From Gutter to Spire – a conference on the co-operative approach to looking after faith buildings

by Becky Payne

Last Friday, 21st November, 85 people gathered in the wonderful 14th century Merchant Taylors Hall in central York to mark the start of National Maintenance Week 2014.

Conference 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The day began with a talk by Sara Crofts, Deputy Director and Head of Casework at SPAB reminding us why places of worship are so special, valued by their congregations as well as those in the wider community, as well as being appreciated for their architecture and skilled craftsmanship. She also reminded us that it was incidents of unfortunate ‘restoration’ being carried out on old buildings, many of them churches in the 19th century that led to the foundation of SPAB by William Morris et al in 1877.  I had certainly forgotten that the west front of St Albans Abbey is largely the work of Lord Grimthorpe who imposed (and paid for) his own incongruous fantasy designs on the building and in the process destroyed the earlier medieval work.

We then heard two presentations from Stella Jackson and Kate Andrew, Maintenance Co-operatives Project Regional Project Officers for Lincolnshire and Hereford and Worcestershire respectively. They gave us insight into how the Maintenance Co-operatives projects are developing and it all sounded very positive. I liked the fact that although there is now guidance and support documentation available on the MCP website http://www.spabmcp.org.uk/#!handbook/c1jzn  on how to set up a co-operative, both Stella and Kate stressed that there is no fixed way to do it. Both felt that it was important that groups felt that there was flexibility and that they were given the freedom to come up with their own ideas and develop ways of working that suited their particular context.

Maintenance is obviously the key facet of the MCP, but maintenance is not being looked at in isolation from all the other aspects of looking after a place of worship.  Stella and Kate showed that they are using their training events and individual contact with churches to also offer advice on fundraising, engaging with the local community, developing their buildings etc. And so it made perfect sense that the other three presentations covered other subjects too – after all a perfectly maintained building is not worth much unless people be they worshippers, visitors, community groups are also benefitting from being able to use it.

Sarah Crossland, National Support Officer, National Churches Trust http://www.nationalchurchestrust.org/ offered very practical advice for places of worships who are considering opening their doors as well as helpful reminders to those who might have been welcoming visitors for years. A key point she made was that it is vital to be clear among yourselves about what you mean by welcome and how you want your visitors to respect the space.  Discussions need to include the congregation, but also any volunteers who are going to be welcoming.  Tea cups or bags left on the altar can cause distress and people need to know that they can tell visitors to remove them.

Andrea Gilpin, National Project Manager, Caring for God’s Acre http://www.caringforgodsacre.org.uk/ reminded us of the rich potential of churchyards and burial grounds. They are very often the oldest enclosure in a community harbouring unimproved and undisturbed grassland thus provided habitats for a huge range of flora, fauna, birds and lichen. And who knew that English and Welsh churchyards house the best collection of yew trees (some over 500 years old) across the whole of Europe.  As well as providing quiet green spaces for wildlife and humans alike, they can be developed for a range of activities including social history educational projects for local schools and places for art. As Andrea said, maintaining a churchyard and researching its history can be a great way of involving the non-church-going members of the community.

The final presentation from Andrew Mottram, Heritage Buildings and Community Development Officer, Diocese of Worcester was a robust look at the Faculty System, why it’s necessary and how it works.  As he said, if you understand the reason behind the need to get permission then it you will find it easier, whereas if you don’t then it will only seem a bureaucratic burden. He stressed how important it is to talk to your DAC (or equivalent in other denominations) and keep on talking. He also held out hope for the Faculty Simplification rules due to come into effect in January 2015 which are intended to decrease the bureaucracy as well the length of time it takes to get permission.

I found it an inspiring day which renewed my enthusiasm for these buildings. If I was to sum up the key messages of the day, then at their most simplest, I would say that most things are not rocket science and that the best starting point is to identify and then talk to those who know.

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