Emma Warren reports on the places of worship providing affordable community space in austerity Britain
The music fans sitting on re-arranged pews in St James The Great, East London, are being blessed with wonderful sounds courtesy of rising star musicians Ezra Collective. But this is not your usual congregation. The people here this Friday night have answered the call of new London jazz not the call of a faith leader – and they’re here specifically because of the way the Reverend Rosemia Brown has opened up her church to a community that extends beyond local believers.
Reverend Brown’s been allowing the grassroots music promoters behind Church of Sound to use the space since 2016. The story of how this transpired is typically DIY: co-founder and musician Spencer Martin was looking for rehearsal space for his band but couldn’t afford any of the usual options. Instead, he cycled around east London knocking on church doors offering to play organ at mass in exchange for keys that allowed the band to rehearse during church quiet times. So when he was looking for a space for Church of Sound, he had a ready community of faith leaders to approach – and the Reverend Brown agreed to give it a try.
Three years on the event regularly sells out, has expanded to Paris and has contributed around £16,000 to the church fund.
“The building contains substantial room, good facilities, two car parks, is easily accessible and they let us use it for a fraction of the price”
“St James The Great and it’s principle minders – Rosemia and Burnett Brown – are vital to the existence of Church of Sound,” explains Spencer Martin. “The building contains substantial room, good facilities, two car parks, is easily accessible by all and they let us use it for a fraction of the price those characteristics would usually dictate in London.”
In a more standard fashion, the church also offers free meals for local people every Wednesday lunchtime and on Saturday evenings. This hasn’t gone un-noticed by Spencer and the more secular Church of Sound crew: “The congregation are a constant reminder of the value of grassroots community action.”
Places of worship in the UK appear to be changing. Rochester Cathedral installed a crazy golf course in the church knave earlier this year.
The Cambridge Central Mosque opened in Spring 2019. It was designed by Marks Barkfield who created The London Eye and is designed to engage all communities. There’s a cafe, it’s welcoming across the gender divide, and is as eco-friendly as possible. The deeper you go into the building, the more you enter the faith space.
The Baroness Warsi Foundation – set up by Conservative Peer Sayeeda Warsi – are interested in the way faith spaces are being used in contemporary Britain. They worked with Professor Emma Tomalin from the University of Leeds, hosting ten workshops nationwide throughout 2019. The sessions centred around three questions: the purpose of places of worship, the challenges for places of worship, and the design of places of worship. They’ll be launching the subsequent report ‘Modern Places of Worship’ in early 2020.
So how much are faith spaces opening up their space to a broader community? “We have found evidence of this, but I am not sure it is a completely new phenomena,” says Tomalison. “Places of worship have for a long time run youth centres and mother and toddler groups, either cheaply or for free, using their resources that include volunteers and meeting spaces.”
Anecdotally, some mosques are taking food parcels and redistributing them through their buildings and networks as a way of combating the stigma of accepting donations – or the perception of not doing well. If it’s from the mosque, the thinking goes, people are more able to accept necessary help.
It’s worth noting here the challenges some faith spaces face as they begin to open up. Mosques and Synagogues in particular have experienced an increase in attacks since the EU Exit referendum and faith leaders, like schools, are being asked to get involved with a range of complex social problems from combatting extremism to distributing emergency food parcels.
Professor Tomalinson is also working on separate project funded by Public Health Leeds looking at places of worship as public health settings. “While we found that this reflected the desire to offer more effective services and to access certain populations that may be ’hard to reach’,” she says, “it also reflected the need to deliver more efficient services.” The government’s austerity policy has created an ad hoc reshaping of the services Tomalison refers to – 1,000 Children’s Centres and more than 720 youth clubs have closed in the past decade – and faith spaces are increasingly part of the picture.
The Guru Nanak Gurdwara in Bradford has been offering a place for worship since 1969. Like all Sikh spaces, they have community kitchens or langar but they’re also going further: there’s a thriving gym which is open to everyone in the community, alongside a training programme which saw congregation members trained up to become mental health first aiders.
