A Bigger Welcome?

The PCC has launched a debate on a number of proposals for re-ordering the space within All Saints and St James church, King's Cliffe.  As part of the debate, PCC members have been actively engaging members of the congregation in conversation on the subject and have asked each one to to complete a questionnaire.  The results of the questionnaire were given to the congregation at a special meeting following the morning service on 29th December, 2015.  The following is a transcript of the introduction to that meeting given by Revd Karin Voth Harman.

All Saints and St James Church has been here since the 13th century and has, of course, been changing ever since.  Each generation has to rethink the role of the church in the community and ask whether there is the will or resources to make any changes.

The way we use All Saints and St James has changed a bit over the past few years. Stephen Barber has built up the choir and there’s a real desire to hear what they’re singing and to make use of the sanctuary space which they fill with song during our Sunday worship.

The CHAOS room is now used for monthly Women’s Fellowship, Deanery training events, Benefice meetings, Twiglets, Community Law Society and Mental Health workers on Friday mornings and, of course, CHAOS on Sunday mornings.

On Friday mornings the church is now humming with Café which is now halfway through its third year.  Community organisations come in to meet clients, or to network, groups like the guides, brownies leaders and parent association hold informal meetings and Willow Tree holds their coffee morning and their open morning here on a Friday.

Hustings are held here and concerts are held here and there is excitement around using the church in this way.

It’s been almost a year since we started thinking about the rather wonderful problem we have of the community café reaching capacity. Almost every week all the tables and chairs are full, and we know that, in order to attract new people back, they need to feel there’s enough room for them, and their children and even sometimes the dogs they bring along.

This is what sparked the idea of looking at whether we could create some extra space at the back to make a bigger community café possible. We also wanted and needed to make serving on the café rota as easy as possible – a job open to people of different fitness levels. So the idea of siting a sink at the back south side of the church to avoid carrying everything back and forth to the vestry was discussed. Then the issue of where we might store additional tables and chairs for café became apparent.

As soon as we begin to think about making those changes, other changes began to rear their heads. For years, people have discussed the possibility of levelling out the floor levels so that the walk up to the high altar isn’t so treacherous. The choir space could become more flexible with pews made movable so that the choir could position themselves better. The lighting could be improved, more storage space added, perhaps a second meeting room somewhere and the paintwork definitely needs redoing. The architect we had in for a preliminary look round suggested that our loo was inadequate and inaccessible.

One of the biggest issues we face in this building is the different floor levels. You will notice that the pews are raised on plinths about 4 inches from the surrounding stone pathways. The area at the front here, which used to have pews upon it, is also raised up in this way. Below this entire area of wooden plinth is a shallow cavity which means that any nibbling away of the pews, or attempts to iron out the floor levels up at the front of church, will involve some filling in of the cavity and the addition of a new flooring material.

So we were encouraged by the Archdeacon and the Diocesan faculty committee to consider the option of taking all the pews out, and creating a beautiful stone or tiled floor beneath.

The case for taking all the pews out goes something like this: with a fully flexible space, we restore the church to how it looked in the Middle Ages.  Back then the church would have been used as a worship space in which people stood or moved about accessing various altars and lighting candles on various stands.  The space may also have served as a site for markets in extreme cold, for community meetings or meals or to put up soldiers or passers by who needed shelter for the night. We don’t know exactly what would have gone on in here, but we do know that most of that would have stopped after the reformation when pews would have been added, smaller boxed ones at first. Finally in about 1870, the whole body church was filled in with the Victorian pews in which you now sit.

In the last decades a few pews at the back have been removed, and a few at the front to create the space in which we now present the service at the front at this nave altar, and also the space in which we have coffee at the back.

To finish the job and remove all the pews, would enable us to use the space in a whole variety of ways - ways we perhaps can’t even imagine at the beginning of this 21st century.  21st century people, remember, are not really used to sitting in rows and being told what to do. Many churches now arrange chairs or even pews in semi circles to create a greater sense of participation and belonging. The number of chairs out can reflect the size of the congregation and the kind of service desired. Many people these days like to come and walk around a church, as we do in most cathedrals, accessing the space for our own private encounters with holiness.

But we would also be able to welcome the community in a greater variety of ways were we to have total flexibility. St Peter’s Oundle uses the church space as a youth club once a week. They also have dinners in the church with musical accompaniment and they put on theatrical performances and concerts. Other churches host weekly post offices or shops and they are rented out for conferences or receptions. One church got on East Midland news this week because they’ve put an ice rink in their nave and are inviting the community in to ice skate. The Vicar looked hilarious and very precarious trying to ice skate around in his cassock.  Flower festivals, Christmas tree festivals, Christmas markets – all these are ways in which churches can be used, once they have more room and flexibility than we currently enjoy.

Of course something is lost if we go down this route.  Many of the comments we’ve received in the consultation express a desire to hold on to what we’ve got. We don’t want to lose a sense of timelessness, say some. ‘It holds our memories, don’t change it,’ say others. ‘We don’t want to lose the beauty of the place. We don’t want to turn it into a community centre or a big cafe’.

There are many different opinions which have been expressed in the consultation sheets so thanks for taking the time to fill these in. One thing I think we all agree on is that, whatever changes are made, we must not destroy the beauty of the church.  We will not rip out the pews, put in some linoleum flooring and make the church look like a functional community centre or village hall. As you know, when you go into Peterborough Cathedral and admire the stone columns and lovely floor, churches without pews can be most beautiful, and the clean sweep of the floor most uplifting. In any case the rules now in place with diocesan faculty boards mean that we will not be able to propose any changes which are seen to detract from the aesthetics of the church. Quite the contrary – increased and well ordered storage space could tidy up the back and make it look much better.

