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Not only dancing in the aisles

05 February 2016

Church buildings are engaging with their localities in ever more imaginative ways. Pat Ashworth reports

Overturning preconceptions: a young participant in Malmesbury Abbey’s Skate

Overturning preconceptions: a young participant in Malmesbury Abbey’s Skate

HUNDREDS of young people will be pouring through the doors of 12th-century Malmesbury Abbey for three days of the forthcoming half-term. They will be eager to tackle the ramps, quarter pipes, grinding rails, and trick boxes that will fill the nave for the skateboarding festival Abbey Skate, now in its eighth year. A collaboration between the abbey congregation and Christian Skaters UK, it was initiated in 2009 by the Vicar, the Revd Neill Archer (News, 2 January 2009).

The event requires the laying down of a double-thickness wooden floor to protect the abbey’s stone and parquet flooring; the bagging and taping to the stone pillars of 120 straw bales, loaned by a local farmer; and the building of staging for the supporters. All the work is done by volunteers, and the work of dismantling has become an event in itself, as they race to beat the previous record and get to the curry house before it closes at midnight.

The atmosphere is electric, the Revd John Monaghan, Assistant Curate at the abbey and organiser of this year’s event, says. “There’s a permanent skatepark in a community centre in Malmesbury, but they come here because it’s an iconic place to skate.The demographic of the event is wonderful: from the toddlers who will come in to use the new soft-play area, to the 80-year-olds on the volunteer teams.

“It’s encouraged a serving attitude in the congregation. We see Christian witness in three ways here: through the love and care of the volunteers; through brief interviews, between the skate sessions, with members of the abbey congregation; and through testimonies from other teenagers about the difference Jesus makes in their lives.”

And it feels like a natural use of the building, he says, quoting the congregation’s vision of “12th-century beauty, 21st-century church”. “It’s only a tiny part of the mission of the Church, but it feels like a faithful use of the resources. We have an amazingly rich heritage of buildings around the country, and it’s sacrilege not to use them for the next generation. This is not to dismiss the beauty of the space, but, as Jesus said, stones are not to be worshipped. We are living temples.”

The event creates an enormous buzz in the town. Last year was the busiest yet, but, although the attendance and the press coverage are encouraging, the congregation does not measure its success in that way, Mr Monaghan says. “Success for us is about the small conversations with teenagers that make a big difference in their lives.

“It’s about making a connection,” he says, “so that when we meet them in town, we can smile, and say ‘Hi’. It’s about breaking down the barriers that young people have in relation to church buildings; and, ultimately, it’s about letting them know they are special, and God loves them. We could have fewer people next year, but feel chuffed that we’ve impacted one person in a positive way.”


MALMESURY ABBEY is part of the Greater Churches Network of 55 churches in England and Wales, some of which have the characteristics of a cathedral, but all of which operate within the organisational structures, and with the financial resources, of a parish church. In all, there are 200 historic parish churches, with a floor space of 1000 square metres.

These churches are the focus of a current research project, Assessing the Challenges for Managing Historic Major Parish Churches, undertaken by Historic England, the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Church Buildings Council, the Greater Churches Network, and Doncaster Minster.

The study is exploring the challenges that they face, the physical condition of the buildings, and the resources available to maintain, repair, manage, and sustain “highly significant buildings used by the community and nation that are expected to provide functions and services beyond those of a typical parish church — civic, cultural, ecclesiastical, tourism, etc., but [which] only have the resources of a parish church”.

The findings are due to be published in the autumn. But, meanwhile, there seems to be no end to the inventiveness of what is being done to maximise use and draw in the wider community in the name of mission.

Where Malmesbury has its skaters, Hexham Abbey has its free runners — athletes who practise an acrobatic discipline in which they tumble, leap, and ricochet off whatever is in their path. And the athletes of 3RUN are a popular feature of the annual Hexham Abbey Festival, an event otherwise devoted to classical music.

In seeking to broaden the scope of the programme and the outreach of the festival, and to introduce new art forms, the abbey’s Director of Music and Festival Director, Marcus Wibberley, wanted especially to see interplay between the arts, and what he describes as “this marvellous building at our disposal”.

It was amazing, he says, “to see the athletes use the arches, stonework, and triforia of the building as a soundboard for their art form”. The show was runner-up in the Best Event Northumberland culture awards last year.


THEN there is Doncaster Minster. It is small beginnings for the Streetdance sessions that began here last month, initiated by a member of the congregation, Kaspar Vilkaste, who came from Latvia ten years ago. Mr Vilkaste is a dancer, choreographer, and street artist who wanted to offer free classes to young people and adults to say thank you to the town, and give encouragement to young people. It is a way of “leaving good things behind me rather than just making money”, he says.

It was a wonderful offer, the fund-raising and development manager at Doncaster Minster, Louise O’Brien, says. The dramatic building, seating 1200, has the distinction of being George Gilbert Scott’s biggest whole church. Fixed seating limits what can be done in the nave, but the stone floor-space beneath the tower has proved ideal for Streetdance.

