Church converts

As more churches in Britain fall silent, their empty edifices are finding new life as nightclubs, bagpipe training centers, theaters, pubs, and museums.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

When is a church not a church?

When you can learn to juggle, monocycle, and ride a flying trapeze in it?

After 15 years of standing empty - the victim of arson, vandalism, and dry rot - St. Paul's, Portland Square, an elegant but redundant 18th-century church in the English city of Bristol, plans to reopen later this summer. When it does, where people once went down on their knees, novice acrobats will practice back flips and risk the tightrope.

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Ensuring the survival of out-of-use churches also often requires a clever balancing act - between historical use and current practicality. With dwindling congregations increasingly forcing old churches across Britain to close, new uses, such as schools for circus training or bagpipe playing, may prove surprising keys to the salvation of some. But these new lives do not come cheap.

The renovation of St. Paul's, appropriately or not, is being funded primarily by money from Britain's state lottery: More than £2 million was granted by the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF). Since gambling is traditionally condemned by some churches as immoral, use of gambling money may indicate the extent to which redundant churches come to be classed as "heritage" rather than places of worship. Yet in spite of the new secular role St. Paul's is to play, this church will remain consecrated, with the occasional service held there.

Now responsible for St. Paul's in Bristol is the Churches Conservation Trust (CCT), an independent, largely government-funded body. The church joins some 330 other redundant Anglican churches currently in the trust's permanent care. Only the absolute cream of unused Anglican churches are placed under the CCT's wing - on average about four a year.

St. Paul's "wonderful building" is in a "socially deprived" part of Bristol, explains CCT director, Catherine Cullis: "We knew the church wouldn't survive unless it had a use which brought the community in. And circus training can be done by absolutely everyone!"

Ms. Cullis hopes this project may lead to further upgrading of the area. Conservation officer Kingsley Fulbrook enthusiastically agrees. The St. Paul project is "part of the whole jigsaw" of neighborhood regeneration already under way, he says.

Molly Henley, a former St. Paul parishioner, laments the building's decline. "I'm very distressed that St. Paul has been empty for so long. It's deteriorated badly," she says. She and her husband were active members until the church closed, and Mrs. Henley says it's good to see the church being used again, even for acrobatics. "We'd rather it be as it is, in the arts, than anything else - offices or something like that," she says.

Canon David Self, Church of England rector for the parish that includes St. Paul's, is also in favor of the building's new use. "It will provide events for young people crying out for this kind of thing here, as well as circus training. As far as I'm concerned, great," he says. "The building will always be a symbol: I'd rather have a church building in use than a vandalized one that says the church isn't here at all."

Church saviors

CCT churches always remain consecrated. Generally they are open to visitors, and are used periodically for concerts, flower festivals, and some services. But non-Anglican churches and those unused Anglican churches not rescued by the CCT may still be saved. Equally conscientious but much smaller bodies are the Friends of Friendless Churches (FFC), the Historic Chapels Trust, and the eight-year-old Scottish Redundant Churches Trust, which so far cares for just four churches.

But many other churches fall through the net. They end up being converted into all kinds of things: houses, theaters, offices, restaurants, art galleries, exhibition spaces, performance venues, museums, nightclubs, even climbing centers. Brighton has pubs, Ipswich a tourist Information center, and Glasgow a bagpiping school, all in ex-churches.

In the 1940s, the parish that includes St. Paul still supported three major churches. But bombing in World War II decimated the heavily populated city center, and after the war a motorway was run through it and a shopping center built.

Two of the three churches closed. One, St. Werburgh's, quickly became a climbing center. Margaret Ford, a devoted member until the church's closing in the late 1980s, says: "It is quite strange, very strange, to go in there today." But though they tried their hardest, she says, her small congregation couldn't keep the church open any longer. Today, "the Climbing Centre keeps the fabric going."

Redundancy

Movements of population and a shortage of ministers have contributed to church closures. But, says the FFC's Matthew Saunders, the principle cause is undoubtedly dwindling congregations.

Lifelong churchgoer Elizabeth Warnock campaigned vigorously to save the 17th-18th century rural church in Pettinain, a tiny village in southwest Scotland where her husband has been an elder since the 1940s. Now "retired," the building belongs to the Scottish Redundant Churches Trust. Apart from the occasional tour, wedding, or funeral, it sits empty. "The young ones are not interested, you know," Mrs. Warnock says.

Statistics suggest a small increase in church closures in Britain from 2001 to 2002, but over the past 10 years closures have averaged a fairly steady 40 a year. This may not sound much in the face of a total of 15,000 live Anglican churches, but it accumulates.

Other denominations are facing losses, too. The Methodist Church saw 532 closures from 1992 to 2001. It has more than 6,300 chapels and churches in Britain.

Church redundancy follows a law of diminishing returns: Few ever go back to being live churches. Meantime, Mr. Saunders says churches are making hundreds of appeals every day, mainly for money, to restoration groups, charities, and private citizens. Although this shows how "absolutely tenacious people's love of their church is" and how hard they will fight to keep them open, he says, it also indicates many churches under threat of closure.

Both Saunders and Cullis say redundancy counts will likely rise in the next few years. Cullis speculates, "Perhaps psychologically the turn of the millennium meant that people are now thinking: 'Do we actually need this building?' or 'Do we want to worship in a slightly different form?' " She adds: "A lot of church-sharing goes on now in the Church of England. I think they are wanting to take it even further."

Lottery money

This could mean more churches becoming redundant than the CCT and other organizations can cope with. The CCT's government funding is now frozen for three years, and although the organization eagerly seeks HLF grants, not all the churches fit the strict criteria. St. Paul's does, says Cullis, "and I don't even want to imagine how we could have helped this church without the HLF's £2.3 million."

Saunders also points out that the HLF provided £24 million this year in answer to appeals from churches. This help has proved significant for individual churches, even if, overall, "it is a drop in the ocean."

Neither the CCT nor the FFC has qualms about using lottery money. But some churches have long histories of opposing gambling as dangerous and immoral. The Methodists and the Church of Scotland fall into this category. Yet in recent years both churches have managed to rationalize the possibility of applying for HLF grants for conservation of their buildings. In 1999, following the Church of Scotland's lead a year earlier, the Methodist Conference adopted a Statement on the National Lottery that allowed individual church councils to choose whether or not to apply for lottery money.

Paul Ingram of the Methodist Property Office says he would not advise a church needing preservation money to seek HLF funding. But would he mention it as an option? "Yes, we would, absolutely," he says. "It is a major source of funding."

Saunders says once a church is redundant, the rights and wrongs of using lottery grants no longer apply anyway. "The Methodists sell their [redundant] chapels, so they have no say over what new owners do with them," he says.

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