CLERGY have questioned a government decision to upgrade protection for three "architecturally important" North Yorkshire churches, and described the move as a mixed blessing.

In a drive to increase the proportion of Roman Catholic churches on the National Heritage List, Historic England has handed Ampleforth Abbey, in Ryedale, grade I listed status, joining landmarks including York Minster and Rievaulx Abbey with the highest level of protection.

The government body said the Abbey Church at Ampleforth, designed by eminent architect Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, who designed Liverpool Anglican Cathedral and K6 red telephone box, reflected the "pared back simplicity encouraged by the Benedictine order".

Historic England said the listing upgrades came at the end of a project with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Middlesbrough and the Patrimony Committee of the Bishops’ Conference.

Sophie Andreae, of the conference, said: “It is very exciting that the importance of Catholic heritage is now being recognised. These outstanding churches deserve to be better known and we are very grateful to Historic England for their support for the major research project that has led to this announcement.”

While Father Wulstan Peterburs, procurator at Ampleforth, said the community of monks was delighted the building had been recognised, some of his colleagues in the diocese said they feared spiralling maintenance costs to meet listed building requirements.

Historic England has also upgraded St Peter and St Paul, Leyburn, to Grade II*, saying it was "a nationally rare example of a Roman Catholic church with well-surviving box pews, a style of seating more typical of 17th and 18th century Anglican churches".

A new entry on the list, St Mary and St Romuald, Yarm, has been given grade II status, as it "represents a relatively early and little altered church" by Catholic architect George Goldie.

Yarm parish priest Father Neil McNicholas said in recent years the diocese had been burdened by maintaining a number of little used churches that listed status prevented from being demolished.

He said the Victorian landmark at the top of the town's high street, which was facing increasing amounts of repairs, did feature a fine stained glass window and altar, but the rest of the building had "very little merit to it".

Fr McNicholas added the church had a congregation of 180 and that the community was not as wealthy as some believed.

He said: "The reality is Historic England has a minority of Catholic churches on its list and has pushed them through whether they had merit or not."