Places of welcome and sanctuary
Churches across the Diocese will welcome visitors to their buildings in Celebrating Open Churches that opens on Norfolk Day 27 July. It's a welcome that extends throughout the year in many and diverse ways, writes Marion Welham.
People who have never visited a church might be surprised to learn that an unlocked church is open to everyone, whether or not there’s a service in progress.
During six years of promoting churches on behalf of the Diocese of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich, I was frequently asked by our tourism partners: “Is it really okay to just wander in?”
Needless to say, I very soon got the message that a welcome sign at the church gate was a no-brainer and encouraged the practice wherever I went.
Thankfully the Diocese of Norwich actively encourages churches to be open and welcoming to all comers. Open Churches Week has become a celebration of open churches, the expanding Exploring Norfolk Churches directory tells visitors all they need to know about opening times, and many churches have nominated themselves for the Welcoming Church Awards 2018 with the winners announced last month.
The welcome offered by churches can necessarily differ according to their circumstances. For example, rural churches can be open all day and every day to provide a welcome to visitors from near and far, while urban churches endeavour to meet the needs of their local community with clubs, cafés, and drop-ins with all the security that entails. And there’s plenty in between!
That vital ‘Church open and welcome’ sign outside is the first of many ways to welcome your visitors when you can’t be there in person to greet them, as with the wonderful community café at St Elizabeth’s Earlham or the Welcome Inn at St John the Evangelist, King’s Lynn, featured on page 8.
As the Revd Canon Nick Garrard of rural Ranworth put it:
“Very few churches have the resource to have a human welcome but just to keep a church open, clean and inviting gives people something they wouldn’t experience in any other part of their lives.”
Spiritual refreshment at rural Ranworth
East Anglia is known for its lofty church towers and perhaps none more so than Ranworth where you can climb to the top for a sense of the whole, spectacular Broads landscape and even arrive at the church by boat if you so choose.
Together with a magnificent chancel screen and a rare illuminated medieval service book (the Ranworth antiphoner) and with refreshments available at the famous visitor centre, it’s not surprising that the so-called ‘Cathedral of the Broads’ draws some 50,000 visitors a year from Norfolk and way beyond.
You might think all this would induce complacency on the part of the Rector, the Revd Canon Nick Garrard, and his team but not a bit of it. Nick, who leads the four parishes of the Broadside Benefice, has worked hard to ensure Ranworth continues to be a place of spiritual as well as physical refreshment.
“There’s a very longstanding tradition of welcome here,” says Nick. “Visitors to the Broads have been part of the life of this church for over a century. Ranworth is a small village of about 200 people so, as well as welcoming visitors, we also gain much from them in terms of their support and their interest in the place.
“People who have been coming here for 40 years remark on how little the church has changed. In a changing world there is something reassuring about that.”
The theme of nature is reflected in the altarpiece decorated with bittern, herons and swallowtails and the kneelers with their symbols of the unique ecosystem of the Broads.
“People come to explore the church, but they also sit very quietly, spending time in contemplation and in prayer. The prayer tree gets covered with requests and prayed through by a dedicated group of people.”
Nick is aware that however much we love our church buildings, it’s a fact that people connect with people. “The visitor centre has been open for 25 years, offering a welcome with our large and friendly team of volunteers, and there’s a quote from the rule of St Benedict over the counter which says: ‘Let guests who come be received as Christ.’ So, we offer hospitality as well as an open church”. The visitor centre is open daily for light refreshments until the end of October and at weekends during winter months.
The welcome doesn’t stop there. There are guided tours, occasional concerts, and academic events such as the Ranworth Symposium, when Oxford choristers sang from the antiphoner and returned for the filming of the story of evensong in BBC4’s ‘Elizabeth I’s Battle for God’s Music’ screened last October.
“It’s a wonderful asset as well as a great responsibility,” says Nick. And with more visitors than some cathedrals, Ranworth gets through more than one visitors’ book a year.
“We do get comments saying wonderful things,” Nick enthuses. One episode sticks in his mind and shows how people can regard St Catherine’s as a spiritual home. “There was an estranged family who were visiting the church at various times and leaving messages in the comment section of the book which is something you wouldn’t expect.” A family disagreement? “No,” says Nick. “There was actually forgiveness expressed and you got the feeling they had no other method of communication.”
He believes there are many different ways a church can be used.
“My previous experience was in an urban parish in the middle of Norwich. It had been bombed in the war, but we found that people did come in when they knew it was open and although there wasn’t so much to look at, people would come in and find sanctuary and space, and so every church has that potential.
A welcome for those who need it most
St Elizabeth’s Earlham is a redbrick 20th century building and when Pioneer Minister Danny Doran-Smith arrived in 2014 people would walk past not even realising it was a church.
Bars across the entrance doors now form angel’s wings over the worship space by the recently expanded Beacon Café that hosts some 350 people a week and where happy children run around safely while breakfast bacon sizzles on the stove in the spacious kitchen.
“As in Psalm 91, we’re under God’s protection and shelter under his wings,” Danny explains. “And that’s what the Beacon Café is, a place of protection. It used to be ‘don’t come in’ and now it’s welcoming, providing a place of shelter and a refuge where people can feel loved and supported.”
Danny was licensed to the church as Pioneer Minister and director of a charity called ENYP – Equipping, Nurturing Young People – bringing his team to work with the local community of the Larkman estate where 92 per cent of households struggle just to provide the basics.
Their work reflects what ENYP does in more than 30 churches across Norfolk and Suffolk and includes the remarkable Picnic Project which was launched in the parish of Earlham. It partners companies such as Tesco, Sainsbury, Nandos and Pizza Hut who donate fresh bread, fruit and vegetables that would otherwise go to waste.
The fresh produce provides a balance for the regular foodbank parcels distributed from the church centre and demand has grown so much that the Picnic Project now serves churches in Greater Norwich and other areas. There are even add-ons such as Squeeze which uses fresh fruit and veg for smoothies so that children can make healthier choices, and a soup kitchen for over 30 homes in a nearby sheltered housing complex.
“Nothing gets wasted,” says Danny, who is firmly guided by the Church of England’s Five Marks of Mission in everything he does, and that includes sustainability.
It’s faith more than finance, he believes, and his vision is to feed 5000, an aim that sounds perfectly feasible considering that, at the time of writing, 2,600 had been fed in just four months.
Picnic Project is just one of many projects at St Elizabeth’s for families, schoolchildren and young people, offering practical solutions and safe spaces in which to socialise. As part of the Grassroots initiative Danny has developed with his team, 200 young people a week come and go for clubs and activities. One is Reach, a project helping young people with CVs and getting qualifications. Another is Reclaim, in which children make furniture out of industrial pallets.
Not surprisingly the community is seeing God at work and from a congregation that had dwindled to almost one in 2014, there are now 150 in the regular worshipping congregation with its four expressions of church – Sunday worshipping church, café church, mid-week church, and Fresh Expressions – throughout the week.
The Beacon Café is open on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday from 9am to 12.30pm, and will soon open for breakfast ahead of the 11am Sunday service. So, the welcome is extended whether or not you go to church?
“Absolutely,” says Danny without hesitation. “At the café the doors are open to everyone.”
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