From closure to exposure

by
20 October 2017

Hull’s year as UK City of Culture has been momentous for its new minster also. Pat Ashworth reports

Pat Ashworth

Dress rehearsal: dancers in front of Hull Minster

Dress rehearsal: dancers in front of Hull Minster

FACES look up, and there is a sudden murmur among the crowds assembled in Trinity Square on this damp autumn after­noon. It spreads to a ripple of excite­ment as moving figures appear high on the roof of Hull Minster, their billowing silken sleeves sug­gesting a band of angels about to take flight.

The Royal Ballet are here in Hull to open the city’s New Theatre after a £16 million refurbishment. Their sell-out performance will be relayed to 3000 people in the nearby Queen’s Gardens. But now it is the turn of a corps de ballet in the making as 100 young dancers from four of the city’s dance schools take to the Square and perform with the soloist Francisco Serrano. The Royal Ballet’s learning project is part of a City of Culture programme that has drawn artists from all over the world.

It could be a continental piazza. There has been a colourful wedding party in the Square already, posing for photographs against the impres­sive frontage of the Minster, the largest parish church in England and formerly known as Holy Trinity. None of this would have been con­ceivable less than a decade ago, when the church was hemmed in by a for­bidding Victorian wall, and spoken of as the largest invisible building in Hull.

Its regeneration story matches Hull’s own, and has been aided by the ambitions of the City of Culture. The Mayor, Councillor John Hewitt, is proud to tell me that Hull is the fastest-growing economy in the country outside of London. His grand­daughter is one of the dancers, and, as he relaxes in the church’s café area, he credits the Vicar of Hull Minster, Canon Neal Barnes, with bringing it into the 21st century.

“I won’t bolster him up, because it’ll make him big-headed, but he’s done a bloody good job,” he says. “Although this church was in the Square, it wasn’t: it was like a barrier. Now they’ve taken the wall down, it’s big and open and beautiful. You’re not going to the church, you’re in the church. It’s fabulous.”

 

Paul Saripo/AlamyMinster-making: left to right: Canon Neal Barnes; the Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu; the Bishop of Hull, the Rt Revd Alison White; and the Revd Irene Wilson, in May 2017THE upkeep of the magnificent building, which dates from 1285, had been overwhelming. The fortress wall enclosed a decaying churchyard. Trees had blocked and collapsed the drains, pigeons had fouled the paths, and gates had been built to stop people from parking cars. The church owned one half of the Square, the council the other, in the Old Town, an area largely deserted by business in the grim years following the decline of the fishing industry.

When the vacancy arose, in 2009, the churchwardens predicted to the Bishop of Hull that, because the church was dying, and money run­ning out, it would close within two years unless something was done. A handful of faithful people was keeping it running; the building did not even have a caretaker. Con­sultation with senior figures from the city and diocese resulted in a devel­opment project, and, crucially, a structure that recognised that no incumbent could do the job on his or her own.

“He or she would just sink,” Canon Barnes says, frankly. Before his appointment, it was established that a Pioneer Ordained Minister, the Revd Matt Woodcock (Feature, 11 November 2016), would serve his title at Holy Trinity, along with the Revd Irene Wilson, who would also serve hers. The three would be the core around which to build a lay and clergy team with different gifts.

“When the Bishop first asked me to consider the job, I thought, ‘No way,’” he remembers. “But knowing it wouldn’t be just me on my own was an encouragement. And support from the diocese has been excellent. They’ve understood what we’re about, and why this church is so important to the city.”

 

Jonathan PowCheers: the Revd Matt Woodcock (centre) at the second Hull Real Ale and Cider FestivalTHE team sprang into action in the winter of 2010/11. Canon Barnes recalls with a shudder: “It was freezing cold, and people were absolutely exhausted. We started work on the vestries, which were like something out of Dickens.” The PCC agreed to a part-time admin­istrator. The diocese had com­missioned a report on the sustain­ability of Holy Trinity after the crisis meeting in 2009, and its recommen­da­tions for a radical reordering came to the PCC in 2011.

What was most needed, along with lavatories, underfloor heating, and the rest, was a flexible nave — likely to cause controversy because of the fine oak pews carved by George Peck when the building was restored in the 1840s. A focus group of business­people and others from the city was “a good discipline, because it gave us an excuse to say ‘Come and help us,’” Canon Barnes says.

Out of that came the Project Board, and he reflects, “It’s wonder­ful how God has guided people to us, many of them Christians themselves but with Hull connections. We were given funding by a very kind donor to establish a war chest; we appointed a fundraising director, and decided that we needed to re-order the Square and the nave. It was all about active frontage into the Square at a key entry point.”

Thank goodness for the Arch­deacon, he says. “This has been quite a learning curve for all of us. It’s a £4.4 million project that’s not just straight restoration but very much about reordering for mission and sustainability. We presented the plans in 2013 and it took three years to get it through the DAC. We went into it with very little understanding of what we were getting into, and we learned hard lessons.”

