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Mastering the ministry of welcome

16 September 2016

Churches are finding increasingly imaginative ways to attract visitors. Pat Ashworth reports

Medieval marvels: walkers arrive at St Nicholas’s, Rattlesden, on a Suffolk Walking Festival guided walk

Medieval marvels: walkers arrive at St Nicholas’s, Rattlesden, on a Suffolk Walking Festival guided walk

TOWERS and spires, saints and sinners, bells and battlements, angels and pinnacles . . . when it comes to attracting visitors, country churches are coming up with inventive marketing ideas that go way beyond keeping the building open and hoping that somebody might wander in.

Take the diocese of St Edmundsbury & Ipswich, which covers most of Suffolk. The region is studded with medieval masterpieces, and a guide to the churches here groups them in colour-coded clusters: blue for those such as St Lawrence’s, Brundish, standing in quiet lanes through fields and villages; green for those such as St Mary’s, Hawkedon, deep in a Constable country of rolling countryside and half-timbered houses. “A long sweep of seashore and magical light” characterises the orange area of “remote saints’ villages with ancient churches down tiny lanes”.

The great coastal churches of Suffolk — once landmarks for ships at sea — are part of the pink area, all “wild heathland and estuary reed and the cry of the Oystercatcher”; step inside the “beautiful light-filled church [of St Andrew’s, Alderton] and your spirits will lift”. And, finally, there are the yellow-area churches at the heart of a Suffolk countryside of “hedgerows heavy with hawthorn blossom and banks frothing with cow parsley”.


IT COMES as no surprise to find that a church heritage and tourism officer for the diocese, Marion Welham, had been a journalist and copywriter for the Tourist Board. Her appointment followed the General Synod’s commitment in 2008 to a strategy for church tourism which encouraged each diocese to form a church-tourism group — or, at least, to identify a diocesan tourism officer. The “Sacred Britain” strategy of the Churches Tourism Association in 2006 had been to make churches and places of worship a “must-see” part of exploring destinations in Britain.

“I thought we should raise the profile of our wonderful medieval churches — some of the best in Europe. The best way was to do something collectively to make ourselves noticed,” she says.

A successful bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) was followed by further funding from a local charitable trust. A partnership with the county council’s initiative “Discover Suffolk” then enabled the building of the dedicated website Angels and Pinnacles.

Partnerships with secular organisations have enabled unique offerings such as “Bells and Battlements”, done in conjunction with Open Access Touring. Visitors can hire a classic car — anything from a Morgan to a 1973 MGB Roadster, or an Alfa Romeo Spider — and jaunt off on an 80-mile road trip that takes in half-a-dozen spectacular churches. Ms Welham has done the tour herself, in a Morgan: “It was thrilling.” A comprehensive route-map, and an information pack on the history of every visited church is included.

The largest of the featured churches is Holy Trinity, Blythburgh, the “Cathedral of the Marshes”, with its iconic angel roof. St Bartholomew’s, Orford, is the Norman church where Benjamin Britten pioneered some of his first works. The oval tower of the remote All Saints’, Ramsholt, is a curiosity, as is the the former leper chapel in the churchyard of St James’s, Dunwich. For grandeur, there’s little to beat St Michael’s, Framlingham, which houses the spectacular tombs of the Howard family; and St Mary’s, Ufford, is famous for its exquisitely carved font-cover.


THROUGH Church Care, the cathedral and church buildings division of the Archbishops’ Council, the C of E has teamed up with the cycling charity Sutrans to produce a series of cycle tours, pioneered in St Edmundsbury & Ipswich in 2014 and going from strength to strength. The second “Towers and Spires” route, launched last year, begins and ends at Worcester Cathedral and offers cyclists a choice of a 25- or 42-mile route that takes in 12 churches. The Bishop of Worcester, Dr John Inge, is a keen cyclist, and has enjoyed doing the tour himself.

