Welsh Historic Places of Worship Forum Digital Forum
(22 October 2020)

Video based content, click to view. https://vimeo.com/showcase/7719086

The future of our buildings appears more uncertain than ever as lockdown restrictions are imposed, eased and re-imposed across much of Wales & the UK. Yet, while causing untold disruption in all of our lives, innovation born of necessity has been one of the unexpected consequences of the global pandemic. As Welsh congregations adapt to the post COVID-19 world we see an opportunity to reflect on how places of worship have responded – and will continue to respond – to the ‘new normal’.

Faith in the Future? – as we work together to ensure that our places of worship survive the challenges brought about by the current pandemic. Click in for a dynamic and informative discussion based on real first-hand experience, designed to be of practical value to congregations facing difficult questions.

Video based content, click to view. https://vimeo.com/showcase/7719086

  • Observations on the ‘Digital Church’. TIME: 5 mins 10m secs All Saints Parish, Newport, Catholic Archdiocese of Cardiff – Father Michael Doyle
  • A Lockdown Story from a Rural Chapel. TIME: 19 mins 0 secs Maesyronnen Congregation, United Reformed Church – Ceri Ricketts / Mike Ricketts Hein / Bethan Barlow
  • The Glamorgan Heritage Coast Benefice during Covid-19. TIME: 36 mins 30 secs Diocese of Llandaff, Church in Wales – Revd Canon Edwin Counsell
  • Q&A – Cytûn – Churches Together in Wales. Aled Edwards TIME: 57 mins 30 secs
  • Opening Places of Worship. TIME: 1 hr 13 mins Chair of Welsh Places of Worship Forum and Secretary of RCAHMW – Christopher Catling
  • Why Church Tourism Matters – use it or lose it. TIME: 1 hr 26 mins National Churches Trust – Caroline Welch – Wales Church Support Officer
  • Re-thinking Ministry. TIME: 1 hr 46 mins Diocese of St Asaph, Church in Wales – Mission Area of Cedewain Revd Canon Nia Morris

Further details for each presentation below.

Strange as it may sound, congregations have reacted to the crisis in extraordinary and exciting ways. At this event we intend to capture everyday stories of innovation and inspiration that have been the hallmark of community responses in these unprecedented times. All of us have experienced new ways of communicating and working over recent months. It is only natural, therefore, that we also consider the future of our historic sites at this time of transition.

Hosted online to engage the widest possible audience, it provides an opportunity to learn from the experience of others facing similar challenges and uncertainties. Many faith groups will have been having similar discussions at a local, regional or national level. The Forum aims to share this learning beyond individual denominations and faiths.

The event combined micro-presentations sharing local examples and question and answer sessions exploring three themes:

  • Digital Places of Worship – from streaming acts of worship to online giving, how have places of worship engaged with new technologies?
  • Community Places of Worship – from pop-up foodbanks to new night shelters, how do we adapt community response measures in the post-pandemic world?
  • Physical Places of Worship – while community spaces are needed more than

Event Summary

A recording of the Zoom event has been uploaded to Vimeo and it can be viewed on this page or at https://vimeo.com/showcase/7719086.

Christopher Catling – Chair of Welsh Places of Worship Forum and Secretary of RCAHMW

Christopher Catling opened the event by welcoming everyone and explaining the work of the Welsh Places of Worship Forum (WPWF). The WPWF was established in 2015 and meets three times a year. It provides support to people facing the challenges of maintaining historic place of worship in Wales. The Forum aims to be a meeting place where people can share information and examples of best practice, and respond to emerging needs across the sector by supporting initiatives that encourage access and engagement in faith buildings.

WPWF meetings were held in renovated chapels and churches so members could see examples of what could be achieved. This event broke new ground by being online. Online engagement can widen access, enabling people to participate in the Forum without the need to travel or organise an overnight stay.

