Inside a church.

Re-imagining church buildings

25 July 2018

The article at a glance

The Diocese of Ely and Cambridge Judge Business School, with the support of Allchurches Trust and Historic England, launch a three-year project …

The Diocese of Ely and Cambridge Judge Business School, with the support of Allchurches Trust and Historic England, launch a three-year project to help communities make fuller use of their historic churches.

Last week the Diocese of Ely and Cambridge Judge Business School announced a three-year project to help churches connect to their communities through better use of these historic buildings. The project has the generous support of Allchurches Trust and Historic England.

The challenges facing church communities and their buildings have been extensively studied in the light of declining church attendance over several decades. This project, however, aims to address the less-well-understood opportunities for churches to engage with the 97.7 per cent of their local communities who do not attend church.

“No previous project on this scale has succeeded in reaching so far beyond the church’s existing members and friends,” said Geoffrey Hunter, the Diocese of Ely’s Church Buildings Consultant. “By connecting the expertise of Cambridge Judge Business School and the local experience of our parishes, this project will break new ground in understanding how the significance of the church for society can be understood, developed and sustained.”

While primarily used for religious services, church buildings are already used for other purposes such as the provision of nursery spaces and rehearsal spaces for theatre groups. There is currently, however, little information about the determinants for success and failure in making these buildings effective tools for the churches’ wider community mission.

The project – entitled “Re-imagining churches as community assets for the common good” – aims to address these issues through the tools of community enterprise. The business school will recruit a post-doctoral Research Associate in its Cambridge Centre for Social Innovation to conduct in-depth interviews and collect community data over the next three years. Outputs from the project will include a toolkit to enable the learning in the Diocese of Ely to be put into action in other dioceses.

The project supports the aims of a December 2017 report for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport. The Taylor Review: Sustainability of English Churches and Cathedrals sought to “lay the foundations for sustainability and consequently secure the future of these important buildings for so long as communities value these wonderful assets”.

One of the cornerstones of the Diocese of Ely’s Ely2025 Growth Strategy is to “Re-imagine our buildings”, so this new project aims to provide every parish and every deanery in the Diocese with the tools to be able to understand the opportunities open to them in the context of their own communities. This will help them to provide a church that meets their community’s needs and gains its support, giving a sustainable future to these important historic buildings.

The Diocese of Ely encompasses over 330 churches spread over 1,500 square miles of East Anglia. Of these churches, 43 per cent are Grade I listed and 40 per cent Grade II* listed – owing to their historic or architectural significance. The central Diocesan office provides administrative support and guidance to its parish churches, including support on church buildings, safeguarding matters, finance and ministry and mission.

A 2015 report by the Church of England found that many significant church buildings are at increasing risk of being lost to their communities due to lack of income to maintain and develop them, owing in part to an average decline in attendance. While such decline is broadly the same in rural and urban areas, rural areas have six or seven times as many church buildings per capita – so the need to take action in a predominantly rural diocese like Ely is acute.

Helen Haugh
Dr Helen Haugh

“Cambridge Judge Business School is delighted to lend its experience in social enterprise to this important project to connect communities to their church buildings in the Diocese of Ely,” said Dr Helen Haugh, Senior Lecturer in Community Enterprise and Research Director of the Cambridge Centre for Social Innovation at the business school. “We hope the insights gained at the Diocese of Ely can inform other dioceses and communities throughout the country on ways to revitalise and sustain these magnificent structures.”

James Laing, Director of Grants and Relationships at Allchurches Trust, said: “We never fail to be impressed by the innovative ways in which churches reach out to their communities, often providing vital services to local people and tackling deprivation, loneliness and isolation. We’re proud to fund many of these projects, but also to share their stories, which highlight that churches are so much more than buildings and places of worship. That’s why we are delighted to have been able to fund this Diocese of Ely and Cambridge project, which will unearth and share best practice, enabling more parishes to secure a sustainable future for their churches in service at the heart of their communities.”

For more information on this project, please email Geoffrey Hunter, the Diocese of Ely’s Church Buildings Consultant.