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CHURCH TOURISM - A WAY FORWARD FOR RIPON?

Published by the Society in the Ripon Gazette, 11th July 2008
Along with women bishops, church tourism has been on the Church of England Synod’s agenda in York. David Winpenny, Co-Chairman of Ripon Civic Society, considers the implications for Ripon.

In the spaces of the Church of England’s General Synod meeting in York this week, when the delegates were not debating the thorny question of women as bishops, they found time to debate church tourism.

Before them was a motion that, as was to be expected, recognised ‘that churches are first and foremost places of prayer and faith’. It then went on to call for much more to be done to encourage churches to play their part in developing local tourism and helping to ‘establish strong, sustainable, cultural and educational links to strengthen the part played by churches in the wider cultural life of the nation.’ It wants ‘to encourage the mission opportunities arising from church tourism to be taken in imaginative ways, and promote good practice in communicating the Christian faith appropriately to visitors to our church buildings.’

It is not surprising that Synod voted in favour of the motion; it can hardly have done otherwise. It has, perhaps, never been more difficult to attract worshippers into churches; to encourage them to come as tourists, to see the great wealth of Britain’s architectural and cultural heritage that our churches contain, is to be commended.

So what does that mean for Ripon? The city already has one great ecclesiastical magnet for visitors, of course. Since St Wilfrid’s day people have come to Ripon’s great church, whether it was known as a Cathedral or a Minster. The assumption has usually been that, in the past, they came to worship, and that only comparatively recently have they become ‘tourists’. This may not actually be true; there was probably as much tourism in medieval pilgrimages as there was reverence. Think of Chaucer’s Canterbury Pilgrims and their holiday jollity.

Today, the cathedral needs the tourists as much as it needs the faithful. The donations they make – and the money they spend in the shop – are important in keeping such a large and ancient building going. And when the Cathedral’s current Vision project of improvement is complete, it will have even more to offer the visitor.

But what of Ripon’s other ecclesiastical buildings? Can we encourage tourists to visit them, and what will they see if they go? This is a much more difficult problem. Casual visitors may not find much of immediate interest in some of the churches and chapels of the city – Allhallowgate Methodist Church, the Assembly of God, the Bethel Chapel, for instance. St Wilfrid’s Church, by Joseph Hansom, may interest them a little longer. They may wonder why the fine chapel on Coltsgate Hill, opposite St Wilfrid’s stands empty. If they get as far as Holy Trinity Church they may admire the spire and appreciate the lightness of the interior space, if it is open to view. But in general they may leave not much the wiser – at least as a result of what they see.

So is there scope for encouraging visitors to look beyond the cathedral to the other places of worship? Do we need the religious equivalent of Ripon’s very successful Law and Order Trail? Is it worth encouraging people to look at the wider aspect of Ripon’s religious past and present? It could be – but it would need everyone to work together to ensure that the welcome that visitors receive is enthusiastic and informed. As the Synod motion says, it needs ‘imaginative ways’ to promote both the buildings themselves and the faith they represent. This does not need to be gimmicky – a warm and sincere welcome by real, enthusiastic volunteers can be just as valuable.

Ripon has a most distinguished church history and has been a religious centre for almost one-and-a-half millennia. Let’s consider how we can manage its future to benefit everyone, visitors and residents, whether they have any faith or none.

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