Christopher introduced the organising team of today’s event:

  • Alex Glanville – Head of Property Services (The Representative Body of the Church in Wales)
  • Owen Collins – Development Manager (Catholic Archdiocese of Cardiff)
  • Suzanne Cole – Property Officer and Assistant Company Secretary (The United Reformed Church (Wales)
  • Judith Alfrey – Head of Regeneration and Conservation (Cadw)
  • Jennifer Liston-Smith – Volunteer, online event planning and support

Father Michael Doyle – All Saints Parish, Newport, Catholic Archdiocese of Cardiff – TIME: 5 mins 10m secs

Fr Doyle spoke about his experience of engaging with the congregation and community digitally following lockdown in March. He noted that for many faith communities there has been a surge in the use of digital outreach during the covid pandemic, and that it has now become second nature for the team at All Saints. While it cannot replace the ‘church’ in its physical sense, going online does help them to stay connected with their communities.

At All Saints, the first livestream of mass was done using a mobile phone streaming to Facebook. They soon graduated to using three cameras in the main church, and started inviting congregations to virtual coffee mornings after services. They found that the audience grew, and included those who hadn’t come to church for a long 4 time but who, during the pandemic, wanted to feel connected and search out answers.

Fr Doyle pointed out that digital communication can be as simple or complex as you need. There is free software available for some functions, and while it may sound daunting, there are YouTube tutorials to help you get up and running.

Acknowledging that some people aren’t online, or can’t access the internet reliably, he also set up alternatives such as Twilio. Twilio enables digital audio to be relayed down a telephone line. They used it to set up a ‘dial-a-service’ line. People can dial a dedicated phone number and listen to a 15-20 minute podcast of prayer and reflection.

During lockdown, donations dwindled as the church was closed. Fr Doyle set up a digital giving platform so that people could donate online. When churches were able to reopen in a limited way, a contactless giving terminal was placed in the church.

Other digital services they offer include a 24 hour church feed via webcam, and text messages to keep congregations informed.

Ceri Ricketts / Mike Ricketts Hein / Bethan Barlow – Maesyronnen Congregation, United Reformed Church – TIME: 19 mins 0 secs

Maesyronnen is Wales’ only 17 th century chapel and is a Grade 1 listed building. Before the pandemic, they were already concerned about the future of the building, and didn’t want it to become just a museum. They had started to look at four avenues: tourism, community, technology and training.

Tourism – As a historical attraction in a tourist area, there is great potential to attract visitors. However, they want to be known as an active church, and not just a tourism destination. This is a challenge.

Community – The congregation made an effort to go out to the community in local villages and to engage and organise events.

Technology – The church has a Facebook page and a website and now uses text giving and Zoom. During lockdown, keeping Facebook updated with content has allowed them to show that although the church building was closed, they are still very active. They started creating Zoom sermons. These include slide shows with readings, texts and prayers, and different people give readings each week. After the service, the congregation has an online catch up. Weekly attendance has been higher than usual, and includes people who had left or moved away but could now rejoin remotely.

Training – They attended faith tourism workshops and now have a presence on the Explore Churches website. They are also attending Eco Church workshops, and have participated in Christian Leadership Training which has helped with this year’s challenges.

The team gave some advice to other churches: do some blue sky thinking; know your community and their needs; know your own strengths; upskill your members; and pray about it.

Revd Canon Edwin Counsell – Diocese of Llandaff, Church in Wales – TIME: 36 mins 30 secs

Revd Counsell presented a video introducing us to St Illtyd Church, Llantwit Major, a site which dates back to around the year 500. He explained that he has charge not only of the physical building but also of the legacy of 1,500 years of history and spirituality.

The church closed during the first lockdown. When it reopened at the end of July, only 15 people could be accommodated in the church safely due to distancing measures. Since the pandemic began, he has been broadcasting services on Facebook live, and connecting with parishioners in different ways. Revd Counsell believes that the pandemic has revealed both strengths and weaknesses in the church and how we care for it.

One strength is that churches’ pastoral networks are good. They used the telephone to keep in touch and ensure people don’t fall through the net. Then they used emails, and progressed to Zoom. He stressed the importance of not duplicating what others are doing. There are well established services from food banks and local councils, so you can help those rather than duplicating effort.

Revd Counsell also sees community connection as a strength – what he calls the ‘theology’ of welcome. He explained that people may find churches intimidating places to enter, and that effort should be put into extending a welcome. Facebook has helped with this, as people can read the Facebook page and engage with content anonymously.

