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A Living Heritage

Friday 7th February, 2014 @ 2:38 pm

by Holly Mills | tags: ,

Holly Mills, treasurer of the Nottingham and Derby Society of Architects and member of St Mary’s congregation, explains why we should learn form the architects of the past

Throughout December, St Mary’s church hosted an exhibition by the Nottingham and Derby branch of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). The exhibition focused on Victorian architect, George Gilbert Scott who worked on many cathedrals and churches during his lifetime, including St Mary’s. The exhibition also featured work by Nottingham University’s school of architecture which looks at the buildings surrounding St Mary’s in Nottingham’s historic Lacemarket.

For me, the exhibition emphasised how church buildings have changed over the course of time to meet contemporary needs. Gilbert Scott made significant changes to the look of the church, most notably returning the west end to the gothic style of architecture which had been altered to a classical style around 100 years earlier. But Gilbert Scott’s changes were not purely cosmetic. Firstly, the church was in real danger of collapsing in the 1840s due to a family vault undermining the tower’s foundations. This led to the church being closed for five years (1843-1848) for major repair works and a number of other changes. One of the most telling changes was the installation of new pew seating. In Gilbert Scott’s time there was real pressure on church capacities, a problem that most churches would be pleased to be facing today. At St Mary’s this led to old box pews, reserved for the wealthy and righteous, being ripped out in favour of more egalitarian pews that accommodated more people.

The work of Gilbert Scott and architects before him demonstrate how churches have evolved to meet the needs of the time. Throughout the country you will see examples of how church buildings have been extended, altered and improved. But what does this mean for churches today? Cynics may see the church building as redundant in modern society. With dwindling congregations and struggling finances, perhaps the inevitable future for many churches is that they will become frozen in time, destined to be museums of a bygone age in an age of secularism. Maybe some will be converted into houses or pubs, retaining their outward appearance but completely losing their original sense of purpose. This is indeed a bleak and depressing vision of the future for sacred architecture in our country.

However, if we follow the lead of Gilbert Scott and our ancestors, I believe historic church buildings can remain relevant and important to our society. We will have to change our view of what a church building’s purpose is. A minority of people, myself included, will continue to enjoy the spirituality of a traditional service but we are unlikely to ever see the large congregations of yesteryear return. We have to recognise that people will only use our church buildings in significant numbers if the buildings offer something that appeals to them. This may have some connection with Christianity or spirituality, or it may not. Christians are called to love their neighbours – the first step towards loving your neighbours is to meet them and then grow to understand them. How many of the people living and working around our church buildings do we know, let alone understand? Churches urgently need to find ways to encourage all of their neighbours to come into the building. This will require an open mind, imagination and a willingness to try new ideas. We will have to continue to do the things that we already do well and celebrate the heritage of our buildings, but we need to find time to do new and different things too.

The completion of the new floor is a truly positive step forward for St Mary’s church, and very much in the spirit of Gilbert Scott. The recent improvements build on the church’s rich heritage with the aim of making a more flexible and comfortable space that opens up new opportunities. However, the really hard part comes now – how will we make the most of this new flexible space? How will we entice our neighbours in with a wider range of events? How will we ensure that the church becomes as relevant to the people of Nottingham as it once was?

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