Our Making It Easier training day on 27th February looks at ways to help you run your parish well.
In our diocese we have both beautiful buildings and tremendous challenges.
We need to balance the mission of our churches with the heritage of owning some of the most beautiful properties in the region.
We spoke to Ian Simpson, Heritage Officer at St James’ House, for an insight into his expertise and his workshops for the Making It Easier day.
Whether your church is listed or not, there's something here for you.
Q. What would you say are the greatest challenges that our churches are facing?
A. There is a feeling that our buildings are a burden, and they’re not – they’re a magnificent legacy from previous generations, if we can make that change in mindset – here we have a magnificent advertisement for the Christian faith. It speaks 24/7 of the Gospel, it is here when we are not, but we have to keep our buildings in good order to do that. If a building looks like it’s falling down, and derelict, and it’s never open, then that speaks ill of the faith.
Q. What can our PCCs do to get the best out of their buildings?
A. The main one is just to get it open! I’m a great believer that these are public buildings; they belong to the parishes for which they were built. The people from those parishes need to be able to re-engage with them – if the church is open, people will come in and pray, or light a candle, even if they don’t attend regular worship. This is a whole new congregation that’s just waiting to be invited in. The Churches Visitor and Tourism Association reckons that a church that’s open, on average, will receive between 700 and 4000 visitors a year. That’s the kind of congregation that most churches can only dream of! It’s not just about our Grade 1 and 2* listed churches – it’s also about our Grade 2 churches, and we’ve got some very good unlisted churches that are worth seeing as well.
Q. What are your workshop themes, and why did you choose these areas?
A. Welcoming visitors and tourists is an absolutely vital part of the church’s ministry. Anyone who uses the church outside the hours of regular worship is a visitor. Keeping churches open is so important, and that’s why I’ve chosen to do not just one, but two workshops on that subject – a basic introduction so people know why they need to keep their churches open, and a follow-up on improving the visitor experience so people will come back, they will get enthusiastic about the faith, and they might even donate or get involved in the maintenance and care of the church.
In the afternoon I’m offering a session on ‘making the most of your stained glass windows’ – They’re taken for granted – people don’t realise how complex they are, and how they can suffer damage and deteriorate over time. I want to show people how to spot that and deal with it, and I also want to show them how to research the history of their stained glass windows so they can showcase that for visitors.
My final workshop is on lighting churches with LEDs – it’s a response to the huge cost and effort of lighting churches, and changing bulbs, often with safety risks at great height. LEDs are energy efficient, they last a long time, which means your church is brighter, it looks much better, it will be cheaper and safer. I’ll demonstrate different types for people to see for themselves.
Q. What can PCC members expect from your workshops?
A. I aim to keep the workshops as fun as possible. Don’t come expecting to hear a really dull lecture! I show lots of real life examples, and keep a very practical focus.
Q. What’s the simplest step a PCC can take? The most radical step?
A. The simplest step is to open the doors of the buildings and let people come in – and it’s the most radical step too! A lot of people say ‘We can’t do that; the insurance company won’t like it.’ Actually insurance companies encourage you to do that – a building that looks like it’s well used and looks like it’s cared for is less likely to attract thieves than one that looks derelict.
Q. Why is it important that churches take buildings and heritage seriously?
A. A lot of these buildings are so deeply tied in with the history of our communities. They’re the legacy of our ancestors, and we need to pass them on to future generations, and ensure they can understand and care for them. So many of our churches have been places of worship for centuries, even if the current building is more modern. That continuity is incredibly important. These are great attractions for people – done well, churches can get a lot of people in, do a lot of witness, a lot of mission.
Q. Is there a danger of being focused more on gutters than on God?
A. It’s very difficult to meditate on God and the wonders of creation and the holy mysteries when there’s water dripping through the ceiling down your neck! If we don’t maintain our buildings, we’re potentially putting people in danger. Maintaining a home for an active Christian community is in itself an act of service and an act of witness to God. I wouldn’t say it’s one or the other.
How can you help?
A. I run maintenance courses throughout the year – the next one will be in April in Wigan, details to follow in the bulletin. I am happy to come out and talk to PCCs, DCCs, Deanery Synods, about keeping churches open, maintaining churches, looking for grant funding. And I’m not just here for people with listed buildings – a lot of the unlisted churches have a lot of potential to be heritage churches in the future. If I can help people expand the use of their buildings or help to care for them, they should feel free to give me a shout!