The second annual conference of the Norwich Historic Churches Trust took place yesterday, on Saturday 24 October at the King’s Centre, opposite St Peter Parmentergate. Unfortunately I missed the first three papers before lunch, but had the chance to visit St Peter’s in the interim (the church is not normally open to the public). The first paper I had the chance to hear was Stella Jackson’s account of working with closed churches in the Holland Group of parishes in South Lincolnshire. The Maintenance Co-operatives Project (MCP) is a pilot scheme to model best practice in providing care for closed churches, and consists of groups of volunteers formed in local areas. The Holland Group is clustered around Boston and includes All Saints, Benington, which is about to be reordered in order to turn it into a community hub.
I followed this with my paper ‘The Roman Catholic Chapels of Norwich’. Norwich was one of the few places in East Anglia where a small but enduring community of Catholics existed after the Reformation (around 3% of the city’s population before 1789). The presence of the Jerninghams at nearby Costessey and the Duke of Norfolk’s influence in Norwich helped the community’s survival. From the 1650s the Jesuits maintained a secret chapel in Norwich, and in 1687 they opened a short-lived public chapel in an old monastic granary close to the Guildhall. The chapel in the Duke’s Palace, under powerful aristocratic protection, was able to operate fairly freely. The congregation of the Duke’s Chapel moved to a new location in Willow Lane in 1786 and then to a new chapel in 1791, following the Second Catholic Relief Act which legalised public worship (St John the Baptist, Maddermarket). The influx of French émigrés in the years after 1789 led to the opening of additional Catholic schools and chapels, including the Holy Apostles in Willow Lane in 1827. In 1894, on the completion of the Church of St John the Baptist (now the Cathedral), the Willow Lane and Maddermarket congregations combined, but both of the old chapels still survive.
The final paper was delivered by Peter Aiers, Director of the Churches Conservation Trust for the South East, who spoke on the future for the traditional parish. He gave a review of the history of the parish and the way in which it affected the structure of churches. He argued that churches are public buildings for everyone, because the ‘cure of souls’, to this day, includes everyone in the parish regardless of personal faith. Parish churches embodied the identity of the laity. Peter Aiers advocated a passionate argument for churches as a heritage resource for all, and warned that the next generation does not always engage with churches as places of worship but may engage with them as a focus of local identity.
I am very grateful to Nick Groves for inviting me to speak at what was a very engaging and informative conference. The proceedings of the conference, including my paper, will be published in due course.