Another strength is ‘digital ministry’. People can view content live or consume it later, as they choose, and you can see who is engaging with your content. Revd Counsell encouraged churches to think creatively about their output rather than filming the same format of service every week. It is easier to tailor online output to different online audiences. For instance, he records assemblies for local schools in the church.

One weakness which Revd Counsell mentioned was finance. His church is dependent on fundraising (particularly from visitors / tourists) which dried up under lockdown. He found that a digital giving platform took a long time to gain traction. He noted that his church’s online presence was quite shallow and recommended making it deeper, with a better website and longer reach to encourage visitors who are interested in the heritage of the church building to also participate in and learn about its spirituality.

Revd Counsell suggested the building itself is both the biggest strength and the biggest weakness of his church. He said that we tend to fail to think creatively enough about the use of the church building, and need to discover new purposes.

He advised against going online-only, saying that if we lose all our church buildings, future generations will blame us. We need to give the buildings future life in a different way. He suggested blending face-to-face and digital worship, noting that the online platform has attracted new people under lockdown, but that there is still value in sitting and worshipping in a sacred space.

Aled Edwards – Cytûn – Churches Together in Wales. – TIME: 57 mins 30 secs

Aled introduced Cytûn and explained how it has been working with Welsh Government around lockdown regulations on behalf of the faith communities in Wales. He suggested that people should contact Cytûn if they want to make representations to Welsh Government, or if they have questions about the current coronavirus restrictions.

Question – How are bereavement services being handled?

It has been difficult, but churches are being very careful to keep people safe.

Question – Are there examples of the blended visitor offer – how to balance the tourism offer with the spiritual offer?

It was suggested that churches make connections with tourist networks in order to promote their heritage. They should tell the story of their church and its place in their community. They could think about how to serve the walkers and cyclists coming into their area and how to draw them into the spirituality of the church.

Question – Does the Maesyronnen team have any advice on working with tourism bodies?

The National Churches Trust and Explore Churches have been useful, and you could draw on their expertise. Christopher Catling mentioned that the Welsh Places of Worship Forum wants to set up a mentoring system to help point people in the right direction and learn from the experience of others who have done similar things.

Christopher Catling – Chair of Welsh Places of Worship Forum and Secretary of RCAHMW – TIME: 1 hr 13 mins

Christopher began by saying that up to 70% of places of worship that are open today could be closed by 2050. One reason for this is dwindling congregations, and lockdown has made this worse. He asked the question, now that services can be broadcast online, are church buildings necessary any more? Why should we spend so much time and money on old buildings when there are so many urgent social problems in the world which we could be attending to? Should we sell the buildings and use the proceeds to build low cost housing? An additional complication is that many churches are full of problematic monuments which commemorate those with links to the slave trade. Do we remove these and move towards plain churches with no ornament?

Christopher asked whether this generation has the right to close down church buildings and sweep away thousands of years of history, or whether we should be custodians of that heritage and look after it for the future. He believes that the buildings have symbolic value and are beacons of belief in the community, suggesting that without the church building (if, for example, they operated out of a tin shed on an industrial estate), faith communities wouldn’t be as effective in what they do.

Key to securing the future of religious buildings is making them keystones for their wider communities, not just for the congregation. Christopher suggested ways of encouraging people to engage with the places of worship in their midst:

  1. Recognise that places of worship are for everyone, not just for congregations for an hour on Sunday. Some are locked when services aren’t going on, and should be opened up if possible.
  2. Places of worship make ideal bases for social enterprises. Churches should reach out into the community and ask ‘what can you use this building for?’
  3. Places of worship should embrace faith tourism. They should plan now for when the covid crisis is over. Experiential tourism is growing, and churches can make money from this with bookable guided tours, cafés, visitor centres and gift shops – all things that churches can use to make an income. Cultural tourism is also growing, and churches could benefit from being a stop on a themed tour led by a guide. Often, churches are seen as free to enter. However, you could talk to the holiday companies organising tours that visit your church to see whether a donation can be made. Another form of tourism that has potential is pilgrimage. This is on hold during the pandemic as people can’t travel easily, but could be developed in the future.
  4. Recording work is important and it makes information about places of worship available online for people to find. We need to make a record of the spiritual landscape to pass on to future generations. RCHAMW is currently doing this, but there are still many gaps in the record. To fill these, it would be good to engage local communities in researching their local place of worship. If they find out more about its heritage, they may be less willing to see the building closed or sold off.

