Visitors Welcome!

Tourism and Places of Worship

Alan Whitworth

  Carved misericord in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford upon Avon  
  A delightfully carved misericord in the church of Holy Trinity, Stratford upon Avon, one of the most visited churches in the UK. (Photo: Wikimedia  Mum’s taxi / CC BY-SA)  

As the millennium approaches, undoubtedly Christians around the world will be making preparations to celebrate the birth of Christ 2,000 years ago. Likewise, many custodians of our ancient churches will be taking the opportunity to consider the future of their religious buildings, some of which will be approaching a thousand years old. Yet for all the hope of a bright new future, as the Millennium dawns, it is probable that many problems will remain. Not least of these is the question of how best to reconcile the cost of maintaining historic fabric against the advantages of the building, its architecture and its history to the Church and community.

The parish church is still seen by many as a cumbersome expense, an unnecessary luxury which perhaps should be swept away to be replaced by something more contemporary and less wasteful in heating, lighting and repairs, enabling a greater financial contribution to more useful Christian purposes. Furthermore, since the late-1970s, if not before, Churchmen and conservationists have had to address the growing problem of declining congregations and the resultant necessity to make churches and chapels which are not adequately used face redundancy. Such controversies will not go away overnight as the 21st century appears.

In a first attempt to draw attention to the plight of the English parish church and its value as a resource, the Society for the Promotion of the Preservation of English Parish Churches organised a two-day conference in 1980 at Bradford Cathedral. Entitled 'The Art of Church Management', the conference attracted representatives of the leading Church organisations, many of whom also contributed to the event.

In the following year, the Council for the Care of Churches (the CCC) prepared a report, 'Churches and Visitors' which was debated by General Synod of the Church of England. The General Synod concluded its debate by agreeing to commend to the dioceses and parishes key suggestions made in the report for the encouragement of visitors to churches.

The CCC also submitted a paper to the English Tourist Board entitled 'Churches and Tourism: The Next Steps', which outlined the need for further research into many areas then under discussion.

Despite the General Synod's conclusion in 1981, the acceptance of their recommendations seems as far away today as they were 20 years ago. The vast majority of parish churches still remain an under-used resource, despite their potential to provide a most useful tool of ministry, and to act as ambassadors for the Church of England itself. Yet the sentiments expressed by Eric Evans in 1983 when he was Chairman of the CCC and Archdeacon of Cheltenham, are as relevant today as they were then. So why is it that churches still remain locked? Why are key-holders and contacts for access so scarce? And why do such important historic buildings stand neglected?

Notwithstanding, there are exceptions: a small but growing proportion of churches are coming alive to the opportunities in this area. Many have learnt from the experiences of cathedral tourism and have managed to encourage both numbers and length of stay by offering refreshment, merchandising and opportunities to become involved in other tourist activities, while not losing sight of the opportunity for mission.

In January 1997 the English Tourist Board sent a questionnaire to 200 churches identified in the past as attracting the most visitors. 77 churches replied with visitor details. These churches attracted about 3.5 million visitors in 1996 who spent a total of £2.5 million; 51 per cent on guidebooks and souvenirs, 38 per cent on donations, and 11 per cent on other items or services such as catering, admission to the tower, and brass rubbing.

St Mary's church, perched high on the cliff-tops at Whitby, North Yorkshire, is one such success story which has managed the balance between Mammon and God. The sale of items not only includes the usual paraphernalia of guidebooks and postcards, but Christian literature and verse. Also, through the medium of a splendid local ly-produced audio-visual presentation set up in a quiet transept (for which tourists pay extra to watch), visitors are brought into closer proximity to the Christian experience as the presentation explains the architecture, history and role of St Mary's in the community.

At Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, the church of Holy Trinity has long been visited for its Shakespearean connections, as has St Michael's at Howarth, West Yorkshire for its Bronte associations. Both of these churches have, through visitor revenue, raised substantial sums for the continual upkeep of the building and other parish projects.

Above the parochial level, other success stories include the initiative of the Lincoln Diocese who tackled the problem head-on with the appointment of a Church Tourist Officer. The appointment was made possible through winning an award from the Ecclesiastical Insurance Group in 1980, when the Group held a national competition to encourage the development of church tourism in celebration of their centenary.

The Diocese further expanded the work of the Officer by establishing the Church Tourism Network. The CTN is a mixed group of individuals representing the Diocese, local authorities and the clergy. They are brought together to co-ordinate projects involving the development of church tourism, and to instigate and support their own ideas such as the setting up and maintenance of sturdy exhibition units in key parish churches throughout the diocese. They also produce a promotional brochure, Treasures of Lincolnshire, which is distributed to major outlets throughout the county and is made available to local churches to sell.

