Call to put churches back at the heart of East Anglia’s communities

Churches across East Anglia will this week be urged to open their doors and restore their buildings to their medieval role at the heart of communities.

On Wednesday, the Hostry at Norwich Cathedral will host the Crossing the Threshold conference to discuss ways to get more people exploring and enjoying our many inspirational historic churches.

The Right Rev Graham James, Bishop of Norwich, said the aim was to reinstate them to their position at the centre of town and village life.

He said: 'It's about recovering the way churches used to be used. The nave was the village hall of the past. That was where trade was done and gossip was exchanged as well as where worship took place.'

Wednesday's conference will be attended by representatives of churches from across the region and speakers will include Simon Willcock, from the Ecclesiastical Insurance Group, Anne Sloman, chairman of the Church Building Council, and church architects Ruth Blackman and Brian Haward.

Each hopes to explain what is already being done in East Anglia and across the country and offer help and information to other groups wanting to offer a warmer welcome.

Jennie Hawks, Norwich Diocese's historic places of worship support officer, has worked with many sites as part of the Norfolk Churches Discovery Project which aims to get the buildings open Monday to Saturday, as well as Sundays.

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Art exhibitions, coffee mornings, youth groups and lunch clubs are already taking place in some of the county's 652 historic church buildings, allowing more and more people to discover an important part of Norfolk's heritage.

Mrs Hawks said a stronger community role would also help attract funding. She said: 'If you want an English Heritage grant for restoration, you have to prove to them you are going to be open – it's a requirement for the funding.'

She said welcoming churches also tended to attract more donations and support from other community groups.

At Wednesday's conference, a major restoration project in Reepham will be used to show some of the good work already being done to open up the region's churches.

St Michael's, which sits beside St Mary's in the market place, had become run down, dreary and

unwelcoming having not seen any investment since the 1970s.

But, following a �370,000 makeover, the Reepham benefice has just been handed back the keys to a newly-transformed building.

The open space, which includes modern toilets and a kitchen, is already attracting inquiries from

community groups hoping to get in and use it.

Project manager Jo Tym said: 'It's been transformed. In my book it is now a beautiful building. I think it is as near as we would have seen it when it was first built.'