“Our parish churches are at the heart of our communities and hold the stories of those communities [over] hundreds of years,” he says. “They are a precious part of our heritage, and it is always a treat to learn more about our social history. They are also wonderful oases of calm in an increasingly frantic world. What better way to visit them than by bike?”

This initiative builds on the success of “Ride+Stride”, an annual sponsored bike-ride or walk, supported by the National Churches Trust, which raises money to help save historic churches, chapels, and meeting houses for future generations by funding urgent repairs and the installation of modern facilities. Organised in partnership with county-based local churches trusts, Ride+Stride opens the doors to some of England’s most rare and unusual ecclesiastical buildings, and encourages participants to visit as many as possible in their own locality. Riders on horseback, rather than bicycle, are not unknown.

In Worcester, church tourists can also follow the tour in a less energetic fashion if they want to: the WiIden to Witley trail is designed to be driven, and will take visitors through some of the county’s most beautiful countryside. There are 12 churches to be visited en route — all of which, the literature says, “stand as symbols of belief, and show how faith has motivated previous generations to act for the glory of God”.


NEW pilgrim ways are constantly being devised for the many who do walk and want to add a spiritual dimension to love of the countryside. The Way of St Augustine, launched this year, invites pilgrims to discover the establishment of Christianity in England on a 19-mile route between the shrine of St Augustine in Ramsgate, and the World Heritage Site in Canterbury. If they want to spread the journey over two days, they can try champing — church camping — in All Saints’, West Stourmouth.

Champing was an initiative of the Churches Conservation Trust (CCT), which has captured the imagination since it was pioneered in 2014 at Aldwincle, in Northamptonshire. What better use for a beautiful, redundant church, the Trust suggests, than to invite people to stay the night in it?

For £55, including a cooked breakfast at a pub nearby, you can go Celestial Champing at Aldwincle; Cherished Champing at Fordwich, Kent; Classic Champing in Colchester; Convivial Champing in Cambridgeshire; Stately Champing in Surrey; Restful Champing in Kent; and Heavenly Champing in Booton, Norfolk — where you can “camp under the angels for a truly heavenly slumber in the Cathedral of the Fields, St Michael and All Angels”. Beds, chairs, tables, rugs, and beanbags are provided; travellers bring their own sleeping bags and pillows.

The champing season runs from May to the end of September, and, next year, Orkney will be joining the growing list of locations.


THE incoming Bishop of Lichfield, the Rt Revd Michael Ipgrave, will be linking his inauguration on 24 September with another new pilgrim walk. The 92 miles of the Two Saints Way link the cathedrals of Chester and Lichfield — stopping-places for medieval pilgrims journeying as far even as Rome and Jerusalem — and the stories of St Chad and St Werburgh. On a a three-day pilgrimage immediately before the inauguration, the Bishop will be walking the 32 miles of the sections from Stoke to Stone, Stone to Stafford, and Stafford to Lichfield, visiting all churches on the route and inviting anyone to join him.

Themes of the Two Saints Way include “walking your way to health in body, mind, and soul”, “a contemporary quest for ancient wisdom”, “a real slice of England”, “walking in a different dimension”, “discovering our Mercian heritage”, and “journeying forward to the ancient future”.


THE Ven. Bob Jackson retired six years ago to the Derbyshire village of Eyam, famous for the sacrificial actions of the Revd William Mompesson and the villagers in voluntarily isolating themselves from the outside world when the Plague struck in 1665. Eyam marked that anniversary last year, and Mr Jackson devised a classic pilgrimage route that would take visitors through some of the loveliest parts of the Peak District, and into some of its most interesting churches.

The Peak Pilgrimage runs from Ilam, near Dovedale, to Eyam, taking in the glories of Chatsworth and the beauty of Lathkill Dale. Churches on the 40-mile route range from the tiny chapel at Milldale, which is virtually unchanged since it was built, and has no electricity or heating, to the great parish church at Hartington. At each church, pilgrims collect a Bible verse to put in their pocket guidebook: a reflection on life that includes the thrill of physics, how much better the world would be if generosity ruled instead of greed, and how to tell the difference between goat- and sheep-dung.

