Securing proper community meeting space in the church building is something about which St Nicolas’ District Church Council and Great Coates Village Council are in the first stages of discussion with each other to see if they can establish a Working Group (and with any others who would be willing to join in).
People may be surprised at how extensive and varied the use of the building has been even with its present limited facilities. It was calculated that some 3,000 different people came through the door in 2008 (so an ordinary Sunday congregation of about 30 people would represent less than 1% of the year’s users of the building). This included: those who come in when the church is left open during the day; those who came for the national Heritage Open Day; a Bagpipe Playing Group (making a recording); a Brownie Pack (rubbing the replicas of the church’s brasses); Great Coates Nursery (which also has a key so that the church can be used as an emergency assembly point); Great Coates Village Council (for both an open consultation event and a social event); a regular Handbell Ringing Group; the Live Links Rural Touring Programme (three different concerts); a regular Parent and Toddler Group (since ceased partly because of heating problems), the Police (for an open consultation event); Willows Primary School; worshippers at Christmas and on other special occasions; worshippers at Baptisms, Weddings and Funerals; and Wybers Wood Primary School.
A model exists at St Michael’s, Little Coates where over time a new heating system, clearing meeting space, new kitchen and toilet facilities, and work to achieve full disabled access, means the building is now used weekly by an Art Group, a band practising, a Parent and Toddler Group, and Walk Well (a health promotion scheme). This is not a new approach: St James’, Grimsby told them that the town’s only school was housed in part of the church building at the beginning of the nineteenth century while at the same time the town’s poor relief was administered from the vestry and the town’s fire engine parked in a side aisle.
The first task would be to secure funds for a proper architect’s Feasibility Study (we guess that about £3,000 would be needed for this). This Feasibility Study would outline a variety of possibilities and include detailed plans and costings. These plans and costings could then be used for consultation, for bids to funders, and for the applications for permission to make alterations. We guess that the actual work would be costed at up to £200 000.
The work which would then be needed would be: making new gas, water and sewage connections; installing a new heating system (the church has already taken the first steps towards a £50 000 project for this); installing toilet facilities (including those suitable for the disabled) either under the tower or at the back of the church, and establishing enough open space for flexible use of the building. We would not anticipate any changes to the mediaeval fabric, nor any external work, nor anything which would detract from the continued use of the building as a church.
Would the church be able simply to gain from the improvements and then refuse community bookings? There are safeguards: at the moment St Michael’s is receiving annual forms from two different funders who financed work there seeking signed assurances that the level of community use agreed at the time of funding continues.
Would the church make a profit out of letting its improved facilities? Even the maximum amount of rent which anyone might anticipate would be small compared with the costs involved in maintaining the fabric of a large Grade 1 listed building with features dating back to 1200; one of the positive advantages of the partnership is it will increase the money available for such maintenance. St Michael’s operates a policy that community groups which can’t afford basic rent will not be excluded from use.
Are there things which couldn’t happen in the church? A Barn Dance was held in St Michael’s last year, wine is often served after concerts in St Nicolas’, and young people’s events have charged round both buildings in the past. An open consecrated church couldn’t be used for things which are unseemly or oppose the Christian faith, but it would be rare for anyone to wish to book a secular community centre for these sorts of purposes. We wouldn’t be planning commercial bookings for things like parties, and we wouldn’t anticipate the building being licensed for the sale of alcohol.
Would this exclude those who believe in conscience they cannot enter a church building, and thus be discriminatory? We do not know of any main stream non-Christian faith or humanist group which would encourage its members to take this position, and we have not come across complaints on this basis elsewhere. A very wide range of people of all faiths and none use the increasing number of community facilities in churches across the country, including those which now house a village Post Office.
So what happens now? The District Church Council and the Village Council will be asked to consider formally a proposal to establish a Working Group to secure funding for a Feasibility Study and then to consider it’s outcomes. Others in the community (especially those from Aylesby Park and Wybers Wood) will be asked if this is a project they would like to be kept informed, support and be involved.
The idea has been around for at least ten years, but this sheet circulated at the weekend brings it firmly back on the agenda. The picture of the church isn't one of mine; it was taken by a member of the District Church Council when helping clear out gutters last week.