Future-Proofing a Church for the 21st Century

The Grade I St Mary Magdalene Church sits at the heart of Tanworth-in-Arden in Warwickshire. The church was thriving, but the PCC knew the building needed to be made more accessible and future-proofed to make it fit for use in the 21st century. Working closely with the community, we developed a simple but beautiful scheme that features a wealth of symbolism and places it at the heart of village life.

The Brief

The Grade I St Mary Magdalene Church is a thriving church that sits at the heart of Tanworth-in-Arden in Warwickshire.

However, the PCC had long been aware that the building had several issues that needed to be addressed.

“We knew if we wanted to future-proof the church, we needed to do something to make it more fit for use in the 21st century.”
Patricia Saunders, Church Warden

The most significant concern was a lack of accessibility because the entrance to the building was dark and featured steep steps.

“I’ve been on the PCC for about 20 years, and at many meetings there was discussion about the issues for people with mobility difficulties getting into our church.”
Patricia Saunders, Church Warden

The West end of the church was also an area the PCC wanted to address. There was a curtained-off area where the choir changed. The area had several different levels, which created trip hazards. The font was on two tiers of brickwork and, although these could be cushioned, there was an awareness that the space wasn’t suitable for children’s activities, and there was a limit to the way the space could be used.

“The back of the church was a bit of a mess. We’d been asked by the Archdeacon on several occasions to please try to tidy the place up.”
Phil Terry, Church Warden

The PCC had looked at numerous schemes over the years, but none had proved suitable. A lack of funds had also prevented action. In 2016, the captain of St Mary Magdalene’s bellringers died after a long life of service, leaving a legacy to the church. The PCC felt the most suitable way to honour his gift would be to make the changes that were needed. They had seen other reordering projects from Communion Architects and were keen to engage us to work with them.

Answering the Brief

A successful reordering depends on bringing the community with you, so from the very start we worked closely with the PCC and the wider church family to develop a scheme that was uniquely theirs.

“Both the PCC – and the general public during the wider consultation – felt they owned the scheme because we were involved in looking at different elements and discussing what was required. It gave us a groundswell of support before we started.”
Aiden Ridyard, member of the congregation

The resulting scheme sought to achieve four things that were important to the community: improve accessibility, provide a larger space for flexible worship, improve facilities for serving refreshments and create additional toilet provision.

To improve accessibility, there is a new consistent floor level composed of oak timber boards at the West end of the church. The floor level is set at nearly the same level as the external ground level, helping to create a welcoming, accessible entrance. It also protects the original tiling beneath and allowed heating, electrical and audio visual service runs to be installed.

The church’s ancient timber doors at the North and South Porch remain in place and are complemented by glass doors. The historic wooden doors can remain in an open position and the glass doors provide security and weathering protection while simultaneously making the space feel more welcoming and accessible by providing an inviting glimpse of the interior.

The chancel is now accessed via two sets of steps and a discreet ramp, making it more accessible for everyone. To make the church more accessible to more people and suitable for a great range of activities an additional rear pew on the north side of the central aisle was removed to allow those in wheelchairs to move from the north aisle to the central aisle, giving freedom of movement and seating choice.

To mark the transition from the dais to the nave, two pieces of bespoke cabinetry were designed. These provide a subtle safety function by stopping people falling from the raised dais and offer large areas of storage that can be used by different user groups, ranging from exercise classes and children’s activities to acts of worship.

The altar frontals cabinet and an ancient arrow chest have been re-sited to give them greater prominence, enhance accessibility and retain important storage space to aid with decluttering the space.

To create a larger space for flexible worship we focused on the West end of the church. The intention was to create an informal but significant counterpoint to the traditional East end of the church. It also sought to create a beautiful, more coherent space that complemented the fine chancel and the uplifting views to the East from the nave.

Creating the level floor had the additional benefit of providing the larger and more flexible space required. The area is where informal conversations take place after services, including weddings and funerals, allowing the church family and building to extend a much warmer welcome to all who use it.

The centrepiece of the space is a new moveable font that sits at the crossing of the East, West, North and South axis of the church. A carefully designed halo light fitting made in conjunction with a calligrapher and furniture maker celebrates this highly significant nexus within the building.

To improve the facilities for serving refreshments, a discreet servery formed of oak joinery sits at the West end of the nave. The design gives all the catering facilities that are required but can also be closed when not in use to return the space to sacred silence. The servery, while providing all required functionality, is smaller than the original kitchen space, which allowed for a second, wheelchair-accessible toilet to be installed in the space.

A Project of Symbolism

St Mary Magdalene Church sits within the Forest of Arden and its community of faith is closely linked to nature, reflected in its services, which include The Well, Mossy Church, Forest Church and Holy Ground. This natural theme now extends to the building itself.

The extensive use of oak in the building draws on the church’s connection to the Forest of Arden. The new font stand is hewn from a raw yew trunk sitting on a yew-boarded plinth. The top of the font stand is hollowed out and holds a removable bronze bowl. The lip of the bowl is inscribed with a baptismal verse.

Throughout, it was important for the PCC to involve the local community in the reordering. The yew log that forms the font stand was found locally and was carved by a wood carver who lived on a local farm estate. The glass doors were designed by Aiden Ridyard, an architect and member of the congregation.

“Engaging local craftspeople and designers in the project made it very special and helped the community to see that this wasn’t just a project that was being forced on us by somebody else.”
Patricia Saunders, Church Warden

The Outcome

The project has helped to open up the church and set it at the heart of its community.

It starts with the welcome to the church.

“The village high street is right outside the main door. But it could have been miles away when the door was closed. Now, you can get a glimpse of what’s happening inside. If something’s going on here in the evenings, it’s lovely. You see a glow of light, and it connects the community to its church and the church to its community.”
Aiden Ridyard, member of the congregation

Accessibility has also been transformed and a building that was felt to be dark, gloomy and inaccessible before is now warm, light and welcoming.

“We have a lady who comes every Tuesday afternoon on her mobility scooter. She says: ‘This space used to be so frightening before.’ Now, she can drive straight in and play an active role, getting cushions out of drawers and taking them to everyone on her scooter.”
Patricia Saunders, Church Warden

The flexibility and functionality of the space is also a valuable benefit.

“We are so used to a church working East to West that we forget there are other models. We can now flex the space and reorient it so we can use it for different activities and events as well as services.”
Aiden Ridyard, member of the congregation

“We invite parents to our school services on Friday mornings. Now, they can stand around and chat afterwards with a cup of coffee and it’s a really relaxed atmosphere. Before, there was no space to do that, and they just wanted to get out – if they came at all.”
Patricia Saunders, Church Warden

The features that were so carefully considered and crafted are taking their place in the life of the community too.

“One of the most admired features is the halo light. Holding something ‘under the halo’ or ‘meeting under the halo’ is now a common Tanworth expression. We even have an evening service once a month called ‘Under the Halo’ when we have a circle of chairs under the halo.”
Patricia Saunders, Church Warden

The PCC was acutely aware of its responsibilities towards the sacred building in undertaking the reordering and rightly proud of what it has achieved.

“We’ve helped to create a welcoming, accessible church that’s in touch with modern times. We feel part of the church’s history now and that we’ve done something that will last for many generations.”
Patricia Saunders, Church Warden

“I was really conscious of not wanting to lose what we had. Everything was done for a purpose – the lighting, the toilet, the storage, the catering facilities. There were no wasted elements. As a result, as well as retaining the beauty and adding a wow factor, we’ve also created a space that better serves the community.”
Phil Terry, Church Warden

As well as retaining the beauty and adding a wow factor, we’ve also created a space that better serves the community.