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by sarahb last modified 26/06/2018 10:10 AM

Same building; different meaning

by sarahb last modified 26/06/2018 10:10 AM
Same building; different meaning

June's talk on Municipal Spiritually was well attended

Dr Katie McClymont's talk '...and The Spirit Lingered On' explored the idea of community spirituality photo@ Khali Ackford

Dr Katie McClymont, UWE’s Senior Lecturer in Urban Planning, came to Trinity to speak about municipal spirituality and its social context in her talk ‘...and the Spirit Lingered On’

The talk began with an explanation of the meaning of municipal spirituality and the way it occurs in places with civic and spiritual functions. The term is quite broad and can be applied to music venues, libraries, ex-churches, parks, public spaces and community centres. The factor of whether the space is inside or outside is irrelevant, it is the sense of potential for togetherness or inclusivity that is the key. This feeling does not have to respond to an existing religion, it can be responding to something beyond the everyday realm. For example, cemeteries are not necessarily places of religion but to many people have an enormous sense of the spiritual.

“Before Katie’s talk I did not understand much about the subject but it was an enormously interesting presentation with many specific examples from around Bristol.”

As part of her talk, Katie showed examples of church buildings around Bristol that have been re-purposed. They are all buildings that she happened to be passing on her route around the city on a given day, showing how many church buildings are scattered across the city, and the great proportion of them which are being used for something different than the original purpose.

During the 1980’s a huge number of churches were closed down, some of these still have a social function - such as a former church in Easton that is now a centre for supported independence. Katie was speaking about how through the 1970s and 1980s, there was an exponential rate of church closures. Currently the Church of England (C of E) closes around 20-25 churches per each year. There is a new report out from the charity Locality which Katie recommended reading about Local Councils selling buildings. I found it very interesting to hear that C of E churches are available for sale, listed on the C of E website for the public to peruse. Some of them have descriptions about their future use, for example ‘for continued worship’, ‘community work’ or ‘suitable for a wide range of uses’.

Katie was discussing the strange feeling around seeing churches for sale in such a matter of fact, straightforward way when in fact they are very special buildings. This raised the question: can you put a price on a church? Also, what judgements are being made about the buildings before they are sold? The example of the Bill’s restaurant chain taking over old church buildings was used, as Katie said that in some cases the insides are ripped out but the strong ethos from the church remains. Even in its new function, sometimes a feeling of the old spirit lingers on. It seemed that Katie is very passionate about the amazing idea that churches will always be a place to create connections between people and others; people and the past; and people and something bigger than themselves.

Katie made a film about community art spaces around Bristol including Trinity, Jacobs Wells Baths, Barton Hill Settlement and St Mary Redcliffe Church. As well as being a great medium to communicate the joys of community spaces, Katie said that when they were interviewing people from these spaces, after being asked a question, the interviewee would often give a very telling pause before answering which she believes shows the sense of the community space working beyond its physical and material achievements. Sometimes when churches are changed into private use buildings like a holiday home it can feel wrong and perhaps this is due to that change away from its original ethos. Is it because there is a feeling of loss of the shared community space that once was there?

What is the value of a church when it no longer is a church? Photo credit @Khali Ackford

Churches have value. They have a common purpose and a built heritage. The debate is what is their value is and when is it lost? If the value is the sense of people coming together and socialising with people they would not normally, then the Sunday Assembly is a good example of a group who does this with great popularity, and with no religious aspect. Churches closing have caused massive losses to local communities. In addition, a lot of us now live in self selective communities, so where do you meet people different from you apart from in a doctor’s waiting room or on a bus? Katie explained the importance of having inclusive places where different people can engage in a meaningful way.

This left me thinking - do we define using a church as a multi use community space as adapting the church or losing the church? Now fewer people are religious, perhaps we are adapting churches to keep them relevant?

Maybe, concerts and gigs are our secular religion.

These notes are written by Tess Sieling, who is the project intern on the Heart & Soul heritage project. Read more of her notes on our Tuesday talk series - Father Paul, Fidel Meraz and A Million Bricks of Love.

Our talk series explores the challenges and achievements of transforming and preserving historic buildings and is programmed in collaboration with Bristol's Architecture Centre and the University of West England (UWE).

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