the parish has been declining and there is deferred maintenance to be done.

“We need to work with local communities to stop that slide before it happens and there are funding bodies available for church groups. The important thing is to come and talk with us. Most things are negotiable and we are here to help,” Nicola says.