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/ 23 April 2014

Pause, discover, pray: opening up St Mary’s Islington

There’s something very paradoxical about the way an urban church is viewed by the public: simultaneously it’s often the most visible and the least visible building in the neighbourhood. It’s a landmark that you can’t help but notice, but when it comes to relevance in everyday life many people outside the worshipping community have airbrushed it out of their mental picture of the area. Until recently that was probably true of St Mary’s in Islington until the parish did something about it. And what it did is one of the easiest and yet also one the hardest things for a church family to do – it opened the doors.

St Mary’s illustrates the whole point about visibility in a particularly telling way. It is the original parish church of Islington – it was, in fact, the only one until 1814 – and to this day it dominates what still reads as a the centre of a distinct settlement, even though that is now deep inside the London sprawl. It stands right on busy Upper Street and the location with the chichi shops, eateries and places of entertainment so typical of the area, to say nothing of the buses that pull up right by the main door, ought to guarantee a high footfall.

But how likely are these people to be drawn into an open church? What catches your eye is the spire, a wonderfully imaginative creation by Lancelot Dowbiggin of the 1750s – “baroque blood flowing through Palladian veins”, said Ian Nairn – but the rest is a post-war rebuild by Seely and Paget of 1954-6, replacing the Georgian building reduced to a heap of rubble by the Luftwaffe on the night of 9th September 1940. At first sight restrained and a bit of a disappointment after the thrill of the steeple, the longer one stands in the grandly proportioned, luminous worship space the better one sees just how carefully and thoughtfully it was conceived. All in all, though, this is a connoisseur’s church, the sort of building which is sought out by the cognoscenti rather than drawing visitors. So what possessed the parish to start opening it every day?

It’s easy to forget just what a potent symbol an open church can be, especially when it isn’t obviously open for a service or for any other activity. And it was this, above all else, that the parish was counting on. “That’s all we want to tell you about to start with,” says the Rev’d Simon Harvey, vicar of St Mary’s. It’s vital to make it clear that the church isn’t making any demands on visitors: when they walk through the door they aren’t going to have someone pouncing on them asking for money. In an unchurched world a myth even abounds that you have to pay to attend services. “There’s that frequently told story – the church is all about money”, says Simon, “This is for you, for nothing. It’s not my church, it’s not our church, it’s Islington’s church. I make a big thing of being vicar of the parish, not vicar of the church.” But that attitude doesn’t set St Mary’s apart from other churches in the area, it sets it apart from most other indoor public spaces. Go to anywhere else on Upper Street, he points out, and you’ll have to pay to spend time there. Shelling out for a coffee at the very least is what it costs to purchase the right just to stay put and sit quietly in most public spaces these days. Here, that doesn’t apply.

Having your church open means that it’s there when people need it. The need for pastoral support and a space for prayer can arise suddenly and unexpectedly. When something like a terrorist attack or a natural disaster strikes only an open church is in a position to meet it as is shown by a story – possibly apocryphal, but very telling – about the attendees of a clergy conference on September 11th 2001. When the news broke of the attack on the World Trade Centre they scattered because they had to run off to open up their churches. But the decision to open St Mary’s also came from thinking long and hard about what the church ought to be doing. If a vacant plot in this location had had a church built on it and was given to us by the Bishop of London, Simon asked his parish, what would they do with the key? And the answer was that they surely wouldn’t just open it once a week, say a prayer, lock it up and then walk away. From the nearby vicarage he had seen people trying to get into St Mary’s and turning away disappointed because the door was locked.

The church had been open in the past on Wednesday and Saturday mornings but there was still plenty of work to be done preparing the ground. It was two years before the parish took concrete steps but Simon regarded it as important not to force the issue: while he wanted the PCC to adopt his vision he knew that it had to do so on its own terms. “We established an appetite for doing it but had talked ourselves out of doing it in the past.” Paradoxically, the first attempt at opening the church set itself up for a fall. A pilot project was tried with volunteer church-watchers but it became difficult to fill places on the staffing rota and to keep the building manned all the time. That prompted them to take a momentous decision and not to bother having anyone on duty. “The big and radical thing was to take the risk of keeping the doors open.”

