Advice for modernising a historic church

Advice on modernising a historic church

Advice for modernising a historic church

In this blog, Fr Andrew Martlew, Vicar of Womersley, shares his experiences of adding modern facilities to a traditional church building, and gives tips for managing a project aimed at delivering fit-for-purpose facilities to enable community engagement.

My text is from that wise man, Bob the Builder who said, “Yes, we can”. And there’s a word about builders in the ‘pearls of project planning wisdom’ I’ll impart here.

In the past the word from our church, St Martin’s in Womersley, North Yorkshire, was “No”.

Can we bring Year 6? Can we have a concert? Or host a talk about the fascinating Victorian history of the village? Of course what we actually said was, “Yes… but we don’t have a lavatory”, which amounted to the same thing.

We did once host the pre-school Nativity – with potties. Just once. And then we met young parents who live in our small village who’d never set foot in the church. They were amazed by it, and by the welcome they got.

So it seemed a good idea to get more people into church more often. Not (necessarily) to convert them into regular churchgoers, but at the very least to allow more people to delight in the extraordinary building that we have inherited.

So, with the help of funding from many generous church grant providers like Benefact Trust, we set out to solve our problems in a manner that was fitting for a church interior designed by Mr G. F. Bodley - one of the foremost architects of the Victorian Gothic Revival.

We think that our architects, Knox McConnell of Saltaire, have succeeded. And the reason we’re so confident? Nobody notices the new facilities.  They look as though they’ve always been there. Even the regulars have trouble remembering the precipitous ramp that got you into church – unless you fell off it.

We can certainly say that the new facilities work. And there’s now a need to encourage people to go home after Mass on a Sunday morning…

So what pearls of wisdom for a church building project of this kind can we pass on…

  • Consult every outside body you can think of – and then ask the people who give permission for your work who they think you should ask. If you do the latter at the very beginning of the process (we almost did), you’ll save time and get good advice (which you may wish to give cogent reasons for not taking!)
  • Consult within your own community. Sounds obvious, but it isn’t. Particularly when you encounter the vocal minority who think what you’re proposing is sacrilege. We benefited enormously from this opposition and generated a scheme to satisfy them, which is actually much better than we would have achieved with our original plan – and not dramatically more expensive.
  • Choose your builder carefully. This is a really important relationship and picking the right one is key. It’s a good idea to get a list of a builder’s last three contracts in churches and make some phone calls. OR use someone you know already!
  • Be cautious if using professional fundraisers, particularly if they are taking on your scheme alongside other large projects. Using a fundraiser can be a good way to take the pressure off a stretched parish team but it can also be a waste of money, so much like your builder, do your research. Depending on the scale and complexity of your project, you may not need one, and that does enable crucial funds to be directed elsewhere.

Of course there’s no guarantee that our new kitchen, level access and lavatory will ‘convert’ our village. Nor that we can host all the events that the recently-closed Village Hall used to – although St Martin’s would be a wonderful venue for “Murder in the Cathedral”! But what we can guarantee is that the famous St Martin’s coffee mornings and afternoon teas will be much easier to host – and wash up after.

If you’re planning a similar project, I suspect you’ll be surprised at the depth of feeling your community has for its local church building, regardless of their faith, and that offers an opportunity that outweighs the challenges.

Now, we’re proud to be able to say “Yes, we can” to anyone who wants to come to church – for whatever reason.

Which is why we called the project “You’re welcome”.

Photo credit: Paul White Photography

Fr Andrew Martlew

Fr Andrew Martlew

Vicar of Womersley

So it seemed a good idea to get more people into church more often. Not (necessarily) to convert them into regular churchgoers, but at the very least to allow more people to delight in the extraordinary building that we have inherited.
Fr Andrew Martlew

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