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DACs can help — not hinder — mission

02 June 2023

Church interiors can be adapted for a range of uses while preserving architectural integrity, argues Paul W. Thomas

A COMMON theme in my 12 years as an archdeacon has been negativity towards the diocesan advisory committee (DAC). Some PCCs and clergy have seen its work as an unwelcome interference and a serious hindrance to the mission of the church. They have wanted to introduce kitchen or lavatory facilities, open up new spaces for children’s work, or provide comfortable seating, instead of Victorian pews — and the great obstacle has not been the local community, or a lack of finance, but the DAC. It was, one critic said, “the damnedest of all committees”!

The DAC works with the Chancellor of the diocese (who has the final say) to ensure that any changes to church buildings or in churchyards conform to the statutory requirements of ecclesiastical jurisdiction. Faculties and List B works, to name but two, are forms of permission that must be sought if work affecting the aesthetics and historical provenance of a building or its curtilage are to proceed.

If the project is a major one — and if, added to that, it is in a Grade I or II Listed building — then it will become a subject of careful deliberation by the DAC. What is the overall impact of the change? Does it clash with the architectural “logic” of the building? Would it be better located in another part of the building? Would alteration of certain features improve its appearance and allow it to blend better with its surroundings? The architects who sit on the committee bring their expertise and experience to bear on such questions. But the discussion has a wider aspect, too.

Parishes submit two papers — a Statement of Significance and a Statement of Need — to help the committee to understand the contemporary aspirations of the congregation, to move from “what” and “how” to “why”; and archdeacons usually contribute an important perspective to that part of the meeting.

As the committee decides whether to recommend the proposal to the Chancellor, it often requests more information from the parish, or offers suggestions of certain tweaks to the draft designs. When these exchanges happen more than once, parishes, keen to press ahead with their new vision for the building, begin to feel hampered and harassed. So, while acknowledging the unavoidable legal necessities of some of these processes, is the DAC justified in its approach?

THE Church Buildings Review Group report, published in 2015, stated that “adaptation is more important than preservation.” The Taylor report of 2018 emphasised the need for churches to become hubs able to host a multiplicity of activities: communal, cultural, commercial, and civic. To do this successfully, the interiors of churches often need reorganising in a radical way.

And there is the rub. The Church of England is responsible for about 45 per cent of Grade I listed buildings. Overall, 78 per cent of its 15,700 churches are listed. Inevitably, this creates a tension between preservation and propagation, between respecting past generations and reaching the present one. Should the buildings shape our mission, or should our mission shape them?

I think that the answer is “Both.” Buildings need to provide certain facilities and possess a certain flexibility, if we are to use them as a resource for imaginative work with a wide range of groups. In keeping with the Jewish concept of zimsum, which teaches that God “contracts” God’s Being to make space for creation, so the congregation needs to contract its presence in the church building to allow others to occupy it, but without loss of continuity or identity.

This will mean sacrificing some features that our forebears saw as important, while still allowing buildings to speak their own language about God. The art is not to throw out the baby with the bathwater: now must not overwhelm then; the sacred must not be eclipsed by the secular.

HERE is an example of how this can be achieved. A fully screened, spacious chapel in the north-west aisle of a Georgian town church was given a new purpose. Soundproofing, the introduction of stackable chairs and tables instead of pews, the retention of the wall cross, but not of the altar or its platform, and the provision of 20 power-points and a refreshment bar marked the first stage. The transfer of the font to the south-west corner freed the entrance to the church for wheelchair and pushchair access.

Result: breakfasts for the homeless, an internet café, self-defence training sessions for nurses, and evening classes of all sorts — but without interruption to the architectural integrity of the church.

The story that we tell as Christians centres on the incarnation, and affirms that the material can both contain and convey the spiritual. Stone, glass, ceramics, wood, colour, shape, shadow, and space can all be powerful reminders of God. Churches can act as both serious and joyous places on earth touching the whole spectrum of human emotion, which they have absorbed into the mercy of their silence.

As such, a church is in itself an intrinsic part of our mission: the stones cry out the good news of divine love, too. We cannot afford to lose that powerful dimension of our outreach. The DAC, by taking a longer view, tries to make sure that we do not. Its main commitment is to helping us to capitalise on a rich resource for mission which has stood the test of time, and will go on doing so long into the future.

The Ven. Paul W. Thomas is the Archdeacon of Salop in the diocese of Lichfield.

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