Learning from Churches
Divine Inspiration project leader Helen McGowan and pupils from St Bartholomew's
School, Coventry (Photo: CABE/Alys Tomlinson)
Historic churches are an integral
part of the landscape. We drive
past them every day, their towers
and spires providing landmarks, reference
points and signs of home. We spy them in
the distance from train carriages or walk
by them on our way to work, then wander
through their churchyards at lunchtimes.
And, from time to time, for a range of reasons,
many of us step inside them to learn more.
Crossing the threshold and learning more
about buildings helps us to connect the past
and the present. It provides an insight into our
shared heritage, from the local to the global,
and brings the past alive. While school trips
and visits to heritage sites are nothing new,
there’s a groundswell of interest in the historic
environment and a growing enthusiasm for
understanding and exploring the past.
Announcing the launch in February
this year of ‘Heritage Schools’, a £2.7 million
initiative funded by the Department for
Education linking schools with heritage
experts, education secretary Michael Gove
remarked that historic places and buildings
‘are the physical remains of the rich,
controversial and thrilling story of England’.
Simon Thurley, the chief executive of English
Heritage, added that visits to historic sites
endow ‘present and future generations
of children with a vivid understanding
of the place in which they grew up’.
WHAT CAN WE LEARN FROM CHURCHES?
Churches, with their vast range of styles and
huge number of buildings, represent the
biggest learning resource through which we
can access and explore the past. There are
few villages, towns or cities without a place
of worship. The Church of England alone is
responsible for over 16,000 of them. Taking
other denominations into account swells the
figure to around 47,000 cathedrals, churches,
chapels and meeting houses across the UK.
They are a recurring feature in both
rural and urban settings. Is it any wonder
that we often grow used to them? Yet they
represent a treasure trove of stories, memories and information. Over 12,500 churches are
listed, a fact which confirms their historical
importance, and 45 per cent of Grade I listed
buildings are cathedrals and churches. They
have overseen centuries of history, recording
events and people of significance throughout
these times. They tell our national story.
OUR NATIONAL STORY
With some of the earliest Christian buildings
in Britain stretching back to the 7th century,
ancient places like Canterbury St Martin and
Bradwell Chapel shine a light on a distant
past. Often, recycled bricks and masonry
provide physical evidence of the various epochs
through which a building has survived.
|Primary school pupils learning what
makes a church
(Photo: CABE/Alys Tomlinson)
But they aren’t static museums, or
mausoleums to a time gone by. Churches
evolve and change with every passing year
and each generation leaves a mark on these
buildings, resulting in a rich mix of architectural
expression which spans history. A good
example of this is seen in church art. From
simple carvings and early wall paintings, to
epic stained glass windows and masterpieces
of sculpture, churches are repositories
of popular art and culture, highlighting
social, political and economic changes.
All across England, people are exploring
church buildings. Already, around 15 million
visitors enter our churches and cathedrals
each year, excluding regular worshippers.
Now, innovative learning projects are
opening up these unique buildings to even
more people. Those who do step inside
gain access to one of the finest collections
of history and heritage in existence.
Divine Inspiration is a long-term project
promoting churches as places for learning,
heritage, leisure activity, cultural events
and, most importantly, for sharing.
In October 2009 the project took part
in ‘Unforgettable Lessons’, organised by the
Commission for Architecture and the Built
Environment, which twinned schools with local
cultural learning organisations, like museums
and galleries, and tasked them with using the
built environment to generate learning.
The mission embraced by the Divine
Inspiration project was twofold:
- to open pupils’ eyes to the places of worship
- to give them an enjoyable and rewarding
experience of learning outside the classroom.
Working with pupils from St Bartholomew's
Church of England School, the project first
focussed on the city of Coventry, a place which
the children associated with the boredom of
shopping with their parents, before moving on
to explore two very different churches. Through
discussion sessions and activities looking at their
immediate local area, it became obvious that
the young people found little or no imaginative
appeal in the buildings and spaces around them.
