Community hub move for churches

Norfolk's vast network of ancient churches could be opened up and used for services from health surgeries to elderly day care centres to post offices under new government plans.

Norfolk's vast network of ancient churches could be opened up and used for services from health surgeries to elderly day care centres to post offices under new government plans.

The Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Rev Graham James, who gave advice to authors of the report proposing the initiative, said it would help the church play a much greater role in serving the wider community.

“We often say the church is the biggest public house in Norfolk,” said Bishop Graham.

“We have these wonderful historic buildings but we need to put them to use to the benefit the wider community and it is good that the government are recognising this.”

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Financial secretary to the Treasury Stephen Timms has been joined by other leading ministers in recognising the “valuable” but often unrecognised role faith communities play in local areas.

Although no new government money is on offer for building adaptations, the document outlines how faith groups can better tap into existing sources of funding from government programmes.

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Publication of the document, Faith Buildings: Realising the Potential, comes at a time when the Church of England seeks to highlight its role as the “largest voluntary organisation” in the country with a network of 16,000 parish churches.

Bishop Graham agreed with the report's view that if a faith-based organisation accepted funding for public services those services should be open to everyone in that community, whatever their beliefs.

The Bishop pointed out many churches in Norfolk have been adapted and re-ordered for wider community use and examples included St Michael's at Aylsham and Fakenham parish church.

He stressed that he didn't feel that it would be a case of “anything goes” and cited a lap dancing club or a betting office as examples where uses would not be acceptable.

Anne Sloman, who lives near Fakenham and is a member of the Archbishops' Council, played a key role with the Bishop of London in development of the guidance.

“It is now up to the Church, and others, to take advantage of this initiative - nothing will happen unless we make it happen. This is a wonderful opportunity that we should embrace wholeheartedly,” said Ms Sloman.

Loyd Grossman, chairman of the Churches Conservation Trust, said: “The Churches Conservation Trust's 340 churches host a wide range of events - from rock bands to choral groups and even a circus school! Funding providers need to see the potential that these ancient buildings have as contemporary spaces with minimal adaptation. If local groups are better able to tap into these funding sources, they can ensure that churches serve 21st century community needs and remain open for future generations to enjoy.”

The Bishop of London, the Rt Rev Richard Chartres, said there were now more parish churches than post offices and already around 12 POs operated from church buildings.

“This is an example of a growing trend to return church buildings to their original function as places of worship and also places of assembly and celebration for the whole of the local community,” he said.

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