Another thing we agree on is that we don’t currently have the money to make these changes. And that of course is true. If you’re paying attention to the accounts you receive at the time of the AGM you might be aware that we are currently drawing down from our reserves to meet our operating budget. In other words, at the moment we raise less each year than we spend.

We need to raise a lot more money, and we know it’s easier to raise money when we have a clear vision for improving the church and expanding its outreach to the community. Sometimes you have to spend money to raise money and, at the moment at least we have these reserves which will allow us to access grants, for example, which require match funding.  Any work we undertake, whether we go for small or large changes, will have to be financed mostly by grants, but there are grants out there – and the bigger the project and greater it’s impact on the whole community, the more possible it is to tap into big sources of grant funding.

Improving the paintwork, the wonky stones on the aisles, the wood rot in the back north end pew, the lighting, the sound system – all of these small jobs could be wrapped up into the bigger project of creating a church fit to serve as the hub of the community in the 21st century.

So it may sound counterintuitive, but there are valid financial arguments to suggest that we may be in much stronger financial position should we create the kind of vision that will draw in support both from villagers outside the normal congregation and from wider grant making bodies.

Our consultation work thus far shows that do not yet share a vision as a group of church going people.  Strength of opinion ranges widely, and it also differs between the PCC, who are generally more in favour of greater change, and the rest of the congregation.  Amongst the PCC there was only 1 person prepared to actively oppose any of the changes, whilst quite a lot of willingness, even enthusiasm for change of various kinds.

The rest of the respondents to the questionnaire were much more opposed to the idea of removing all the pews, with 10 strongly against and 5 strongly pro. A few more late questionnaires coming in this week also opposed this most radical change.

Adding the PCC and rest of the congregation together, you can see from this graph that those for and against removing all the pews are about equal, with no one in the middle! This is probably a typical reaction amongst a congregation to this most divisive sort of change.

We wanted to see if halving the pews would seem an acceptable compromise, but there seems little enthusiasm for that, and almost as much outright opposition, with more people voting 1 or 2 than for removing all the pews.

A clear majority of people are willing to lose a pew, or two or three at the back, and several people wrote in their preferred number.

The single change backed by most was a new sink at the back of the church. There is also a lot of support for an accessible loo, though this would be virtually impossible to create without extending the current vestry, an option which has less support, but very little opposition.

At the front of the church, there is little opposition to evening out the floors or removing or making movable the choir stalls, though not huge excitement either. This may reflect the fact that this is a matter of accessibility rather than a new or different use of space. Surprisingly many people weren’t too bothered by the lighting as it is, with some writing in just improve it for those who are reading at the front.  Vestry extension was not much opposed or supported – again not such an emotive change.  Making a new vestry at the back in the space now occupied by the font was not much opposed but not much supported either. This plan would be an alternative to the front vestry expansion, and we should have made that more clear on the survey.

So, having discussed possible changes with the archdeacon and diocesan advisory committee, a church architect, the PCC, and now with you, we still some way from building consensus on what we should do.

It’s important to emphasise that nothing is decided at this point; I don’t think that either Philip, nor myself, nor David, nor anyone else is yet entirely clear on which option we would prefer. But the options now fall, you will have gathered, into roughly four categories:


  1. No change. Try to raise the money to cover our running costs and complete the repair work needed, that’s all. We’re doing all right with the facilities we’ve got.

  2. Some change. Yes, let’s increase the social space at the back of the church, take out a row or two of back pews, tidy it up, perhaps put in some better storage cupboards and if we can afford it a sink. Let’s go for smaller grants to do this work perhaps in stages, beginning with the back, as it looks like we’ve just been given some money to spend on the community café.

  3. A bit more change: While we’re at it, let’s iron out some of the floor levels at the front by raising floor levels in the choir area and making those pews movable so that we can use that space more flexibly.

  4. Let’s do it all, and give ourselves maximum flexibility for worship and community use over the course of the next 100 years. Let’s go for bigger grants with a compelling vision of how this church building might be used to draw in the whole community.


What will happen next and how will we make this difficult decision?

In a moment there will be a chance to ask clarifying questions. It may be helpful to use this time to ask specific questions rather than to state what you think best. After hearing this presentation, and reflecting on the issues and ideas discussed, we invite you to write to the PCC with your thoughts on the 4 options outlined above, and to indicate the scale, rather than the actual specifics of change you would like to see. You can address these letters to Chris Ball, the PCC Secretary, or you can email your thoughts to me or to Philip. The January Gazette will invite similar submissions from the wider village community.

There will be further meetings of the Fabric and Finance committee, and of the leadership team, in the hope of presenting to the PCC in February.

At that meeting the PCC will decide whether we want to make any changes and if so, whether we are ready to commission our architect to produce drawings of a scheme.  Once an architect’s drawings are complete, we will again invite comments and submissions from the wider community, because the devil of course is in the detail, and you will no doubt want your say.

The final plan will have to be approved by a majority vote on the PCC, and we will then cost it, and begin the process of applying for a faculty approval from the Diocese and for grant monies.

So there are many stages left in this process, and plenty of time to think and discuss. My great hope is that this process of asking ourselves ‘what and who is this building for’ and ‘what should a church look like in the 21st century?’ – this very process that we have been engaged in for several weeks, and are likely to be engaged with for several months, if not years – this process will bring us together, not because we will agree with each other, but because we will all be thinking together about what it means to be a church. Which is at the end of the day a profoundly interesting and important question.