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Churches can remain the centre of a community - if they adapt; the wednesday essay As historian Sir Roy Strong raises fears over the future of the nation's traditional country churches, the Bishop of Swansea and Brecon, John Davies, outlines how they remeeting the challenges of the 21st century.

Byline: John Davies

TRAVELLING through the picturesque country lanes of rural Wales from market town to village to hamlet, it is easy to see how the landscape has been determined over the centuries by the parish church, its land and boundaries. Often it is the church, with its steady tower or elegant spire, which is not only at the heart of the community but which has defined it - given it its name. We only have to think of all the place names in Wales which begin with "llan", the Welsh term for the land around a church.

It is easy, too, to feel sentimental when we see these churches, which today are perhaps not the focal point of country life they once were. They might be closed, as the last of their congregations die away, neglected with not enough faithful people to tend to them, or locked between Sunday services to keep out either the elements or those out to cause mischief. They tell a sad tale of declining church numbers, of buildings difficult and expensive to maintain and of a society where the practice of faith is perhaps not as central to lives as it once was.

It's a story repeated all over rural Wales, including in the Diocese of Swansea and Brecon, where we have scores of rural parishes which play a key role in our ministry, and it's one which requires an imaginative and dramatic response. To identify and develop that response, it helps to look back down the centuries and unravel the less obvious role fulfilled by our church buildings.

In centuries past, church buildings were not used exclusively as the location for formal acts of worship; far from it. All manner of secular activities such as meetings and even markets sometimes took place in them.

With the provision of public halls, village halls and other alternative places for secular gatherings and activities, church buildings often stood idle for the greater proportion of the time. Whether the provision of those alternative places was the result of an increase in piety and a desire to "protect" a sacred place or whether for sheer convenience is not clear. But empty, for most of the time, most churches came to be, and this remains the case today.

Our challenge now is to respond positively and reverse this decline by addressing the needs of today's rural parishes and transforming churches to serve its community in the 21st century. Change is happening.

In recent years churches have been either re-ordered or even designed and built with dual purpose in mind and to provide a community meeting space separated from a sanctuary space by screens or curtains.

Take the parish of Bedwas in the Diocese of Monmouth, where I once served as Rector, for example.

The daughter church or mission church at the Trethomas end of the parish was served by a church constructed of timber and corrugated iron, built in the 1920s.

The altar and sanctuary, located on a raised platform at one end of the building, could be separated from the remainder by curtains, and the building was then used as a meeting hall and for other gatherings.

The tin church was replaced with a modern dual purpose building in 2002, and its alternative use was not only preserved but enhanced so that the church could be seen to be creating an opportunity to make deliberate contribution to the wider life of the community and parish.

Elsewhere, church buildings which were generally too large for sensible use and maintenance by their congregations have been sensitively re-ordered to provide meeting rooms and community space, in addition to preserving sacred space and a contemplative atmosphere, both of which are visible to and available to those who come to use the meeting rooms or community facilities.

Sometimes such changes as these have been born out of necessity; a church hall or community centre in poor repair and a church building that is too large or costly for the congregation to maintain can be a happy coincidence if there is vision and will to work together. Sometimes such changes are the simple product of a desire to recover for the church a lost part of its role within a community.

Such opportunities as these can present themselves to communities all over the place but perhaps they can be especially valuable in rural communities where shops, schools, village and other facilities, taken for granted in the past, have either disappeared or, for a variety of reason such as rationalisation, are under threat. Often it is the church which is the only community building left.

It is this vision of rural churches returning to the heart of communities which Sir Roy Strong, a former director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, is passionate about. A distinguished public figure with a wealth of knowledge, he is also a committed churchman who has long wished to see church buildings better employed. I am delighted to welcome him to Brecon.

Sir Roy Strong's free lecture, The Future of the English Rural Church - A Pattern for Wales?, will be given in Brecon Cathedral on Tuesday at 2.30pm


FOCAL POINT The village church PICTURE: Richard Stanton
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Feb 11, 2009
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