This involved getting objective professional advice to cut through some misconceptions that, until then, had held the parish back. “We heard some myths that were of our own making without being empirically true”, says Simon. First, a loss adjuster from the Ecclesiastical Insurance Group (EIG) came to speak to the parish, which he did free of charge. Hearing encouragement from someone who looked like a professional, not the sort of person to take rash decisions, turned out to have a powerful motivational effect. That was followed by a presentation from Nick Tolson of National Churchwatch. Once again, encouragement from a former security industry professional – Nick has served in the police force among other bodies – was a powerful motivation.

Now he had the support of the PCC it was time to think about practical matters. Security tends to be the first that comes to mind. EIG’s official line, based on statistics, is that churches that are open regularly are less likely to fall victim to crime. But the risk can’t be eliminated entirely and the prosperous impression made by the church’s surroundings, contrary to the response of some local clergy – ‘It’s OK for you because you’re on Upper Street!’- is deceptive. “This is the highest crime ward of one of the highest crime boroughs in London,” says Simon. “According to the Church Urban Fund, this parish is in the 10 percent most deprived in the country. It’s not true to say that it’s fine in Islington.” But this isn’t a cause for alarm, just a reminder of the need to keep one’s nerve, be sensible, to recognise problems but not to regard them as insurmountable. All too many churches will tell you how their building used to be open until something untoward happened, after which the parish decided that it could never be kept open again. “Bad stuff does happen but it needn’t stop you. And isn’t stopping everything a bit of an over-reaction?”

Although there is an A-frame board outside the entrance – careful thought was given to the wording of the invitation to enter – it is the fact that the church is open that is publicised, rather than that it isn’t manned. Members of the parish did a brief audit of the interior with a camera, recording portable objects and classifying them as ‘Too precious to have stolen’ and ‘Things with which we’d take the risk’. Part of the mission budget was set aside for loss. “We didn’t want to promise that things wouldn’t get nicked,” said Simon. “But even if £300-400 worth of stuff gets pinched it’s still worth doing.” A bookstall in one corner of the nave was removed, to avoid tempting theft. The new cupboards that replaced it and which are used for storing items for fellowship after services aren’t kept locked – Nick had pointed out that locked ones are most likely to be broken into. “If they steal the entire contents, what is it – £200?” says Simon. Many visitors to historic churches and cathedrals associate the experience with notices reminding them that, while their visit may be free, keeping the building open most certainly isn’t. But Nick advised against displaying a donations box prominently. It wasn’t the point of the exercise -“We decided early on that this wouldn’t be about fixing the steeple,” says Simon – and it might have created temptation.

It’s important to set some brief ground rules, as much to decide what can be done in the building as what can’t. It was decided that the opening hours would be from 9.30am, starting with morning prayer, until 4pm although the church stays open until the evening service on Sundays. Sometimes people come in and sleep for a bit. “If you’re cold and tired we’re happy that you use the space,” says Simon. Some of his PCC were apprehensive that snoozers might end up becoming encamped but that hasn’t turned out to be a problem. Likewise, visitors talking on their mobiles, working on their laptop – there is a limited access public Wifi connection – or eating are also rare. It was decided not to make a toilet available to visitors in order to keep things simple. “We wanted the minimum of rules since we weren’t there to police them.” There is a basic rota shared by members of the staff team for opening and shutting the building and a checklist to follow when locking up to make sure the place is safe and there’s no one hiding. Candles aren’t allowed – they’re potentially a fire risk, but they are also not part of the parish’s tradition of worship. For the same reason some of the more obvious accoutrements of open churches elsewhere, such as icons and holy water stoups, aren’t to be found at St Mary’s.

Schemes such as the much acclaimed Cafe @ All Saints in Hereford have led a lot of people, clergy and laity alike, to associate open churches with a mission of hospitality. But that was explicitly ruled out here. “People have said, ‘You’d really do well by selling coffee’, but there’s a Carluccio’s next door,” Simon points out. “The unique thing is this open church so let’s concentrate on that unique thing.” That said, cultivating good relations with local businesses engendered some useful support. The director of the Angel Business Improvement District said that the surrounding area of Upper Street looked dark and organised funding from local businesses for lighting in trees which is kept on from October to April, while the local council covers the cost of the electricity.

