Things That Only Get Better

Posted on: 11/02/2013

TrainersI don’t know whether you caught the item on BBC Radio 4 on Saturday morning on what apparently is called “emotionally durable design”. Jonathan Chapman, professor of sustainable design at Brighton University, was talking about designing items that people would still want to own in say 20 years time. One example was some trainers designed by Emma Whiting, with a stain resist pattern, so that as they pick up dirt the pattern emerges. You can find the interview here.

This got me thinking about buildings. To generalise, traditional building materials and detailing are all about ageing well, whereas  buildings in the modern era are all about the pristine photographic image on Day 1. There is a whole sub-discipline of conservation that deals with rescuing modernist buildings, which often fall out of favour and are difficult to rescue – Dudley Zoo is one example.

Another example from the interview were a set of wooden coasters, which are allowed to stain through use, but where the stains become part of the design. The current fashion in architecture for unprotected timber boarding which is allowed to weather naturally is perhaps trying to achieve the same thing. This is fine where the material is matched with appropriate detailing which allows the timber to weather equally, but usually one ends up with unsightly staining Beverley Minsterbetween areas that see the rain and those that do not.

So what does ‘Emotional Durability’ have to do with churches? We live in a culture where we are encouraged to crave new things, and where it is the poor that have old, second hand objects. So to see value in old churches is quite counter-cultural; yet if the gutters are kept clear and if cement mortar is not used for repairs these buildings are amazingly durable, and in general people love them for still standing there, often at the centre of their community. They provide a sense of rootedness amidst the newness of the objects we surround ourselves with. And for new church buildings, we should think beyond our own immediate needs, and think of the ‘lovability’ of the work we do for future generations. By doing so we can put our present functional needs in the context of the bigger story of which we are a part, of those who came before and those who will follow after.


Learning from Retail – Mary Portas

Posted on: 30/01/2013

Holywell_High_StreetThe parallels between the retail sector and the church is an area that is of great interest – retail has much to teach the church, but the key question is drawing the right lessons and not the wrong ones. Revd Philippa Boardman’s excellent session at the recent National Archdeacons’ Conference at Swanwick told the story of rebirth of St Paul’s Old Ford in East London and brought out some wider lessons. For me the highlight was her co-option of The Portas Review, and particularly her section on ‘My vision’ which, if you want to see the original, is on page 14.

To demonstrate the proximity of church and this vision for the future of the high street, Philippa took this vision statement and simply substituted the word “church” in place of “high street”; the text then read as follows:

My vision

I want to breathe economic and community life back into our high streets churches


Let me spell out my vision of the future.


I don’t want to live in a Britain that doesn’t care about community.


And I believe that our high streets churches are a really important part of building communities and pulling people together in a way that a supermarket or shopping mall, however convenient, however entertaining and however slick, just never can.


I want to put the heart back into the centre of our high streets churches, re-imagined as destinations for socialising, culture, health, wellbeing, creativity and learning. … The new high streets churches won’t just be about selling goods worship. The mix will include shops space for worship but could also include housing, offices, sport, schools or other social, commercial and cultural enterprises and meeting places. They should become places where we go to engage with other people in our communities, where shopping worship is just one small part of a rich mix of activities.


This will be the new value.


High streets Churches must be ready to experiment, try new things, take risks and become destinations again. They need to be spaces and places that people want to be in. High streets churches of the future must be a hub of the community that local people are proud of and want to protect.

For me this is as compelling a vision for the church as it is for the high street and provides lots of food for thought.  Clearly the church is (or should be) all about standing in the centre of the local community; and yet I suspect there are few churches that could not learn something from the vision statement above.

Look out for further posts that pick up some of these ideas in more detail.

Peaceful Protest

Posted on: 17/11/2011

The current occupation of the area outside St. Paul’s Cathedral in London has captured the national and international media spotlight for a number of reasons. However, my interest has been stirred by the apparent dilemma that faces the St. Paul’s establishment. That dilemma, as I see it, is that the church, as commanded by Jesus, is supposed to be sticking up for the poor and needy, and marginalised in society. And that is exactly what the protesters outside the Cathedral front door are claiming to do. So in effect, both the protesters and the church authorities are “singing off the same hymn sheet” (so to speak).

So why the controversy?

Well, the answer to that question is best answered by other, more politically astute commentators, but I am intrigued that the Cathedral leadership seem to be unsure of how to handle the situation they find themselves in. First they shut the doors, then they open them again, then they threaten legal action to evict them, then they don’t. It all looks a little confused.

I am at the moment dipping into a book by Giles Fraser called “Christianity with Attitude”. It is a series of articles written by Giles for The Guardian newspaper, and extracts from his appearances on Radio 4’s “Thought for the Day”. Mr. Fraser, as you may recall, resigned from his post as Canon Chancellor at St. Paul’s in October. In an interview with The Guardian following his resignation, he said-

“I cannot countenance the idea that this would be about Dale Farm on the steps of St Paul’s. I would want to have negotiated down the size of the camp and appeal to those there to help us keep the cathedral going, and if that meant that I was thereby granting them some legal right to stay then that is the position I would have had to wear … I believe that we embarked upon a course of action that would lead to a place where I didn’t want to go.”

