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Can commerce and worship co-exist? A way out of the red for churches

21 April 2023

Places of worship can host thriving community businesses, Pat Ashworth discovers

Plunkett Foundation

Volunteers at Grindleford community shop

Volunteers at Grindleford community shop

I VIVIDLY remember being lured inside a church in the Peak District by a tantalising sign on the roadside. It wasn’t “Jesus Saves”: it was “Artisan Bread Today”. We had come down to Grindleford village from a day’s walk above Longshaw, and couldn’t resist investigating.

And there, inside what I later learned had been a choir vestry, was a complete village shop, stacked to the rafters with all the essentials you could possibly need. There were tables and chairs outside in the churchyard, and they brought us tea out on a tray. We marvelled at the genius and warmth of it all, as we watched people drop by to chat and buy their groceries.

There is a big difference between having a stall, or even a foodbank, inside a church building, and having a full-blown, community-owned business like this one. But, as upkeep of buildings gets harder and community services decline, more places of worship are looking afresh at their space and how it might be better used to benefit church and community.

The Plunkett Foundation has been supporting communities for a century, and works with the Benefact Trust to help churches to explore their options and to kickstart businesses that could benefit the wider community. Their partnership has just been extended for a further year, giving access to free bespoke advice and grants for early feasibility studies.

In conjunction with the diocese of Hereford and the Historic Religious Buildings Alliance, it has produced a detailed guide to the considerations and challenges involved in what is the major undertaking of “managing people’s expectations about the kind of activities that can take place in a church, and better understanding how to physically adapt a building to accommodate them, as well as managing it through the ecclesiastical planning system”.

Community businesses, it says, can be anything from shops and cafés to pubs and woodlands; but, as they are run democratically by members of the community on behalf of the community, in an “inclusive and participatory way”, they also address a wide range of issues affecting today’s society. These include isolation and loneliness, mental health and well-being, employment opportunity and skills development, discrimination, and climate change.

Plunkett FoundationThe Grindleford shop sign

“One form of mission is service to others. Many Christian churches aim to serve others as an expression of faith, and this often includes activity which improves the lives of the people in their local community,” it suggests.

“Church communities should always consider where any project fits into their plan for mission, and a vision for their church. More often than not, community business and the church will have shared and complementary values.

“Historically, these spaces were used in this way over many hundreds of years, for trading, markets, and commerce; so community businesses are not new to church buildings. The important part of any project is to identify and articulate the common ground, and work from there.”

THE guide acknowledges that there are likely to be concerns in the church and the wider community about the idea of setting up a business in a place of worship. Some people may have mixed feelings about using a religious building for secular activities, especially a business, but the guide suggests practical ways of offering reassurance to both groups, principally by wide and regular consultation from a very early stage.

Any physical changes need to be sensitive to the existing heritage fabric, while also respecting the sacred space and liturgical arrangements, it emphasises, pointing to Historic England’s criteria that the work should be “based on understanding of the cultural and heritage significance of the building”, and designed to “minimise harm to the special historic, archaeological, architectural, and artistic interest of the building, its contents and setting.

“It should bring with it public benefits such as securing the long-term use of the building, which outweigh any harm to significance; and it should achieve high standards of design, craftsmanship, and materials.”

In the two key documents that have to be submitted, the Statement of Significance describes how the building has evolved over time, and when notable additions were made to the interior. The Statement of Need is the church’s — a PCC’s — opportunity to explain, justify, and rationalise the proposals to all interested parties.

The guide covers the practicalities of getting permissions for physical changes, change of use, and licences and leases as they affect the different denominations. In terms of sustainability, energy efficiency, and the environment, it invites consideration of the life expectancy of the proposed new facilities; whether materials can be sourced locally and local contractors employed; whether any existing materials can be reused or recycled.

But the guide is about people, too, and about succession planning — “Never stop inviting and encouraging new volunteers from both the church and the community to come on board. People will move away or suddenly have new responsibilities or just wish to leave, so you would always need to ensure you have a constant influx of ‘new blood’ with fresh ideas and energy.

“Within community groups there is often the challenge of managing volunteer ‘burn out’ and you may want to think about limiting the time a person can serve on a committee without at least having a break.”

YARPOLE community shop, post office, and café, located in St Leonard’s, a Grade II listed church in Herefordshire, opened in 2009, and exemplifies not only how a place of worship can meet the needs of its community, but how that enterprise can grow and flourish.

Plunkett FoundationProduce from the shop at Yarpole

When the village lost its shop and post office in 2004, they found a temporary location in a Portakabin in the pub car park. A parish plan published that year outlined the survival of the village shop and the pub as one of the priorities, and a need to modernise St Leonard’s for 21st-century use had also been identified.

