Malls, Marijuana & Bread Baking: Norwich's Changing Churches
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The 2011 census was a hard blow for the churches of Norwich. Almost half of Norwich residents identified themselves as non-religious, and the re-purposed and abandoned churches emerging all over the city seemed to confirm the figures. But is there more to Norwich’s churches than meets the eye? Danielle Hancock went out to ask how are churches coping in England’s most Godless city.

Norwich has more medieval churches than any other British city - 32 to be precise - but while the churches of Norwich make for a unique and historical tourist spot, their upkeep is causing big problems for the people that preach in them.

"We have these amazing medieval buildings, which are heritage items, and to do anything within them costs a huge amount of money,” Madeline Light, the preist in charge of St. Stephens church, explained. “The congregation are not paying the cost of hiring a hall, they’re paying into something that is a national institution ... So the church of England does have to find a lot of money and it doesn’t have a long heritage of people in the pews giving much money.”

A decade ago St Stephen’s was struggling to stay afloat. Invisible to passersby and overgrown with weeds, its churchyard was attracting problems.

“It had become almost redundant, and it’s a very small congregation of about 20 people behind an enormous hedge,” Light said. “The churchyard was used for drug dealing and it was very difficult for the congregation to do anything about it. We even had somebody who’d set up house and had a sofa under a tree and made themselves at home there.”

Then Chapelfield Mall came in. It would be easy to see the development of a huge shopping centre on the church’s doorstep as just another threat. But the church and Chapelfield’s developers struck a deal. St Stephen’s would allow the churchyard to be developed as a scenic walkway to the mall if the mall funded the developments. Now Madeleine says St Stephen’s is a very different place:

“They redeveloped the whole of the graveyard, all the dark spaces, the sofas, and the hypodermic needles,” Light said. “It was totally opened up and made safe. And there’s the church now, sitting in this very beautiful churchyard.”

But this visibility hasn’t just brought shoppers into Madeline’s church - it’s a way for St Stephen’s to really change people’s lives. At St Stephen’s café, mid-shop coffee is a way to help people. All of the homemade cakes are supplied by volunteers, the chances are your server’s a volunteer too, And if you can’t afford to pay then you don’t. Madeleine says it’s generosity that keeps this thing afloat:

“If you just give people an opportunity, it’s really quite surprising how generous people are. We’re inclined to be frightened that people won’t be generous, and we take that risk,” Light said.

The café’ brings enough business to help the church keep going. Madeleine thinks the key to its success is the integration between people that offer help and the people that need it.

“People are quite touched by being able to share with people who are strangers to them, who they don’t even know who they are but it’s much safer than giving money to somebody who’s begging, because you just don’t know where that money’s going,” Light said. “You know in this case that somebody who comes in who is hungry will be given a meal.”

But not every problem can be solved with a brew. For many Norwich churches the cost is just too high and the numbers too small. Some have been taken over by the Norwich Historic Churches Trust, an organisation that seeks to re-purpose churches for community use. Others rely on the financial support of wealthier churches. Reverend Ian Dyble of St Thomas’ in Norwich says this shouldn’t always be the answer.

“I actually believe that all functioning churches, should be self-financing. I wouldn’t go to a golf club and expect other members to pay for the professional,” he said.

For Dyble, churches can and must learn to adapt in order to survive.

“I often say that I know we have the best message in the world, so if that message isn’t getting out there and people aren’t engaging with it, there’s something wrong with the way it’s being presented,” Dyble said.

St Thomas’ presentation has changed, and with great success. The church now holds five Sunday services, including “the Seven” - an extremely popular evening meeting devoted to teens and younger adults. At “The Seven” you don’t have to stay sitting in pews if you don’t want to. People are free to walk about the church, sit in bean bags at the front, there’s cake on offer or you can get a drink from the cafe that stays open all service.

The sermons can spring from anything - from Ian’s wife bartering in John Lewis, to finding God’s message in an alsation cross-breed or carrying a misidentified block of marijuana into a prison. It might seem silly, but for Ian these real-life examples are vital in keeping his church alive:

“I think for a sermon to engage with the congregation, it has to be interesting, it has to be relevant, and something which people can engage with, and journey with you through it,” Dyble said.

St Thomas’ may be changing the way it shares the Christian message, but some churches in Norwich are changing where they share that message. To remain operational, some local congregations have decided to abandon their buildings all together. St Stephen’s has other churches using their building now.

“They’re meeting in people’s homes, and old warehouses, and things like that. Very few meet in churches,” Adam Jackson, the youth and young adult worker at St. Stephens, said. “And if you’re passionate about doing what Jesus said, and serving the poor and helping people, then you want to focus your resources on that.”

And with these new spaces, Jackson said. come new expressions of faith.

“There’s a church that’s entirely based on baking bread together, and then they sing together and pray while the bread is baking, and then they all eat it together afterwards or give it out onto the streets,” Jackson said.

From coffee and bean bags, to bread baking to church-borrowing, the churches of Norwich evolve as institutions of community and faith. Norwich might be deemed the UK’s most godless city, but many of its churches can handle the pressure.

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