“It’s essentially dancing on the pavement inside a building — doing just what Kaspar does outside on the street: bringing the outside in, opening the doors both physically and metaphorically, which is what we’re all trying to do,” Ms O’Brien says.

The first session accommodated ages ranging from ten to 40-plus — including “some proper geeky poppers who take it super-seriously,” she says. “Kaspar did it all with amazing appropriateness. He is well known in his field, and the session drew hundreds of appreciative comments on social media, many of them pleasantly surprised that the minster had said, ‘We have the space: come and do it here.’”


IN HULL, “a huge aircraft hangar of a church” is how the Revd Matt Woodcock describes Holy Trinity, the largest parish church in England. His remit when he joined the clergy team as a pioneer minister in 2011 was to get the building used missionally for more than the customary services. So, with a blank sheet of paper, he set about getting to know the landlords and shopkeepers of the Old Town.

A lament that the beer had been too warm at the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) festival in Hull City Hall had led members to consider finding another venue.

“Someone suggested they try that crazy new vicar at Holy Trinity, who was up for anything,” Mr Woodcock says, cheerfully. “They all spat their beer out, and said, ‘You must be joking,’ but they arranged this meeting with me, and jaws just dropped at the thought that we would be up for this.”

He pays warm tribute to the Vicar of Holy Trinity, Canon Neal Barnes, as the man who said yes to CAMRA. “I never thought he’d agree to it; but, to his eternal credit, he did. The more he said yes, the more we have flourished. I think God has used him in a remarkable way.”

Holy Trinity stands at the heart of the Old Town. “It was a blank spot in the middle of it; a sleeping giant,” Mr Woodcock says.

From the outset, the Real Ale and Real Cider Festival caught the imagination. Queues snaked around the building to get in, and an atmosphere of friendliness was as much remarked on as the magnificent setting.

A record 4000 people attended last year’s festival, which ran from a Thursday to the following Saturday. It raised £5000 for church funds and towards the £4.5-million regeneration project for which the beer festival has been a catalyst.

The beer pumps are located in the north and south choir aisles of the building; there is “chilled-out” music in the chancel, and the church organist plays songs from the musicals as well as people’s favourite hymns, “giving it a bit of a beer-and-hymns feel”, Mr Woodcock says.

“Everyone’s really good friends. It’s become a massive event for Hull, and has really put us on the map.

“It’s got bigger and crazier every year. It’s a secular event, but it’s our staff team: we’re pulling pints in our dog collars, and the festival gets blessed by the Archdeacon or the Bishop at the start.

"It’s given us licence to do so many things on the back of it, and it’s had an impact, too, on attendance on Sundays: — people who have been to the festival want to check us out and see what we do.”here were some objections to the idea of a beer festival, but the dissenters are now few, greatly helped by the fact that there has never been trouble or drunkenness at the event.

“I’d say to the greater churches: just see the fruits of what you can do. If these buildings are not for the people, I don’t know what they are for,” Mr Woodcock says. “I think we need to be less stuffy about what we think they are for.”

Hull is the designated City of Culture for 2017. Regeneration is happening here on a large scale in readiness for that year, and Holy Trinity, in partnership with the city, has visionary plans for its shared future at the heart of the community.

“The beer festival was the line in the sand that said our church is open to the whole community. It’s amazing,” Mr Woodcock concludes.


AT ST WULFRAM’s, Grantham, 10,000 people came through the doors in five days when an ice rink was installed in the nave at Christmas, as part of a Christmas-tree festival. The church treasurer, Ray Davie, says that many of them had never been in the building before, “and thought it was only for a certain kind of people, which is not the case at all. We were able to break some of that down.”

The church made a small entry charge for the festival, and for the skating, but the Christmas trees were provided free, and St Wulfram’s made a profit.

“Churches have to do these things now,” Mrs Davie says. “With annual fuel bills of up to £16,000 on top of the Parish Share, you can’t keep these buildings going without doing something a bit different. You can’t expect a weekly congregation of 130 people to cover those sorts of costs.”

As the biggest communal space in Grantham town centre, St Wulfram’s also hosts the biannual Gravity Fields arts and science festival in the town.

Then there is the Great Bath Bake Sale, held at Bath Abbey; the fashion show, medieval fayre, and gala dinner held at St Laurence’s, Ludlow — where the congregation is now planning a medieval banquet in conjunction with the town’s food festival; and the Mayor’s Charity Ball and other events held at All Saints’, Kingston-upon-Thames. And there are many more.

Mrs Davie sums up a view that many have expressed: “I am very passionate about the beautiful church I serve, and determined that a building which has served the people of Grantham for so many years gets all the help it needs to keep doing that.

“If the fringe benefit is that a new generation of people who would never come to a service now feel comfortable in the building, these events are of even more value.”

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