IT WAS an ordinary Saturday night in Chester. Among the pubbers, clubbers, and theatregoers thronging the streets of this ancient Roman city, my fellow Street Pastors and I were looking to take a midnight break.
Nearing St Peter’s, next to the historic Chester Cross, we were approached by a group of young women dressed up for a night out. They were not seeking first aid, or directions back to their hotel, but pointing in the direction of the church and seeking our opinion.
“Do you know about Night Church? Are you anything to do with it? We went in there a month ago, and it was the most wonderful place you could imagine. They were so friendly to us, and we had the chance to light a candle and remember someone. We all started to shed a tear.”
Night Church takes place on alternate Saturday nights. Many passers-by get chatting to the volunteers on the door, and some will be brave enough to cross the threshold of the church building, perhaps for the first time. Inside, they will find the offer of free refreshments, the sound of contemplative live worship, and the opportunity to chat with someone and share their worries, or even ask for prayer if they wish.
Night Church acts as a sanctuary: a safe place to slow down, take stock, and reflect. It can make a significant difference. On one occasion recently, an individual who stayed until 2.30 a.m. left saying that they were going to go home and get on with the rest of their life — rather than follow their original plan to jump from a bridge into the River Dee.
Stories featured in an information leaflet include that of a young woman who was moved to tears after a volunteer prayed for her upcoming marriage; and a young man battling guilt after cheating on his girlfriend, who was blown away after a volunteer introduced him to St Paul’s sentiments in Romans 7.9.
ST PETER’S, CHESTERBeacon: St Peter’s, Chester, open for Night Church
Louise Anison, a member of the congregation of St Peter’s, and the Night Church leader, reports that, since opening in December 2010, the project has received about 15,000 visitors, and now has 100 to 150 each night. An estimated 800 “meaningful conversations” take place every year in front of the building.
“Our visitors seldom plan on coming to church on a night out,” she explains. “They can be confused about why St Peter’s is open. Some light a candle, or have coffee. Others are wrestling with the deep questions of life. Many tell us that Night Church was the best part of their evening.
“We welcome people of all faiths and none — mostly none. We are seed-sowers: participants in God’s mission, trusting that he has planned our visitors’ next step, knowing we are not likely to see it.”
WHY aren’t more churches open at night? Some rural churches still keep their doors open around the clock; but the majority of church buildings, of all denominations, are closed for the majority of time, for fear of vandalism, arson, or theft. It is something that Ecclesiastical Insurance is trying to address, working with the C of E’s Cathedral and Church Buildings Council to advise churches on how to help “unlock their visitor potential”.
It is a far cry from centuries past, when public reverence protected places of worship from harm. Indeed, from the fourth until the 17th century, churches stayed open as places of refuge. Even now, on parts of the continent, Roman Catholic churches are known to remain open overnight for anyone who wishes to enter them. In Britain, where are the sacred places in which we can find sanctuary when our senses and our emotions are being “assaulted”, late at night?
At St Peter’s, Night Church is possible because of ecumenical working, staffed by volunteers from 13 different congregations, many of them Anglican.
“Volunteers quickly develop a natural way of talking about Jesus to people that they might not have spoken to outside of Night Church,” Ms Anison reports. “This equips them with stories that inspire other people to share, too, spilling out into the rest of their lives. It also facilitates volunteers to be much more able to speak to different types of people. It certainly helps develop personal listening skills.”
Racegoers, Welsh hen-parties, and night-shift workers are among those who come through the doors. On an average night, a dedicated prayer team will also be meeting, in a side room, out of sight and covering the evening’s proceedings in prayer throughout the night, besides praying for the safety and well-being of all those out in the city centre at that time, including door staff, taxi drivers, and the emergency services.
OTHER churches are beginning to respond to footfall after dark. For the past two winters, Lichfield and Truro cathedrals offered late-night Christmas shopping, opening their own restaurants and shops late, setting up charity stalls and inviting local music groups to entice visitors.
On the last Friday of every month, Newcastle Cathedral offers Night Church. “Newcastle is the clubbing capital of England,” Canon Clare MacLaren says. “The streets that surround our city-centre cathedral are full of pubs, bars, and strip clubs which come to life after dark, and are far, far busier and noisier at night time than in the middle of the working day.