A non-redeemable £10 share in the shop was bought by 328 people to kickstart the £250,000 project, and parish funding contributed £37,750. In close collaboration with the diocese, and after initially thinking along the lines of separating the secular and worship space, they evolved an integrated design that enabled both to co-exist in parts of the the nave.

Community activities were located in the west end of the church, beneath the tower, and lavatories and vestry in the south aisle. Sunday worship is integrated with the opening of the shop; so there is never a conflict of interest there.

The post office is open six mornings a week, with a full range of services on offer. The shop is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday to Friday, and on Saturday morning. If shopping is too heavy to take home, volunteers deliver it.

It employs a part-time manager, who is also the postmaster, for 18 hours a week; it is run by a committee of eight, and is staffed by 30 volunteers of all ages, including schoolchildren on work experience. The church runs the Gallery Café six days a week. Yarpole received the Queen’s Award for Voluntary service in 2011 — the first of many awards — and supports local charities from its profits.

And it is still refining the offering: now the chancel, too, is being reordered, with a view to, among other things, extending the underfloor heating in the nave, powered from an air-source pump.

A Team Vicar for the Western Parishes in the Leominster Team Ministry, the Revd Matthew Burns, said: “The main benefits are keeping vital services going for the community. The shop was open right through the pandemic, providing fresh fruit and vegetables and a community focus throughout the year, both in the café and the shop.

“People can meet and gather together, but it also means the church is an open and welcoming place for the community, in a well-maintained, warm, and well-lit building. It’s inclusive and welcoming for all.”

THE community-run stores at Broad Chalke, near Salisbury, also has a post office and a café, located in the United Reformed Church chapel. The Chapel’s Minister, the Revd Jackie Lowe, observes: “There are no larders for the elderly of Broad Chalke any more. If they run out of butter, they just pop in, pick up some more, and have a good chat.”

The village has 700 residents. The chapel congregation of four has risen to 21 as a consequence of the shop and café attractions, and the worship space on the mezzanine is a meeting place where all the local churches can come together. On Saturday afternoons, the café volunteers prepare the church for Sunday worship, and, after worship, the congregation set it up for opening again on Monday morning.

They have popular events in the café area which raise money for food vouchers to send to local families facing hard times. The knitting group meets here, too, bringing more members of the community together, leading the Plunkett Foundation to report, “The shop is deemed to have reduced isolation and loneliness felt by so many in rural communities when faced with the closure of shops and the end of bus services.”

John GilbertWork to get Holy Trinity, Amberley, ready for business

When church buildings are identified as under-used, this appears often to be the catalyst for finding solutions to longstanding frustrations in a community. The layout of the town centre in Leiston, Suffolk, had resulted in visitors’ driving to town to visit the supermarket, but because it wasn’t connected to the high street, driving straight back out again, to the detriment of local businesses.

The joint URC/Methodist church had dwindling numbers and under-used outdoor space. Its chapel and garden stood between the supermarket and high street, and the church congregation decided to create a community garden: a green space, but also a thriving hub that would become a thoroughfare, and increase the footfall to the high-street shops.

The land was owned by the church and the Co-op. Between 2021 and 2022, the newly formed Leiston Community Land Trust demolished unsightly walls, and created Church Square. It has a bandstand; bird boxes contributed by the organisation Men in Sheds; an entrance arch made by apprentices from Sizewell Power Station; and plants supplied by allotment owners. Architects and surveyors made no charge for drawing up the plans.

Church Square was East Suffolk’s High Street of the Year in 2023. On a whitewashed wall are written the words “When you have more than you need, build a larger table, not a higher wall.”

VENTURES are not limited to rural areas, although these are often where the need and the potential is greatest. The fortunes of Christ Church, Kensington, a Grade ll listed, Italian Romanesque building in a regeneration area of inner-city Liverpool, have been mixed. It closed as an Anglican church in 1975, was used for storage until 2002, and was illegally occupied for a period.

The Christian Gold House Ministry reopened it as a place of worship in 2018, with an upstairs room for worship and a bookshop below. The building needs repair and renovation, but has become a lively community hub with classes, dance and music activities, social functions, holiday clubs, and youth groups, as well as a weekly foodbank.

Now, the need is for a kitchen and a café to support the events that take place, and also to attract new customers from the area, as well as visitors. The Plunkett Foundation became involved when a community-run café, including a small bookshop, was mooted. A £5000 grant kick-started the project.

A consultation identified many users wanting somewhere for Black, Asian, and other ethnic-minority groups to gather together and feel part of things. It hopes to welcome young people and offer work experience in training as well as activities, games, and a meeting place. Pastor Samuel Sarpong commented: “This age group is one that has the most stresses in society — from their schools, their jobs, and maybe also from their families.

