The Shrek Test – Ogres, Preachers and Buildings for Worship

Posted on: 19/10/2011

I love the Shrek films – I love the humour, and the wry observations of life, but most of all the skilful way in which they work on a number of levels at once, and are therefore accessible for even very small children while being satisfying for the adults too. The same is true of the Toy Story series.
Shrek - The Musical  -  Daniel Ramirez

Shrek – The Sermon?

From time to time I have the privilege of preaching or leading services at my local church, and my aim is to achieve something of the same layering – not for the sake of cleverness, nor to produce entertainment, but because at root most truth is simple, often very simple. Sometimes the simpler the more challenging. Which is not the same as dumbing down. More akin to Augustine’s comment that “the Gospel of John is deep enough for an elephant to swim and shallow enough for a child not to drown.”

Jesus of course often taught in stories, drawing his audience in to simple truths presented in often startling ways. That is what I see in the encounters of Jesus in the gospels – the Pharisees struggled, either in wilful opposition, or like Nicodemus because he had so much to unlearn. Jesus was drawn to those at the margin, those with nothing invested, the sick, the lame, the children. And his teaching method of choice, the parable, drew people in at different levels. You could call this multivalency.

The same should in principle be true of our church buildings. Traditional church buildings allow us to connect with the story being played out at many levels. We are used to thinking that if there is a message to be preached, then that will be verbal. A Gothic cathedral for example uses a wider variety of means – the stained glass for example would retell the biblical story. And what of the gospel enacted in the gathered community? How well do our buildings facilitate Christ being present among us when we gather? Lots of parallels I think.

Nice Day for a Wet Wedding…

Posted on: 17/09/2011

DSC03110-800Last Saturday we were in the Lancashire for a family wedding, at St John the Baptist, Arkholme, near Kirby Lonsdale.

I was asked to do the reading, which was John 2:1-11, Jesus turning water into wine at another wedding, at Cana. Jesus saying in effect, ‘I’m not ready for this (this ministry thing)’, but still demonstrating God’s outrageous generosity. And the importance of celebration, of having a good party.

Internal view of Arkholme ChurchThe minister, covering an interregnum, did a great job of modelling God’s generous welcome; it was not the first marriage for either bride or groom, and most of those present were not used to church. A good, quiet witness. And yes, having trooped down to the nearby River Lune we all, bride included, got soaked to the skin.

The church itself, grade 2* listed, dates from about 1450, was reworked in 1788 (see stone) including the addition of the sweet little bell cote, and again in 1897 by Austin and Paley. The feel of the church is lovely, of uncluttered simplicity, light enough, warm enough, a place of gathering and welcome. Stone walls, wooden pews and roof trusses. white ceiling – very simple.


All the glass is plain, except for two small windows at the end of the side aisle, one commemorating Arthur James Woodh0use, Vicar of Arkholme, the other commemorating his sister, Annie Margarita.

Immediately to the north of the church is a mound, shown on the OS map as a motte (as in ‘& bailey castle’), which gives you a fine view of the roof of the church and the landscape beyond. Note the stone roof, with larger stones at the eaves diminishing to smaller stones at the ridge. The simple use of local materials helps the building belong to its place.

View of the roof of Arkholme Church


Posted on: 12/09/2011
internal view of church by Heinz Tesar - Donau City, Vienna

Heinz Tesar – Donau City, Vienna | Nigel Walter

Here is an interesting example of a modern church – the Church of Christ, Hope of the World, at Donau City in Vienna. Clearly this is not everyone’s cup of tea, but as an example of modern church architecture it is both interesting and refreshing.

DSC03022-800The setting for the building is pretty brutal, commercial and soulless – high rise corporate nineties and noughties development, and then a whole load more high rise residential. The building is immediately in front of the United Nations building – you discover the church as you step out of the underground (U1, Vienna International Centre). In this context you need a building that is robust , and this is reflected in what is a bold form and hard materials. The facade is clad in stainless steel sheet, which apparently was dipped in acid to create the darker tone.

