Churches for Communities: adapting Oxfordshire’s churches for wider community use

Churches for Communities CoverTalking to those on the front line

Guest blogger Becky Payne writes:

Last summer, I had the enviable task of visiting 25 Oxfordshire churches, dotted all around that gorgeous county.

My visits were so I could write about the physical changes made to these buildings over the last 30 years – but ended up being about so much more than merely describing the addition of a toilet and kitchen or a meeting room.

What I was especially interested in (and why the Oxfordshire Historic Churches Trust commissioned me to write this book) was hearing the stories of the people who had come together to make those changes – the re-orderings, the introduction of new furniture and facilities, the creation of a modern worship space, or the efforts to provide space for a whole range of community activities and in some cases both.

I talked to the incumbents, churchwardens, fund-raisers, architects, and many other committed individuals who had been on the journey of developing a church and community building project within an historic structure. This raised not only the usual issues when adapting an historic building, but needed additional sensitivity because these buildings are viewed by many as sacred places, and are also greatly loved by their local communities – even by those who hardly cross the threshold!

Challenges faced

I asked them about not only about what they have achieved, but their vision, how they made it happen, how they worked with the wider community, how they raised the money, how they dealt with the authorities, and about the challenges they faced and the lessons learnt.

And they responded with pride, but also recalled periods of exasperation and those ‘remind me never to undertake anything like this ever again’ moments.

Many of these projects took years and involved endless meetings, fund-raising efforts and dealing with various authorities. These were interspersed with highlights such as when a project was awarded that crucial grant as well as awful set-backs such as the theft of the roof lead just after the works had been completed or the uncovering of the unforeseen additional (and very expensive) works.

I never ceased to be amazed at the huge amounts of time, energy and sheer stubborn tenacity that people gave to ensure that their churches remained open as places of worship and that more people were ‘crossing the threshold’ and making use of the buildings. Key to the success of many of these projects was the involvement with the local community. In many cases, the future running of the building is now shared with a community trust.

Special sacred space

Many of the aims of these undertakings were similar, but the solutions were always different and specific to the particular place of worship, which is as it should be. Some involved extensions, others were able to insert new facilities into a west end tower, while others created space in an aisle and, believe it or not, a good percentage retained some or all of their pews. When it works, and is well designed and crafted, the new additions enhance the beauty of the building which retains its sense of being a special sacred space. Many of these places of worship have undergone change many times over the centuries; as one church said ‘we looked into the history of our church and found that every generation had its own vision which determined how it laid out the building. We felt we were honouring this historic tradition by making it work for our generation’.  Even so, one of the major challenges faced by almost all of the churches in this book, was an initial and often strong local opposition to any proposal for change. Sometimes this came from with the congregation itself, sometimes from the wider community. Managing this required sensitive discussion over long periods of time.

Not all readers of this book will like some of the changes described, but at the very least I hope that I have explained how they came about, and showed how they are helping to sustain these very important buildings and give them a future. The intention of this book is to inspire other churches that may be about to embark on similar undertakings and hope that they will benefit from the experience of those who have gone before.

‘Churches for Communities: adapting Oxfordshire’s churches for wider community use’  by Becky Payne, is published by the Oxfordshire Historic Churches Trust. All proceeds go to the work of the Trust. 136 pages, 150 colour illustrations. (ISBN 9780992769307)

It is available through all good booksellers, including Waterstones Books Online and Blackwells Online Bookshop (both of which deliver free in the UK). It is also available from Amazon.

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