Their favourite places were modern, bright
buildings and their appreciation of the wider
world, even a few miles down the road, was
limited. Maxim, aged seven, noted that most of
the buildings in his town ‘are the same type of
houses. They all look the same.’ The children’s
local landmarks were fast-food outlets and
high street shops. Nine-year old Callum also
thought most buildings were too similar: ‘you
have to look deeply to find detail in them’.
||Church detectives’ at St John the Baptist, Berkswell, West Midlands (Photo: CABE/Alys Tomlinson)
Through the project they began visiting
and ‘discovering’ new places in Coventry city
centre. It started to change the way the young
people looked at the world around them. They
spotted and recorded places that had previously
gone unnoticed and, as the project moved into
phase two, a real buzz about buildings began
to develop, especially during the church visits.
The children were challenged to consider
‘what makes a church a church?’ and ‘what
do places of worship represent?’ with
reference to their local area and much further
afield. The two chosen churches were very
different from each other, with contrasting
architecture, geographies and histories:
- St John the Baptist, Berkswell, West
Midlands is a Grade I listed Norman
church built on a Saxon site with an
impressive ancient crypt housing
8th-century human remains. The church
is in the beautiful, peaceful village of
- St Bartholomew’s, Binley, West Midlands
is a Georgian church on the outskirts of
Coventry, dating from the 1770s. It sits
just off a busy main road linking Binley to
Coventry, located near bus stops, business
parks and modern housing estates.
The children became ‘church detectives’,
comparing and contrasting the two buildings.
Their teachers identified a range of crosscurricular
links to ensure that this wasn’t
simply a ‘religious studies’ project; Science
and Maths sat alongside English and History.
For example, activities like gravestonerubbing
enabled the children to consider
their history studies in a real, tangible way,
while also analysing stone and metal erosion
as part of their more scientific subjects.
These visits offered the schools a great
opportunity to undertake some ‘learning
outside the classroom’ (something which
Ofsted recommends should be an integrated
part of every learner’s experience). In a
climate of reduced budgets, trips to places
of interest on the doorstep are a great
option. Nearly all churches are free of charge
to enter and, with an estimated 45,000
church buildings in the UK, there aren’t
many schools located far from a church.
After their experiences, the pupils’
attitudes towards the familiar places that
belong to their daily routines have changed
profoundly. The success of the project cannot
be underestimated. Many of the children,
knowing they would be given a warm welcome,
subsequently returned to the churches
with their families, using their new-found
confidence to show these new visitors around.
They have had their eyes opened to a world
that had previously eluded them. As eightyear-old
Kirsty put it ‘I love the area that
I live in. It’s much more interesting now’.
Recent research has shown a steady and
continuing increase in attendance levels at
regular weekly services in Church of England
cathedrals, with figures up 30 per cent since the
turn of the millennium (Cathedral Headline
Mission Statistics 2011). As Dr Bev Botting, the
head of research and statistics at the Church
of England, said: ‘These figures demonstrate
how cathedrals are very much a vibrant centre
of spiritual life in our cathedral cities’.
|Sir Christopher Wren (Stephen Spencer, an education assistant with St Paul’s Cathedral’s Education Department)
tells a class how he designed the new cathedral
Educational events and school trips
account for thousands of visits per year. In
2011, almost 300,000 children attended an
educational event in a Church of England cathedral, with school trips to Westminster
Abbey accounting for a further 11,770 visits.
A further 9,720 children are educated at
cathedral schools and regularly engage with
the heritage of these magnificent structures.
Cathedrals, with their experience of
receiving large numbers of visitors, understand
the importance of interpreting their buildings.
Most have education officers and guides
trained to engage with young people. Many
also produce specific learning resources
linking the rich history of the cathedral to
the subjects studied in schools today.
Members of the education team at
Durham Cathedral are aware of what an
important building they have on their hands.
The cathedral’s website notes that, on entering,
most children’s first response is simply ‘Wow!’
But how do you fit almost 1,000 years of
history into what might only be a one or two
hour visit? Making the children feel welcome
and engendering a sense of ownership is
key, according to Sarah O’Donoghue, the
education officer at Liverpool Cathedral:
We endeavour to let the children experience
the awe and wonder of the building as they enter and move around. It is important that
the children feel at home in the cathedral
and understand some of the history and
heritage rather than try to overload them
with information. We encourage them to
come back with their family and friends
during the school holidays to explore more.
