Church buildings as shared spaces

Adair.Richards | September 6, 2012

Recently I was in Warwick town and popped into St Mary’s church to have a look at the tombs of the Earls of Warwick. Whilst I wandered around I was struck by the variety of people there on a busy summer afternoon and what they were trying to do there. I thought I would characterize them briefly and share some of the questions that sprang to my mind.

The worshipper: An individual who may or may not regularly attend this (or any other) church seeking to sit in quiet and pray.

Most interested in: Being left alone to commune with God

The church staff/volunteer: Welcoming individuals seemingly keen to press leaflets into your hand on the history and background to the building and the church.

Most interested in: welcoming visitors and sharing their church with them

The interested passing visitor: People who have stumbled upon or made a small detour to visit the church. This group is perhaps most similar to the majority of (non-school) museum visitors.

Most interested in: seeing the tombs, architecture and history of the building.

The disinterested visitor: Perhaps best characterized by what I observed of a middle-aged couple leaning on an old tomb discussing loudly whether to go with Chardonnay or Sauvignon-Blanc that evening.

Most interested in … I’m not sure really, perhaps a quick look around and somewhere to shelter from the sun

The young child: Brought to the church by accompanying adults they tend to walk or run around, want to climb on interesting architectural features and generally play however they see fit.

Most interested in… The ice-cream truck outside!


These of course are only caricatures and are by no means exhaustive but perhaps provide a snapshot of the audience on that particular Saturday.


In my mind it begins to throw up some interesting questions such as:

–       Is a church building primarily a place of worship and as such should historical and non-God-seeking visitors form only a distant second priority?

–       What right of access, if any, should academics and non-religious visitors have to these sites of historical importance?

–       Where should the balance lie between modernising these buildings to make them more suitable to modern worshipping congregations and preserving these artefacts of historical significance for the present and future general public?

–       These buildings are very expensive to open and maintain – what balance of financial responsibility should there be between Church, state and individual visitors?

–       Who should have the authority to answer these questions?


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  1. You’ve hit upon an interesting question. The easiest answer to which is for church-congregations to move out of the old buildings and sell them to museums-or-equiv and operate in more practical buildings.
    Then the historical/cultural interests and religious interests are entirely separate.

    This however, financially doesn’t stack up. There are so many that museums couldn’t afford to pay a good price for them – meaning congregations (esp in London) wouldn’t be able to build/buy anything of a similar size in a similar area.

    Also many/most congregations value the fact their church is seen as important in the wider community. (And there is often a cross-over between the worshipper, and the people are interested historically).

    So then, should churches be preserved architecturally and who should pay?
    The sad truth is there are too many old churches (nearly one in every hamlet/village) – too many in the sense it would be too expensive to demand government support. However I think you could make a case for cathedrals – and ask that the congregation pays for the light/heating and another body (e.g. government) pays for the repairs. Ofcourse this also causes a conflict of interests (e.g. one group would like a bit more money spent on the windows so that the heating bill comes down). Perhaps that won’t work either.

    Many churches have listed status, which I think is often annoying for the congregation who can’t modernise it in the way they want, and have to use old expensive materials (like lead roofs which then get stolen). I think having grants given proportionately based on listed status – the more you are forced to keep it in a certain way because that’s considered architecturally interesting, the more money you get.
    However exact figure are hard to pin down, and no one wants to suggest signing blank cheques in the current economic world.

    Comment by Tim Pollard — September 6, 2012 @ 6:24 pm

  2. Interesting article- where is the line that a Church crosses where it goes from place of worship to museum? And plenty of them can be both, I’ve been to plenty of churches/ cathedrals out of interest rather than to worship and vice versa. Perhaps what is important is that you’re clear to the people you’ve listed above what the expectations are!

    Comment by Phil R — September 7, 2012 @ 4:50 pm

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