Extending the Use of Churches in Oxfordshire
|St John the Baptist, Stadhampton with a small extension on the left which now provides village hall facilities
(Photo: Mike Peckett)
For a growing number of the UK’s
churches, extending the use of the
building beyond its traditional religious
function is not only about community
outreach, but also a question of survival.
The combination of shrinking congregations
and mounting maintenance costs is driving
a wave of extensions and adaptations.
The successes and limitations of extended
use are explored at a local level in Churches for
Communities: Adapting Oxfordshire’s Churches
for Wider Use. Commissioned by the Rt Revd
Colin Fletcher, Bishop of Dorchester and by the
Oxfordshire Historic Churches Trust in 2012,
the book’s remit was to describe the changes
that have taken place in Oxfordshire’s places
of worship over the last 30 years. The focus
was on projects where the main objectives
were to meet modern worship needs and
open up spaces for wider community use.
Published in February 2014, the book
records the stories of the incumbents, architects
and particularly the many volunteers who,
as members of parochial church councils
(PCCs) or building project and fundraising
committees, worked tirelessly to bring their
visions to fruition. Importantly, it also provides
inspiration and advice for others who might
be considering taking up the challenge.
As a result, 25 projects were chosen
which would be described from conception
to completion and examined in terms of their
contribution to the long-term viability of the
building. Participants were asked about their
vision, how they engaged with the community,
raised funds, negotiated with church authorities
and conservation bodies, what challenges
they faced and what lessons were learned.
From varied backgrounds, most of the
people responsible for driving these projects
forward were embarking for the first time on
a complex journey that involved a place of
worship, a historic building and a community
project all in one. All got involved out of a
genuine wish to reconnect the building with its
local community and with a recognition that
the building would not survive as a living place
of worship if it remained under-used. Many
of the churches involved were struggling to
cope with expensive repair bills and declining
congregations. The key was recognising that
a sustainable solution had to be communitybased,
rather than purely built around the
needs of worship. It was clear that even if a
congregation was prepared to endure a cold
and damp building with no facilities, it was
unlikely that community groups would.
The objectives may have been similar in all
25 projects, but they did not result in uniform
solutions. As well as the legal constraints that
control changes to listed ecclesiastical buildings,
a range of other factors determined the final
outcome. These include local circumstances,
the current viability of the building and its
congregation, and the preferences of the
congregation and local community.
|St John the Evangelist, Fernham which now functions as both church and village hall: (left) the view towards the east end with all the pews removed, and (right) the new
facilities at the west end
Consulting with the wider community is
essential to identifying how a church can
help meet a community need. Most of the
projects asked the community what they
would like to use the church for and presented
draft proposals for the installation of new
facilities and the creation of community
space. While managing the responses was
relatively straightforward for some churches,
it was a major challenge for others.
At Fernham, a village of about 250 with no
existing community space, church services at
St John the Evangelist (Grade II) were attracting
a small, elderly congregation and the PCC was
concerned about maintenance costs. The roof
was beginning to leak and the building was cold
and damp. Fully pewed, it could not be used
for much beyond services, concerts and film
nights. In 2002 the churchwarden circulated a
survey stating that the congregation would be
unable to sustain the church as it was and asking
whether there were objections to adapting it.
The survey achieved a 50 per cent response
rate, with the overwhelming majority in favour
of adapting the building into a combined
church and village hall (illustrated opposite).
Stadhampton had not had a village hall
since the 1960s. St John the Baptist (Grade II)
was isolated and, while in good repair, it had
no mains water or drainage. With diminishing
congregation numbers, it stood empty for six
days a week. The PCC welcomed an approach
from Stadhampton Community Building
Project Committee, which had been set up to
address the lack of a village hall, to discuss a
joint venture. Two representatives from the
PCC and the incumbent joined the project
committee. A consultation revealed that 89 per
cent of respondents wanted a village hall, but
identified two options: building a new hall or
adapting the church. The cost of a new build was
found to be prohibitive and it was recognised
that modifying the church would preserve a
much-loved historic building which had been ‘at
the heart of the community for over 900 years’.
