Caring for and Developing your Buildings
To support individual congregations:
· in maintaining their building’s interior and exterior
· in the process of adapting their buildings for today’s needs
· in achieving the balance between conservation and mission, and helping to make our rural churches more accessible to more people
· in the process of providing a sustainable future for their churches as places of worship
Do you consider your place of worship to be one of your greatest assets, an important tool for mission, and as a resource for engagement with the wider community? Or do you think of it as a millstone draining your money and time? Your building is there 24 hours a day, seven days a week and it can act as a beacon for your faith for anyone passing by or coming in. It will hold memories for your community and the story of faith in that place. It needs to be telling those stories today as well as meeting all your needs as a living place of worship.
Why Our Church Buildings Matter (Nigel Walter, February 2012)
Churches often struggle with their buildings. In one sense our buildings are incidental to the life of the church – church after all is all about people and relationships, not property. On the other hand our buildings shape the life of our congregations, in terms of how we use our churches and what we feel about them; so the relationship we have with our buildings is also important.
Sadly, those who most frequently use our church buildings – clergy and congregation – often live in grudging opposition to them. Once we become familiar with a place, we stop looking at it, engaging with it. And it is very difficult to love a building that may be cold and damp when all you can see are its drawbacks and the repair bills.
And yet visitors love our churches for their sense of history, the personal stories they bear witness to, and because they can give people a sense of the spiritual. Heritage is now big business, and many people are drawn to it, perhaps looking for a sense of rootedness in a dislocated world. One can certainly read a building for its history, focusing on the evidence for different stages of development, attempting to piece together its biography. But for me the most important reading of the church is as a material narrative, as the physical story of the gathered community in that particular place.
There are three elements to that phrase that are worth exploring further – in reverse order,
(particular) place, (gathered) community, and (material) narrative. Understanding how these go together helps us understand why our church buildings matter, and what opportunities they present.
Many people endure a sense of rootlessness in an age when we increasingly see people as (barely) human resources. But we are not detached and disembodied beings – part of being human is to be somewhere, in a context, and at a specific location; this is the difference between qualitative place and abstract quantitative space. This is somewhat counter-cultural; modern technology promises to ‘liberate’ us from our physical constraints – take for example the internet, which enables you to read this article without our having met. By contrast, all the way from Eden to the new Jerusalem, Scripture displays a consistently relational view of place.
Community is one of those warm words that marketeers and politicians love to use because they make us feel better. Community is what the church is, or should be, all about – the people of God gathered for worship and mission. But there is also a wider sense of community, which includes everyone, of whatever background. And this wider sense is reflected in the traditional role of the church building – a medieval church would have been at the heart of community life, irrespective of the state of your faith, and all sorts of ʻsecularʼ things would have happened in it. By contrast our culture usually views church as a private religious club, and not for the rest of us.
Everyone likes a good story. I would argue this is fundamental to the way we are made, perhaps even what it means to be made in the image of God. Certainly narrative, in the form of parables, was Jesus’ favoured mode of teaching. He also used metaphor, which carries with it a surplus of meaning. It is this extra bit that fires the imagination and creates a meeting place, whether between friends in conversation, or between us in community, or between ourselves and God in worship. The best stories, like the best buildings, are generous and inclusive.
So what might church as material narrative look like in practice?
• activities in our buildings that are less text-based
• buildings that feel more welcoming, preferably in terms of views in, warmth, containment without the threat of entrapment
• fluid spaces that allow for a variety of uses, and activities that draw a full cross-section of our communities across the threshold
• using the old stone or the stained glass window or the new memorial to speak to people, to appeal to emotion as well as to mind
• buildings that allow degrees of engagement, where it is possible and acceptable to hide behind a pillar while you dip your toe into God’s community
• places that enable people to put down roots
Most of all, these will be buildings which express our theology in practical material form.
Our generation will either have to manage a long decline and close large numbers of our churches – last one out please turn off the lights – or we need to radically reconsider our relationship to these physical manifestations of our Christian faith and, I would argue, wake up to the opportunities they present. And part of that is perhaps the perception of ownership – we must recognise that these buildings are ours only in the sense that we have the care of them.
We must consider the voice we already have – the preaching job our buildings are currently doing for us. Do they speak of love and care and warmth, or of cold and decay? We need to consider what voice we want to have in our culture and our local community; and to do this we need to approach our buildings afresh as if for the first time, to explore them as material narrative.
Nigel Walter is the director of Archangel, a RIBA registered chartered practice based in Cambridge (UK), with a satellite office in Bournemouth. They work across a range of sectors including Commercial, Education, Church, Residential and Domestic. They have worked with several churches in and around Cambridge. Nigel is also the author of “The Gate of Heaven: how church buildings speak of God” (Grove, 2011). See Section 11: Other Resources.
General advice about this resource
These pages will offer general guidance and signpost you to where you will be able to find more detailed information. This is not an exhaustive list (how could it be?), so don’t hesitate to look further. Searching the internet can lead to a whole host of ideas and help. And if you come across any other good source of advice or an example of best practice, please let us know.
The case studies will hopefully give you some ideas about what you can do and inspire you. It’s important to remember that every place of worship and its congregation is different, so always start from your particular place and people.
Very useful general websites
The Churchcare website is maintained by the Church of England‘s Cathedral and Church Buildings Division but is relevant to anyone who is responsible for an historic place of worship. It contains helpful material and guidance on practical topics. www.churchcare.co.uk.
In particular, they have gathered together all their Guidance Notes, for ease of reference: www.churchcare.co.uk/churches/guidance-advice/all-guidance-notes
English Heritage is part of the regulatory process and also offers advice and support. In 2010, they produced a guidance booklet which covers all aspects of looking after a place of worship. Called Caring for Places of Worship (2010), it can be downloaded at www.english-heritage.org.uk/publications/caring-for-places-of-worship. Other information can be found at http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/caring/places-of-worship/caring-for-places-of-worship/
The Christianity and Culture Project is developing a range of training resources and study packs which will be downloadable from their site. They also say that if there is a particular topic or theme you think they should cover, or if your church would like them to run a training session for you, please contact them at http://www.christianityandculture.org.uk/churches.
Resourcing Christian Community Action This is a Church of England initiative and arose from a Big Society debate at the November 2010 General Synod. This study was commissioned to research and bring together current best practice in Christian care in local communities with the resources and knowledge base needed to multiply those good works across the country. It includes a wide spectrum of examples covering different policy areas, location and types of activity. “Although many of the projects included are in deprived areas, Christian community action is called for in any context to demonstrate care for neighbours and new ways of being and to work for personal, social and structural transformation”.
Go to www.how2help.net to read the study in full and also access information on how to start a project, how to manage a project it, where to get advice and where to find local partners and funding. There are also case studies of existing projects from across the country.
The Historic Religious Buildings Alliance have recently launched their website. This is primarily a forum for 2nd stage organizations such as ARC, the denominations, NCT etc. But they produce a monthly newsletter – which would be useful for individual churches – providing information on new funding sources, consultations, changes in Government Policy, new items and events and training opportunities. You can sign up for this newsletter by going on the website, which is at www.hrballiance.org.uk.