2017 Inverness Conference Address

The 2017 conference was held at the Old High Church, Inverness on March 31st. It was well attended with delegates hearing from a panel of inspirational speakers and was opened by the Trust’s Patron Mario Conti FRSE, Archbishop Emeritus of Glasgow giving the following address:

2017 Inverness Conference Address

The 2017 conference was held at the Old High Church, Inverness on March 31st. It was well attended with delegates hearing from a panel of inspirational speakers and was opened by the Trust’s Patron Mario Conti FRSE, Archbishop Emeritus of Glasgow giving the following address:

It is delightful to be here in the Highlands. I am myself a Moray Loon, who spent nearly 15 years in Caithness, and in 25 years as RC Bishop of Aberdeen knew intimately the area of the Diocese which stretches from Edzell in the South-east, across country to the Kyle of Lochalsh, and all the way North to Unst in Shetland.

The area contains many historic buildings from the Medieval period, some of course picturesque ruins, none so impressive as Elgin Cathedral, others still places of active worship as the former collegiate church of Cullen. Pluscarden Abbey reinhabited by Benedictine monks in 1947 has further plans for its renewal while the roofless church on the island of Egilsay in Orkney will this year see an open-air Mass to commemorate the 900th anniversary of the martyrdom of St. Magnus.

In the post-Reformation period what remained usable of the Catholic inheritance was adapted for Protestant worship, while we have to wait until 1788 for a bold attempt to be made to construct a Catholic Church at Preshome near Buckie, though an earlier one, disguised as a sheepcote continues to be used at nearby Tynet.

Some fine churches were built in the cities in the late 18th century but it was in the Victorian period that a massive programme of church building took place, virtually doubling their number as a consequence of the Presbyterian disruption and the desire of split congregations to each have their  own kirk. These handsome buildings define our city scapes and ennoble our towns and villages, but now present their owners with problems of superfluous need and restoration. The same would be true of the huge building programme undertaken by the Catholic Church following Catholic emancipation, particularly in the cities of the South-west, with Glasgow the main example, as the city’s industrial expansion was fed by Highland and Irish immigration.

While the quality and innovation of many of these churches has won accolades from fellow architects, and the name of Coia, and, in the post-war period, of his partners Macmillan and Meztein is often mentioned, the burden of maintenance and over-provision in a period of altering patterns of population distribution and religious practice has become very challenging. I came to know this myself in my ten years in active service as Archbishop of Glasgow, when I was forced to close ten churches, as many as my predecessor had done, having to demolish many of them, but gladly finding an alternative use for some of them.

It is into this broad brush-stroke description of the present church-buildings environment that this Trust of which I am presently the Patron comes into focus. I am not alone in valuing the generosity and competence of a group of architects, some still in practice and others active in retirement, who are members of a Trust initially set up with the support of Glasgow City Council with the objective of assisting the City to find ways to maintain and find new uses for redundant churches under threat of demolition. Their interest is in the church buildings themselves which they value for their social and architectural and in some cases historical importance, but it extends to the purposes which such buildings serve in terms of the human community, not least in respect of their religious establishment and their social utility. Their service is in line with an outstanding characteristic of Scottish society, namely the voluntary service of members of the community with skills and a generosity to use them beyond the call of their profession, or rather within its noblest tradition.

While the official description of the Trust’s aims and objectives contains the width and depth of its offered services to the community religious and civil, and to fellow members of the architectural profession, I found the following brief description given to me by a member of the Trust very helpful in pointing up its salient features:

To examine how Church and Community can be brought together to consider options;

To advise on utilisation of space within the building under review, to maximise its potential;

To advise on appropriate partnerships which could provide added income for the running of the building where finance is a major concern;

To arrange question and answer sessions with priest/minister and church members;

To provide examples of good practice in the utilising of premises on a multi-purpose basis.

Initial briefing is provided freely.

I think we all know from personal experience that however unpromising an initial assessment may be there are plenty of examples of a successful outcome. We therefore approach issues with hope.

I was prompted in request for guidance by a suggestion that what has been regarded as a very successful outcome be presented to you at the start of a meeting to which others will make their own helpful contributions. I am talking of the renovation, the renewal, of St. Andrew’s cathedral in Glasgow built to the designs of James Gillespie Graham between 1814 and 1816. By 2002 when I was appointed Archbishop it was looking distinctly weary. What I offer you now are the answers I got from the Cathedral’s administrator, Monsignor Chris McElroy. I think that it is not so much a matter of increasing the worshipping community, though that will probably come in time, but the opening up to the interested, the curious and the passing visitor of a building that speaks to them of other things than the noisy world outside, that speaks to the heart.

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