Plunkett FoundationVolunteers at Chalke Valley Hub, in Broad Chalke, Wiltshire

“They always need a place to take a rest or talk with friends, to express their emotions, and a relaxing place to hang out is a very important thing in their lives.” The church acknowledges that there is still a mountain to climb to restore the building to its former glory, but believes the café will contribute to that goal.

At Grindleford Community Shop, the place where my curiosity was awakened, the venture that started in 2014 is going from strength to strength. St Helen’s is one of the churches open on the Peak Pilgrimage; so it’s not just locals who use the shop. It gets daily deliveries of artisan bread from the bakery on the Welbeck Estate, and stocks local fresh produce and dairy products, including eggs from Hope Valley hens.

It is refining all the time: a joiner has recently installed two glass panels in the shop door, the original door leading to the vestry, so that it doesn’t have to be kept open in winter — thus keeping the volunteers warm, and enabling visitors to see that the shop is open.

One summed it up after a visit: “Lovely little place serving the local community and providing a tranquil place of refuge and refreshment for the weary traveller.”

Spurred on by the Church of England’s policy to encourage broader use of church buildings, and supported by Plunkett, the congregation of Holy Trinity, Amberley, in Herefordshire, are preparing in the next few weeks to open their new community hub: a shop and café behind the nave.

It is the fruit of the six years of planning that followed the closure of the village shop in 2017, and it illustrates not only the clever use of space, but how well a church can harness the talents of both its members and the wider community and bring everyone together.

Holy Trinity, a two-storey Regency Gothic building, is part Anglican, part Methodist, something that the Rector of Minchinhampton with Box and Amberley, Canon Howard Gilbert, considers to be a factor in what he describes as its “go-ahead, led-by-committee attitude”.

The Revd John Spiers has been NSM at Amberley since 2017, arriving a week after the village shop closed down. A former IT project manager, he was well placed to spearhead the building project, and Canon Gilbert credits him, in particular, with being “very good at having meetings with people who weren’t sure about it and wanted to talk it through”.

An extension to the balcony, below which a narrow corridor was situated, has enabled the corridor to be broadened to give 500 sq. ft of space to accommodate the shop and post office. It can also accommodate a kitchen and a servery into the church. The choir has moved into the clergy vestry, now re-sited on the raised balcony, along with a large meeting space and more seating.

It helped, Mr Spiers said, that the first person who chaired the committee had been the director of a specialist grade-listed building company, which meant that the church could subcontract rather than go to a main contractor, and better afford the work. It had always wanted to rationalise its space to make everything accessible, and the arrangement includes new, accessible lavatories.

“The really important thing is that it benefits society,” he said. “For me, it’s about the ministry of welcome: it is about saying, ‘This is your church.’ Not the congregation’s; the congregation is a part of our community.

“I’ve always [believed in the] parish priest having the cure of souls for the whole parish. Old-fashioned or not, this is what being a parish priest is all about. It’s taken us six years. The congregation have accepted that the shop, the café, the toilets, are on behalf of the community of which they recognise they are a part.”

Amberley has a population of about 1000, some of whom have lived here for 40 years and more, but young professionals have moved in, too, and the school — which walks en masse to the church every Monday morning — is thriving. “Church, school, pub, rectory. . . It might sound like something out of Miss Marple,” Mr Spiers said, “but it’s a really lovely place.”

PROOF BAKERY, a church kitchen in Coventry, was forced to close after storms in 2021, which destroyed the electrical supply to the Portakabins where it was sited. It remains an example of what can be done, however: a potential model for others, perhaps, to explore.

Plunkett FoundationYarpole Post Office and Stores inside the church

An artisan bakery, it was set up at St Catherine’s, Stoke Aldemoor, a church that already had kitchen space. That caught the eye of Chernise Neo, who wanted to develop her enthusiasm for baking into a viable community business, and saw an opportunity in a building that was busy on Sundays but had facilities that could be made available on weekdays.

It needed no shop front, just space for baking, and St Catherine’s was happy to support the new venture, which trained and employed refugee women. “I think it would have been incredibly unlikely that we could have started when we did without the church. It would have set us back nine to 12 months,” Ms Neo said at the time of setting up the business in 2018.

Compromises were needed, she acknowledged: the bakery needed to be flexible enough to work around the needs of others who also relied on the church kitchens. Ms Neo had a monthly meeting with the Vicar, the Revd Buff Forbes Stone, who “represents the church congregation to us to make sure that we are on the same page and that everyone feels they are listened to”.

Ms Neo’s advice to others considering locating a business in a place of worship is “to be open, keep a constant conversation. Make sure you are keeping in touch — you need to be more proactive than you would with a landlord who isn’t regularly using the building.”

After the the electrical supply failed, there were plans to relocate the business, but, by then, the women it employed had successfully moved on to other jobs. “But it did fulfil its aims for the time — which were empowering refugee women into employment, skills, and integration into the community,” she said. “It did all of these.”


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