A cross marks the spot

Wiping churches off Britain's Ordnance Survey maps would be an act of cultural and topographical vandalism
Nothing is sacred - and that is official. The Ordnance Survey wishes that no significance any longer attaches to a "place of worship" or to a parish boundary. In future a church will appear on maps only if it has "navigational importance" and will not be indicated as a place of worship. When Alastair Campbell declared last month that, at new Labour, "we don't do God", he meant it. God is off the map, literally. As for civil parishes they are to be the territorial equivalent of "Here be Dragons".

The proposal, on which the Ordnance Survey is now consulting, is a change in its Landranger and Explorer maps that beggars belief. Since time immemorial walkers have recognised as a local church the symbol of the circle or square with a cross on top. The "unsteepled chapel" is shown by a simple cross. Map-users of all sorts and faiths regard a church as more than a navigational aid. It is more than the topographical heart of a place, more than the sound of bells and evensong. A Gothic window, a bellcote, a chapel pediment, a scatter of tombs in a graveyard, are part of the social architecture of England.

According to the Ordnance Survey, cartography must keep abreast of these godless times. My medieval map of Cardigan Bay shows "monsters" where now lies Ireland. An early chart of the Humber depicts specific spires along the shore. Maps once indicated diocesan boundaries, pilgrims' ways and hospices. Just as these symbols have vanished, however helpful or fascinating we may find them, so now must go "places of worship". Worship is no longer politically correct.

In future church buildings would be singled out only where they have "towers, spires, domes or minarets" of "navigational importance". In that case they would appear like a factory, mill or other prominent structure that might guide walkers. The bureaucratic pen has merged the sacred steeple with the satanic mill. Pugin's "two hands in prayer ascending up to God" is no different from a laundry chimney. Ruskin and Morris must be howling from their graves.

John Prescott, in whose hands under Tony Blair this decision rests, intends to wipe from recognition not only Anglican and Roman Catholic churches which have no steeples. He would at the same time remove virtually all Nonconformist chapels. A correspondent, R. J. Dean, of Church Stretton in Shropshire, tells me that within ten miles of his home 29 churches will disappear from the Ordnance Survey map. He estimates that some 10,000 places of worship will no longer be recorded in England and Wales.

Nor is this part of some cleansing of the cartographic Augean stables. It is sheer discrimination. Roman villas are safe. So are medieval castles, police stations, post offices, "bunkhouses", golf clubs, lavatories, swamps, mileposts, even pestilential wind turbines. All retain their unique symbols, but not places of worship. Betjeman once asked, "And must that plaintive bell in vain/ Plead out along the dripping lane? And must the building fall?" The answer is yes.

A particular gem of mine is the Norman chapel of Heath in Shropshire, below. It slumbers in a meadow overlooking the exquisite slopes of Corvedale, north of Ludlow. Its village vanished at the time of the Black Death, but somehow the ancient church survived. The Gothic age ignored it. The Reformation did no more than turn its rood screen into a rectory pew. A 17th-century vicar installed a reading window for a clerk. Otherwise nothing changed. The little settlement records the same seven farms and roughly 40 parishioners it had in the Middle Ages.

Heath church would be impossible to find were it not for the cross on the OS Landranger map, indicating a "place of worship without addition", a phrase perfectly describing Heath. Under the proposal the church would be eliminated from the map not for any lack of holiness - it is not even redundant - but because the stingy Normans and careless Goths forgot to give it "a spire, dome or minaret". They may have judged Holy Scripture navigation enough for the souls of Corvedale. But Mr Prescott, under whose fatwa these things are ordered, thinks otherwise.

In the House of Commons on March 10 Mr Prescott's henchman, Tony McNulty, MP for satanic Harrow East, made one concession. Unsteepled churches would still appear on the map as black dots but "without reference to their religious or cultural significance". They would be on a par with bungalows and cowsheds. The contempt is near incredible. The last time the Church was so insulted was when Thomas Cromwell dissolved the monasteries - and he had good reason. As for the ever-spineless Church of England, it has not, to my knowledge, even been consulted until this week.

The demotion of the glories of ecclesiastical architecture to "building with navigational feature" would reflect more than Whitehall's atheism and cultural materialism. It would ignore the history and diversity of village England. Every visitor knows that no structure defines a settlement as does a church or chapel. It is still a place of local ceremony and ritual, the emotional as well as topographical heart of a community. "Where is the church?" is a standard map-user's question. It is not the same as a factory, any more than a post office is a pub.

Everyone, churchgoer or not, respects these buildings as repositories of collective memory. Even churches without steeples are distinctive local buildings, far more than the golf club, the post office or the public convenience, to all of which the Ordnance Survey is to give symbolic precedence. To rub a church wall is to feel the texture of history. To visit a churchyard is to enjoy the tranquillity of place. To remove the category of church from the map of England treats a village or town as a mere agglomeration of housing units. It diminishes the nation's history.

The disappearance of parishes, also under consultation, is no less sinister. Ordnance Survey parish boundaries have long caused walkers anguish. Years ago that agency's inhouse sadists made the symbol for a parish boundary near indistinguishable from a footpath. Generations of walkers thus found themselves torn by brambles, jolted by electric fences, shot by bailiffs, drowned in torrents and lost over cliffs, when they thought they were using a legal footpath. They were in fact beating the bounds of St Magnus Magna and Piddleton Parva. (A simple solution would have been to print all paths in red or green, depending on status, and leave boundaries in black.)

The new Right to Roam is requiring a new boundary symbol. This is important if walkers are not to stray from public to private land within an owner's property. This could surely be handled by the "access colour" of purple. Either way, parish boundaries are not trivial and their sacrifice is unnecessary. As Oliver Rackham pointed out in his History of the Countryside, pollarded oaks, yews and hedges have delineated parish borders throughout history. Their location is crucial to "reading the landscape" of rural England.

For local people the curtilage of a civil parish, community or town council is probably the most important boundary of all. It distinguishes a community from its neighbour. It is significant in local planning and conservation. Parish council membership is still, in terms of numbers, the most active participation in government in Britain. Eighty thousand people serve on 9,500 councils in England and Wales. This number is expanding and embraces by far the largest "independent" element in British politics. Parishes may seem distant and medieval to Whitehall and its mapmakers. Yet the extent of their remit has far more meaning locally than Mr Prescott's precious parliamentary and European constituency boundaries.

Maps are always political. War, goes the saying, is "principally a question of maps". The vaults of the British Library are stuffed with examples of statesmen putting maps to devious purpose. No French or US cartographer would dare eliminate the boundaries of a local commune or township as this Government is doing. There would be riots.

This attempt to depoliticise provincial Britain by manipulating its maps is reminiscent of Stalinism. It would strip local people of their collective identity and inherited culture. I am told that the shires are rising, the pews are in turmoil and even the Ordnance Survey is debating whether to side with its public or with Mr Prescott. A final decision was promised last month and has yet to emerge. We can only hope.