How Innovative Rural Churches in Cumbria are Showing the Way Forward
||St Bridget’s Church, Beckermet, Cumbria (All photos: J Metcalfe-Gibson unless otherwise stated)
CUMBRIA IN CONTEXT
Sixty per cent of churches in England (around 9,600) are in rural areas. This means that the smallest communities are supporting
a high number of churches.
Cumbria, a largely rural county, has more places of worship per head of population than most other counties, and almost 40 per cent of its 250 churches are listed. Most are Anglican, and the majority of these are in the higher categories of Grade I and II*. If these buildings are not properly maintained, repaired and funded,
a significant part of Cumbria’s historic resource will be put at risk.
Cumbria’s historic churches need to diversify in order to survive
but this can be difficult because of the complexities of finding additional viable uses, successfully adapting and altering the church to accommodate them, financing the projects and having sufficient local capacity to sustain them. Happily, a number of churches in the county have negotiated these obstacles and they are acting as beacons for others
Try for a moment to picture Cumbria
in your mind’s eye. More than likely,
you are visualising rising fells and broad
expanses of water; the dramatic and inspiring
landscape of the Lake District. Cumbria’s
buildings might not come to mind at all. Many
of the traditional buildings of Cumbria blend
into the landscape. They were built from local
materials to provide shelter from the weather
and because they are practical, robust and ‘fit for
purpose’, many remain standing centuries later.
Our historic churches have served
their communities for generations. But in
some areas where congregations and church
councils are dwindling and ageing, where
there is little thought to leadership succession
planning and where finances are limited, a
potential crisis is looming.
facing our rural churches aren’t necessarily
indicative of changing attitudes towards
religion; sometimes they emerge merely from
local demographics. Insufficient affordable
housing and poor job prospects affect many
rural areas, making some villages the preserve
of the retired, second-homers and holidaymakers.
Sometimes, the post office and pub
have closed but the church remains, albeit
in a vulnerable financial position.
circumstances, churches are having to rethink
their role within their communities and to
consider whether they really are fit for purpose.
ADAPTING TO LOCAL NEEDS
Just as farms and country houses have had to
diversify in order to survive, rural churches
must also adapt. This means adjusting to
changing social and economic conditions, and
to the specific needs of local communities.
Meeting all the varied needs of a community,
however, may not be possible so it is especially
important that churches should complement
rather than compete with one another. This may
mean working ecumenically and with other
partners and facilities such as the village hall.
One way to investigate the possibilities is by
conducting a community plan. This allows the
whole community to consider what changes
they would like to see in their area now and
in the future. These changes might include
meeting housing, education and other social
needs. Faith buildings can play a crucial role in
accommodating some of these requirements by
being accessible, welcoming community spaces.
One church that has successfully adapted
to a challenging local situation is St Oswald’s (right) in
Burneside, a village close to Kendal.
When the post office stopped functioning
in the village shop, it looked to the church,
which is centrally located and easily accessible.
||The post office in use at St Oswald’s Church,
The post office operates out of the church’s
kitchen, which used to be the vestry and has
access independent from the church so that
very little alteration was required. There is
also a disabled toilet which is made available
for public use and is a welcome facility for
walkers following the long-distance Dales
Way walk. While the additional post office
function hasn’t increased the congregation size,
it has added to the role of the building with at
least 30 people a day using the post office.
Gosforth Methodist Church,
on the west coast of Cumbria, serves as an
important link for people of all ages within the
village and surrounding countryside. Regular
activities include Young Farmers’ meetings,
fortnightly lectures, frequent exhibitions for
local schools and a chiropody clinic provided by
Age Concern, which has become a very popular
social event for the elderly.
These are excellent
examples of outreach services and partnership
working. Thanks to the determination,
commitment, energy and imagination of
volunteers, examples of good work such as
this can be found across the entire country.
Other churches in Cumbria such as St John’s, Bigrigg and St Mary’s, Windermere
have maximised the use of their buildings by
turning lesser-used areas into community
spaces. These two churches were able to sell
their church halls to fund the works. Bigrigg also
installed ground source heating; a sustainable
energy source which helps to sustain the
building’s future by reducing its energy bills.
NO EASY ANSWER
Some urban churches have extended their use
with cafés, conference and sports facilities. But
such additional uses may not be appropriate or
feasible in less populated areas. It is important
to respond to local needs, but finding additional
complementary uses which will help to sustain
the building’s future and the church’s role isn’t
always easy. For some churches there seems to
be no obvious additional use that could help to
fund the building’s upkeep. Sometimes churches
remain isolated and poorly used either due to
location, over-provision of churches in the area
or a lack of comfort. However, these churches
can be too historically significant to lose.
Old St Bridget’s Church near Beckermet,
West Cumbria (see title illustration) is an
example of this. It is a simple, single-celled
medieval church without heating or lighting.
It is in need of repair but with two other
churches nearby, the PCC struggles to raise
funds to maintain all three. Unlike a number
of rural churches in Cumbria, particularly
within the Lake District, St Bridget’s doesn’t
currently attract or benefit from tourism. At
Beckermet, the PCC has applied to English
Heritage and the Heritage Lottery Fund for
a repair grant, and perhaps once stable and
dry, the cost of maintenance will be greatly
reduced and further options for the church
might arise including opening the church,
providing interpretation and encouraging
people to visit and enjoy its peace.
