Where a sauna saved a church

October 23, 2004, Saturday

Where a sauna saved a church


WE EACH spend on average pounds 3,000 a year on the National Health
Service. But a mere 20p a head each year would double the amount
devoted by the public body English Heritage to the repair of

Britain has an astonishing richness of church architecture. Of
course, France and Spain and other European countries have marvellous
churches too. But many were smashed up, in the French revolution, or
burnt in various “liberal” convulsions in 19th and 20th-century
Spain. Our own convulsions left their marks in the 16th and 17th
centuries, and the dangers to church fabric since then have been
principally decay and traffic schemes.

The British love for church was convincingly confirmed last month
when The Daily Telegraph invited nominations for readers’ favourite
churches. Three or four thousand people wrote in, and the results
will be published later this year.

That figure of 20p each representing a doubling of public spending on
churches comes from Building Faith in Our Future, a report from the
Church Heritage Forum. Although the report occasionally lapses into
dull committee-speak, its subject is is churches – church buildings –
and how they can be “catalysts for regeneration”.

I’m not sure “catalyst” is exactly the right metaphor, since a
catalyst is a substance that increases the rate of a chemical
reaction without itself undergoing change. Churches, on the contrary,
are completely part of their village or suburb, as much as pubs and
post offices, more than betting shops, and certainly more than the
casinos that the Government is planning.

The Diocese of Lincoln makes tourism an ally in promoting the work of
its churches. The cathedral provides information about nine plum
churches of architectural and historic interest. These churches try
to have someone around so that when visitors call, they can find out
about 44 further churches in the area worth looking at. In these 44
churches visitors can be put in touch with 300 more.

At St Paul’s, Old Ford, in east London, tourism was not a likely
prospect. Although the church, built in 1878, was a Grade II-listed
building of historic importance, it was closed a decade ago for
safety reasons. But local people were very fond of it, and the new
vicar, the Rev Philippa Boardman, worked away with her parochial
church council to try to renovate it.

The result has been the construction of an extraordinary wooden “pod”
on steel stilts inside the nave space, housing an art gallery, a room
for projects, a room for counselling and, for some reason, a sauna.
The structure has been nicknamed “The Ark”. The old church has a part
dedicated for worship and a part used as a cafe.

Money for this came from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Mercers’
Company, the Worshipful Company of Haberdashers, and other public,
church and private sources. The church opened up again in May this

I have reservations about a church being used as a cafe, let alone a
sauna. But the world is littered with ruined churches. Ancient
Armenian churches stand crumbling in Anatolia; the basilicas of St
Augustine’s day have crumbled into the dust of north Africa. But we
get so used to saying that a church is not just the building that it
is easy to neglect the glory of the very structures.

“The achievement on the part of tens of thousands of volunteers is
hugely impressive,” says The Bishop of London, the Rt Rev Richard

“Churches are probably better cared for now than at any time in the
past 100 years.” He is surely right that churches are good for
communities. And because of voluntary support, they spend what little
public money they get more productively that the poor old NHS. They
should get more.

How We Saw It: 150 Years of The Daily Telegraph 1855-2005 (Ebury
Press) by Christopher Howse, with a foreword by W F Deedes, is
available for pounds 20 (plus pounds 1.25 p&p) from Telegraph Books
Direct 0870 155 7222.

From: Emil Lazarian | Ararat NewsPress