ST PETER’S, CHESTEROn standby: the intercession team at St Peter’s, Chester, open for Night Church
“Weekends can be quite a sight, especially if it’s pre-Christmas, or Newcastle United are playing at home — and all year round with hen and stag parties. We welcome tourists wandering into the cathedral before or after their evening meal. We also provide a hot drink and toast for anyone who needs warming up, and usually a few of our homeless friends come in for a chat.”
The cathedral offers an “alternative reality to the surface jollity all around: a place of radical quiet, where prayer is valid”, she says. “I have noticed, particularly, how many men of all ages come in, who seem to be carrying enormous burdens of grief or anger. [On] Good Friday 2017, one man spent an hour raging at God, at the foot of the cross, at the death, in a car crash, of his younger brother.
“Speaking with such people is hugely challenging to us, as Christians. How do we explain the trust we have in God, in all the suffering of our world, without sounding trite or banal? We never know who we’re going to meet; so we just have to pray that the Holy Spirit will give us the words.”
Since September, Night Church has been starting 30 minutes earlier, to offer “Liquid Worship” to regulars, who have been asking for more spirituality. The cathedral has also participated annually in “Late Shows”, where various venues in the city open late, enabling hundreds of people to walk from one exhibition or installation to another.
Used as a base by Street Pastors, the cathedral also offers Safe Haven, described by Canon John Sinclair, the Diocesan Adviser for Local Evangelism, as “simply a space where anyone who is in trouble during the night can come for medical help or support”.
He explains: “There is usually at least one ambulance, and police presence. The police officers often come into Night Church for a brew — or to use the toilets. When the security levels were particularly high, immediately after the Manchester Arena bombing, it was quite unsettling having fully armed police officers wander in. We wondered, half joking, if we ought to have asked them to leave their guns by the door— but didn’t think that leaving loaded weapons lying around in the Toon on a Friday night would be a very sensible idea.”
IN RECENT winters, many churches have opened their doors to the homeless overnight. Housing Justice reports that nearly 3000 people used night shelters last winter: a 53-per-cent rise on the numbers using them the previous winter, and double the number in 2012 (News, 15 December). Southend-on-Sea has seven different churches taking turns, one evening per week, from December to February.
Opening church premises specifically to provide a roof over someone’s head is a challenge, as the co-ordinator, John Barber, explains. “The one I manage has no place to have private conversation and for dealing with altercations and upsets among guests; no suitable place for dogs to stay; and no extra space to go much beyond the 20 ‘sleepers’ we say we can serve. As for segregating the sexes, we can’t, and men and women sleep in the same hall.
“All this needs to be managed carefully, and is, and requires volunteers to give up their time to make it happen, which isn’t as easy as it sounds. Even for churches that have extra room and modern design, this is a challenge.”
Among the support on offer to churches is that provided by Housing Justice, which has produced a toolkit, “Shelter in a Pack”.
STATISTICS also suggest that evensong, particularly in cathedrals, may be enjoying a revival. The 2016 Cathedral Statistics report from Church House noted that midweek attendance accounted for almost all of the increase in attendance over the past decade: a rise of 56 per cent since 2006, among adults. The launch of a website (choralevensong.org) enabling people to search for choral evensong is among the attempts to capture this interest (News, 9 October 2015). On the other side of night, churches are offering early-morning services, to give night workers and commuters the opportunity to gather. St Stephen Walbrook, in London, offers “Start: Stop” from 7.30 a.m. until 9.30 a.m. every Tuesday, offering ten minutes of reflection, stillness, and space every 15 minutes.
“Because of the pressures working people are under, it is brief,” the Priest-in-Charge, the Revd Jonathan Evens, says. “We have silence, meditation, responsive prayer, a Bible reading, and a blessing, lasting no more than ten minutes. The meditation is work-related, to assist the well-being of workers in stressful circumstances.”
It has helped to develop a new congregation at St Stephen’s, mainly among people with little previous contact with the Church.
The Archdeacon of London, the Ven. Luke Miller, reports that the diocese of London is “currently exploring ways in which we could grow our ministry, the better to support night-time London”.
Once again, churches are realising that their old, static assets are perhaps among their best resources. It is a risk, but if we are willing to have them open all hours, and have the volunteers in place to make them work, we can fulfil a vision, and meet a need.
John Cheek broadcasts regularly on Flame Christian and Community Radio.