In other cases, a lot of work had to be done
to bring people on side when major changes were being proposed to a sacred place, loved
by its community – even if some rarely crossed
the threshold. Change challenges many people’s
expectations of what a church should look like
and PCCs faced genuine concerns and in a
very few cases, hostility. This could come from
within the PCC itself, from the congregation or
very often from the wider community. Many
community members saw pews as essential
to the spiritual atmosphere of the building.
Some feared that the church would turn into
an ‘entertainment centre’, or that installing a
toilet would compromise its essential mystery.
||St Nicholas, Chadlington: the new meeting room in the north transept and the 12 retained pews (All photos by
the author unless otherwise stated)
In a small community, any discord can be
painful. Churchwardens and incumbents listened,
talked things through, arranged visits to other
projects and amended proposals. Some, faced with
high bills and possible closure, felt they had to take
a decision even if, at times, it felt a lonely one.
There can also be a difficulty in visualising
what the resulting building will look like,
especially for those not used to looking at
plans. Changes to fittings and furnishings
can also have unforeseen impacts on the
appearance and atmosphere of the space.
For example, at St Nicholas, Chadlington
(Grade II*), the intention was to retain all the
pews in line with the strong local opposition
to a proposal to replace them with a more
flexible seating system. However, when
members of the PCC visited the church
between the completion of the underfloor
heating installation and the new floor being
laid, there was a surprising change of heart.
According to the Revd Mark Abrey, ‘the two
members of the PCC who had been most
adamant that the pews must be retained came
and said that, actually, the space looks so
beautiful, can we just put back six pews each
side of the centre of the nave?’ This was agreed, and the 12 pews, which are now movable, can
seat some 70 members of the congregation,
more than sufficient for a Sunday service. For
larger services and other events, additional
seating is provided by new folding chairs.
While understanding the need for the Church
of England’s faculty system (which regulates
proposed changes to church buildings and their
contents), many groups felt that negotiating
alterations and the location of new facilities took
too long. Some found it extremely frustrating
that they were prevented from making what
they saw as essential changes. To them it was
‘illogical’ that in a church that had been reordered
every century since the 1300s, they were
being prevented from implementing their vision.
The most common area of conflict
between a church and the diocesan advisory
committee (DAC) or amenity society (1) was the
removal of what a church would describe as
a standard set of mid-Victorian pews or the
wish to move a font or pulpit. For an amenity
society, moving the lectern two feet to the
north would remove it from its historical
context, while for the project committee, it
was key to being able to install a stage. But
there was also praise for the DAC, English
Heritage and other experts whose advice often
unlocked previously insoluble problems.
|St Mary the Virgin, Chalgrove: a pew being moved using the
specially designed pew skate (Photo: Robert Heath-Whyte)
The 25 churches described in Churches
for Communities illustrate a range of solutions
in terms of their physical transformations.
The projects ranged in cost from £100,000 to
over £1 million and from major re-orderings
of the interior to housing new facilities in
an extension to fitting the new facilities in
the base of a tower or at the end of an aisle.
Some churches, often those which had been
sub-divided in the 1970s or 1980s, wished to
return to a single architectural space, while
others wanted to create enclosed zones. Many
kept their pews or retained at least half of
them. Some argued that pews are still the most
efficient way to seat a whole school, for example.
St Thomas of Canterbury, Elsfield,
(Grade II*), is a small church in a village of 100
people with no community facilities. The church
held one service a month and was at risk of
closure until it was decided that it could provide
a much-needed village asset.
In 2002, the west
end was cleared of pews to create a ‘village room’,
separated from the nave by a folding oak and
glass screen. The toilet, kitchen and storage area
were housed in a new extension leading off the
village room. The rest of the nave and chancel
remained unchanged and the retained pews in
the nave can seat about 40 people, sufficient for
the congregation. The sign outside the church
now proudly states ‘Church of St Thomas
of Canterbury and Elsfield Village Room’.
At St Mary the Virgin, Chalgrove
(Grade I), it was decided to locate the facilities
at the base of the west tower so that the
spiritual atmosphere and unity of nave and
chancel is retained. The pine pews, although
unremarkable, have been repaired and retained.
With the help of two ‘pew skates’ (above left),
designed by a member of the congregation,
the pews can be removed for special events.
They are normally placed at an angle so that
everyone can see more easily.
‘There is a sense
of being “in the round” which has enhanced
the worship,’ says the Revd Canon Ian Cohen.
