The Department for Culture, Media and Sport is considering a major overhaul of the 'ecclesiastical exemption' loophole in planning law, the AJ can reveal.
It has issued a consultation paper that proposes an end to the ageold rules, under which jurisdiction over changes made to the Church of England's 13,000 listed buildings lies with bishops and not local authorities.
However, church leaders and some architectural experts have warned that the changes - which would see the powers transfer to English Heritage - could damage the UK's religious heritage.
The Church Heritage Forum, which includes groups such as the Association of English Cathedrals and Churches Conservation Trust, made a strong-worded response to a recent DCMS consultation paper on the future of the exemption. It said it could not support any suggestion of a 'separate formal arrangement' with EH and would fight to retain the status quo.
And Leicester Cathedral architect Ian Salisbury, a RIBA presidential candidate, agreed. 'To suggest English Heritage arbitrates the ecclesiastical-exemption privilege is bad because EH is an advisory group and would be compromised if it were able to judge on its own advice, ' he said. 'EH would rule the roost and with these closed systems there's no way of testing English Heritage's views. If EH has its way, church buildings will become ossified, because it is into preservation and not conservation. Conservation keeps churches alive and allows them to adapt.'
Of the Church of England's 16,000 parish churches, 13,000 are listed. Churches also form the largest category of Grade I buildings.
A spokeswoman for English Heritage said it was still formulating a response but raised the issue of 'limited resources'.
She added that the present system had strengths that 'needed to be built upon' and that the changes would need 'careful study'.
The DCMS was unavailable for comment but has told the forum its response to feedback will take several weeks.