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09:16 GMT, Tuesday, 25 May 2010 10:16 UK

New uses for old church buildings

By Tim Daykin
BBC Radio Solent

St Peter's Church

There are more than 8,000 church buildings no longer used for worship around England.

A combination of decaying buildings, rising costs and dwindling congregations have meant many have been closed and sold off.

Conversions into private houses, flats or prestige businesses premises follow.

Some new uses can still be considered to be at the heart of their community - albeit with the building not used for Christian worship.

Bar restaurant

For the people who once worshiped in a church which has been closed, a change of use can have a lasting emotional impact.

Maureen Wakefield attended St Peter's Church in Southampton's Commercial Road before it closed in the early 1970s. All three of her children were baptised there and they all attended the church's Sunday School.

She recalled: "It was very family-friendly place. We were all very upset about it because it took away the community feeling and all the people."

Since it closed and eventually became a bar and restaurant - pre-theatre meals and hen-nights have replaced weddings and baptisms.

According to Maureen, the new secular use added injury to insult. She said: "That was an even worse feeling when we heard about that - I've never been in, and I wouldn't go in."

Restoration work

Overlooking the Solent at Alverstoke, near Gosport, is the former chapel of a National Children's Home. Complete with arches and stain glass windows, it looks every inch an ecclesiastical building.

The old chapel organ

When the home closed and the chapel was no longer needed for it's original purpose, in 1985 it was converted into a luxury home and is now a ladies-only spa with a gym, swimming pool and hairdressers.

However many of the original features have been kept - the choirs stalls is now a swimming pool and the organ is spectacularly suspended over the swimming pool.

Manager Gary Milne said: "Many people come in and remind us they got married in the middle of the swimming pool!

"The local residents come and visit and use the services we provide. It's not just about keeping fit and healthy - it's the social aspect. It still has a place in the community and is very much in the heart of it. There is nothing else like it for miles around."

Community use

Rescued crumbling churches - can be especially important in rural areas which may already have lost village pub - the church may be the last community space left. In a few cases, the new use is also religious.

In Southampton the former St Luke's church in Bevois Valley is now Sabha Singh Gurdwara. It is one of only two, of more than 1,800 Anglican churches sold off in England, which have been sold to a non-Christian faith group.

However Saranjit Karir said they are being faithful to the original purpose of the building.

He said: "Everything inside is still as a church. It's a place of God, so it's good it's carrying on."

With sports and community activities also centred on the Gurdwara, it is the focus of life in that area of the city.

Harjinder Singh added: "It feels really good - a place of worship is, in essence, a place of worship, whether it's one religion or another. It just promotes the idea that the building is used for what it was originally intended, a place of worship and not some other purpose.

He added: "It's good to see this as a place of worship. This place was neglected - if we had not bought it, it could possibly have been demolished."

Restoration work.

Dr Jennifer Freeman from the Historic Chapels Trust said: "Chapel-going is not as popular as once it was. Chapels may be in the wrong location, perhaps in city centres where people don't live - there may be insufficient facilities like parking, toilets, heating, loos, kitchens, it may be very big or in disrepair. That presents problems to a declining, aging congregation and buildings fall into disuse."

The organisation runs some of the most historically important chapels around the UK with an ethos to "upgrade rather than convert" and add modern facilities such as disabled access and fire regulation compliance to old buildings.

She explained: "When we take on a chapel, we always have a public meeting so concerned people can come along and get their ideas on how they would like to see the building regenerated."

Around 30 Church of England churches are closed and sold off each year in England.

Paul Lewis from the Church Commissioners who manage the Church of England's property portfolio explained: "With building costs rising and, in some places, increasingly elderly congregations, there is a suspicion there might be a an increase [in closures] in coming years."

He explained that when selling buildings, they take into account what the new owners will use the building for. He said: "The test really is whether the proposed use is consistent with the Christian faith."

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Church of England - Closed Churches Division
Historic Chapels Trust

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