But once inside the door there is a sense of tenderness to the building – the interior is almost entirely birch clad, with key elements of fittings in granite. There are major windows in the roof and each corner, and hundreds of portholes perforating the otherwise blank expanses of wall. This creates a luminous and constantly changing feel as the sun moves around the building. It is also interesting for the sense of privacy which you feel – appropriate for worship in a busy urban setting – and openness – it is a building that is easy to get into.

Of course the arrangement is, by its nature, inflexible – this is a building resolutely for a single use. That said, the pews, which are beautifully made in concentric arcs, help preserve a sense of simplicity, create a feeling of of inclusion, and form a strong contrast with the straightness of the box.

Curved skylight

Central skylight, Church of Christ, Hope of the World | Nigel Walter

The basic cuboid form is cut away at the corners for the major windows, making the ceiling a subtle Greek Cross shape. Against this geometry are played a series of curves – not only the pews and the porthole windows, but also the enclosure of the entrance lobby to the south and the storage etc to the west, a large circle inscribed on the east wall, and most particularly the rooflight – suggestive perhaps of the wind and thus symbolic of the Holy Spirit.

The Perils of Caricature…

I visited the building with two of my daughters, who promptly christened it ‘the dog box’ – a wooden box, the porthole windows like air holes, and the curvaceous skylight like the carrying handle. Such labels may not advance the official architectural debate, but can be very powerful in conferring an identity on a building – London buildings rejoice in many such labels such as the cheesegrater and the walkie talkie. More normally the nickname relates to the outward form of the building. Such naming is a powerful (and entirely legitimate) urge, presumably towards appropriation of the building into its environment.

The other point of interest with regard to the Tesar church is that one immediately knows it is a church when one first sees it. The design is very deliberately not drawing on traditional architectural forms, and quite rightly so. Instead it hangs its identity, at least as far as the first impression is concerned, entirely on the white cross fixed on the southern wall. This legibility is crucial, if visitors are to find their way into the building.

For more on church buildings you may be interested in the Church Building Seminar taking place on Thursday 6th October in Histon, Cambridge.

The Book that Could Change the Life of your Church…

Posted on: 16/08/2011

110816-pewsbookTrevor Cooper and Sarah Brown’s long-awaited book Pews, Benches and Chairs has just been published within the last few days. It is no exaggeration to say that this book could change the life or your church – at least for those churches that struggle with the formalism that comes with Victorian pews.

Often churches assume they are unable to change anything about their church, and particularly the pews, but usually there is more freedom than imagined. Conversely other churches may not understand the historic importance of some of their pews. Either way, the key to responsible management of a historic church, and to making the case for change, is a proper understanding of the significance of the items in question. This book helps to fill that gap.

The book results from many years of painstaking research, and Trevor himself says that the assumptions with which the editors embarked on this project were changed in the process of the research.

More information on the book is available from the Ecclesiological Society, including the following taster:

About the book
The book breaks fresh ground. Amongst other things, it is the first book to:
– describe how church seating has changed over the years
– tackle head-on today’s debate about pew removal
– show how the study of individual pews can reveal their past
– take a serious look at Victorian pews, and reprint pew-catalogues of the period
– explore the vigorous nineteenth-century discussions on pews versus chairs
– explain how to consider changes to church seating, taking account of heritage value
– give a range of case studies of recent changes (including a ‘loo in a pew’)

For a feel for the scope of the work and the various contributors, the table of contents can be accessed here. The book is copiously illustrated with black and white illustrations which are exceptionally clear.

The current cry from the heritage lobby, quite rightly, is for ‘Informed Conservation’. If your church is considering a reordering then this book will equip you with a great deal of relevant information; if you are a consultant working with historic churches then it is essential reading.

The book costs £35 (order details on the Ecclesiological Society page), or £25 for Ecclesoc members. At just £12, membership of the society is a bargain – highly recommended.

Trevor Cooper is Chairman of Council of the Ecclesiological Society.

Sarah Brown is a lecturer in the History of Art at the University of York and Course Director of the MA in Stained Glass Conservation and Heritage Management.


Holiday Club!