Caroline Welch – Wales Church Support Officer, National Churches Trust – TIME: 1 hr 26 mins

Caroline said that church tourism matters because it encourages people to engage with, enjoy and value their place of worship. The building is one of a faith community’s USPs. It contains stories, community history, memory and collective faith of all those who have worshipped there.

Tourism can:

  • raise the profile of places of worship in the community, nationally and globally;
  • make it easier for visitors to discover you and book a visit;
  • raise income for individual sites and for their communities;
  • help to keep churches open.

Faith tourism is big business globally and can provide a regular, sustainable income stream. Caroline sees it as a huge opportunity, but believes that that the sector needs to join together in order to benefit.

Wales has a very rich sacred heritage with an immense tapestry of historic sites, stories, legends, spectacular settings and landscapes, and the Welsh language. There is an engaging story to tell and a unique experience to offer.

The National Churches Trust (NCT) has been a charity since 1952. It shares its expertise in church tourism, gives support and training, helps places of worship to find their stories and promote themselves to develop an income from tourism.

NCT creates and share marketing collateral. Its website www.explorechurches.org is the largest church tourism website in the UK and lists 4,000 places of worship.

Experiencing Sacred Wales is another NCT project (funded by Welsh Government) which creates new tourism products. It aims to raise the profile of Welsh churches and chapels, put historic places of worship on the map, and develop a joined up platform for Sacred Wales – a central place to discover tourism offers and make bookings. NCT is progressing this project by delivering training for faith communities, adding churches to the Explore Churches website, and also creating themed lists, trails and route on Explore Churches. The NCT also engages with the media to get publicity, creating film, photography and podcasts. They are creating 20-30 new bookable experiences based around the Wales Way on Explore Churches. 10 are already available.

Revd Canon Nia Morris – Mission Area of Cedewain, Diocese of St Asaph, Church in Wales – TIME: 1 hr 46 mins

Revd Morris is based at All Saints Church in Newtown. A building project is being planned at the church but was stopped by the covid lockdown. She described how, when lockdown started, she was faced with the challenge of new technology, and quickly learned to use Zoom for meetings, communication and broadcasting services. She also offers assemblies for schools via Zoom.

The church joined the Newtown Network, a collective of local organisations helping the community. It was started to give assistance during the pandemic, but will be ongoing afterwards. The church provided meals using facilities at the Methodist Church and later at a local primary school to make lunches for 70 people. They are also working with Green Pastures to address homelessness.

Revd Morris found reopening the church to be a big challenge. Two sittings were required on a Sunday because of social distancing, and they could still only accommodate a quarter of the congregation. Singing was not allowed, and masks were worn.

She asked whether, in the future, we should return to how we did things in the past or find a new way of doing things. The lockdown experience has shown her that 9 things could be simplified. Churches can be seen as intimidating, and could be made more friendly.

She has discovered that you don’t need a big church with lots of facilities. You can network with other people and share their facilities. As a result, the building project to add an extension at All Saints has been scaled down.

Christopher Catling commented that this exemplified the conflict, which he had mentioned earlier, between spending money on upkeep of buildings and spending it on the good work a church wants to do. He firmly believes that a church is a physical symbol, a presence in the community which makes you visible and is a base from which faith communities can go out and do good work.

Aled Edwards – Cytûn – Churches Together in Wales

Question to Caroline Welch – how has the NCT been able to operate during lockdown?

Outdoor experiences have been allowed to continue during the summer when the first lockdown was relaxed. The NCT is busy setting up experiences for next year and looking ahead to the future.

Question – Will live broadcasts of services continue after lockdown?

Fr Doyle replied that they would, and that he uploads recordings of services to their YouTube channel. His church is putting together a team to co-ordinate communications activity in the future.

Christopher Catling – Chair of Welsh Places of Worship Forum and Secretary of RCAHMW

Christopher closed the event and said that the Welsh Places of Worship Forum would be in touch with next steps and ideas for future activity. He thanked participants for their feedback.