The power of such visits is obvious: they bring
the past to life. The stones of the building speak
to visitors in many ways, while gravestones,
paintings, stained glass, sculpture, memorials
and monuments add further layers of interest.
What’s more, our churches tell us about the
lives of those who lived in and around the
building. Emma Griffiths, the education
team leader at Coventry Cathedral, agrees:
They are not just lists of people or kings and
queens who were born and died, they are
physical examples that have clues about the
ordinary (and sometimes extraordinary)
lives of people who have lived and died
connected to the building: workers, cleaners,
worshippers, brides, babies have all
touched the same walls we touch today.
Young people learn that these buildings
are deeply interesting but, perhaps more
importantly, open and welcoming, places
that they can return to. This ‘offer’ is at the
heart of church buildings education.
Exploring, investigating and understanding
the church’s past encourages visitors to care
about its future. They return to these places.
Some even bring back other friends and family,
casting the net of care and understanding
even further and creating a network of
church building advocates and supporters.
Of course, as well as the honourable aims
of educating and informing, visits to churches
and cathedrals offer things which are harder
to measure and evaluate. As a recent teacher
and visitor to Coventry Cathedral noted, ‘for
our kids, from a so-called “sink estate”, this
was a chance for them to show their best in
an environment where they could lift their
horizons. I think we used to call that Education’.
THE CHURCH HISTORY PROJECT
Southwell and Nottingham Diocese
This ambitious project brings research, education and tourism together, aiming to bring the
history and heritage of Southwell and Nottingham’s buildings to life. It’s nationally unique in
uniting these three strands under the umbrella of the Diocese’s ‘Church History Project’.
Originating as a diocesan research project in the mid 1990s, ‘Church History’ went on to
develop partnerships with others including the University of Nottingham. The educational arm
of the project, formed in 2009, is relatively new. It has built on the evaluation and findings of an
earlier project called ‘Schools in Local Churches’.
A substantial Heritage Lottery Fund grant allowed this work to continue and the education
element to expand and develop. The primary objectives were to:
- develop educational material for churches to use with a wide variety of ages and groups,
- support churches to work with primary and secondary schools and voluntary groups.
A prototype resource pack, trialled at a number of local churches, was refined and rewritten by
the project steering group, made up of members of the Diocesan Education Department and
experienced teachers. The finished material currently covers Key Stages 1 and 2 (primary school),
although more advanced secondary school resources and a DVD are in the pipeline.
The resource pack, which is available to download online free of charge, includes subjects
ranging from ‘the church in the community’ and ‘the architecture of the building’ to ‘the history
of worship’ and ‘clues to the past in a graveyard’, and topic sheets like:
- An Introduction to the Church
- Fonts and Baptism
- At the Altar
- The Bible in Church Art
- Clues to the Past in a Graveyard
- Worship Traditions
- Reading the Symbols in a Church
- Vestments and Colours in Church
- Church Architecture
- The Name of the Church.
While the churches referred to in the pack are specific to Nottingham and Southwell, most of the
material can readily be adapted to suit churches, and schools, outside the diocese.
The project promotes churches as fascinating buildings at the heart of communities, with
much to teach us about history, customs, traditions, lifestyles and beliefs. It encourages members
of the congregation to welcome school groups into the church and gives them the tools and
confidence to interpret the building and tell its story.
Please see www.churchcare.co.uk for more
information on extending and adapting the
use of your church for educational or other
Council for Learning Outside the Classroom
Engaging Places www.engagingplaces.org.uk
English Cathedrals www.englishcathedrals.co.uk
Heritage Schools www.english-heritage.org.uk/about/news/heritage-schools
Open City www.open-city.org.uk
Southwell and Nottingham Church History www.nottsopenchurches.org.uk
Historic Churches, 2012
BEN GREENER is the historic churches officer
at the Cathedral and Church Buildings Division
of the Church of England. He is responsible for
increasing access to and extending the use of
historic church buildings. He has worked on
a variety of heritage education projects.
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