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A 'New' Church of England Emerges in the 'Old' Country

03-23-2016
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PETERCHURCH, England -- Tucked away in England’s magnificent landscape lies the small village of Peterchurch.  At the annual crafts fair the Anglican church bustles with activity.  But this kind of church could become an endangered species, in part because of changing demographics as people migrate to the city.

A Church of England  report shows that more than half of its churches are in rural areas, although only 17 percent of the population lives there.  This means smaller congregations, fewer resources, and a bleak future, given the average age of attendees hovers around 55.

“A lot of it is about the demographics,” said Anni Holden, Director of Communications for the Diocese of Hereford. “But also, you know, we have to be realistic, secularization amongst the indigenous population.  There’s no two ways about that.”

In the diocese serving Herefordshire– England’s most sparsely populated county – there are over 400 Anglican churches.  Most are hundreds of years old – historic landmarks worth saving. 

The report offers some proposals, such as “festival churches” which would only open on special days like Christmas and Easter.

Perserving a 'Sacred Space'

“Locking that door for the bulk of the year will be a sad day," said Holden.  “However, one has to be realistic and look at the other way; it’s jolly hard to keep, maintain, pay the bills on historic buildings."

Outside St. Peter’s church stands a 3,000-year-old yew tree.  It has certainly seen a lot of change over the years in Peterchurch; and the church, dating back to the 8th century, has found a way to keep up with the changing times.

“When this church was built, this area would have belonged to the people of the village,” Holden noted.  “So this was the center of the community.  We’ve lost that over the years, and the church has become more and more sort of sacred space only the special few can go into.  That is what we are trying to reverse.”

The answer came from the government -- and an opportunity to use the church’s size to help with its “Every Child Matters” program.

But there would need to be an extensive makeover.

 “The inside of the church was quite cold, and damp, and dark, and not very uplifting,” explained Enid Tarbox, project manager for St. Peter’s Church.

Their mission: update the church while keeping its history.

Blending The Old and The New

A four-year process led to an award-winning design by the architecture firm Communion Architects, welcoming villagers for more than church services.

“Our architect said, ‘Stand in the middle of the nave, and turn and look at the new section,’” Tarbox recalled.  “’That’s the vision of the future.  But it’s very important to still turn and look to the traditional part of the church, and marry the two together in the middle.’”

“The beauty of the church was maintained – its sort of ancient beauty – and then there’s a sort of contemporary beauty as well,” marveled Rev. Simon Lockett, vicar of St. Peter’s. “There were one or two perhaps who still would rather the pews, but in the main people have just seen that, that instead of it being used for an hour on a Sunday morning, it’s now used right through each and every day."

St. Peter’s Center offers everything from senior events, to yoga classes, and the bell tower now doubles as a branch of the local library. 

“It’s brilliant,” said Caroline Gilbert, a resident of Peterchurch.  “Yeah, at the moment the main library in the city is closed for refurbishments or something, so the fact that we’ve got a county library in the village, and yet in the city they haven’t got it at the moment, is amazing.”

Gilbert is a talented young artist, selling handmade items under the name “Baby Woo Hoo.” When she moved her young family here, St. Peter’s caught her attention with its parent toddler group.

“This is a beautiful building,” Gilbert said.  “And for a small village that takes half an hour to get to a big town, it’s great to have the facilities. 

“When we reopened, one of the children was out in the playing field out there, and said to some other kids, ‘Come into our church – it’s great!’” recalled Rev. Lockett.  “I think it’s basically much more welcoming now.”

While the Church of England acknowledges there is no “one size fits all” solution, they see St. Peter’s as a model of success---making the future brighter than before.

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