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Concerts, Cinemas & Centres for Community - What Do You Do With a Redundant Church?

By Ian Gregory.

Retired congregational minister

A large number of churches and chapels built by our predecessors are in the wrong place for all practical purposes today. I have been observing with interest the plea for the glorious Bethesda Chapel in Hanley, Stoke on Trent to be restored to its former condition at a cost of at least £1.5million.

Apparently there was a time when this fine place was packed, Sunday by Sunday, with ardent Methodists, but by the end of the last century a mere handful of people were in regular attendance. The building has been allowed to deteriorate into a vandal-stricken shell.

The glory days cannot now be recaptured, so people are speculating on what the place could be used for. Concerts, maybe? An urgently-needed annexe to the nearby Potteries Museum? A cinema? A local historian has told the Historic Chapels Trust, which owns it, that it should come up with 'an original and inspiring idea' for it. Hanley, with its optimistically-named 'culture quarter', already has far more accommodation for stage presentations than it can profitably use.

Journalist and historian Simon Jenkins has urged with passion that the building should be preserved and restored because 'it represents a huge chunk of our past.' But even he cannot be specific about what it could be used for. That being so, I could not bring myself to vote on the BBC 'Restoration' programme for Bethesda's salvation. There really does come a time when, however important such places are, their very existence proclaims the contemporary irrelevance of the faith which they once declared. I would rather see it properly recorded, then demolished.

Our forefathers saw no further than the end of their little segment of time. They built solid tabernacles to the glory of - whom? They said God, but we more cynically detect ego-trips, inter-church rivalry and wealth-displays. Whatever made them do it, they built their Zions and Mount Carmels in locations which may well have served communities at that time, but are in the wrong place now. Life has moved on. New urban needs have dictated that houses give way to shops and offices.

Faced with the closure of many community churches and chapels, there is little room for sentiment among those who really care about Kingdom imperatives in our time. If they are in the wrong place, they should surely go, and any profit to be made from their sale used for wiser purposes.

Having said that, in retirement I have been drawn to the possibility of reviving a Congregational chapel in the town of Cheadle, Staffordshire, which closed two years ago. It is in the centre of a market town of 12,000 people, with no other church of the reformed tradition within miles. Here is a cause that is ripe for revival.

The community is starved of meeting rooms, and at the local High School young people welcomed the idea of a place to which they could go for well-managed social activity. The church was built in 1799 and expanded in 1850. We have sold the pews, pulpit and organ in a deliberate attempt to de-religion it. Now we have asked an architect to put in a mezzanine floor, and make it suitable as a 21st century community resource.

It will cost £300,000, and a fund-raising expert tells us that should be 'no problem'. A group of us are excited by the idea of starting a new kind of church from scratch. We have asked ourselves: "Given a property in the right place, what would a Christian church be like in this community, with no traditions to observe, just the Bible and the Holy Spirit to hand?"

Notwithstanding the cheerful optimism of our fund raiser, I plan a sponsored 24-hour Bible-read on the church steps to remind the community that the vision of our 1799 forebears has not faded, and there is life here, although perhaps not as they have known it.

Ian Gregory

Minister of the Congregational Church at Cheadle, Staffordshire

Ministry Today

You are reading Concerts, Cinemas and Centres for Community - What Do You Do With a Redundant Church? by Ian Gregory, part of Issue 31 of Ministry Today, published in June 2004.

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