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