Special report: Churches fighting to keep the faith

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In such austere times, churches are facing a real battle to keep open their much-relied upon places of worship, and must be “creative” and “entrepreneurial” to secure their future in the community.

The end of an 171-year-old tradition was signalled in the Fenland village of Coates this past weekend, as Coates Methodist Church bid farewell to its committed congregation as it held its last service on Saturday.

Rev. Kerry Tankard, Minister Julian Pursehouse and Rev. Heather Walking, before a closing service at Coates Methodist Church after 171 years. Photo: Paul Franks

Rev. Kerry Tankard, Minister Julian Pursehouse and Rev. Heather Walking, before a closing service at Coates Methodist Church after 171 years. Photo: Paul Franks

It follows members of Peterborough’s Methodist circuit deciding to close the pre-Victorian building in the face of six-figure refurbishment costs.

It had already called time on services due to a dwindling congregation, but the chapel was home to a weekly youth club, which will now be relocated to Coates Primary School.

The Rev Kerry Tankard said the cost of refurbishing the building was “prohibitive”, being in excess of £100,000.

He said: “We thought it was better to use that money to support work in the community rather than to plough into the building.”

Coates Methodist Church holds a closing service after 171 years. Photo: Paul Franks

Coates Methodist Church holds a closing service after 171 years. Photo: Paul Franks

The Rev Helen Walker, superintendendent minister for the Peterborough Methodist circuit, said: “It’s always sad when a building goes because a lot of people have memories of occasions that have taken place in the building which are precious and important to them.”

She stressed, however, the circuit would maintain a presence in the community with or without a building.

She said: “We are totally committed in the Peterborough Methodist Circuit to making sure the work we are doing with young people in Coates continues.”

The £100,000-plus spend needed at Coates Methodist Circuit would have been in addition to the running costs of the building, which is a sizeable chunk of cash for Peterborough’s churches which are now looking for new uses for their buildings to run alongside worship.

The Reverend George Rogers at St John's Church in Werrington, Peterborough. Photo: Paul Franks

The Reverend George Rogers at St John's Church in Werrington, Peterborough. Photo: Paul Franks

The Rev George Rogers, vicar at Werrington Parish Church, said annually the parish needs to find in excess of £250,000 to keep the St John the Baptist and Emmanuel churches open.

More than half of this goes towards the so-called “Parish Share”, to contribute to the cost of salaries and pension contributions across the diocese.

Mr Rogers said the church relies almost entirely on the generosity of its congregation to meet these outgoings and as a result invests its time in the community to maintain a healthy level of support.

In this spirit, St John’s has recently undergone a £60,000 refurbishment, switching pews for chairs and introducing multimedia technology to open it up for uses beyond worship.

Mr Rogers said: “We are trying to develop and look at new ways of bridging the gap with people. It’s not just about ringing the bells and hoping people will come, it’s about us reaching out into the community.”

A similar strategy has been employed at St Paul’s Church, in Lincoln Road, New England, where the church hall has been brought back into use following a significant refurbishment.

For the church, the expense was minimised thanks to a donation from local councillors, the involvement of the Probation Service’s Community Payback scheme, gifts from the congregation and funds from a pre-school using church space.

Priest in charge the Rev Ron Watkinson described the times as “challenging”, but “exciting” and said churches had to find new ways to shore up their place in the community.

He said: “It’s about being creative. It’s about being entrepreneurial.”

He stressed, however, congregation size was not the bottom line, saying: “What’s important for me is the quality of the fellowship. You can have large numbers, but feeling part of a community - that’s a different thing.

Crime is a regular expense for churches in Peterborough

One church which knows the cost of crime all too well is All Saints’ Church, in Paston.

The 13th Century building was stripped of its lead roof five years ago which set insurers back about £25,000 and another £3,000 for the church.

Since then smaller portions have been taken, in all costing the church about £5,000 in excess payments.

Now, churches are also capped as to how much they can claim from insurers for metal theft per year.

As a result, the church installed a steel roof earlier this year at a cost in the thousands.

All Saints’ Church warden Steve Cutts said the biggest threat to All Saints’ meeting its “Parish Share” was such “unexpected repairs”.

He said: “It’s things like that which all add up.”

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