Save our Chruches
Thursday, 18 December 2014

Saving our churches? It’s a matter of ROOFS & LOOS

It may not sound terribly poetic, but when it comes to protecting our heritage we mustn’t overlook the everyday essentials

Written by Huw Edwards
If you are visiting London, I can highly recommend a trip to see Wesley’s Chapel, the great Methodist church built just outside the City by John Wesley, one of the founders of the Methodist movement. This remarkable complex of buildings includes John Wesley’s house, one of London’s finest surviving examples of a small Georgian residence, which contains many of his belongings and furniture.

While there, you may well be tempted to see the toilets, among the finest in London. Dating back to 1899, they are a great example of the work of the famous Thomas Crapper, champion of the flushing toilet and inventor of the ballcock system.

Crapper, who contrary to popular belief did not give his name to the colloquial term for bowel movements (that particular word has its origins in Middle English), received the first royal warrant for sanitaryware from Prince Edward in the 1880s, and the company he founded lasted until the 1960s.

Although the Wesley’s Chapel toilets are over a century old, this place of worship is in a much better position than many of the UK’s churches, chapels and meeting houses, which have no facilities available to cater for our urgent needs. The most recent Church of England statistics show that only about half of its 16,000 churches have functioning conveniences. This means that people visiting many of our most beautiful and historic places of worship have to find other places to go when nature calls.

Huw-Dec12-02-590Huw Edwards recommends visiting the toilets in Wesley’s Chapel in London, which were the work of Thomas Crapper

Andrew Perry, vicar of the 850-year-old St Nicolas Church in Portslade near Brighton, is often to be found showing people to his house, even before wedding services, so that they can answer the call. He admits this is time he’d rather spend soothing the nerves of an often anxious bride and bridegroom.

In fact, the National Churches Trust, which for over 60 years has been funding the repair of churches, is receiving more and more requests for funding to install lavatories. Last year, toilets topped the list of funding requests to the Trust’s Community Grant programme for the third year running.

These facilities allow churches to be more welcoming to worshippers, especially those with young children, and to people attending weddings or christenings. They’re also essential for churches wanting to increase use by the wider local community – for example, by hosting playgroups, local clubs or charities, and events such as concerts.

Of course, it’s important that toilets are installed in a manner in keeping with the architecture of the building. But while it’s true that churches, chapels and meeting houses are full of history, the people looking after them know that buildings can’t be stuck in the past. Many church buildings have adapted and changed over the decades and centuries. And installing modern facilities is vital to increasing their use and safeguarding their future.

Huw-Dec12-04-590-quote

Last year, the Trust helped provide 16 places of worship with new toilet facilities. These included St Mary’s Church in Hay-on-Wye in Powys, Wales. Originally built in the 12th century, the church wanted to install toilets to benefit parishioners and children attending Sunday school and youth groups. But it also wanted to expand its music programme (the church is already used by the BBC during the Hay Literary Festival to record lunchtime concerts) and to bring in more of the local community for meetings and other activities. Proper facilities were also considered essential to enable it to increase its income from people wanting to hire the church, thereby helping ensure its long-term future.

The toilets at St Mary’s are now open for use, and churchwarden Dr Terry Watson says the church community is delighted. The church is planning a production of Benjamin Britten’s Noye’s Fludde next May. This will involve over 30 children taking part in two days of rehearsal and three days of production, which would have been impossible without the new facilities.

Bath Quaker Meeting House, right in the historic centre of the city, already had toilets, but they were in the basement of the building and off limits to anyone unable to make it down two steep flights of stairs. Now a new, fully accessible toilet is available for anyone to use.

It was installed as part of a wider scheme, which included a lift for disabled people and a new kitchen. The scheme has just received the Mayor of Bath’s 2014 Access Challenge Award, which recognises a business or public place in the city that has improved accessibility for people with disabilities.

Huw-Dec12-03-590From top: St Nicolas Church, Portslade, East Sussex. St Mary’s Church, Hay-on-Wye

Although grants to pay for toilets and other community facilities are in increasing demand, they make up only a small proportion of the National Churches Trust’s funding. The majority of the £1,557,000 in grants it awarded or recommended in 2013 to 139 places of worship went towards urgent roof repairs. That’s because it’s vital to keep roofs in good condition – if a roof leaks, then the building gets damaged and you have an even bigger problem.

The cost of installing community facilities and carrying out repairs is often far beyond the financial means of local congregations, and contrary to popular belief, central Church authorities and the government do not make money available for church repairs. Instead, it’s up to the parish to find the money from local people and from charities including the National Churches Trust.

Huw-Dec12-05-590-quote

Loos and roofs may not sound like the most glamorous subjects but they are essential to the long-term survival of many of our nation’s finest churches.

For details of how you can help to secure the future of our nation’s churches, chapels and meeting houses: www.nationalchurchestrust.org/friends  

City Mission: The Story Of London’s Welsh Chapels, by Huw Edwards, is published by Y Lolfa, priced £24.95.


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