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Cambridge Judge study helps reimagine churches for today’s communities

The interior of St Mary the Virgin church in Fen Ditton is ideal for use by the wider community
The interior of St Mary the Virgin church in Fen Ditton is ideal for use by the wider community

‘For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.’

The words of Jesus of Nazareth 2,000 years ago have inspired church-going communities through the ages to gather, worship, sing and share – so what effect has lockdown had on the faithful?

This month, the government allowed places of worship to open for individuals again for the first time since lockdown began.

The pandemic has created both opportunities and dangers for the 330 churches in the Diocese of Ely, which includes Cambridgeshire and small parts of Bedfordshire, Peterborough and north Norfolk – 39 are in Cambridge and environs alone.

The immediate effect was to shut the doors of churches across the land for the first time in modern history, but where there’s a will there’s a way, as the saying goes, and pretty soon a new phenomenon popped up – the virtual church.

“Texting, messaging, emailing, video conferencing and social media channels have become some of the ways to reconnect and share holy communion,” says Dr Timur Alexandrov, a research associate at Cambridge Judge Business School studying the church. “Advice on the Church of England’s website states that church is not defined by the building but by being together.”

Timur manages the ‘Reimagining churches as community assets for the common good’ project, which has seen the world-famous business school work with the Diocese of Ely on a three-year study “to determine community values, needs and opportunities to ensure a win-win outcome for communities and sustainable future of historic church buildings”.

The project was conceived more than five years ago, says Geoffrey Hunter, head of church buildings and pastoral for the Diocese of Ely.

“The diocese published a strategy document called ‘People Fully Alive: Ely 2025’ in 2015,” explains Geoffrey. “It had five broad themes, one of which was ‘Reimagining our buildings’.”

In 2017 the idea of a project was discussed with Dr Helen Haugh, a senior lecturer in community enterprise at Cambridge Judge Business School, and funding was forthcoming from Historic England and the Allchurches Trust.

“We went to Cambridge Judge Business School because in a way it could be seen as church and community relationship management – you have a community and a service range, and it’s about how to best bring the two together,” says Geoffrey. “When we received the funding we recruited Timur.”

St Peter’s Church at Caxton
St Peter’s Church at Caxton

By the time Timur started work on the project in August 2018 the remit was broader – it included social capital as well as the physical buildings. And, although the report isn’t due to be published until August 2021, case studies are posted on the business school’s website as they’re written. The findings seem to suggest that the church’s key asset is the people who support it – and those who deliver its message and services.

“Some success is personality-based,” says Geoffrey, “so if a person moves away or dies, relationships may lapse. But someone moving in can create huge success too.

“We’re talking to people and finding out why so for instance in Bartlow, on the borders of Cambridgeshire, there’s a population of 110 and the number of people involved with the church is very high. There’s a simple reason for this: the church produces a list of useful information – about the doctor, bin collection times, local opening hours – for new householders and that produces a result in terms of engagement. This could work anywhere.”

Timur says: “In Carlton there’s about 190 residents. The church warden sends a weekly direct mail and people appreciate it, even to rehearse songs or get new recipes. The community even installed a defibrillator in a village phone booth.”

Geoffrey adds: “When we advertised the project in 2018, a number of churches volunteered to be case studies and so we were able to engage with geographical spread too, and also at churches that were struggling.

“We’ve done a lot of work over the past few months to prepare a survey for all the churches in the diocese, and we’ll be asking questions in part framed by what we’ve found out.”

Geoffrey Hunter, head of church buildings and pastoral for the Diocese of Ely
Geoffrey Hunter, head of church buildings and pastoral for the Diocese of Ely

Right in the middle of this survey, the world changed, and the pandemic has forced clergy to reset their relationship with their communities at a delicate time – a recent Faith Survey report stated UK church attendance between 1980 and 2015 declined from 6.5m to around 3m. So could the virtual church be the way to bring back congregations?

Local clergy have certainly been giving it their best shot. The vicar of Newnham and Grantchester has been experimenting with sermon live streaming and music-sharing options online. Nor are the children in the community being left out – a ‘children and families’ minister of Newnham church has been recording herself narrating Godly Play stories, has made ‘Messy Church in a Bag’ kits which she has been delivering to families who request them, and has been organising youth group meetings online.

St Peter’s in Yaxley was one of the first churches to use technology to support its community.

St Peters’ vicar recorded a video encouraging people to keep in touch and communicate through different media; she invited them to join in candle lighting and prayer, and shared stories about her the paintings on the walls of her home. Like many other churches in the UK, St Peter’s livestreams its Sunday morning services.

“There have been changes in the style of worship including live streaming,” notes Geoffrey, “and it’s amazing how even those who are not techno-enthusiasts have been able to adopt it – not all, but the church has found new audiences. The challenge now is not to lose those new audiences, to retain live streaming when congregations return, and we’re working to make that easier by giving approval for a new telephone line to go into every church.”

“St Mary’s in Feltwell is a very social church,” adds Timur. “The council funded a laptop to use in the church and it became a focal point socially too, it’s been very successful. When a community project in Feltwell failed to get funding, they were despondent about that, but they’ve now got a phone line, they’ve got community activities, they hosted a music festival last summer, rebuilt the churchyard wall with help from the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings and they now have a project teaching people how to rebuild walls.”

Dr Timur Alexandrov is a research associate at Cambridge Judge Business School
Dr Timur Alexandrov is a research associate at Cambridge Judge Business School

There’s another benefit too, notes Geoffrey.

“We encourage people to come, to sit and write: the passive surveillance helps deter vandals. It’s interesting where churches are or are not open.

“Churches closer to large conurbations are often locked, not because they’ve been hit by vandals but more because of a fear of vandalism. Some churches out in the open, in rural areas, are open all the time. We are encouraging churches to stay open.”

Successful community events launched by churches in the last few years have included barbecues, quiz nights, hobby sessions, recreational spaces and music concerts: how much of that activity will start up again remains to be seen but, above all, churches are built on consecrated land.

Geoffrey says: “There are rules about what you can and cannot do on consecrated ground and obviously there are some limitations, but very little is not acceptable when you compare a churchyard with what you can do in a public space.”

The work goes on, case studies continue to be conducted and published, and the project is already providing invaluable insights into how churches operate and how they will develop.

“The project has not been affected in the long term,” says Geoffrey. “The case studies were being written as the pandemic hit: now we’re moving towards what might happen in future.”

Churches are community assets for the common good. Picture: Diocese of Ely
Churches are community assets for the common good. Picture: Diocese of Ely

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