What would Jesus Do?One doesn’t have to read too far between the lines to see that the St. Paul’s authorities (with the apparent exception of Giles Fraser and possibly a few others) didn’t want the protestors camped outside the cathedral. The possible reasons for this are many, but surely it is the command of Jesus to take a stand against poverty and the causes of poverty and injustice, and to stand up for the marginalised? Even if the cathedral did not accept the protestors’ apparent argument that the actions of the traders in the Stock Exchange were the cause of all of society’s current problems, isn’t there a case for supporting a peaceful protest to raise awareness of such issues?

A question of space

And if the answer to this question is yes, then what about considering creating space in our expressions of church buildings for such actions? In looking at how we might redevelop or rebuild our churches, or construct new ones, it is easy to consider where the “usual” things should go – dais, pulpit, font/baptistry, kitchen, vestry etc etc. But such things are all primarily internal fixtures and spaces, visible only when you are inside the building. What about a space externally, where the church can publicly express itself? Often the space around the outside of a building is resolved last – trying to squeeze in enough car parking and landscaping to satisfy the local planning authority. But what if it was considered at the same time as the internals – as a place to hold (for example) an outdoor Easter service? A prayer meeting? An area to wash cars and give out bacon sandwiches – free- on a Saturday morning? Even a place to hold a peaceful protest about a local or national issue, to draw attention to it? Or a place to invite other groups to protest over issues that are aligned with Christian values and principles of social justice and the eradication of poverty?

Too often, in my experience, we get excited about our expression of church as it appears inside the building in the form of fixtures and fittings, and even the style of worship. What about – when the opportunity presents itself – giving some thought to how we can express ourselves as a church body outside the church. If this is a thought that fills you with fear and dread- then it might just be that it is the right thing to do……

[hr]Colin Smith is a planning consultant and a member of Keystone Domain.

“Here For Life”

Posted on: 11/11/2011

Creation, from the Genesis Cycle at the west door of York Minster


We’ve just posted some material over at, our blog about conservation and heritage management, on the slogan “Here for Life”, which stands emblematically for an integration between people and places through time, the three critical dimensions of sound cultural heritage management.

In thinking further about this within a church context, the phrase also works well as a motto or rallying cry for churches engaged in their communities. Lots of churches do not make positive use of the physical presence of their buildings as anchors within their community, nor of the life stories that are associated with, and often commemorated in, that place. Equally the church is nothing if it is not about people being drawn together into the life of God. As Jesus said (John 10.10),

“I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly”.


It is much like the response to the reading of the law in Nehemiah chapter 8. Clearly what looks very much like revival was not caused by the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem. But nor would it have happened without that rebuilding, because the walls created a sense of belonging, of restored identity, and of placedness before God. The same is true of our church buildings, of whatever age – or at least it can be if we engage with them properly.

So when thinking about your church buildings, “Here for Life” seems a helpful phrase to keep in mind.

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

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.

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.

What Jools Holland Can Teach the Church?

Posted on: 24/05/2011
Jools Holland at Somerleyton Hall, Suffolk

photo: Tim Parkinson

I enjoy Jools Holland for his ability with Blues piano, and to a lesser extent his Big Band showiness. What I like even more is his signature TV show, Later… with Jools Holland, where each week he assembles an impressive breadth of different artists, drawing in some big names, veteran performers and showcasing some new talent, and manages to craft a sense of common purpose out of what often seems an odd assortment.

The relevance of this is that Music is often tribal, with most of us fixing on a relatively narrow range of genres, with which we find ourselves comfortable. With the Later show, there is an anarchic sense of juxtaposition, out of which comes an odd sense of coherence.

And here is the parallel with the church. In all honesty, we in the church also tend to gravitate to a style of worship and a group of people with whom we are comfortable. Given what St Paul wrote about the essential variety within the church this is not ideal, though at a social level this is of course natural enough. The danger is that we so easily become ‘mono-cultural’. Which makes those churches which are able to bring together diversity in community all the more impressive.

In the late 1980s I lived and worked in Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan. I was there to build (bricks and mortar) St Thomas’ Church. Buildings aside, as an expression of the body of Christ St Thomas’ was hugely impressive in holding together the full breadth of that society, from the illiterate street sweepers, through the educated Pakistanis – who might be cooks or drivers or engineers or military officers – to the foreign mission partners, aid workers and diplomats. The church had services in 3 languages – Panjabi, Urdu and English – each meeting at different times; but it had one PCC and events (including a church weekend away) were orgainsed that combined all three congregations. Clearly this was not all straightforward, but no other institution in Pakistani life could get close to holding together that social breadth.

St Thomas' Church, Islamabad

St Thomas’ Church, IslamabadPhoto: Peter Parish

So what sort of a building could serve such a diverse range of people? In shape the main worship space is cruciform; but the form is certainly not English neo-Gothic, which was the first thought of many in the church, on the basis that most of the churches there were built by the British. The church is of its place – using skills and a design language that draws on Moghul architecture of patterned brickwork – but also challenges its place.

I think Jools has much to teach us – in his ability to take a diverse range of performers and articulate a compelling narrative, in his case in live performance, even getting chalk and cheese to play together.


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