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God’s house can be accessible and beautiful

24 August 2018

Considering the needs of disabled people does not mean ignoring a church’s aesthetics, says David Lucas

THE Archbishop of Canterbury said last month that, when it came to weighing up the balance between accessibility and heritage, the former should trump the latter. He told a conference on disability and the Church of England at Lambeth Palace that he would “like legislation put through Parliament that puts disabilities above heritage”, to improve accessibility (News, 20 July).

Archbishop Welby has done much to push issues of disability further up the agenda, and has been very supportive of Disability and Jesus, the organisation that I co-founded with the Revd Bill Braviner and the Revd Katie Tupling, which works to improve access and inclusion for disabled people in the life of the Church. I am a blind man, an access auditor, a guide-dog owner, a writer, a musician, and I consider myself a creative.

I wonder, however, if, rather than see accessibility and heritage in opposition, we need to persuade all parties involved in church architecture that it is indeed possible to have architecture that is beautiful and maintains its historical integrity while it can also function well as an accessible space. This does not need to detract from the beauty and awe of the building.

THERE are approximately 12,600 parishes in the C of E, with about 16,000 church buildings in total — this includes parish churches, chapels of ease, 42 cathedrals, and some closed churches still in the care of the dioceses. Of the churches, 12,267 are listed buildings; in fact, 45 per cent of all of England’s Grade I listed buildings are C of E churches or cathedrals.

Carrying out works to these buildings is often complex and time-consuming, and can be daunting to the volunteers and non-experts who find themselves managing fabric projects. Any one project could — and often does — involve several statutory bodies and amenity societies, as well as the diocesan advisory committee, local heritage groups, and, for external changes, the local planning authority.

Accessibility does not need to be seen as another headache in an already complex process, nor as a set of requirements incompatible with the concerns of heritage. Accessibility, tackled well, can and will enhance a project.

Many examples can be found online, such as the altar steps at Notre-Dame and the accessible entrance to St Martin-in-the-Fields, in London. They are both highly functional — they provide access for people with disabilities — but they are also compatible with the architecture: both beautiful and, indeed, complementary.

As I said, I’m an access auditor and a creative, a baby-boomer who was once sighted. Art, good design, and a sense of the aesthetic are important to me. I’ve grown up visiting art galleries, reading literature, and having music packaged in beautiful record sleeves. Even now, with only 20-per-cent vision, these things are still important to me.

I DO not want to see our great cathedrals covered in hi-vis yellow markers and clunky home-made wooden ramps. In the secular world I work in this field and know that there are accessible solutions that do not simply put function over form; accessible features can and, indeed, should be made beautiful. We are disabled people, but we have not had some kind of cultural bypass: we appreciate beauty and good design — it matters just as much to us as to anyone.

Talk to us. As well as the big-money projects, such as removing steps and relaying floors, which are daunting and costly, there are simple wins, such as adopting a “clear-print” policy on signage (these can be downloaded for free at disabilityandjesus.org.uk).

Often, churches look at the size, cost, and rules on the preservation of historic buildings and simply take fright; they are frozen into inaction. This is usually not about a lack of good will, but more to do with a fear of the unknown.

There are people out there ready, willing, and able to help; call on us, and we can connect you with them. We believe that making our buildings as accessible as possible, and yet retaining a sense of awe and wonder, is not only achievable, but should be a spiritual imperative.

David Lucas is an access auditor and low-vision awareness trainer. He is a co-founder of Disability and Jesus. disabilityandjesus.org.uk

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