Posted on: 04/08/2011


Internal view - Holiday Club in action

Holiday Club in action | Nigel Walter


Each year in the first week of the summer holidays Histon Baptist church hosts a Holiday Club, with over 200 children attending activities each morning. This year was the first time the holiday club had been held Holiday Club bannersince the reordering works were completed. The newly created flexibility of the space has made a huge difference for activities such as this.

“The Baptist Church re-ordering made for a much warmer, user friendly space. It felt open, light and warm yet retained a feeling of intimacy. With a group of over 200 children it gave us much needed flexibility for both all together times and small group times. For us, it is an excellent change.”  Tim Blake, Leader

This is a great example of the additional value you can add to a space with an imaginative reordering – the space simply couldn’t be used in the same way in its old format.

…and outside

The space in front of Histon Baptist Church

Histon Baptist Church during the Holiday Club Barbeque | Nigel Walter

The week was rounded off with a final session on Friday afternoon, followed by a barbecue. Parents are invited to come and see what the children have been up to. For a long time the church has had the benefit of a large expanse of open space at the front, which is the perfect setting for the barbecue. This becomes a great space for an open welcome – there are no divisions between the fully public realm of the road and pavement, and the church’s public space of the lawned area.

The Barbecue Crew

The ‘turn and burn’ crew | Nigel Walter

This ‘forecourt’ is a great asset when used for events such as this – it becomes a space of welcome and inclusion, and provides the church as a whole with a much lower ‘threshold of engagement’ with the community.

And in this case there is space for those working hard on the barbeque too…

In Praise of the (Not So) Useless Jewel

Posted on: 25/07/2011


External view of the Leper Chapel, Cambridge

Leper Chapel Cambridge | Andrew Dunn

Some historic church buildings are just plain awkward, but are also outstanding examples of historic buildings. Take the Leper Chapel in Cambridge, for example. This beautiful little building is undoubtedly a jewel. Built circa 1125, it is the oldest complete building in Cambridge. It was built for the nearby leper hospital (of course then outside of the town), but since the last of the lepers had been admitted by 1279 (and the colony moved shortly thereafter) the building has had other uses for most of its life. The site is bounded by the busy Newmarket Road, and is a stone’s throw from the railway; this relatively recent infrastructure has in a sense strangled the building, cutting it off from its setting, leaving the building itself as a remnant of an earlier age, a historic curio. Never having had a parish, without the hospital it was always on its own.

Internal View of the Leper Chapel

Internal View |

Follow the money

In 1199 King John gave the chapel the right to hold a three day fair in order to raise money to support the lepers. Starting in 1211, the fair took place around the Feast of the Holy Cross (14 September) on nearby Stourbridge Common. This grew into the largest medieval fair in Europe, and was hugely profitable for whoever held the post of priest to the chapel. Then in 1546, the chapel was closed and ownership passed to the Crown. After this the building was used as a store and, in the eighteenth century at least, as a pub during the Fair. After 1751, there were no further religious services held at the chapel. In 1783 it was advertised for sale as a storage shed, and in 1816 the Chapel was bought and restored by Thomas Kerrich. Kerrich gave the Chapel to the University of Cambridge, who in turn gave it the Cambridge Preservation Society in 1951.

The Leper Chapel set up for Macbeth, Insitu Theatre, 7th July 2011

The Leper Chapel set up for Macbeth, Insitu Theatre, 7th July 2011 | Nigel Walter

And for our next trick…

So what role can a building like this find now? In terms of modern functionality, this jewel is useless. With ground levels around the church having been raised access is down a long flight of steps, so there is no disabled access. There is no sanitation, no running water, no heating. In terms of modern use, this building is a basket case.

Yet utility should not be confused with value. Today the Chapel is owned and cared for by Cambridge Past Present & Future, and is still used for worship, with Holy Communion on the first Sunday of each month at 9am. The building now derives it identity from its historic roots, aiming to host ‘activities that illustrate the Chapel’s links with leprosy and with the vulnerable and marginalised in society’. The building is therefore making a virtue of its location on the edge, and has what is a potentially powerful voice in representing the outsider.

The building is also used for theatre, and I had the pleasure of seeing a performance of Macbeth by Insitu theatre earlier this month. The adaptation (for a cast of just two – Richard Spaul and Bella Stewart) made excellent use of what is an intimate and evocative space.

