Two recent EDP workshops brought people together to share their personal reflections on their relationship with their faith, their places of worship and their faith communities. Both workshops took participants through a series of questions about:
- the role of faith buildings within a community
- the significance these buildings hold for the communities who use them
- how the design of these buildings affects how the faith communities and the wider local communities, interact with and within them.
- how places of worship can support social action and the provision of community activities and services.
The second workshop on 23 July, was hosted by the West London Synagogue, which is one of the oldest synagogues in the UK and the oldest house of prayer affiliated with the movement of Reform Judaism. The workshop was organised in collaboration with Margaret Greenfields and Searle Kochberg from another AHRC-funded project, entitled Ritual Reconstructed, and brought together members of Masorti, Reform and Liberal Jewish communities in London, as well as members of other faith groups who volunteer at synagogues.
What follows is a brief summary of some of the themes that emerged. It is worth noting that the focus of both of these workshops was on places of worship within the urban context.
Sanctuary and community
There was a strong view that places of worship offer an important reference point, a meeting place where people who practise a faith can find others with shared values, cultural references and a sense of community, be it in their own local area or when travelling or moving to a new place. These are places people know they will be welcome, no matter where they are and how far from home they may find themselves.
A marker in the city
While many participants spoke of practising their faith well beyond the confines of the walls of their place of worship, they did feel that the presence of their faith buildings set down an important marker, a statement of representation within the urban landscape, which seemed of particular significance within immigrant communities. Some spoke of the places of worship signalling “We are here!”, both to those who are already settled, and to new arrivals.
Spaces for faith practices and rituals
When we started to focus more on the buildings themselves, a larger variation of perspectives started to emerge. Some spoke of the importance of a building that had been created for the purpose of their specific faith rituals and that had features designed to physically represent and support those rituals. People also spoke of buildings and their symbolic features holding not only theological meaning, but also memories and family milestones that sometimes spanned generations.
We discussed the adaptation of spaces that previously had other uses, sharing places of worship with other faith communities, and taking over a worship space from a different faith group, and explored examples of this happening among different faith communities. Some expressed the view that buildings are “just buildings” and that practically any space could be adapted to host faith rituals. There was, however, general agreement that it was important to have places where people could gather to share faith rituals, so many of which are rooted in people coming together as a community, through prayer, song, food or other activities.
Another theme that emerged strongly from the discussions was the place of worship as a place to support social action, both within and beyond the faith community. Almost all of those present were involved in some activity through their place of worship to help people face challenges, build positive relationships and reach their potential. The spectrum of activities and services delivered at the places of worship represented were numerous and varied. These included offering meals and food for those in need, helping refugees to access and navigate support services, and providing social and support activities for various age groups, including training and skills development.
Unlocking the potential of buildings
There was a clear frustration that any fixed place of worship creates some limitations on what can happen there. Whether a faith community is worshipping at a listed church, synagogue or temple, in an old fire station, in a community hall or in any other kind of building, the spectrum of activities that can happen there will be influenced by how well the building is working for the people who use it or would like to use it. Specific issues raised include the state of repair of the building, whether it has only one main space or a series of spaces, whether it is fully accessible, or whether it has sufficient heating and lighting. Nearly all of the workshop participants saw potential for their places of worship to be improved, through small changes such as decoration, or through large-scale physical changes.
However, participants expressed the importance that none of these changes should compromise the role of places of worship as a sanctuary and place for a community of shared values, a place for ritual, and for social action. All of those present at our workshops agreed that above all, places of worship are spaces for people to come together, to feel supported and nourished, and to help others feel the same.
Many thanks to our workshop partners and to all of the participants who took part for their generosity in helping us to explore these themes. If you would like to contribute your views, please take part in our survey to find out how individuals and communities view the future of places of worship in the UK and their place in society, or get in touch with our team at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sophia de Sousa is Chief Executive at The Glass-House Community Led Design (EDP partner) and part of the core team of the Empowering Design Practices project.