Learning from Churches

Ben Greener


Divine Inspiration project leader Helen McGowan and pupils from St Bartholomew's School, Coventry (Photo: CABE/Alys Tomlinson)

Historic churches are an integral part of the landscape. We drive past them every day, their towers and spires providing landmarks, reference points and signs of home. We spy them in the distance from train carriages or walk by them on our way to work, then wander through their churchyards at lunchtimes. And, from time to time, for a range of reasons, many of us step inside them to learn more.

Crossing the threshold and learning more about buildings helps us to connect the past and the present. It provides an insight into our shared heritage, from the local to the global, and brings the past alive. While school trips and visits to heritage sites are nothing new, there’s a groundswell of interest in the historic environment and a growing enthusiasm for understanding and exploring the past.

Announcing the launch in February this year of ‘Heritage Schools’, a £2.7 million initiative funded by the Department for Education linking schools with heritage experts, education secretary Michael Gove remarked that historic places and buildings ‘are the physical remains of the rich, controversial and thrilling story of England’. Simon Thurley, the chief executive of English Heritage, added that visits to historic sites endow ‘present and future generations of children with a vivid understanding of the place in which they grew up’.


Churches, with their vast range of styles and huge number of buildings, represent the biggest learning resource through which we can access and explore the past. There are few villages, towns or cities without a place of worship. The Church of England alone is responsible for over 16,000 of them. Taking other denominations into account swells the figure to around 47,000 cathedrals, churches, chapels and meeting houses across the UK.

They are a recurring feature in both rural and urban settings. Is it any wonder that we often grow used to them? Yet they represent a treasure trove of stories, memories and information. Over 12,500 churches are listed, a fact which confirms their historical importance, and 45 per cent of Grade I listed buildings are cathedrals and churches. They have overseen centuries of history, recording events and people of significance throughout these times. They tell our national story.


With some of the earliest Christian buildings in Britain stretching back to the 7th century, ancient places like Canterbury St Martin and Bradwell Chapel shine a light on a distant past. Often, recycled bricks and masonry provide physical evidence of the various epochs through which a building has survived.

  Primary school pupils learning what makes a church a church (Photo: CABE/Alys Tomlinson)  

But they aren’t static museums, or mausoleums to a time gone by. Churches evolve and change with every passing year and each generation leaves a mark on these buildings, resulting in a rich mix of architectural expression which spans history. A good example of this is seen in church art. From simple carvings and early wall paintings, to epic stained glass windows and masterpieces of sculpture, churches are repositories of popular art and culture, highlighting social, political and economic changes.

All across England, people are exploring church buildings. Already, around 15 million visitors enter our churches and cathedrals each year, excluding regular worshippers. Now, innovative learning projects are opening up these unique buildings to even more people. Those who do step inside gain access to one of the finest collections of history and heritage in existence.


Divine Inspiration is a long-term project promoting churches as places for learning, heritage, leisure activity, cultural events and, most importantly, for sharing.

In October 2009 the project took part in ‘Unforgettable Lessons’, organised by the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, which twinned schools with local cultural learning organisations, like museums and galleries, and tasked them with using the built environment to generate learning.

The mission embraced by the Divine Inspiration project was twofold:

  • to open pupils’ eyes to the places of worship around them
  • to give them an enjoyable and rewarding experience of learning outside the classroom.

Working with pupils from St Bartholomew's Church of England School, the project first focussed on the city of Coventry, a place which the children associated with the boredom of shopping with their parents, before moving on to explore two very different churches. Through discussion sessions and activities looking at their immediate local area, it became obvious that the young people found little or no imaginative appeal in the buildings and spaces around them.

Their favourite places were modern, bright buildings and their appreciation of the wider world, even a few miles down the road, was limited. Maxim, aged seven, noted that most of the buildings in his town ‘are the same type of houses. They all look the same.’ The children’s local landmarks were fast-food outlets and high street shops. Nine-year old Callum also thought most buildings were too similar: ‘you have to look deeply to find detail in them’.