The key of course is to get people into contact with the building, which arts events such as this achieve. In time it is hoped to bring in sufficient funds to create disabled access.

You can find more on the leper chapel from Cambridge Past, Present and Future, who own and manage the building – lots here on planned events, access to the building, and how to book it for an event of your own. The Friends of the Leper Chapel, formed in 1999 to promote use of this chapel for education, cultural events and worship, are also worth a visit.

Church, but not as we know it…

Posted on: 19/07/2011

Third Space bandAs you may have gathered from other content on this site I am passionate about church buildings – old ones and new ones and everything in between. But sometimes it is really interesting to do church without buildings.

My own church, just outside Cambridge, has in recent years grown into a variety of ‘fresh expressions’ – other forms of church which meet at times other than Sundays, and which meet in venues other the church building. One of these is Third Space, which meets at the King Bill pub on the third Monday of each month. The format of the evening (its ‘liturgy’ one could say) is a mix of music, drama, stand up comedy and story shared over a pint.

The name ‘Third Space’ refers to sociologist Ray Oldenburg’s ‘Third Place’, a term he coined to describe informal public gathering places, which stand in contrast to the relative isolation of first (home) and second (work) places. Third places offer a neutral public space for community interaction and therefore lie at the heart of a community’s social vitality; they promote social equality by leveling the status of guests.

From a church point of view, this is really interesting, not least because in general church no longer fills the role of being the natural gathering place in our communities. For most people, church is anything but neutral, and going there is anything but natural. Church has become highly sub-cultural, and therefore ‘privatised’. To go to Third Space, on the other hand, you don’t need to belong before you feel you can go.

Paul Butler telling Joel's Story

Paul Butler – “Daddy, I knew you’d come to find me”

This is not about dumbing down the content, sugaring the bitter pill of religious truth; it’s about removing barriers to engagement, ‘lowering the threshold’. Last night for example the content included a pub quiz, an electric blues band and two of us performing an excerpt from Nick Warburton’s excellent stage play Witness, based on Luke’s gospel; the excerpt chosen was a dialogue between Peter and Jesus including the Sermon on the Mount.

One can argue there is just as much content here as you find on Sunday in church – the difference is in the stories that emerge in response. So does this replace church as we know it? I see ventures like Third Space as powerful grass roots mission, and worthwhile community building. But I’m not sure it is worship. I see it as enriching the church, enabling it to reach out and engage with the community, but not replacing church. To me the church still needs a solid centre, church as we know it (more or less).

For more…

For more on Third Place see Oldenburg’s 1989 book The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community.

The 5 original Witness radio plays are available on iTunes or as a set of audio CDs – highly recommended.

Third Space is organised by Rev Paul Butler and Mark Fuller and takes place at the King William IV pub, Church Street, Histon from 8pm on the third Monday of each month (but not August); details here.

Why Metal Theft is Good Business (but not for you…)

Posted on: 14/07/2011
Metal Theft Sign

New Forest District Council

At a recent Capacity Building Seminar in Birmingham, Dr David Knight, Senior Conservation Officer at the Church Buildings Council presented a report on metal theft from churches – you can access his presentation here. The issue is a very live one, and David’s talk highlighted aspects that are both worrying and interesting in equal measure.

The problem of metal theft from buildings is a growing one due to the increase of raw commodity prices over the last decade or so, principally from economic growth in China – and this problem does not only affect churches. As well as rising demand there is very limited supply, which will mean that we will run out of lead within perhaps two generations. And many sorts of buildings are affected, not just churches – in general, however, it is historic buildings that are the principal victims of this crime.

