By Katie McClymont…
Viewed from any of the many excellent vista-points, the skyline city of Bristol, in common with several other UK cities, remains clearly punctuated by the towers, spires and steeples of many buildings which are or have been churches. Here I will document a short journey, using this to reflect on the issues which emerge from the blurring of spatial and conceptual boundaries of ‘public/private’ and ‘secular/sacred’ made apparent by this travelogue.
First stop ‘Undercover Rock’- formerly the church of St Werburgh, built 1879. The original church building was moved from a city centre location, when the church there closed, and the area was then named after it. It was closed in 1988, becoming a climbing centre in 1992.
Looking across at the city centre from the bridge over the M32 between junctions 2 and 3, I could see the distinctive tower of St Paul, Portland Square (as well as the spire of the parish church of St Agnes). Also closed in 1988, this remained boarded up and unused until reopening as Circomedia (a circus school and performance space) in 2005.
Next stop; St Marks, Easton. The church was closed in 1984 when repairs became too costly, and the parish was merged with a neighbouring one. It is now supported housing run by Supported Independence.
Very different from all of the previous three, but somehow especially different from the now private dwellings of St Mark’s, is St Peter’s, Castle Park. The ruined church sits within this city centre greenspace as both a tourist attraction and site for lingering. Historic England now suggest that this was Bristol’s first church.
Across the other side of the city centre is St James Priory. This should not strictly be included as part of this tour, as it is not a former church, rather an existing church which as adapted part of its built form into a café; busy and popular in part because of its proximity to Bristol bus station. Two other such spaces could have easily been listed on this tour which fulfil the same role: St Stephen’s Church and cafe and Bishopston Baptist Church.
The final two former churches are back out of the city centre. The David Thomas memorial church (closed 1981) is now sheltered social housing and the original chapel of Bishopston Methodist Church is now the Theatre and base of the amateur dramatic group the Kelvin Players.
What does the documenting of this journey provide other than a suggested outing in East/Central Bristol? Redundant and reused churches are ubiquitous yet overlooked aspects of the everyday urban landscape, arguably part of symbolic architecture of post-secular urbanism. They raise a series of important issues for thinking about both heritage and public, civic or community space within cities.
St Mark’s Easton and the David Thomas Memorial Church are now very much private places- residential dwellings (albeit with social purpose as both serve vulnerable communities rather than the mainstream market). Undercover Rock/St Werburgh, Kelvin Players and Circomedia/St Pauls retain partially public presences- anyone wishing to climb or partake in acting or circus activities as spectators or participants can do; for a price. St Peter’s and St James priory are different again, and different from each other. The former is a landscape and visitor feature, city heritage both of ancient origins and the more recent past of the Bristol Blitz. As part of the cityscape, these churches are part of the material presence of the city’s heritage: they are public features. As individual buildings, they place a diverse range of public and private roles. This dual (or multiple) quality blurs simple divides between public and private, sacred and secular.
Which conversions or redevelopment are acceptable? To whom? Public opinion, heritage interests and church sensibilities seem largely set against demolition, and strong arguments can be made for promoting their ongoing communal value and use (Jenkins, 2015). Moreover, open churches now host myriad functions: foodbanks, toddler groups, community cafes; Bristol Cathedral is the (grand) setting for UWE’s graduation ceremonies. This mix of use is not necessarily something new, but it goes against conventional understandings of ‘places of worship’ and what activities are contained within the definitions and designations of religion, maybe chiming with the idea of ‘Municipal Spirituality’ (McClymont, 2015).
In a context of ongoing austerity leading to the closure of public buildings and assets, and one in which social, religious, class, ethnic and lifestyle differences appear to present an increasingly ruptured society, questions of shared public space become ever more pertinent. The preservation of the built aspects of churches within a cityscape remains largely unquestioned, but the preservation of their social or community function remains largely unasked.