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Statements of Significance transformed

Posted on: 08/04/2013

HeaderIf your church is an old building, or even remotely interesting, then when you propose changes to it you will need to write a Statement of Significance. There have been a variety of attempts to provide guidance on how churches should approach this (including on this site), but the quality of the result is often very poor – at one extreme some churches photocopy a page from an architectural history, or at the other extreme submit an expensively commissioned piece of work by an external consultant. Neither of these delivers an enduringly useful document, one that the church takes ownership of and sees as important in informing their use and care of the building. The root of the problem is that few in the churches can see the point of them.

Getting StartedThe wonderful Christianity and Culture is hoping to address these deficiencies with a new web-based tool, developed with significant financial support from English Heritage, who see this as a major priority. A workshop took place in mid March to test drive the format and detail of the tool with a real-life example of a church (St Peter’s, Norton on Derwent, outside York), and this post reports on two exciting aspects of the discussion – firstly giving you preview of the tool itself, and why it is such good news for churches with historic buildings, and secondly presenting some thoughts about what the tool could become, which is even more exciting!

The ToolProgress

The first key innovation is that the tool breaks the Statement down into a series of sections, which enables the work to be shared, as different people can be given responsibility for each self-contained element. Furthermore, because it is web-based, the document is always accessible, and can be updated as new information is discovered and as personnel change; it therefore can become a shared point of reference that can be accessed and amended as required.

Having registered on the site, you have a choice of starting a new Statement, or open an existing one you have been working on. The current structure is split into 8 sections:

  • Step 1 – General Information – this identifies the building and its location
  • Step 2 – Existing Scheduling and Orders – this is where you put the text of any listing description etc.
  • Step 3 – The Church Setting – a description of the area around the church, both built and natural.
  • Step 4 – Churchyard and Site – the external space that belongs with the church, including any built, natural or archaeological features.
  • Step 5 – The Church Building -Inside – This section allows you to add specific features, including a photograph and a description, to include any important furniture and fittings.
  • Step 6 – The Church Building – Outside – As for step 5, but for the outside of the building.
  • Step 7 – Social History – particular people associated with the church, and community comment and memory.
  • Step 8 – Your Sources – where you got your information from.

Each section will be supported by guidance and examples, including images and short videos. This itself will be of great value in helping to clarify the type and extent of information that will be of value.

All of this is great, and should help these Statements to become something other than an imposed chore. Having put all the information in, you will then be able to export a formatted pdf document for printing and electronic circulation. It is anticipated that the tool will be launched later this year. If you cannot wait to get your hands on this, and want to contribute to its development you can contact C&C for login details to gain access to the prototype.

The Potential

So far, so very good. But what is really exciting is the prospect of giving broader access to anyone and everyone to view the collected information. This would allow anyone in your local community, or indeed the world, to look at your church, and to get a feel for its character and history.

General InfoBut then imagine what would happen if it became interactive, and we were allowed to leave comments, like a digital visitor’s book. Suddenly the site becomes a community, and mere interest starts to become active involvement.

And then what about using the site for recording additional information that comes to light in the process of researching the building? What about oral history, for example the account of the family that was bombed out of their East London home and lived in the church for a week? These personal accounts are gold-dust, for both present and future. Or what about a brief video tour? This material is a really valuable part of the significance of the building, of the narrative of the church in its particular place, yet the audio file would never make it into a Statement of Significance, let alone be publicly available. There is huge public interest in this additional material which is often the part of ‘heritage’ that is easiest for people to engage with, and which tells the building’s story most eloquently.

Without doubt these digital visits would in turn drive more physical visits. The ability to contribute, to shape a community around the church, would stimulate interest and potentially give that wider community a role in looking after your building. Which is to be welcomed! And when you did come to propose changes to the building, not only would they be better considered, you would also be able to demonstrate (in most cases) that the church hasn’t always been the way it is now. The commenting facility would also be one valuable means of community consultation, which will give those that must approve your proposals confidence that the community had been given a voice.

Imagine if we could use a site like this to build a social history of the community. Imagine if I am sitting in Australia or Canada and were able to upload a photo of my grandmother’s wedding in the church, or of the party held at the Queen’s coronation, or whatever.

The Righting of Wrongs

What makes this so powerful is that it allows the readmission of the broader community to its church. In my view it was one of the greatest crimes of the Victorian age to remove the community uses from our churches, which have therefore come to be seen as the ‘religious club’, to which you either belong or not – in or out – saved or damned. This is a relatively recent aberration; by contrast, the medieval model was much more nuanced, allowing the wider community to engage with the church.

The potential here is therefore to turn church buildings into forms of social media. I wouldn’t suggest this is all that a church is or should be, but, if you think about it, this has always been a part of what a healthy church traditionally was. By means of this tool, Statements of Significance, which started out as a misunderstood burden, could become a means of radical re-engagement with the broader community. Bring it on!

Storytelling Technologies

Posted on: 20/12/2012

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending the Churches Tourism Association convention. The final morning featured a ‘Using Technology’ session which featured of presentations on a number of relevant technologies. I’m hoping to do a short series of posts looking at some of these in turn.

What Did Google Ever Do For Us?

We’re all familiar with Street View on Google Maps – a great way of checking what an unfamiliar place looks like before you get there. And of course it only shows you the outside of buildings, right? Not any more! Google Business Street View is an extension of plain old Street View into the interiors of publicly accessible buildings. Google’s idea is to let you see the inside of commercial buildings such as restaurants – Google has some information here. Fine for businesses (for which Google developed it) but it turns out this technology is great for churches too!


View Larger Map
Street ViewChris Jones of LeicesterPhoto Design demonstrated the technology, using the example of the medieval St Mary De Castro Church in Leicester, for which he was the commissioned photographer. The tell-tale on Google Maps is when you come to a double arrow – see the picture to the left – which indicates that you can ‘cross the threshold’ into an accessible interior. Chris has some information on this service here. (If the above example doesn’t show for any reason, go to Google Maps and enter the postcode LE1 5WH.)

So why is this technology interesting?

For historic buildings Street View is a new way that enables them to tell their story (in visual form at least). Clearly this doesn’t give the ‘visitor’ the full experience of being in the space, let alone the historical detail. But as a taster it is fantastic. And this is relevant whether your church is steeped in history, or is “post war charmless” – either way it helps people who have never visited the building before to feel more comfortable crossing the threshold. Not knowing what to expect is a powerful disincentive for people unused to church – and church buildings – to engage with us. This is a great example of one area where the church can learn from the world of retail. Even better, it is an area where the Church of England is leading retail – Chris is one of 20 accredited photographers who have agreed a national pricing structure with the Anglican Church, and the group will shortly be doing a test shoot for the National Churches Trust.

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.