A Tale of Two Strategies

So what can we do to address this problem? The first strategy  is to make theft more difficult – this can be done in a number of ways, all of which are helpful:

  • Regulation of scrapyards: The aim of this is to remove easy access to cash. The proposal is for the government to introduce mandatory licensing for dealing in scrap lead, requiring the recording of registration details of each vehicle entering the yard, and making anonymous sale illegal. The Church Buildings Council has held meetings with the Home Office and has submitted a report which is being actively considered.
  • Alarms – there are various systems, using sound and/or light which have proved a useful deterrent – systems need to require multiple activation, to avoid being set off by a falling leaf.
  • Metal Theft from church roof

    Metal Theft from Church Roof | New Forest District Council

    Watermarking – Painting at least a fraction of each metal surface with ‘Smartwater’ provides a forensic marker on the lead which will allow any lead stolen from your building to be traced back. There have been successful prosecutions of thieves by this method; however, this will only stop a theft if you advertise the fact that your material is protected in this way, and if the thieves understand this and believe you.

Ecclesiastical Insurance has a web page dedicated to Metal Theft, with an excellent report in pdf form.

Harvest time

We must confront the fact that for those that do the thieving, the metal is there for the taking – they are in effect harvesting what they see as a free resource. Replacing that resource like for like without at the very least increasing security along the lines above will simply result in repeated return visits. In his talk David also presented the following graph (from Ecclesiastical Insurance), which shows the trading price of metals against the level of insurance claims over a period of 4 years. What the graph shows is that metal theft is a planned crime.

Graph Comparing the Trading Price of Metals with the Level of Insurance Claims

Graph Comparing the Trading Price of Metals with the Level of Insurance Claims | Ecclesiastical

The implications of this are huge. As far as the thieves are concerned this is a business. As commodity prices increase further, as they inevitably will because of limited supply, then it will pay the thieves to become smarter, which means that security strategies on their own will never be the full answer. If we care for our historic buildings, we therefore cannot rely on security measures alone. We must fight business with business – we must understand the commercial dynamic and respond in kind. I firmly believe that in this case that means reducing demand by specifying alternative materials, of which there are various possibilities, including:

  • single ply membrane (Sarnafil, Alwitra etc); this is  a good material, available in a wide range of colours, but while you can simulate lead roll detailing it will never look the same – in my view this is therefore best used for roofs behind parapets, or for parapet gutters;
  • Terne coated stainless steel – the surface of the material appears very much like lead (or copper), but the detailing is sharper and more modern looking;
  • Ubliflex – a non lead flashing material which can be used in all applications where lead is traditionally installed, such as valley gutters, cover flashings, step flashings etc.
Clearly not every historic building is suitable to receive these alternative materials – the choice of materials should follow an understanding of their significance. There is no doubt, however, that previous generations up to and including the Victorians would have taken a pragmatic view of this, and would specify the material that would be best for the building in the long term.
If we are to address the significant problem of metal theft from historic buildings then we need to do so from all angles, including taking the heat out of the market by reducing the demand for the ‘product’; until we do so, we leave our historic buildings exposed to increasing abuse.
Please let me know your thoughts on this issue.

What can church buildings learn from the retail sector?

Posted on: 17/06/2011
All Saints' Church Hereford - view towards cafe

All Saints’ Church Hereford – view towards cafe | Photo Andrew Mottram

Learning from Retail

There are similarities between the Church and the Retail Sector. Such a view may be a surprise to some readers, but think about it before dismissing the notion out of hand.

It may not be a consumer product that we are selling but we are in the business of attracting people to take an interest in Christianity. As the Church, we have a ‘product’ (the Gospel) that we wish to promote and we want to attract people’s interest in the life of the Church, in the hope that these newcomers may make a long term commitment to Christ. There are considerable similarities with what shops and businesses are seeking to achieve in promoting their goods and services to the general public. We have much to learn from the retail sector about how to promote what we are offering and how to attract and keep people’s interest.

The church building is the ‘business premises’ for the Church community. In the various contexts of Church life (parish, diocesan and national), our buildings and property serve as our ‘shop windows’ and they have an enormous effect on how what we are offering is perceived.

Similar to shops, our premises can attract, serve and retain people or, conversely put them off from coming near, let alone inside. Cold, dirty, closed, uncomfortable and unkempt church buildings are a significant barrier to all three Diocesan Priorities. Rather than serve the Mission of the Church, church buildings can hinder it.

Sometimes, it is the building which is not ‘fit for purpose’; more often, it is the way that we manage the building which results in it being a hindrance and barrier.

