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Methodist Central Halls as Public Sacred Spaces

08 April 10

Religious architecture has left a mark on Britain’s landscape. But in the centres of cities and major towns buildings can quite quickly come and go, especially those of no great and lasting aesthetic value. You can add to this the devastation caused by bombing in the Second World War. Fewer than half of Methodism’s Central Halls survive, yet over a hundred of these were the workhorses of the Church’s urban mission from late-Victorian times over many decades. And less than half of these remain in religious use. Bristol’s Hall was refurbished behind its original facade as a block of flats, Liverpool’s is now a collection of shops.

Angela Connelly is a PhD student at Manchester University, funded by a Collaborative Studentship Award. She works within the Department of Planning and Landscape and is making a study of Central Halls as Public Sacred Spaces. They tell a story of the flowering of a certain style of mission when Methodism sought to renew its roots among the poor, with innovative programmes of social care, education, entertainment and popular worship. The decline of the halls also tells a story: mission has moved on, congregations have moved out, and a view has prevailed that sacredness resides not in places but people and usefulness.

The Central Halls have not previously been studied by academics. This research has enabled collaboration between the Methodist Church and a university faculty not usually dealing with religion. Since the buildings were designed primarily to be functional rather than beautiful, few have been preserved as buildings listed for architectural significance. They have also been vulnerable to developers because they were built on main thoroughfares. Part of how they were originally funded was by housing shops, which provided steady rental income. The design was deliberately different from conventional church architecture; they were like theatres encircled by functional meeting spaces.

Some of these halls could seat thousands. Angela Connelly’s study has shown halls like those in Manchester, Liverpool and Bristol as creative centres for a variety of forms of outreach, social care and education. She tells of how Manchester’s Hall turned itself each Saturday night to providing a wholesome and cheap alternative to music hall in the same space used the next day for “bright and breezy” services. And of how the Hall promoted a series of debates in 1903 “Is Christianity True?”.

Unlike cathedrals, Central Halls have largely proved to be disposable buildings, but that in itself heightens her sense of the urgency and importance of capturing their story before it is gone.

Listen to Angela Connelly in conversation with Norman Winter in April 2010. [13min19sec]

Listen to a shorter version of that conversation here. [4min29sec]

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