  Church detectives’ at St John the Baptist, Berkswell, West Midlands (Photo: CABE/Alys Tomlinson)

Through the project they began visiting and ‘discovering’ new places in Coventry city centre. It started to change the way the young people looked at the world around them. They spotted and recorded places that had previously gone unnoticed and, as the project moved into phase two, a real buzz about buildings began to develop, especially during the church visits.

The children were challenged to consider ‘what makes a church a church?’ and ‘what do places of worship represent?’ with reference to their local area and much further afield. The two chosen churches were very different from each other, with contrasting architecture, geographies and histories:

  • St John the Baptist, Berkswell, West Midlands is a Grade I listed Norman church built on a Saxon site with an impressive ancient crypt housing 8th-century human remains. The church is in the beautiful, peaceful village of Berkswell.
  • St Bartholomew’s, Binley, West Midlands is a Georgian church on the outskirts of Coventry, dating from the 1770s. It sits just off a busy main road linking Binley to Coventry, located near bus stops, business parks and modern housing estates.

The children became ‘church detectives’, comparing and contrasting the two buildings. Their teachers identified a range of crosscurricular links to ensure that this wasn’t simply a ‘religious studies’ project; Science and Maths sat alongside English and History. For example, activities like gravestonerubbing enabled the children to consider their history studies in a real, tangible way, while also analysing stone and metal erosion as part of their more scientific subjects.

These visits offered the schools a great opportunity to undertake some ‘learning outside the classroom’ (something which Ofsted recommends should be an integrated part of every learner’s experience). In a climate of reduced budgets, trips to places of interest on the doorstep are a great option. Nearly all churches are free of charge to enter and, with an estimated 45,000 church buildings in the UK, there aren’t many schools located far from a church.

After their experiences, the pupils’ attitudes towards the familiar places that belong to their daily routines have changed profoundly. The success of the project cannot be underestimated. Many of the children, knowing they would be given a warm welcome, subsequently returned to the churches with their families, using their new-found confidence to show these new visitors around. They have had their eyes opened to a world that had previously eluded them. As eightyear-old Kirsty put it ‘I love the area that I live in. It’s much more interesting now’.


Recent research has shown a steady and continuing increase in attendance levels at regular weekly services in Church of England cathedrals, with figures up 30 per cent since the turn of the millennium (Cathedral Headline Mission Statistics 2011). As Dr Bev Botting, the head of research and statistics at the Church of England, said: ‘These figures demonstrate how cathedrals are very much a vibrant centre of spiritual life in our cathedral cities’.

  Sir Christopher Wren (Stephen Spencer, an education assistant with St Paul’s Cathedral’s Education Department) tells a class how he designed the new cathedral  

Educational events and school trips account for thousands of visits per year. In 2011, almost 300,000 children attended an educational event in a Church of England cathedral, with school trips to Westminster Abbey accounting for a further 11,770 visits. A further 9,720 children are educated at cathedral schools and regularly engage with the heritage of these magnificent structures.

Cathedrals, with their experience of receiving large numbers of visitors, understand the importance of interpreting their buildings. Most have education officers and guides trained to engage with young people. Many also produce specific learning resources linking the rich history of the cathedral to the subjects studied in schools today.

Members of the education team at Durham Cathedral are aware of what an important building they have on their hands. The cathedral’s website notes that, on entering, most children’s first response is simply ‘Wow!’

But how do you fit almost 1,000 years of history into what might only be a one or two hour visit? Making the children feel welcome and engendering a sense of ownership is key, according to Sarah O’Donoghue, the education officer at Liverpool Cathedral:

We endeavour to let the children experience the awe and wonder of the building as they enter and move around. It is important that the children feel at home in the cathedral and understand some of the history and heritage rather than try to overload them with information. We encourage them to come back with their family and friends during the school holidays to explore more.

