The new order
Selling off churches has become a sign of the established church managing its membership decline. On occasion, though, local churches take a more active stance, accepting that, while the traditional rites may have reduced appeal, there can be potential in becoming a different sort of faith centre.
St Laurence church, on the Market Place in central Reading, has not had its own vicar for 30 years, and, when matters came to a head a few years ago, the St Laurence congregation was down to around 10 members.
As part of reviewing the churches in the town centre, a plan was conceived around six years ago to use St Laurence to work with local young people who had no contact with the church. Today the plaque outside reads:
'St Laurence Reading - living to see young people come to faith and building new forms of church with them.' Who these people are is a developing agenda, a product both of identifying and responding to need and also of programmes that the church may be part of, for example with social services. Some of these programmes bring in some income.
So today an open-door policy is combined with specific programmes, such as those addressed to educationally and behaviourally disturbed students, those aimed at teenage fathers, and those that work with the local Youth Offending Team.
What sort of building would be appropriate for these uses? How far could RRA Architects go in reordering an existing church to make a more effective religious workplace?
One precedent the client looked at was an earlier job by the practice: All Saints, Hereford.
There, a public café - now with a clientele of 2,500 people a week - has been inserted at the rear of the nave and on a new mezzanine in one aisle. Chairs replace pews, so the floorspace can be used more flexibly. That café is a revenue source rather than evangelical (there is a big repair bill at All Saints), but seeing such reordering of the building encouraged a radical approach at Reading.
St Laurence was founded in the early 12th century, with considerable further building work around the end of that century.
Some time later a north aisle was added, and this asymmetry has been used by RRA. The whole nave and aisle floor have been cleared (the chancel needs attention). This creates a multi-purpose space - which includes church services - the clean sweep emphasised by a new timber floor with underfloor heating (all added reversibly). Pebble-filled margins around the stone columns help the old floor beneath to breathe.
In the aisle a mezzanine steel structure has been installed, in part an open platform with a glass balustrade, in part an enclosed (in glass) meeting room. Beneath its west end are a pod of WCs and a kitchen/servery, clad in vertical timber boarding The steel structure is relatively discreet, despite being strong enough to support hundreds at a music event. The glass has the potential to lend invisibility too. What reverses this to some extent is the lighting, sparkling on the glass, turning the glass balustrades into shiny panels. This gives a club-like feel when the building is used in concert mode. But the insertion does read more as a new object than just a framework.
In a further sculptural twist, new glass entrance doors to the west end are framed as a glass cylinder, with the space above currently used as an office. It is linked to the mezzanine by a bridge that threads through the existing stone columns and arches.
These interventions replace the old symbolic certainties of a parish church - however foreign they may be initially to St Laurence's new clientele - with ambiguity. There is some of the glitz of the shopping mall. Paradoxically, the lengthening history of church closures and conversions to secular uses may be making church buildings less intimidating to those who had not thought before of entering a church, though, in the process, the church buildings themselves are experienced more like other enclosures, such as old schools and warehouses.
St Laurence is a building where they are trying to invent a religious future. During the building project process, over three years ago, Chris Russell was appointed as associate vicar, helping to give the developing programme leadership and momentum.
Even so, setting a new symbolism in stone would be premature; nobody can be sure what will be happening here even in five years' time.
There is no reason, in principle, why the new religious agenda here should not need as radical changes to the building, with the consequent loss of its original architectural integrity, as if it were reused as a theatre or flats. But in these latter uses, the historic church-building enclosure becomes mainly atmospheric. Here, St Laurence is more ambivalent, its tight-fit religious past not erased by its loose-fit future, without a new resolution. It is a pragmatic response to uncertainty. Like the established Church itself, it carries its past with it.