There is no one way to write a church guide but we have some hints and tips you might find helpful.
This guide is free to access but please let us know if you find it useful, or if you have any comments about its content.
- Ask around. Many parishes have at least one member with an interest in the church and they will be a useful place to get started. Makes sure you are also clear about what is expected from your church guide. Churchwardens, PCC members and the vicar or rector are a good place to start.
- Read our section on sources and read as much as you can. The best place to start research is with secondary texts, these will guide you to original, contemporary materials when necessary. Good places to start are with the Buildings of England series, the Royal Commission on Historic Monuments and the Victoria County History. Many churches are also covered in their county's antiquarian or archaeological journal (ask a librarian to help you find it).
- Visit the church. This is essential. Make a thorough and comprehensive investigation of the church, interior and exterior, comparing it with secondary and primary texts, and noting important features.
- Think about layout and sections. Some of the best guides take imaginative approaches to their material or explain the history and architecture in unexpected ways, see below for ideas. Remember to divide up your text into readable sub-sections with clear headings. We suggest you write a short guide for visitors and a long guide (possibly online) for those who want to know more.
- Write a draft using clear, intelligent language in short paragraphs, intelligible to someone with little experience in visiting churches, and show it to your church for feedback. Editing and improving can be a slow process but the final version will be all the better for it. Remember to find interesting and useful images.
- Once finished, make arrangements for publishing or printing it, putting it online and adding it to YouTube, iTunes and GoogleMaps, send us a copy and think about other ways to extend it (see below).
Your guide should be easy to read but intelligent in style. Read as many other guides as you can and think about how to improve on them. Remember many readers may not have visited a church before or know about the services that take place there. You will need to make the history, architecture and use of the church not only clear but also interesting.
Short sentences and paragraphs with several useful illustrations, especially of people or events connected with the church, are best. Don't shy away from using the proper vocabulary to describe parts of the church but make sure you always explain the terms you use (a glossary is a very useful appendix). It actually makes visiting and understanding a church easier if you know what all the parts are called! If you decide to produce a short guide for the church and a longer one, available online or for a fee, you could use save the most unfamiliar terminology for the latter.
You should be concise but as thorough as possible. Most good church guides are a few pages long. We suggest you provide a free short guide for casual visitors and a longer one (perhaps online or published and sold for a small sum) for those who want to know more. Remember to think about using YouTube, podcasts and GoogleMaps to extend your guide or reach people who would not ordinarily visit a church.
Academic Andrew Keeling notes that, although there is no published research on church visitor profiles, most are probably either 'general interest visitors', who pop in by chance, or 'special interest visitors', with a particular interest in some part of church history, your two guides could be targeted at these groups separately - and help to encourage the former to become the latter.
Some of the main headings could include:
Other sub-sections you could use to bring history and architecture to life are:
Churches are not only museums but also homes to thriving communities and ancient religious rites which have extraordinary and mysterious histories of their own. Congregations today are in a direct line of descent from people who have worshipped in that building for centuries. These people are essential to the story of the church, after all it was built for and by them, and the architecture will reflect their desires, wealth and expectations.
An engaging way to tell the story of a church is to describe the different people who have been connected with it: the masons and carpenters who built it, the lord or parishioners who paid for it, famous people who worshipped there and even hypothetical parishioners from a time when records don't exist. How about the bishops, kings or pilgrims who visited it, or even the people who used the site before the church was built? If you want to explain how the church is used today and why it looks like it does, you can begin with the people who first built and used it.
A study of churches in East Devon (by Peter Howard of Plymouth
University) suggested that the majority of visitors are most interested in the people that are
commemorated in the church or its churchyard (particularly if they are relatives or famous).
For the more recent history of the church see if older members of the congregation have memories (and documents or photographs) they can share. The church, and the way it is used, has changed a lot in the last few decades and so memories of just a short while ago can be a fascinating way to record these changes. Old photographs are a great addition to a guide or website. If you have the opportunity, try tape recording these memories and share them online.
