tourists… visitors… pilgrims… worshippers… does it matter?

In a recent article in The Independent, Joan Smith stated emphatically that ‘most of us never set foot in any of [the Church of England’s] buildings except as tourists’…

is this true?

and even if it true, do we consider ourselves tourists / visitors / church crawlers / local people?

and whether we do, or we don’t, is visiting as a ‘tourist’ a bad thing?

This is a complicated question (and I speak as one of the first paid church tourism officers in the country).

To many people, the the term ‘tourist’ implies two weeks on a beach or exploring some far flung place. Few of us call ourselves ‘tourists’ when visiting a nearby city for the day or popping into a building we don’t normally frequent. The World Tourism Organization defines tourists as people “traveling to and staying in places outside their usual environment for not more than one consecutive year for leisure, business and other purposes” – so both the above examples count… we just don’t use the term but should we?

‘Tourism’ also implies a degree of commercialisation, bringing the ‘visitor pound’ into an area or attraction, while many churches see welcoming visitors as part of their mission to the community (whether that community is local people or like-minded individuals from further afield). But, at a time when many churches are in desperate need of financial support, with congregations responsible for the upkeep of hugely important parts of our nation’s heritage – should churches be thinking more like attractions?

Recent research released by VisitBritain (the tourism marketing body for Britain to international visitors) has revealed that in 2011, 6.7 million international tourists visited a religious building and those whose visit included this activity spent nearly £5bn during their stay. This is a huge pot of money that churches should be receiving their share of, shouldn’t they?

It is true that many people will first set foot in a church as a visitor, whether to look at the architecture, attend an event,  visit a church cafe or for many other reasons. But isn’t that how most of us first enter any building / community / or space?

Many funding bodies (including English Heritage and the Heritage Lottery Fund) now require that the heritage they help save is open and accessible to local people and visitors. Surely this is only right and correct, when public money is being used?

The encouragement of church tourism has seen major benefits in many areas across the country, whether at:

– individual churches like Holy Trinity, Stratford upon Avon (Shakespeare’s Church) where visitors are welcomed into the building freely, but are charged a nominal amount to visit the bard’s grave

– groups of churches like in South Yorkshire, where the Heritage Inspired project was a finalist in the Best Tourism Experience catergory of the White Rose Awards two years running and where visitor numbers increased from around 20,000 to over 75,000 over 5 years with central coordination of marketing

– redundant churches now in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust which need to find a place and a use in the community within which they sit and whose team and churches generate over £15m of business in local communities, using core funding of just £4.6million.

500+ people enjoying winter walking, mulled wine and carol singing at Roche Abbey, nr Rotherham, Yorkshire

500+ people enjoying winter walking, mulled wine and carol singing at Roche Abbey, nr Rotherham, Yorkshire

I visit different churches nearly every week. For work, to enjoy the architecture, for coffee mornings and for a whole host of other reasons.I even go as a fully paid up ‘tourist’ – visiting Westminster Abbey for the annual Carol Concert before Christmas.

In my experience, even when people do enter churches as ‘tourists’ they very often engage with the spiritual soul of the building – perhaps by lighting a candle or enjoying a moment of peaceful reflection – and there are many stories from around the country where people visit their local church for an event and receive such a wonderfully warm welcome that they return… perhaps to a service, perhaps to volunteer, or perhaps to donate to a cause. Latest  figures show that at least 1,116,100 attend weekly services at Church of England churches – so clearly they are well used on Sundays.

But, I’ll leave the last word to someone with a great deal of passion for his churches…

As part of his keynote address to the Churches Tourism Association Convention in November, Bishop Colin Fletcher said:

“I take issue with Joan Smith’s disparaging comment that most people only enter church buildings as tourists.  This simply is not true in my part of the world.  As Christmas approaches well over 50% of the population of many villages will be at a service or event sometime over the next 6 weeks but even if people do come just as tourists the challenge is to make the building come alive.”

You can read Joan Smith’s original article here: http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/our-zombie-church-has-a-new-leader-so-what-8303658.html

What do you think?

Giving thanks for our wonderful churches

Today is Thanksgiving in America.

The modern Thanksgiving holiday tradition is commonly, but not universally, traced to a poorly documented 1621 celebration at Plymouth in present-day Massachusetts. The 1621 Plymouth feast and thanksgiving was prompted by a good harvest. In later years, religious thanksgiving services were declared by leaders such as William Bradford, Governor of Plymouth colony, who planned a thanksgiving celebration and fast in 1623. The tradition of Days of Fasting and Days of Thanksgiving was carried to the new world by Pilgrims and Puritans, when they began emigrating from England in the 1620s and 1630s.