But things moved on rapidly during those years as the church threw open its doors to the com­munity — including the now legend­ary Real Ale Festival, first held in 2012 (News, 18 January 2012). Jane Owen, a congregation member and ex-teacher, started an education programme that saw 34 school visits in the first year, and took on the events paperwork — all in a voluntary capacity, until the increasing revenue enabled her to be appointed Operations Manager for Holy Trinity Limited, the trading company set up to manage events and the fledgling café.

 

AND then, in 2013, Hull won City of Culture for 2017. The church had some input into the bid, which was a very strong one, Canon Barnes says. “Part of our vision had been to open up this building and say it belonged to the city. It’s primarily a place of worship, but it is a place where the community can come together for whatever brings people in on their own terms; where they’re allowed to be them­selves, but go out enriched; and always with that invitation to belong in some way, and to worship.

“And maybe it was a bit of serendipity. We’d been doing fashion shows, the Real Ale festival, concerts, a bit of corporate hospitality, the odd banquet — but here was an opport­unity to build up as an events venue, and also open a café and a shop. That first Real Ale festival was one of the watersheds. It showed we were human; we wanted to do something for the city; we were prepared to take risks.”

Pat AshworthOpen space: the square in front of Hull MinsterMs Owen describes the learning curve as vertical, and the demands on volunteers and staff as huge. “The City of Culture has added a massive dimension to things,” she says. “We needed to engage with willing audi­ences. There was already a brilliant team of volunteers. With the council’s work on the Square bring­ing more footfall to the Old Town at a time when we were trying to bring more footfall to the church, it was a matter of carpe diem.

“The council helped us utilise a building on the Square for a parish centre. We’ve managed to extend our opening hours. With visitors comes more footfall to the café, donations in the boxes; and every visitor who comes is potentially someone who might be coming back for a service. We’re always taking a leap of faith.”

So all, including the PCC secre­tary, Chris Fenwick, were gratified when someone from the BBC observed: “At Holy Trinity they say ‘Yes’, and then ask what the question was.” It’s a turnaround that he could scarcely have envisaged, having come here as a boy chorister in 1954 and stayed. “I’m on my fifth vicar,” he says with a smile. “We’ve had good pastors, really spiritual men. But Neal has really turned it round.”

 

I AM sitting in the south transept, where the café is about to go up several gears, using the reordered vestries for modern kitchen facilities, and new and accessible lavatories. Nancy Brown started as a volunteer, and now runs the café four days a week. She is looking forward to not struggling to carry water from distant taps, and not seeing her breath in winter, and rejoices that coach part­ies come here now when they want “a good cup of tea and a piece of cake”.

The band in the chancel strikes up with “Amazing grace” in practice for the wedding, which Mr Woodcock is conducting, and which is a joyful, rip-roaring affair. Ms Wilson, now Associate Vicar, has done the midday prayers and is sitting in con­versation with a couple of ex-offenders, part of the volunteer team.

Pat AshworthCivic partnership: the Mayor and his consort with Canon Barnes“They help with cleaning and main­­tenance and generally around the place,” she says, warmly. “They love it because people actually talk to them.” She is involved with the twice-weekly soup run that the church has been doing for an un­­broken ten years; with HMP Hull, whose inmates make a lot of the cakes for the café; and, most of all, with the steady flow of people who come into the church daily, asking for prayer or wanting to talk.

”The Christian faith, and how you treat other people, is at the heart of this church. It’s fertile ground. Some people come week after week,” she says. The clergy see the highs and lows of human experience, especially among people wresting with addic­tion and mental-health issues. There is a lot of servant ministry done on the floor of this church, Canon Barnes observes. They’ve seen people come to faith, too, and growing numbers in the congrega­tions.

The Assistant Curate, the Revd Eve Ridgeway, first came on place­ment as part of her contextual train­ing. She wanted somewhere “still on the move, and where I’d be stretched”, and loves the variety of worship and the wider vision and mission for the city. There is a rising hope and expectation of what is possible here, she suggests: “The City of Culture is about high culture in terms of arts and music, which has brought people into the city and enabled residents to see amazing things.

“But there’s also the culture of what kind of city we are, in terms of face-to-face and volunteers — the work that’s gone on in schools, for instance. The legacy is about what it’s like to live here for the people of Hull. We’ll know the fruits of that in a few years’ time.”

 

THE nave and glazed narthex are going to Pat AshworthHere beginneth: the bridal party at the Great West Doorbe stunning: there is removable seating in the central space, and beautifully restored fixed pews at the sides. Juggling building work with City of Culture events has been a nightmare, Canon Barnes acknowledges, “but we’ve just carried on, and people are wowed by the space. One thing I like about it is that we’re quite earthy and lived-in. For all this wonderful investment, we don’t want to lose that. I get quite emotional talking about it.”

News that Holy Trinity was to be a minster came in a surprise an­­­nounce­ment by the Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, when he launched the development project (News, 12 May). It was his declared gift for the City of Culture. “It’s an encouragement, because it shows we have permission to minister across the city. But it’s also a challenge to us as a hub and resource church,” Canon Barnes concludes.

“That’s what minsters were: places where people would come to work and eat and study and pray and learn — not just theology, but practical skills that they’d take out. Before the parish system, that’s how the church did its mission. In the urban areas of somewhere like Hull, ‘parish’ means less and less. We can hopefully add value to what’s already there.”

 

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