Remember churches are places of worship as well as fascinating and beautiful buildings. A great guide will be able to explain how to appreciate the art and architecture of a church as well as telling visitors how the church is used today and how it has been used over the centuries as styles of worship changed.
Ask your contact at the church for a copy of the weekly services (or look for them online). At most Church of England (also known as Anglican or Episcopal) churches there will usually be a Eucharist (also called Communion or Mass) on a Sunday morning and at other times during the week, as well as a mix of morning and evening prayer, evensong and other, more recent, services. Some of these services use versions of services from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, which in turn is based on medieval Catholic predecessors, mostly in Latin (but occasionally in Greek).
These services have been taken in the church continuously for many centuries. Their changes reveal the development of English history, during the Reformation, the Civil War, the Oxford Movement and over the last half century. They also affected the layout of churches and the positions of screens, pews (benches) and other furnishings. Your guide will need to explain what has changed and what has remained the same; how the use of the church today has grown out of the use of the church yesterday.
Research suggests the spiritual experience of visiting a church is one of the most important motivations for visitors and Rev Eileen MacLean has produced an excellent guide to helping them. A short prayer in your guide is one way to help with this but so too is an explanation of how generations of worshippers have found spiritual inspiration in the building.
Most churches already have a
website you might be able to add your guide to. The most basic way of doing this is to copy the text straight into the website but there are many ways to add photographs, videos, links and extra details. Remember to add links to this website to and printed information in the church. Alternatively you can start a website with an extended version of the church
guide for those who want to know more.
Why not record a podcast which can be listened to on an iPhone as you walk around a church?
Better still - some churches are developing apps to provide a flexible way of communicating with visitors, the one at Stratford-upon-Avon is a prime example.
Several websites exist which can help more internet users to find your church and more visitors to learn about it.
Old photographs can be shared on History Pin, which visitors will be able to see online or on their smart phone app.
Add your church to Google Places so it can be found on Google Maps, but check with the church first that this will not be a security risk.
Could you film a tour and put it on YouTube?
You can also add your place of worship for free to the Heritage App.
There should be more than one way for visitors to read about a church's history, we suggest visitors should be able to pick up:
Panels, or larger permanent boards with information on them, are just as useful as a printed guide, although they can be harder to target at different visitors.
Sources for parish church history can be extremely varied, to write a good guide you can't be too thorough but you also probably won't need to read everything! There may already be work on the church that you can use - but perhaps you will uncover something new too. The local record office will be a useful resource and speaking to archivists will be very helpful. See if there is a local history society you ask for help.
For secondary texts, search through a good library catalogue for your town, village and region. The British Library and Antiquaries Library have excellent catalogues. The Brepolis online
bibliography of British and Irish history can generate a large number
of results but can still be useful. For journal articles try Web of Knowledge. Parish histories are essential, not least those of the Victoria County History, most of which are digitised.
Also try online sources, these can be very useful as many will search through the text itself. GoogleBooks, JStor, Project Muse and Archive.org. Unpublished sources can be found at History online and other digital resources at the History Data Service. Note: not all of these sources are free.
You will need to make a close and thorough inspection of your church. Try to do this with a copy of the relevant Buildings of England or Victoria County History in hand so you can check what dates they give each part of the church. It sounds obvious, but go round the outside and inside slowly and carefully, noting any changes in the architecture and noting down any inscriptions or points of interest. Remember to walk around the churchyard too and note any old tombs or walls.
Learning how to understand a building can be a lifetime's work, but with a small amount of effort its very easy to tell a fourteenth century doorway from a fifteenth century one! See the bibliography below for help. You can use Flickr or GoogleImages to find other, similar architecture nearby. When it comes to dating churches architectural historians rely on types of window and the mouldings (i.e. carving) of capitals and bases (i.e. the top and bottom of columns, pillars and piers). Other tell tale signs are changes in masonry, the addition of parapets on top of aisles, mouldings around the base of walls, the size of the building, the thickness of the walls and piers, and the style of niches, 'piscinae', 'sedilia' and tombs (for definitions of these words see the links to glossaries below).
