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Open churches toolkit: Interpreting and celebrating your building

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Think about what are the main attractions of your building from the point of view of a visitor. If someone entered the church with only five minutes to spare what are the ‘must sees’ towards which you’d direct him or her? What about if there was half an hour to spare? Here are some thoughts on other kinds of information you might want to provide.

How to find out about your church

  • Introduce yourselves and the current life of the living church with photographs of members of the church family and recent events.
  • Interpret the church as a place of worship. Explain the function of items such as the altar, lectern and font and what they represent for Christians. Don’t assume prior knowledge on the part of visitors.
  • Find out the history of your building and its architecture. Sources like the Pevsner ‘Buildings of England’ architectural guides or, if your building is listed, the National Heritage List for England, are a good place to start. Consult the local studies department at your nearest library or the London Metropolitan Archives.
  • Who founded or sponsored your church? Who designed it? What else did that person build? Did any famous craftsmen or designers work on it? Are there any associations with a famous people or organisations and historical events? Who’s buried there? Has your church ever been featured in literature, film or on TV? What are its connections with the history of the local area and community

How to share this information

Provide a guide book: you can find helpful guidance on doing this at the Church Guides and Building on History websites. You might want to think about producing a detailed booklet for visitors who want in-depth information and a brief leaflet to guide people who just want to see the highlights.

Put up information boards next to notable features such as tombs, stained glass windows and important furnishing: make sure they’re easily legible and easy to digest. Think about incorporating Quick Response (QR) Codes linked to your church’s website or other specially constructed web pages for smartphone users.

Create an app about the history of your church: Holy Trinity, Stratford-upon-Avon can now be explored with the help of an app for smartphones and iPads which you can download and which will give you an idea of the sort of thing that can be achieved. You can also download a guide to using digital technology for heritage projects from the website of the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Create a display about your church: could you include digital interpretative material, such as interactive touchscreens? It’s important not to exclude people who don’t have smartphones.

Put together children’s trails to keep them occupied while their parents are looking round: the National Association of Decorative and Fine Arts Societies (NADFAS) has a downloadable guide on Children’s Trails for 8-12 year olds which you can adapt it to suit your own church building.

Don’t forget that disabled visitors may have particular needs which, thanks to modern technology, can now be easily met, such as this project which interprets London landmarks for blind and partially-sighted people.

Researching the history of your church building can pay all sorts of dividends. If you need to submit a Statement of Significance with a faculty application then the two activities complement each other very beneficially. A good guidebook or website can also satisfy the requirement for community engagement if you make a bid for funding under the Heritage Lottery Fund’s Grants for Places of Worship scheme.

Incidentally, there’s no need to limit visitor information to your church. You can become the main source of information about your local area by advertising other local places of interest, public events and good eating places. There’s a wide scope for mutual benefit.

All that said, it’s important to get the balance right between helping visitors to find their way around and overwhelming them with information. Ultimately, nothing will speak more eloquently about your church than the building itself.

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Open churches toolkit