If a church building acts as a significant barrier to any of our three priorities for action, then it may well be necessary to either make changes to the building and its management or relocate operations to more suitable premises.

All Saints' Church Hereford - view towards cafe

All Saints’ Church Hereford – view towards cafe | photo Andrew Mottram

The Moment of Truth

Many non-Church people have anxieties about and fear of church buildings, what goes on inside them and the people associated with them. For some people churches are virtually alien territory and are viewed with apprehension.

Church members need to have an awareness of a retail principle ‘the Moment of Truth’. This is the moment when all the advertising and promotional claims are measured against what the retailer actually delivers. The person doing the measuring is the customer and if the gap is too big between what is claimed and what is delivered, the customer may well be lost forever.

The Moment of Truth applies to the Church as well. In the case of the Church, the Moment of Truth is when all the claims made in the name of Jesus Christ are measured against what the Church actually delivers. If the gap is too big then, similarly, this too can result in the person never coming back.

Both Church members and church buildings have a big part to play in the Moment of Truth.

‘It is the form of the Church in the West which has become the biggest barrier to the Gospel. The broad sweep of ecclesiastical life does not bear witness to the grace, passion, radicality, authority, tenderness, anger, excitement, involvement or acceptance of Jesus. Unfortunately for us, the medium has become the message. The popular image of Christianity is formed by encounter with the church; and so Christianity is regarded as reactionary, oppressive, conservative, moralistic, hypocritical, boring, formal and judgemental.’ Michael Riddell, ‘Threshold of the Future’ SPCK 1998 – p39

So how far should the church go in learning from the retail sector? Please leave a comment.

[Editor’s Note: Andrew Mottram is an authority on the adaptation of church buildings. He was ordained an Anglican priest in 1979 and had nearly 30 years experience of parish life, including many years of making church buildings work for people. When he was Priest in Charge of All Saints Hereford, the church building was re-ordered and opened up to the community in 1997. Café @ All Saints has proved to be a successful business venture.

The ‘new’ All Saints generated numerous enquiries and requests for help which led Andrew to set up Ecclesiastical Property Solutions Ltd (EPS). From 2004 to 2009 EPS helped over 500 individual Church communities with their buildings and provided training and support to clergy and laity in 23 Dioceses. EPS also worked at a national level with English Heritage, The Church Buildings Council, The Churches Conservation Trust and The National Churches Trust.

Andrew is currently Heritage Buildings and Community Development Officer in Worcester Diocese.]


Is God in the hospitality business?

Posted on: 07/06/2011

mar10 street1Yes, I believe He is! The St Andrew’s Centre, Histon, near Cambridge has recently won planning permission for a radical overhaul of its buildings. Guiding this through to planning permission was not easy (taking some 20 weeks) but the eventual success was anchored in the articulation by the church’s leadership of a clear vision for the project.

That vision is for the hospitality of God. Central to that vision is a top quality cafe that creates an open and generous welcome to the building, which also houses children’s work throughout the week and halls for church use and for hire. The project will make the church much more accessible to the community, since the building is well located on the busy High Street, whereas the church itself is more remote. This is not a building project – it is a mission project that happens to include a building…

As James Blandford-Baker, vicar of St Andrew’s, says, ‘This project is so significant because it is about extroverting our life together; it is putting the life of the community of God firmly into the public domain. It makes us open to public scrutiny of who we are, and of how we conduct our relationships.’

Churches are often significnant buildings within their communities, and all sorts of people may feel a sense of ownership over them. And change is often seen as very threatening. In the case of Histon there were concerns raised from many quarters, including not one but two Parish Councils, meetings were held, additional work undertaken on traffic and highways issues. It often felt like going the extra mile. The Conservation Officer after multiple changes to the design still recommended refusal.

St Andrew's Centre, Histon - plan

Cutaway view of ground floor

But that process was ultimately very worthwhile – toiling through the planning process was also about being God’s community in the public domain. And when it eventually came to the planning committee the application was passed by a huge majority, with Sebastian Kindersley, one of the wiser heads among the councillors, voicing an appreciation for what the local church was willing to do in their community.

Where churches are concerned, a building project is never just a building project.

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