Two years ago a man with mental health problems knocked on the door, looking for somewhere to stay explains Sam Singh who volunteers at the Guru Nanak Gurdwara. The man stayed for two weeks then went home and a year later, died by suicide. In response to this preventable death the Gurdwara ran a multilingual mental health awareness weekend for children and adults. “We’re trying to get people to open their eyes to a subject that’s a bit taboo,” says Singh.
“Gurdwara is a place for sanctuary and service. We knew we weren’t fit for purpose in modern day UK lifestyle. So we need people who can accommodate that, all based on the principles of our faith. We’re here to serve, we’re here to help.”
Their gym emerged from similar thinking. “It’s not just a gym,” says Singh. “Sure we’ve got all the equipment there but we’ve have prayers and a fully kitted out art exhibition. The purpose it to get people spiritually uplifted as well as physically fit – and physical fitness is an inseparable part of the Sikh faith.”
“As with all faiths, we’re interested in the body, mind and soul, to provide food for all three,” he adds. “It goes back to the origins of our faith and what Gurdwaras were there for. There were places for commerce, they were for education, they were at the centre of the community, whether you needed to know about new farming techniques or you needed medicine, that’s where you went.”
“The purpose is to get people spiritually uplifted as well as physically fit”
To say that St Richard’s – and the Hangleton and Knoll Community Centre it houses – is at the centre of the community risks understatement. The estate is bordered by three big roads and sits a 15 minute drive outside Brighton. Building Manager Ann Tizzard is listing what’s happening today: a Standing Tall group, which offers physio for people with breathing problems; toddler football (morning and afternoon), a Multicultural Health Walk which does what is says on the tin, bingo, samba and Tai Chi. That’s not to mention the assorted dementia groups, mental health projects and dedicated youth work that goes on here. In total, 54 groups use the centre.
The church use the 1930s-built community centre on Sundays and Wednesdays – “with our permission” says Ann – and the community run things the rest of the time through the Knoll Community Association. “The church gave it to us,” she says. “It was in a state of dilapidation. It was cold, leaky and in very poor repair, without properly functioning toilets. The community cleared, repaired and rebuilt and raised money for works they couldn’t do themselves.
“This building is so important to the people on the estate,” she says. “I love it to bits, it’s so comfortable and relaxed. We get people coming from the local mental health unit, just to come and sit in here, because the find the atmosphere relaxing.”
“The young flock to the place. They see it as a place where they can be secure”
The Hangleton and Knoll Youth Centre run a young women’s group, boxing, music and art sessions and a weekly table-tennis night. Aside from the sessions, they’re pulling opportunities onto the estate and connecting young people with city-wide opportunities, attempting to bridge the deep gaps that exist between affluent metropolitan areas like Brighton and the outlying areas which suffer significant levels of deprivation. “The young flock to the place,” says Ann. “They see it as a place where they can be secure.”
It’s worth mentioning that these places can also help generate culture that has a broader national impact: the hugely successful percussive performance group Stomp started here and Eddie Izzard hosted an early gig at the centre’s annual Hove Festival.
On a personal level, Ann has been in and out of the place since the 1970s when she attended Brownies and went to ballet classes. Now she’s seeing the circle come round again with parents and grandparents returning with next generation children and enjoying the layered comforts that come from having been in a space over decades. St Richards is an example of the ways in which faith leaders can really ensure that their spaces can really be used for maximum community benefit. They can hand over assets to people who really know how to use them.
Like the music fans at Church of Sound, or the Bradfordians getting fit at the Guru Nanak Gurdwara, St Richards offers welcome respite from the commercial realities that inform much of UK life. “I get a lot of people saying they came here as kids now they’re coming back to run groups. People come home. That’s what it’s like, it’s like being at home.”
Emma Warren is a journalist and author of Make Some Space, a manifesto for creating musical communities in the 21st century
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