CHURCHES around Oxfordshire are transforming into 21st century “community hubs” in an effort to involve a wider section of the community.
Taking out pews and installing kitchens and bathrooms are among works being carried out to offer community hall-style spaces for a variety of groups.
The changes have been branded the biggest alterations to church interiors for 200 years by Oxfordshire’s Bishop of Dorchester, the Rt Rev Colin Fletcher.
The latest of Oxfordshire’s 300-odd Church of England buildings to undergo modernisation of this kind is Stadhampton’s church, which is being unveiled on Friday.
St John’s Church has had a £500,000 re-fit to style it as a new community hall for the village.
Historically churches had fixed wooden pews, and no toilets or kitchens.
But over the past five to 10 years there has been a boom in revamping and fitting kitchens and bathrooms.
The fixed church pews are also being replaced with stackable chairs so they can be stored for youth clubs, yoga groups, or parent and toddler groups can use the empty space.
Bishop Colin said: “The pace of change going on at the moment to the interior of churches has not been seen since the early 19th century.
“It is happening all over the place. There is a trend and it is increasing.
“There are two sorts of major work going on. One is repair and the other is fitting toilets, heating, lighting and flexible seating.
“I would say over the last 10 years or so the number of churches that have come into the latter category is about 20 per cent of all our churches in Oxfordshire.”
St John’s has gained the wow factor
STADHAMPTON’S new community hall within its ancient church will open on Friday.
The £500,000 revamp of St John’s Church saw a new kitchen and toilets installed, and its wooden pews replaced with chairs.
Heating, lighting and insulation in the church were also updated.
Work started on March 1 this year and finished in late August.
Chairman of the building project Ann Stead said: “We are delighted that we now have a revitalised church which we will be able to use particularly for the benefit of disadvantaged groups but also for the wider community.”
She added: “The village now has both a village hall and a church with long-sought facilities.”
A lunch club for the elderly and a parent and toddler group are set to launch from the church in the next few weeks. While a youth club is due to open next year.
David Fordham, who helped lead fundraising for the scheme, said: “It is a stunning new building.
“Everybody I have taken around, including some of the doubters, when they go in say “wow”. They really are pleased with what we have achieved.”
The renovation is to be unveiled by Henley MP John Howell at 11.30am.
A family fun afternoon is also set for Saturday from 2pm until 5pm, and a celebratory service on Sunday led by Bishop Fletcher will take place at 4.00pm on Sunday.
He said the revamps started about 30 years ago but took off within the last 10 years.
Bishop Colin is overseeing a book on the changes by researcher Becky Payne, Churches for Communities, Adapting Oxfordshire’s Churches for Wider Use.
The book, which follows closely the revamp of 25 Oxfordshire churches, is due to be published next year by the Oxfordshire Historic Churches Trust.
Currently in the middle of a £2m revamp is Witney’s St Mary’s Church in Church Green.
The church has replaced the tiles on three of its four roofs, and switched fixed pews to stackable chairs this year.
The Rev Toby Wright puts the increasing popularity of churches down to these kinds of changes.
Over the past four years the Sunday congregation at St Mary’s Church has more than doubled from around 60 to 130 regular members with a further rise across the diocese.
The Rev Wright said: “It has been termed the re-medievalisation of the church because what we are actually doing is recapturing the sense that churches are the heartbeat of the community.
“People always used to come to them for all sorts of things. What we are trying to do now is get that back, churches aren’t just for religious uses.
“The church is doing very well, we are growing and lots of young families are coming and the re-engagement of the community could be why.
“When we are holding exciting events and activities it is a strong statement of intent that we are engaging with the community.”