The power of such visits is obvious: they bring the past to life. The stones of the building speak to visitors in many ways, while gravestones, paintings, stained glass, sculpture, memorials and monuments add further layers of interest. What’s more, our churches tell us about the lives of those who lived in and around the building. Emma Griffiths, the education team leader at Coventry Cathedral, agrees:

They are not just lists of people or kings and queens who were born and died, they are physical examples that have clues about the ordinary (and sometimes extraordinary) lives of people who have lived and died connected to the building: workers, cleaners, worshippers, brides, babies have all touched the same walls we touch today.

Young people learn that these buildings are deeply interesting but, perhaps more importantly, open and welcoming, places that they can return to. This ‘offer’ is at the heart of church buildings education.

Exploring, investigating and understanding the church’s past encourages visitors to care about its future. They return to these places. Some even bring back other friends and family, casting the net of care and understanding even further and creating a network of church building advocates and supporters.

Of course, as well as the honourable aims of educating and informing, visits to churches and cathedrals offer things which are harder to measure and evaluate. As a recent teacher and visitor to Coventry Cathedral noted, ‘for our kids, from a so-called “sink estate”, this was a chance for them to show their best in an environment where they could lift their horizons. I think we used to call that Education’.

Southwell and Nottingham Diocese

This ambitious project brings research, education and tourism together, aiming to bring the history and heritage of Southwell and Nottingham’s buildings to life. It’s nationally unique in uniting these three strands under the umbrella of the Diocese’s ‘Church History Project’.

Originating as a diocesan research project in the mid 1990s, ‘Church History’ went on to develop partnerships with others including the University of Nottingham. The educational arm of the project, formed in 2009, is relatively new. It has built on the evaluation and findings of an earlier project called ‘Schools in Local Churches’.

A substantial Heritage Lottery Fund grant allowed this work to continue and the education element to expand and develop. The primary objectives were to:

  • develop educational material for churches to use with a wide variety of ages and groups, particularly schools
  • support churches to work with primary and secondary schools and voluntary groups.

A prototype resource pack, trialled at a number of local churches, was refined and rewritten by the project steering group, made up of members of the Diocesan Education Department and experienced teachers. The finished material currently covers Key Stages 1 and 2 (primary school), although more advanced secondary school resources and a DVD are in the pipeline.

The resource pack, which is available to download online free of charge, includes subjects ranging from ‘the church in the community’ and ‘the architecture of the building’ to ‘the history of worship’ and ‘clues to the past in a graveyard’, and topic sheets like:

  • An Introduction to the Church
  • Fonts and Baptism
  • At the Altar
  • The Bible in Church Art
  • Clues to the Past in a Graveyard
  • Worship Traditions
  • Reading the Symbols in a Church
  • Vestments and Colours in Church
  • Church Architecture
  • The Name of the Church.

While the churches referred to in the pack are specific to Nottingham and Southwell, most of the material can readily be adapted to suit churches, and schools, outside the diocese.

The project promotes churches as fascinating buildings at the heart of communities, with much to teach us about history, customs, traditions, lifestyles and beliefs. It encourages members of the congregation to welcome school groups into the church and gives them the tools and confidence to interpret the building and tell its story.



Further information

Please see www.churchcare.co.uk for more information on extending and adapting the use of your church for educational or other purposes.

Council for Learning Outside the Classroom www.lotc.org.uk

DivineInspiration www.divine-inspiration.org.uk

Engaging Places www.engagingplaces.org.uk

English Cathedrals www.englishcathedrals.co.uk

Heritage Schools www.english-heritage.org.uk/about/news/heritage-schools

Open City www.open-city.org.uk

Southwell and Nottingham Church History www.nottsopenchurches.org.uk




Historic Churches, 2012


BEN GREENER is the historic churches officer at the Cathedral and Church Buildings Division of the Church of England. He is responsible for increasing access to and extending the use of historic church buildings. He has worked on a variety of heritage education projects.

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