We attended an annual EH Support Officers meeting a few weeks ago at the Waterhouse Square London. The meeting was organised by Diana Evans who is one of the partners on this project. The Support Officers are experts working on historic places of worship (mostly churches) who had come to discuss their experiences within their diocese. These are bright experienced minds from all over England exchanging the issues they were facing in implementing the conservation projects.
During the introduction, all of us were asked to speak of our best and worst experience in the past one year and it was really inspiring to hear all the work these officers were doing. There was a lot of positive energy in the room as they discussed their projects. The challenges identified by most of them were roof related tasks and the application for funds for big projects. They also mentioned the bureaucracy behind it which led to the tasks being long and time-consuming - seen as a major hurdle. Closure of certain buildings was seen as a threat and few of them expressed deep concern over it.
Theo Zamenopoulos, our project lead gave a detailed presentation of our project and the stage which we are at the present. He gave them an introduction of what we are seeking to do in next five years and how the officers can be involved in the project. The presentation was very well received and you could see the officers nodding in sync on how important this kind of research is in the present context.
The discussion after the presentation was even more captivating. They told us how relevant it is to do such a project but informed us of the challenges we will face as it involves multi-stakeholders and the community.
An officer who had worked in Southampton on an urban regeneration project told us how regeneration in a Methodist Church will be fairly simple but other churches like the Anglican might be more averse to having any changes. She mentioned that many of these churches are famous and listed for its interiors and the community is very protective about it. Though most of these interiors are freezing cold, the communities do not really want to change anything and this could be of a challenge for the designers. Also, due to the large size the projects become more expensive and not feasible.
Theo replied that indeed this is a challenge but we want to work with communities and do not intend to push our ideas but work on what really they want to do.
Adding to this discussion a senior officer commented how this research project could be seen in terms of different theologies. How philosophies of some faith groups won’t allow any changes and some will. The question of "what is holy ground" is very relevant and how certain groups won’t allow moving any of the sacred spots in the church (He compared this to his experience of few Hindu temples where the relocation of sacred statues was seemed more acceptable while re-designing spaces)
Another officer mentioned her experience of working with faith groups and how each community raises the issues of security. She stressed that these issues of security differ in different faith groups. For example, the Anglican community is more concerned about protection of the sacred contents in the churches and the possibility of theft. The Jewish and Muslim communities, though concerned about thefts, are far more worried about the issues that are political in nature. The concern was related to the threats/vandalising of properties or the abuse on social media due to the Paris attacks recently. She gave an example of how a Jewish Synagogue wanted to introduce a cafe which would be open to the community but was worried about security issues and that the idea of having two bulky guards at the entrance might not be taken positively.
One of the officers raised a valid point which we project partners have been investigating since the project was conceived. And this is the question - "Who is the community?"
She gave an example of a Gurudwara in east London where the resident community does not comprise of the Sikh faith group. During certain holy and festive events at different times of the year, there are far more worshippers than usual and this impacts on the traffic and parking around the area. This severely affects the local residents and the council has had to take necessary steps. But they have to be cautious as they cannot be seen as discriminatory either to the faith community or to the resident community.
Taking the question of "who is the community" forward another senior officer told of us his experience on working with churches which have been long isolated. The villages surrounding these historical buildings have either moved elsewhere due to natural reasons or have been perished altogether. The community that built these does not exist anymore and thus whom are we aiming for in the changes?
An officer made a very apt comment on how interesting our project is as it concerns with "rational processes which are irrational for people". The other officers nodded and mentioned how certain faith groups don’t know if the proposed changes are for them or for people from the resident community or for the visitors. Diana added that in her experience the faith groups do not understand what public benefit is – “is it for people coming in these sacred places to use the cafes/ toilets and simply admiring the gargoyles?”
One officer commented how the funders like the HLF (Heritage Lottery Fund) demand tangible aspects in terms of the public benefit and impact.
HLF's demand to give them the number of visitors daily was seen as time-consuming and the officers agreed that the logistics of this was impossible. This kind of bureaucratic side of the funders was seen as a challenge. An officer suggested that the HLF needs to move away from such review processes and accept that it has to be more subtle in their approach and that there is "no one size - fits all" concepts in such reviews.
Continuing with the expectations of funders an officer stated that interpreting the "wider" community benefits is indeed a challenge. She said certain faith groups she had worked with already provided food banks/ counselling/ mental health group/ crèche services etc. This was a part of "role of mission of the Church". Thus, it was difficult to then show to the funders the difference between church activities they were carrying on for wider benefits and the expected 'secular' activities.
Another officer raised the issue of what is funded and for whom is it funded - connecting it to the contrast of architecture value and community value. He mentioned his experience of working for Grade I listed church which is beautiful and has these really great details inside such as the wonderful stain-glass etc. This church has all the money for its maintenance and sustainability but is hardly frequented by the community. Compared to this, within walking distance, was another church not as extravagant but it has a community space. Probably the only community space in the area and hence this church is more frequented. The community has decided to put in more funds and do more renovations in this church!
As it was time to close the session and move onto other activities, Diana added that we intend to come up with outputs from this project which will be useful directly to communities and experts - toolkits/ guides for owners/faith groups/experts etc. Theo thanked everyone for this very useful discussion and stressed that we intend to capture the intangible aspect of public input too.
We exchanged contacts with the officers over lunch and got some really good inputs and suggestions of historical buildings we could look as case studies.
As I walked back home, I looked at the notes in my diary and realised how exciting this project is really going to be. These were experts working at current cases across the country and they exchanged with us the daily challenges that they deal with design and working with different stakeholders. Within a span of two hours we had discussed economic issues, bureaucratic issues and philosophical issues. The underlying concept that I find relevant is that how different stakeholders perceive these places of worship and what they want to do it with it.
The struggle is going to be about values - be it architectural value, philosophical value, community value, economic value and so on. The way these values are interpreted and prioritised (by all stakeholders) will define the course of the design and the future of these historic places of worship. It will be important for us to capture these individual/group perceptions and values in our research and how these are prioritised.
One of the comments by an officer would be appropriate to end this blog post - "you know the value of the building only when you close it/ lose it".