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.

Get ready to discover the architecture and history of 8,000 churches and chapels

8,000 historic churches and chapels in England will open their doors to walkers and cyclists on Ride+Stride Saturday, 14 September 2013.



Ride+Stride is an annual open day which allows visitors to discover the architecture and history of churches and chapels. The majority of churches will welcome visitors between 10.00 am and 6.00 pm.
2013 highlights include:

• A record 97 places of worship open to visitors in London, including for the first time two Hindu temples.
• A chance to visit 14 of Bath’s most beautiful churches in a specially organised church trail
• Discounted ferry tickets to the Isle of Wight, where 43 churches will be open to visit.
• 250 parish churches across the three counties of Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Shropshire will welcome Ride+Stride visitors as part of a Festival of Churches with events including graveyard tours, afternoon teas and organ recitals.

Ride+Stride is the main annual fundraising event for historic churches and chapels. Many people who take part are sponsored for every place of worship they visit on foot, by cycle, horse or even in some cases by mobility scooter or canoe. Other visitors simply leave a donation in the church.

The event started in Suffolk in 1982 and since then over £30 million has been raised to support the repair of churches, with thousands of people enjoying a day out whilst raising funds to help preserve their local heritage. With £1.4 million successfully raised in 2012, the fundraising target for 2013 is £1.5 million

Ride+Stride is supported by the National Churches Trust, and organised locally by County Churches Trusts. A national Ride+Stride website provides full information and links to local and regional events. Full details

The Rt Rev Nicholas Holtam, Bishop of Salisbury and Trustee of the National Churches Trust said:
“Ride+Stride is a wonderful way to discover the churches and chapels that lie at the heart of our heritage and landscape. With around 8,000 churches and chapels open to welcome visitors, there is no better way to discover the history and architecture of the churches which form the centrepiece of so many of our cities, towns and villages.”

“Ride+Stride is also a great way to raise money to support the repair and maintenance of historic churches and chapels. It is crucial to keep church buildings in good repair – if a roof leaks, then the building gets damaged and you get an even bigger problem.”

“So please encourage your friends and family to join you on this fun day out and help raise money for your local churches and chapels and the County Churches Trust that support them. It doesn’t matter if you raise £2, £20 or £200. Every penny raised means you will help protect some of our most beautiful and historic churches and chapels.”

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