CHURCH lavatories were once a rarity, especially in rural areas. In expectation of having to hang on, parishioners were inclined to drink just one cup of tea before they left home, and to hope the sermon would not go on too long.
An ancient urinal at St James’s, Westhead, in Liverpool, is testament to the fact that provision was, perhaps, always better for men. The cast-iron urinal from Walter Macfarlane Company’s Saracen Foundry was of the “rare, single-occupancy types. There’s even been a suggestion that it should be listed in its own right,” the diocesan heritage officer, Ian Simpson, says. “You’ll be relieved to hear that inside the church there are some much more acceptable and accessible modern facilities.”
Surveys have found that having at least one lavatory in a church increases its potential for welcoming visitors and the wider community into the building, besides being a useful facility for worshippers. When the broadcaster Huw Edwards was vice-president of the National Churches Trust, in 2014, he waxed lyrical about “London’s finest historic toilets” in the Wesley Chapel, and lamented Church of England statistics that showed that only half its 16,000 churches had functioning conveniences.
That figure is continuously improving. The latest statistics — based on 12,258 single-church responses — reveal that 64 per cent of churches now have a lavatory. Data from A Church Near You showed that 8440 of its 16,178 venues had one, and the Church Buildings team reports that almost every proposal they receive is for an accessible lavatory. They describe the occasions when these cannot fit in the building or in an extension as “very rare”.
LAVATORIES — like pews — can cause controversy. Objections to the introduction of two lavatories as part of a reordering at St Mary the Virgin, Wotton-under-Edge, earlier this year, included the assertion that “lavatories in the church are a current fad”, that they “attract children”, and that the flushing of lavatories during a service would be a disturbance and a distraction.
ST JOHN’S, FARSLEYThe cake created for the opening of the Changing Places lavatory at St John’s, Farsley
When the matter came to a consistory court, the Deputy Chancellor granted the faculty, ruling that the present arrangements — people had to go outside the church and across to the parish room — were inadequate. “Access during bad weather, outside daylight hours, by those with limited mobility or by children, is clearly unsatisfactory if the church is to pursue its aims,” she ruled.
Valiant campaigners at the ancient country church St Nicholas’s, Hail Weston, in Ely diocese, have overcome opposition from Historic England and others to a proposal for updating facilities that included a disabled lavatory in the church. With extremely limited options for where this could be sited, the architect proposed moving an unused Victorian porch from the south side of the church and placing it over the north door, the main entrance — thus freeing a site for a lavatory and a tiny kitchen on the former porch site.
“The heartening thing that kept us going was that, even though few of them were actually regular churchgoers, our local community was amazing,” a spokesperson for the St Nicholas Church Restoration Group says.
Within six days of the plans being rejected, the Council had received 120 letters of support. “All our restoration plans hinged on this critical phase of making the church fit for purpose in the 21st century.” The planning committee finally found in its favour.”
With the help of a legacy, a lavatory has just been installed at St John the Baptist, Smalley, near Derby, a church that dates largely from the 18th century. Congregations and visitors always had recourse to the church-hall lavatories in the past.
The lavatory has been installed in a small, existing storage building. “It’s such a boon. It’s extremely superior, and everybody wants one,” says Jan Walker, a churchwarden who has been on the PCC for more than 50 years.
THEY do not have a lavatory or a kitchen at the tiny medieval church All Saints’, Ulting, near Chelmsford. But, out of love for his “wonderful church family”, the Revd Derek Clark-Mayers, NSM of Hatfield Peverel with Ulting, has converted a showground cabin into a mobile unit that incorporates both (News, 27 April).
Twice a month, on Sundays, he attaches the 23-foot-long unit to his farm tractor, and drives it to Ulting. The Bishop of Chelmsford, the Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell, blessed the facility on its inauguration. It was a first for him; but the media like nothing better than a bishop blessing a lavatory — and the puns that inevitably go with it.
The Suffragan Bishop of Tewkesbury, the Rt Revd Robert Springett, was called on to bless the first eco-lavatory in the diocese of Gloucester, opened last year, at St John’s, Elkstone. At 1000 feet above sea level, it was the highest church in the Cotswolds. The huge expense of connecting to mains water and sewerage in these beautiful and very rural areas is one factor that is leading churches to consider installing waterless lavatories.
But economic factors are not the only motivators. Shrinking the Footprint has extended its energy-reducing campaign to include biodiversity and water issues, and Exeter diocese is leading the way in the use of composting lavatories. Its diocesan environmental officer, Martyn Goss, identifies concern over water consumption as another weighty consideration, together with public expectation that a church will have a lavatory of some kind, even if there is no mains water.
Gravity in composting lavatories takes away the liquids, and the solids break down naturally. There is little or no odour, and no health hazard; they do not freeze in winter; there are no problems with drains; and there is the long-term benefit from the richness of nutrients in the compost. They are estimated to be ten times cheaper than installing a water system. In Devon, they have proved popular with walkers on the coastal path: one installed in St Anne’s Chapel, Saunton, draws walkers in increasing numbers to explore the church.
And, together with the church congregation and those attending special events, passing walkers at Escot, in east Devon, have welcomed the eco-friendly timber-and-straw Treebog lavatory at St Philip and St James, Escot. Made by the local estate, it capitalised on a natural soakaway, and has been there for almost a decade. Standing as it does in a copse just outside the perimeter of the church, its only drawback is its inaccessibility to wheelchairs.
ST JOHN’S, FARSLEYThe Changing Places lavatory at St John’s, FarsleyOF THE 54 churches awarded grants in the latest round from the National Churches Trust, many are considering the provision of kitchens and lavatories.
It is, perhaps, St John’s, Farsley, on the outskirts of Leeds, that has the biggest vision. It is the first in the C of E to install a Changing Places lavatory, accessible 24 hours a day to anyone with a RADAR key (News, 7 July 2017). This kind of lavatory is for disabled people who need extra space and equipment to use it safely and comfortably, and incorporates facilities such as height-adjustable, adult-sized changing beds, and hoist systems.
The Vicar of St John’s, the Revd Paul Tudge, and his wife, Rosie, have a severely disabled son who has these facilities in his bedroom at home. When the church was considering installing a disabled-access lavatory, it took the bold decision to “go the extra 1000 miles”, as Mrs Tudge describes it, and capitalise on the fact that the vestry had an outside door, enabling 24-hour access.
The area is undergoing regeneration: cafés and restaurants are appearing — and even a pop-up theatre. “Feedback from users of the loo is: thank goodness they can visit here for a night out, and not have to go into the centre, where the loos shut at 8 p.m.,” she says. “And, when we did the research and looked into all those with disabilities who might use the space, we felt we ought to go for the whole spec and put in a shower. Every winter, for a fortnight, we take in homeless asylum-seekers, who can’t believe they can have a hot shower here.”
It is, Mrs Tudge acknowledges, “a big commitment, and a more expensive option. But we found that people giving out grants are deeply interested if you are going to go these extra miles. They are beginning to understand what this is. You’re not just tipping your cap to disability, but going the whole way. . .
“If you’re thinking about what service you could do in the community, don’t put in an ordinary disabled loo.
“Come on, Church of England. Let’s lead the field in this.”