‘For this church, pews are still important
and at weddings and funerals, people want
to sit on pews and feel close to each other.’
In 2012, an extension was built onto
St Agatha’s (Grade II*), Brightwell-cum-Sotwell,
to serve as a multi-function room with a
servery. Access is through the church’s south
door into a porch-style link which houses
two toilets. The church remains otherwise
unchanged, reflecting the PCC’s wish to retain
the internal architectural space. There was
also a fear that a re-ordering ‘would perhaps
cause such division within the community
that we would never achieve resolution’.
At St Edburg’s, Bicester (Grade I), the
pews were removed. The Victorian Society
initially resisted but changed its mind after
the PCC asked it to visit. Once its caseworker
had seen the poor-quality 1860s pine bench
pews and the presence of woodworm, the
Victorian Society agreed to the removal of
the pews on condition that the 1863 stone
pulpit remained in its original position.
SHARING SACRED AND
Another common challenge was managing
a building now used for both worship and
community activities. Even those who believe in
creating a building that is both an active place
of worship and a shared space that welcomes
all can find the reality a bit of a shock.
As one vicar explained, ‘People wanted
to use it for non-religious purposes and that
is great, but it does lead to some complexity’.
If a church raises all the money, it can
regulate the usage but if the plan is to go
into partnership with the wider community,
having asked for their views and having
taken their money then, as another vicar
said, ‘You have to be very sure that your
vision for the new building encompasses
the new ways in which it will be used’.
||The case studies discussed in this article can be read
in full in Becky Payne’s Churches for Communities:
Adapting Oxfordshire’s Churches for Wider Use,
published by the Oxfordshire Historic Churches
Trust (February 2014). All proceeds go to the work of
the trust. Copies can be purchased online.
One issue that is often not completely
resolved is how to retain a quiet space for
reflection when other activities are taking place.
Often the chancel is identified as that space, or
in other cases separate soundproofed spaces
have been created for noisy activities such as
the toddlers’ group, but in some cases, for a
lot of the time, that quiet space has been lost.
However, inviting new people to use the
building means there are additional people
to look after it. New models of managing the
churches are emerging which may provide
a key to the sustainability of others.
At St Thomas’, Elsfield, the village room is
managed by a committee made up of church
members and non-churchgoing residents.
They raise funds to cover its running and
maintenance costs, currently £4,000 a year.
St John the Evangelist, Fernham, is now
managed under a 30-year repairing lease
from the diocese by the Fernham Village
Trust, which has responsibility for routine
maintenance. The PCC pays to hire it for
services and other church activities such
as weddings and funerals. The lease states
that the trust will pay 60 per cent of the
cost of any necessary major works while the
PCC will contribute 40 per cent, reflecting
the split between chancel and nave.
Sutherland, chair of the project group, says
‘It is still a delightful village church and
when there is a service, the only visible
change is that the font has moved and
there are more comfortable chairs. Prior
to the conversion it was half a story; now
it has become a focus of the community’.
In October 2013, St John the Baptist,
Stadhampton, reopened as the church
and village hall following a major internal
re-ordering. An interim management
committee manages day-to-day issues
while working out how a partnership
model of management will operate.
Many projects report positive
- an increase in footfall and income
- new people joining the congregation
- a stronger relationship with nonchurchgoers
increased community harmony
- an increase in the number of people who
value the church and will help to maintain it.
Some are also finding that their new building is
not being used as much as they had hoped and
are learning how to market it more effectively.
Others are still uncertain about whether
increased use is going to bring in sufficient
income to help sustain the building in the long
term. Managing daily activities means that
running costs and administrative workloads
increase. Setting up before and clearing up after
different activities can also be time-consuming.
Further research is needed to find out
how we can measure what these projects are
delivering and whether they are providing
sustainability for the building and congregation
over the longer term. Knowing more about
the potential benefits of opening up their
church while being aware of what outcomes
it is reasonable to expect will help the
organisers of future projects to take the
necessary steps to maximise their success.
(1) In England the national amenity societies
are: the Ancient Monuments Society, the
Council for British Archaeology, the Society
for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, the
Georgian Group, the Victorian Society and
the 20th Century Society. As well as English
Heritage, the relevant amenity society/-ies
must be notified when works are proposed
to a listed church.