Those who argue that such initiatives cost money which can be ill afforded should consider the cost of doing nothing: first, an empty building is vulnerable to burglary; second, a locked door does little to promote a positive image of Christianity to a potential visitor. Furthermore, there are a number of simple and cost-free solutions to promoting a church as a visitor attraction. For example, bright, up-to-date notices, clear gateways, fresh flowers, and visitor information not only give a welcoming message, but also tell would-be thieves and vandals that the church is visited and looked over by a watchful community, and that the building is used outside the times of services - so beware!

One simple way to introduce and encourage visitors is to make contact with the local Tourist Information Centre. Co-operation at this level may include the displaying of a poster inviting people to veer off the usual highways and byways and make a visit to the church. Asking the centre to mention the church in promotional literature and adding it to their database of places to visit also costs nothing, but raises the profile of the parish church.

Once the will has been established and the way paved, other ideas and solutions become self-evident. Most churches have some secular activities which can be developed; flower festivals on patronal days, brass rubbing, occasional concerts - other initiatives can then be introduced, the promotion of guided tours, perhaps on Sundays and obvious Holy Days and holidays, with basic refreshments available for sale. Again, little cost, except in parochial commitment, but if the incumbent and PCC are willing, obstacles are soon overcome and ways and means found.

The list of opportunities is endless, and a variety of organisations can provide free advice and, in some cases, financial assistance. These include the regional Arts Councils, the Tourist Board, and local town and county tourist associations. Think laterally. Architectural significance alone does not guarantee visitors. Romance, legend, physical situation and downright quirkiness all count towards the potential for attracting visitor interest. Where the academic might marvel at the perpendicular Gothic he may also find pleasure in the idiosyncratic.

Some parishes are already seeing the generosity of the tourist and benefiting from it. While the casual holiday visitor may not be directly interested at that moment in the worship of the church, only a few fail to be moved by the glories of architecture and craftsmanship expressed in so many of our churches. If encouraged to appreciate and understand these treasure houses, the visitor may well be inspired to Christianity.

Any proposals designed to benefit visitors need to be assessed against the following criteria
Proposals need to be considered for the effect of noise, appearance and general character on the primary function of the building as a place of worship. Ideally proposals should be designed to enhance the role of the building and to invite secular interest in worship.
All alterations should be reversible and should not directly or indirectly harm the architectural or historic character of the building. Particular concerns to be addressed include the risk of fire, theft and accident, the protection of vulnerable or fragile features, such as brasses used for rubbings, and the provision of measures to minimise the introduction of dirt on feet.
The particular features which make the building interesting need to be publicised. Visitors do not materialise spontaneously.
The cost of all proposals and any additional insurance required needs to be calculated. If there is a risk that the costs might exceed the expected revenue, other avenues for increasing revenue may need to be explored, such as the sale of additional publications, post cards and perhaps souvenirs.


Recommended Reading

  • M Binney and P Burman, Chapels and Churches: Who Cares?, British Tourist Authority, 1977
  • M Binney and P Burman, Change and Decay: The Future of Our Churches, Cassell and Colliery Macmillan, 1977
  • M Binney M and M Hanna, Preservation Pays, SAVE Britain's Heritage, 1978
  • Cathedrals Advisory Committee, Cathedral Treasuries and Museums, Epic Publishing Ltd, 1982
  • M Hanna, English Cathedrals and Tourism, English Tourist Board, 1979
  • M Hanna, English Churches and Visitors A Survey of Anglican Incumbents, English Tourist Board, 1984
  • M Hanna, English Heritage Monitor. English Heritage and English Tourist Board, 1997
  • L Samoulle (Ed), Church Tourism: A Study of Lincoln Diocese, Report on behalf of the Church Tourism Network, 1996
  • R Suddard (Ed), Churches and their Visitors, Diocese of Bradford, 1982
  • MD Turnibul, Working as One Body, Church House Publishing, 1995

This article is reproduced from The Conservation and Repair of Ecclesiastical Buildings, 1998


ALAN WHITWORTH, a freelance writer, was formerly the founder and secretary of the Society for the Promotion of the Preservation of English Parish Churches, a registered charity. He contributed the gazetteer to the popular book Exploring Churches (by Paul and Tessa Clowney, Lion Publishing, 1993) and lectures on architectural subjects including the art of the church.

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