THE CHURCHES TRUST FOR CUMBRIA
||Holme Cultram Abbey in its current un-refurbished state
The churches which have the greatest
chance of a viable future are those that are
well maintained and well used. This relies
on the willingness of committed members
to engage with the wider community and
providing them with a valued service, or by
seeking help from their community.
of villages have retired architects, project
managers or other suitably skilled people
who are able to give significant support to the
local church whether they are churchgoers
or not. The role of the Churches Trust for
Cumbria (CTfC) is to encourage this outward-looking
and forward-thinking approach.
The CTfC was set up in 2008 to help all
faith communities in Cumbria to ensure that
their buildings are viable and sustainable for the
future. We work to recognise, value, enhance
and highlight to others the contribution that
church buildings and church communities make
to society in Cumbria beyond their core purpose
as places of worship.
The economic and
social contribution they make is considerable.
Faith groups contribute approximately £10
million a year to the local economy, mostly
from the work of their volunteers and also
by encouraging visitor spend in the area.
According to a report by the Northwest
Regional Development Agency, over 45,000
volunteers from faith communities work on non-worship related projects throughout the
Faith communities in Cumbria
have also played a vital role in helping others
during recent times of adversity and loss
such as the floods of November 2009.
The CTfC offers support to faith groups
through its website (www.ctfc.org.uk), by directing people to
ideas, services and partners who can help. The
trust is continuously developing relationships
with public, private and voluntary sector
organisations in order to highlight the value
and potential of Cumbria’s faith buildings
and to create links between them. It also
organises regular training events and offers
direct support to a number of individual
churches. Two examples are St James’, Tebay
and Holme Cultram Abbey, which are within
small rural communities off the beaten track.
Holme Cultram Abbey, a former 12th-century Cistercian
monastery, stands beside the Solway Plain in
the north west of Cumbria. This enormous
building serves a congregation of about 20
people. Following a fire in 2006 that left the
building a roofless shell, it is being repaired
and refurbished. The loss of the internal
fittings has allowed the church interior to be
redesigned to maximise its vast, flexible space.
This now presents a unique opportunity to
look to new complementary uses.
The trust is
working alongside the Diocese of Carlisle, the
local community and Lancaster University to
explore what these potential uses might be. It
is hoped that they will have a ripple effect by
contributing to the local economy. Together we
have carried out a scoping exercise to explore
possible uses and held an event to show the
local council, politicians and businesses what
Holme Cultram Abbey’s potential is, and to
invite and discuss ideas and build partnerships.
||St James’, Tebay: ‘the Railway Church’
One of the joys of faith buildings is their
capacity to surprise the visitor and St James’,
Tebay is no exception.
Its solid Shap granite facade belies its lighter
brick interior. Built in 1880 for the railway
workers, St James’ church incorporates elements
of railway architecture such as the colours of
the LNWR company livery in its brickwork,
railway benches for pews and a railway engine
wheel cover as a font lid.
Although trains no
longer stop at Tebay, once an important railway
hub, enthusiasts often visit when steam trains
travel on the line. To celebrate Tebay’s transport
history, St James’ hosts an exhibition which
has been created by the vicar, the local history
society, school and other community members,
and was supported by an Awards for All grant
(funded by the National Lottery). The CTfC
is working with the PCC, local community,
businesses and other organisations to promote
the exhibition and to widen the use of St James’
as ‘The Railway Church’ by developing further
exhibitions, events and a local archive.
Tourism plays a major part in Cumbria’s
economy and the generosity of visitors helps
to keep some Lakeland churches ticking
over. While most tourists are concentrated
in the Lake District, the rest of the county
has much to offer and churches can take an
active role in encouraging people to visit.
Each church in Cumbria has a page on the
CTfC website on which
to advertise events and inform visitors about
other places of interest in the area. The
trust is also working with the North West
Multi-Faith Tourism Association to develop
church trails and improve the welcome and
interpretation that churches provide to visitors.
EXPLORING THE FUTURE
To help faith communities identify
opportunities for their churches, the CTfC
is working alongside various denominations,
particularly Anglicans and Methodists, to carry
out a strategic review of all the faith buildings
within two deaneries. It will involve bringing
a number of churches together to explore
how they might work in partnership or with
members of the wider community as well as
with visitors, businesses and others.
||A rural idyll: All Saints Church, Watermillock (Photo: Carl Bendelow)
will consider potential additional uses for the
churches, how to adapt the buildings to suit
these new needs including making sure that the
buildings are accessible to all, how to promote
the buildings to others, and how to ensure
they are well maintained and energy efficient. The findings of the review will help the
CTfC, the Diocese of Carlisle and the Methodist
District to understand what the churches
need and to identify how best to assist them.
Depending on the findings, the trust hopes
to help, for example by providing support for
specific projects, improving the presentation
and interpretation of churches to visitors, or
through maintenance schemes and tailored
training courses. The experience gained from
the pilot studies will also be used to roll out the
strategic review across the rest of the county.
For inspiration and advice the trust is fortunate
to be able to look to a number of Cumbrian
churches that have already undergone successful
changes. By broadening the use of Cumbria’s
churches, celebrating their importance and
increasing local support for them, the CTfC aims
to ensure that they will continue to serve their
communities for many generations to come.
Historic Churches, 2010
JEMMA METCALFE-GIBSON is the historic
church buildings support officer for the
Churches Trust for Cumbria. Her role is
supported by the Diocese of Carlisle and English
Heritage as part of its Inspired! campaign.
PRODUCTS AND SERVICES
Advisory bodies and associations
Church repair contractors
Communications Limited 2012