“When you get back to Eyam, the verse is, of course, ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends,’” Mr Jackson says. “The rock on which Eyam is built is the story of the Plague, which is a gospel story of people deciding to offer their own lives so that other people might live.”

Feedback on the walk, launched last summer and now being extended, has been overwhelmingly positive, from Christians to people of no faith, who have simply found it an uplifting experience.

Mr Jackson, who continues to work in the area of church growth, reflects that a pilgrimage such as this is “a toe in the water of a very different way of doing evangelism. It suits the 21st century. People don’t go to big meetings and get lectured to by experts, but they want to explore things for themselves — a sort of post-modern thing.”


THE first Church Tourism Week in England was held in July. Marketed as a nationwide celebration of the country’s historic churches, it included the launch of Haven Heights tower climbs at St Peter’s, Sandwich, where public access to the tower, with its spectacular views, is all part of a bold strategy to promote what is a beautiful historic church in the town centre.

On the CCT’s website Saints and Sinners, visitors can tailor-make their own local historic-churches trail from a series of questions that establish where they would like to walk from, what type of terrain they prefer, and what kind of scenery they like. They can even buy a picnic flask to take on the walk.

The technology around smartphones and tablets is proving a boon. Aylsham Parish Church, in Norfolk, is trying to develop the use of technology as a tool for mission, and is delighted with the results from the app it has developed to bring this 14th-century church alive for the 21st-century visitor. It was an experiment, the Team Rector, Canon Andrew Beane, says, in bringing together heritage and technology, and was made possible because of a “Sharing the Good News” grant from the diocese.

The church already offered an interactive tour using QR barcodes — optical labels containing information about the item to which they are attached — and the app followed publication of a guidebook that won a Highly Commended rating in the Most Welcoming Churches Competition in August. “The app is fantastic, and we are delighted with it,” Canon Beane said.

“We offer free internet access to visitors to the Church via WiSpire, and have had over 400 visitors sign in to the internet via the the church over the summer. We have some positive feedback, and it is proving to be a great talking point.”

As part of a large rural team of 12 churches and five clergy, they are hoping now to develop the app across some of the smaller churches.


IN THE diocese of St Davids, which covers three counties rich in Christian history and heritage, ancient and modern, you can even use mobile phones, satnavs, or tablets to go geocaching — a global treasure-hunt that takes you to hidden caches where you log in before proceeding to the next one.

And churches are being encouraged to welcome players of Pokémon Go, an augmented reality game played on smartphones (News, 22 July; Press, 5 August).

It involves finding virtual Pokémon characters — little monsters with names such as Pikachu and Jigglypuff — in real places, and training them to fight each other. Landmarks, including churches, have become “Pokéstops” which players visit during the game to collect items. The C of E’s digital media officer, Tallie Proud, says that the game is giving churches a great opportunity to meet people who would not normally come to church, although she emphasises that the Church’s first priority is to be a safe place for children and vulnerable adults.


BUT there remains the simple art of hospitality. A National Churches Trust ComRes poll on church buildings, in December 2015, suggested that the top five things that would encourage people to visit churches were: a friendly welcome, lavatories, a café or refreshment area, comfortable seating, and useful visitor information.

Churches are quietly getting on with that all the time. While cathedrals and the great churches of places such as Oxford and Cambridge feature strongly in the Top Ten of churches with cafés (as compiled by Allchurches Trust Ltd), the list also includes St Mary’s, Porchester, in Hampshire, in the grounds of Porchester Castle. The castle has no café, so dedicated volunteers provide a tearoom in the church, with great success. It’s a story that could be replicated in any number of churches: the good news of church tourism which is travelling fast.


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