Consider what was happening in the parish at the time
they were built - was the parish becoming richer, had a new lord taken
over or was the population growing so that they needed more space? Check also when and why parts were renewed or restored in later centuries. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries saw much work carried out on churches, sometimes replicating what was there before, other times 'correcting' it. This is all part of the church's story.
Check the location of screens, statues and pews. See if you can find out how their position has changed - this might indicate developments in liturgy (the way church services are conducted and the text used in them), particularly if associated with the Reformation or Civil War. The presence of 'sedilia', 'piscinae' and 'aumbries' can reveal the location of a chapel or altar, and its age. The history of the 'rites' used in church services can be complicated but a brief account for your readers can help them understand why the church looks like it does today and explain how it used to look in the past.
Notice interesting carved work, wall paintings, pews, the font, stained glass, brasses and tombs, the dimensions of the church and the dates of each part. Try to find out if other churches nearby have similar architecture, explore what the images in glass or painting are of and ask why they were chosen for that site or by that parish.
Think about writing a 'guided tour' for your guide, picking out a few interesting windows, tombs or features, showing them on a map in the guide and giving a few details about them.
Take as many photographs as you can, for your own records but also to share on Flickr or Picassa and to use in the final printed version of the guide or on the website. It can also be useful to take a pair of binoculars along and see if anyone in the parish will be willing to come along to help you.
Remember to illustrate when useful, particularly if an architectural is small, hard to spot, far away or unusually interesting. A page with photographs on it is much easier to read than dense text. There might be images in contemporary documents, old photographs or postcards, and pictures of people and events in the church's life you could include. Ask around the parish to find out what images people have, families who have lived there a long time are great for this.
Take as many photographs as you can on your visit, for publication but also to share on Flickr or Picassa, or on the website. The best, but by no means only, way to take photographs is using a digital Single Lens Reflex Camera (dSLR), shooting in RAW, and to convert these to JPEGS on your computer at home using an editor like PhotoShop or a free equivalent like GIMP. If this all sounds overwhelmingly complicated, ask a friend or someone in the parish with a bit of know-how to help, or else really any digital camera will be fine!
For images on old photographs, postcards or of documents (perhaps of ancient church wardens accounts) use a scanner and make sure it scans at 300dpi or above, again, ask for help if necessary.
These are rather beyond the scope of this website but being told something by a knowledgeable and enthusiastic volunteer is always more memorable and interesting than reading it in a guide. We would encourage any writer who feels able to turn their guide into a talk or tour and to give as many as possible! In many cases this may not be feasible but that's why we suggest podcasts and YouTube videos might be a good substitute. If the church is interested, setting up a team of volunteers can be a brilliant way to pass on your research to visitors.
The most important texts for your parish church are unlikely to be national. This selection is a guide only.
Works on parish churches and their styles:
The Buildings of England series (started by Pevsner) is a great starting place but remember to set parish architecture in context both in its historical development and compared to other churches in the region.
Addison, William. Local styles of the English parish church. London: Batsford, 1982.
Braun, Hugh. Parish Churches: Their Architectural Development in England. London: Faber, 1974.
Cook, G. H. The English Mediaeval Parish Church. London: Phoenix House, 1954.
Cox, J. Charles. The English Parish Church: An Account of the Chief Building Types & of Their Materials During Nine Centuries. London: B.T. Batsford, 1914.
Cox, J. Charles, and Charles Bradley Ford. The Parish Churches of England. London: B.T. Batsford, ltd, 1935.
Howard, Frank E. The Mediæval Styles of the English Parish Church, a Survey of Their Development, Design and Features. New York: C. Scribner’s sons, 1936.
