Starting to Appreciate Places of Worship

 

 

Starting to appreciate places of worship 

Edwina Proudfoot

Discussion of the Arts in all its forms captures the public imagination in many new ways today, but often fails to consider a central element – culture and heritage, locally and nationally. Heritage and culture include all aspects of life and death, from prehistoric burial mounds, early settlements, artefacts and much more, including the buildings of religion, which once were the centre of all non-work activity for most people.  

Down the centuries places of religion were adorned with things of beauty, depicting stories from the Old and New Testaments in Christian Churches and similar illustrations or other artworks graced the buildings of other faiths. This art formed part of the daily environment, a show of wealth from the rich, but with a purpose as well - to teach the people of all ages and backgrounds who frequented the buildings.

In Scotland much of this was destroyed at the Reformation and places of worship lost their colour and their treasures were dispersed. Many other changes since the seventeenth century included numerous new church buildings. Disputes in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries resulted in still more new buildings – so many that today they have become an embarrassing surplus to their original purpose as places of worship.  Attitudes to work, leisure, church and cultural life have been changing as well, including a  reduction in numbers ‘going to church on a Sunday’. This last has been equated to a lack of interest in religion and the places of worship. That many buildings are no longer fit for purpose strengthens the belief that there is no interest, but changes are happening, many of them valuable, but others are simply fashionable.

Scottish Church Heritage Research (SCHR) was set up to encourage and develop an interest in the study of places of worship as part of Scotland’s culture and heritage. We recognised at an early stage that, as a country, Scotland had a vibrant religious past, but many people today lacked understanding of this past, or of its buildings.

Initially work was slow because records were poor. There was no total of existing and previous places of worship. Individual denominations had records of many of their buildings, but there was no national record. SCHR set up a programme to record all places of worship in Scotland, initially only the exteriors, as these could be seen everywhere  and appreciated by all. Realising that the insides were important as well, we retraced our steps and began to record interiors. The variety of furnishing and ornament varies hugely. Pews, pulpits, lecterns, organs could hardly have boasted greater variation, sometimes these furnishings were locally made, but often they  were bought from the outh, Birmingham in particular. Cast iron columns brought change from the mid nineteenth century, creating space at an upper level, expanding seating at a time of growing population, and  many shops developed their shop and their homes above the shops and. The columns are often ornate, like their Greek inspiration. Embroidered wall hangings, designed and made by (usually) ladies of the Guild increased in popularity and frequently are exquisite pieces of work. Floor tiles were used,  geometric patterns, but also, in some denominations, using birds and animals to educate as well. After a long period of plain glass window, stained glass gained prominence and appreciation, particularly as commemoration of ministers, of members of the congregation and as war memorials. The art galleries we call churches should be appreciated far more.

As SCHR’s records increase and our skills improve we are gathering a wide range of information about local attitudes as well. We find ministers, priests, church officers and other staff, who have an amazing knowledge of their buildings – and they share this knowledge with us. We have been welcomed into places of worship of all kinds and all shapes and sizes, so far especially in Fife, Angus, Aberdeen and Moray, which have been systematically recorded, but also across the length and breadth of Scotland, when we snatch any opportunity to gather additional information.

All this information is added to our website as text and images, www.scottishchurches.org.uk, where it is attracting considerable interest. All this work is carried out on a limited budget, briefly with one field officer, part-funded by Historic Scotland and by other small grants, but most work is carried out by an ever-expanding team of volunteers. At present the website includes approaching 12,000 sites,although many are so far represented by little more than name and address; some others with varying amounts of information, including images, and some two and a half thousand sites with full records As many more wait to be uploaded. Among many of these buildings are hall churches, mission halls, used by many denominations and a variety of faiths in addition to Christian and many are increasingly used for community activities. A surprising number of places of worship have been redeveloped to make them suitable for worship today; many new buildings have been erected and are thriving; often these bring in new comers, people who would not attend a service, but who find they are valued in these new environments, where there may be activities to help them.

In 2012 SCHR held its annual conference on this very theme, of new approaches to buildings of all denominations. The talks included 20th century architecture, new buildings, redeveloped places of worship, a short piece on recording as well as a paper on Listing, by Historic Scotland, of recent buildings of historic and architectural merit. We hope the work of SCHR and its Places of Worship Project will encourage people to take a modern view of places of worship - as havens for hard pressed families, places where arts can flourish in all forms, whether with praise bands or with famous orchestras or choirs, with paintings, sculptures and stained glass for all in the interior, valued for what they do and not only as glamorous buildings important for the tourist industry.

SCHR is a voluntary organisation and we welcome individuals and groups who want to learn more about places of worship, or who will come and help with recording. We offer training. If you only record one place of worship that will be a valuable addtition to our work.

Contact us at:  office@scottishchurches.org.uk