AS THE mercury dropped well below zero this week, thoughts turned to how to keep churches warm — and how to help others to stave off the effects of the low temperatures.
Heating cathedrals and larger churches is a costly business. The Dean and Chapter of Peterborough Cathedral, for example, spends £1000 a week on fuel from October until the end of April. The Vice-Dean, the Very Revd Tim Alban Jones, said on Tuesday: “When it’s this cold outside, it still feels glacial inside.”
Many churches are turning to new green forms of heating. Five years ago, ground-source heat pumps, which use natural energy stored in the earth, were installed at Manchester Cathedral. These replaced a 40-year-old system that had flooded the cathedral three times and produced only 60 per cent of the expected temperature (News, 21 December 2012).
Perversely, one small Victorian church in Co. Durham, in which the congregation had shivered for years, found its new biomass system too hot. “It started affecting the organ and some of the wood fittings,” said Greta Carter, one of the churchwardens of St Michael and All Angels’, Barningham, near Richmond. “But it’s been adjusted now.”
The heat comes from a wood-pellet-fuelled boiler that also serves neighbouring properties. There were no upfront costs: the annual £2000 bill includes repayments for the installation.
“Before, it was a real fridge,” Mrs Carter said, “but now, it really is amazing how warm it is. It’s on all the time, and has boosted the number of events we can have there; we don’t have to pay [to hire] the village hall.”
Jason BrayWinter garments left outside St Giles’s, Wrexham
This week, St Peter’s in the centre of Plymouth used its 24/7 heating system to help the community. “After we heard the weather forecast last Sunday, we decided that, as the church is used daily, and heated, we may as well advertise the fact that the church is open for anybody who wants to come in and get warm,” the Priest-in-Charge, the Revd David Way, said.
“This is an area of high deprivation. But it wasn’t just for homeless: it was for people who might be having trouble paying to heat their homes, or just passing by. The heating is a cost for the parish, but it’s already budgeted for.”
At the largest church in Wales, St Giles’s, Wrexham, five per cent of the annual budget is spent on keeping the heating on all year round. This week, an anonymous parishioner has left hats and scarves on a bench in the churchyard.
“Cold weather often brings out the best in a community, and this is an example of someone from Wrexham showing they care,” the Vicar of St Giles’s, the Revd Dr. Jason Bray, said. “Over the last few days, the church which is open, heated and lit all day every day has seen an increase in all sorts of people sheltering from the cold, so when they say they don't have a scarf or a hat, we can point them in the right direction. We also keep a box of spare clothes in the church too for those in need.”
The crypt beneath St George’s in central Leeds has been a winter refuge for the homeless for 87 years. This winter, its manager, Andrew Omond, has noticed a sharp rise in those seeking a bed and a hot meal.
“We are getting more people who are suffering the effects of the cold weather,” he said on Wednesday. “We have a policy that, when the temperature drops below zero, we open our doors to anyone and everyone, even those who are violent or permanently intoxicated whom we wouldn’t normally let in because of the risks to our own people. We just take on extra staff to manage the extra risk. The numbers are up by around ten per cent.”
The homelessness charity St George’s Crypt helps about 1500 individuals a year, and also works with outreach groups to target those determined to stay on the streets whatever the weather. “We can offer all the services under the sun, but if people don’t want them, what can we do? We try to highlight where they are, so we can keep an eye on them and make sure they know there is a bed and a hot meal here.”
St Peter’s, Hereford, offers a similar service during the winter: volunteers support paid night-wardens, and offer overnight accommodation to rough sleepers. The shelter’s co-ordinator, Andy Butterfill, and his wife, Jill, first became involved seven years ago when they helped two homeless people. “It gave me an understanding of the situation people can sometimes find themselves in,” he said. The shelter offers support from housing officers and the Samaritans.
“We want to see people in this sort of need having a better life. It’s not just about finding permanent accommodation, but about helping people to improve their lives in a wider sense, in whatever way they are able to. We do this because everyone is precious in God’s sight, and we are called to proclaim that.”