Nye, Thelma Mary. An Introduction to Parish Church Architecture: A.D. 600-1965. London: Batsford, 1965.
Randall, Gerald. The English Parish Church. London: Spring, 1988.
Thompson, A. Hamilton. The Historical Growth of the English Parish Church. The Cambridge manuals of science and literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1911.
Works on the history of the parish:
Most parishes have been the subject of local histories, try the county's arachaeological or antiquarian journal first. The Victoria County History is an excellent place to start.
French, Katherine L.. The People of the Parish: Community Life in a Late Medieval English Diocese. Middle Ages series. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.
French, Katherine L., and Gary G. Gibbs. The parish in English life, 1400-1600. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997.
Kümin, Beat A. “The English Parish in a European Perspective.” In The Parish in English Life, edited by Katherine L. French, Gary G. Gibbs, and Beat Kumin, 15-32, n.d.
———. The Shaping of a Community: The Rise and Reformation of the English Parish, C. 1400-1560. St. Andrews studies in reformation history. Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1996.
Platt, Colin. The Parish Churches of Medieval England. London: Chancellor, 1995.
Pounds, Norman John Greville. A history of the English parish: the culture of religion from Augustine to Victoria. Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Works on churchwardens' accounts:
Burgess, Clive. “Pre‐Reformation Churchwardens’ Accounts and Parish Government: Lessons from London and Bristol.” The English Historical Review 117, no. 471 (April 1, 2002): 306 -332.
———. “Shaping the Parish: St Mary at Hill, London, in the fifteenth century.” In The Cloister and the World: Essays in Medieval History in Honour of Barbara Harvey, edited by John Blair and Brian Golding. Oxford: Clarendon, 1996.
———. “Strategies for eternity.” In Religious Beliefs and Ecclesiastical Careers, edited by Christopher Harper-Bill. Woodbridge, 1991.
Burgess, Clive, and Beat Kumin. “Penitential Bequests and Parish Regimes in Late Medieval England.” The Journal of Ecclesiastical History 44, no. 4 (1993): 610-630.
Cox, John Charles. Churchwardens’ accounts from the fourteenth century to the close of the seventeenth century. Methuen, 1913.
French, Katherine L. “Parochial fund-raising in late medieval Somerset.” In The Parish in English Life, edited by Katherine L. French, Gary G. Gibbs, and Beat Kumin. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997.
Kümin, Beat. “Late Medieval Churchwardens’ Accounts and Parish Government: Looking beyond London and Bristol.” The English Historical Review 119, no. 480 (February 1, 2004): 87 -99.
Philipps, Elsbeth. “A List of Printed Churchwardens’ Accounts.” The English Historical Review 15, no. 58 (April 1, 1900): 335-341.
Works on biography:
The Oxford Dictionay of National Biography is an excellent resource for famous parishioners but you might need to dig around to tell the often fascinating stories of less well known ones. You could try telling the story of a hypothetical parishioner from the middle ages or another period of history!
Other guides to writing a church guide:
The Open University's Resource Guide: How to Write a Church and Parish History, particularly for London parishes
The correct terminology for describing architecture and liturgy can appear complex but it won't take long to understand. It's important to use the correct vocabulary in your guide, visitors don't want to be talked down to and the words can be very useful in understanding a building, but they will need to be explained.
If you are keen to take your work on church guides further you might be interested in other church tourism organisations. The Church Tourism Association is the national body with an annual convention well worth checking out, and in Wales is the Churches Tourism Network Wales. The dioceses of York, St Albans and Southwell have their own church tourism page, as does Churches Regional Commission for Yorkshire and the Humber. Andrew Keeling has written a useful introduction to issues around church tourism (he even concludes that: 'There would appear to be considerable scope to improve the presentation and interpretation of churches for visitors').
There are many resources to help with maintenance and conservation work which are beyong the remit of this website. However, some of these also have good tips for church tourism, like the Arthur Rank Centre.