If you sit quietly in St Mary’s what sounds like muffled noise coming from outside turns out to be music coming out of speakers. It makes a change from the more explicitly religious music often playing on loops in open churches. This was another of Nick’s suggestions – he said it would help to reinforce the impression that the space is occupied. The choice of music is dictated partly by the desire to avoid being liable for royalties – it was what turned up in a Google search for ‘ambient, royalty-free music’ – but also to avoid ramming down the throats of visitors the fact that this is a religious building.”We didn’t want plain chant, chamber choirs, mega-Christian choruses or power rock. It’s played off an Mp3 player on a timer,” says Simon.

But apart from this and apart from the soft furnishings in the southwest corner alterations to the church associated with public opening have been minimal. “I mightn’t have designed the building like it is but it has integrity,” says Simon. “People ask about removing the pews, but why muck about with it, why pretend that it’s something else?” However, the fact that the crypt is let out for community use did prompt the parish to think about making the worship space available as well. “People have come to us and said, ‘We’d love to do a recital’ or something like that but it’s cut across the open church for Islington.” Experience has shown that, no matter how good the intentions, events like concerts involve a lot of managing and until an events-organiser appears this isn’t something the parish wishes to pursue. But there is a theological issue at stake, too. “There is a temptation to use these buildings for absolutely everything and it’s OK to say ‘It’s a church, the main purpose of this place is connection with God.’”

What has been very important, though, is gauging the reaction of people who come in to the church. The regular opening was re-launched through participation in London Open House weekend. “Because the church dates from the 1950s and is not a stunning piece of architecture we failed to realise how important this building is to people, how many people want to see it and climb up the tower. We’ve heard a thousand times, ‘Oh I’ve been past it and never been in.’” A custom-made visitors’ book was ordered on-line and the headings for the columns inside were worded carefully so that signing it wouldn’t feel like completing a survey. The comments have been very positive and an important affirmation for the church community. Taken to PCC meetings, the book has helped members feel conviction and pride in what they’ve been doing.

It’s obvious that the way in which the parish interprets its church has been very carefully thought out. “If you simply give people information that they don’t already know then they feel even more timid,” says Simon. “But if you can engage with what’s brought them in then you’re affirming where they’re at and empowering them.” The qualities of the building itself can be a starting point for conversation. “My experience is that people have a profound sense of place. They may not have the words to articulate it but they feel it deeply and they need to be given a chance to feel it.” Simon cites as proof visitors who have come in wanting to see the font where they were baptised or the place where their grandparents were married.  It’s all about striking the right balance between due reverence for a place of worship and making visitors feel at ease. “People come in and want to look around. I tell them they can go where they like but that it’s a sacred space, it’s been hallowed for centuries. I take them up into the pulpit and behind the altar so that they can look out over the church and they say, ‘Wow, are we allowed to do this?’ And I think we get caught by tradition – Catholics say that it’s so special that you’re not allowed in certain areas, while Evangelicals say, ‘Well it’s just a building.’”

Opening up the church has had a positive effect on mission. The parish holds a welcome lunch for newcomers where they’re asked how they found out about St Mary’s and some of them have joined the worshipping community after being brought in by finding the building open. Some of them have become prominent in the church community. But it was important to have realistic expectations. “We didn’t think the church would be throbbing and that’s OK,” says Simon. “It’s grown, but not by hundreds of people.” What has exceeded expectations, though has been the positive response to the parish as practising Christians. “For the church community it’s broken this myth that the world outside is hostile to church,” says Simon. All that is one more proof of the symbolic potency of an open church. “Once you’ve made a decision that your job is to keep people out then everything else follows from that,” says Simon. “It’ll come through in everything – probably the preaching, too! But the opposite’s equally true. We’ve become much more confident and relaxed as a church since we started opening it.”

This was written by Edmund Harris, formerly of the Parish Property Support Team.

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The diocesan communications team provides support to the network of clergy, churches, parishes and other worshipping communities that comprises the Diocese of London, as well as to the staff teams of the London Diocesan Fund.

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