On my journey home from the office tonight I will pass the very group of small villages from where the core group of Pilgrims came. Not near Plymouth, as many people think, but in north-east Nottinghamshire and south Yorkshire – passing in turn:

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Babworth:

The Pilgrims were brought together by a common belief in the ideas promoted by Richard Clyfton, a parson at All Saints’ Parish Church in Babworth between 1586 and 1605. The church contains many interesting items recalling the Pilgrims including the chalice used by Richard Clyfton for communion services.

The church of All Saints is around 900 years old. It is a small but handsome structure with a tower steeple with three bells and a clock, a nave, chancel and a handsome porch. Most of the building dates from the 15th century, with several 18th century memorials and 19th century stained glass by Kempe. The chancel and sanctuary contain furniture by Robert ‘Mousey’ Thompson, featuring his trademark mouse carvings.

Scrooby:

The Manor House was home to William Brewster, a former diplomatic assistant to the Netherlands, serving as postmaster for the village and bailiff to the Archbishop of York. In 1605, Clyfton was declared a nonconformist and stripped of his position at Babworth. Brewster invited him to live at the Manor House, and for the congregation to meet privately there also. Beginning in 1606, services were held with Clyfton as pastor, and Brewster as the presiding elder.

The 13th century limestone church of St Wilfrid with its tall early 15th century tower and steeple is Scrooby’s focus. The west window is also early 15th century. The south aisle was added in the early 16th century. T he church’s roof, pews, font, pulpit and east window were restored in 1864 after a period of neglect. The east window received stained glass in 1889. The church is easily visible from the train (east coast mainline) for its tall spire, most other churches in this area have square towers.

Austerfield:

Congregation member William Bradford was born in Austerfield, and baptised in the font at St Helena’s church. Kept a journal of the congregation’s events leading up to leaving England, living in Holland, traveling across the ocean and during the settlement of the Plymouth Colony in America. It would later be published as Of Plymouth Plantation.

The church of St Helena was built in 1080. In 702AD Austerfield was the location of a Synod, where a dispute between the King of Northumbria and Wilfrid, Bishop of Ripon was resolved. The Synod also discussed and agreed was the way that Easter is calculated. The church has several windows by one of England’s greatest stained glass artists, Charles Earner Kempe. In the nave is a Sheila-na-gig of which there are only 16 recorded in England!

You can read a detailed history of the Pilgrims and their flight to the new world here: Wikipedia

You can find visiting details for the three churches here: Heritage Inspired

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You will no doubt have guessed from this that I do not live in London, but in Yorkshire.

A great Yorkshire welcome…

Last week I attended one day of the Church of England’s DAC conference, being held in Hull.

The conference was hosted by the Diocese of York, on the theme of ‘Open and Welcoming Churches’. I got an invite because of my church tourism background (and the fact that I am local), and I am proud to say that Yorkshire did not disappoint.

Hull and the surrounding area is not the first place that many people would think of when talking about church tourism, or tourism in general. However, it has a number of wonderful greater churches, and a wealth of smaller parish churches bursting with beautiful architecture, fascinating heritage and warm and welcoming people.

Despite a somewhat grey day, we visited some inspirational churches, great not only because of their buildings but also for their vision for the future of their community and the welcome they give to all visitors.

Particularly inspirational was a visit to St Andrew, Paull.

A church with a vision for the 21st century, the church has recently added toilet facilities and a kitchen, runs a cafe for the community and visitors, has regular events and activities and is currently installing wifi that will broadcast to the whole community (the first in the country to do so), making the church the key place in the village.

Church volunteers provided a tasty (and locally sourced) lunch, and weren’t phased at all by 120 people descending on them for an hour of poking around and asking questions.

You might be thinking then that the church is at the centre of a bustling community, and gets passing visitors everyday. In fact, it is at the end of a spit of land, not on the way to anywhere and definitely not close to any honey-pot attractions.  However, their activities have seen a huge increase in the number of people using the church, and in visitors making the deliberate trip to experience their welcome.

No wonder then that this is where the Churches Tourism Association chose this welcoming church to launch a new CD Rom all about church tourism – the nitty gritty of why, how and what the benefits are of being open and welcoming to visitors.

Perhaps churches wanting to do something similar should take a trip up to Paull, it certainly would not be wasted!

Find out more about St Andrew, Paull on their website: http://standrewpaull.wordpress.com/blog/

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