Christ Church Londonderry will be opened to the public on a daily basis from next week under its new ‘Open Door’ ministry. The initiative was unveiled informally, this week, when dozens of children from the Model Primary School visited the church along with their teachers.
Small groups of pupils were given short ‘guided tours’ of the building on Infirmary Road by the Rector, Archdeacon Robert Miller; the CCCMSP Group’s Pastoral Director, Rev Canon Katie McAteer; and Select Vestry members Jim Kelley and Irwin Thompson.
The pupils got a chance to test their learning skills by answering questions about the church as they made their way round the building. During their visit, they heard about Christ Church’s 200-year-old history, the stories behind its famous stained-glass windows and the background to the ornate carvings on the altar; quite a few of the children also took the opportunity to climb into the pulpit and experience what it felt like to be a preacher.
Under the ‘Open Door’ initiative, the church will be open daily – “except, perhaps, on Christmas Day,” Jim suggested. “We want the building to be not just a congregational thing for the churchgoers, but [a building] for community use.
“Ordinary people can come in and sit and meditate if they want,” Jim said, “it’s available for that purpose. But it’s also interesting from an historical point of view: from the First World War material we have; the windows are of national significance; we’ve got records here – we never sent them to Dublin, so they weren’t destroyed in the big fire in the 1920s – we’ve got all our records going back to 1801. We had a lady in last weekend, [who] knew that her grandparents were married here. We had the book out and she found them. ‘I don’t suppose my mum would be in here?’ We found her baptism – there were tears rolling down her face.”
Irwin delighted in sharing the stories behind the famous windows and pointed out some of the well-known names on a plaque commemorating local victims of the two World Wars. “Fifty people from this church died in the First World War,” he said, “out of the one hundred who left to fight in it, so half of them never came back. I was never fond of history at school, but the people’s stories fascinate me.”
Christ Church is already established as a venue for musical performances, but the Select Vestry has ambitious plans to reinstate the first Thursday recitals which were once a feature of life in the parish. The Vestry also intends to create an exhibition area in an under-used part of the church and to digitise parish records so they will be more easily available to historians and visitors – including from overseas.
“We’ve got an idea for some drama stuff, as well,” Jim says, “with the First World War. The Imperial War Museum is making grants available for that so we’re following that one up. And so it goes on. We’re just opening the doors and saying, ‘This can be used. It’s one of the biggest halls in town. We can use it for other things. We’ve got brilliant acoustics. Radio Three have used it [for broadcasting performances]. Barry Douglas comes to play the piano in here. Ruth McGinley performs here. So, it’s brilliant from that point of view.’
“To be perfectly frank, what we’re actually talking about is saying that we’ve been a sort of closed door, exclusive thing – because of circumstances, nobody’s fault, it’s been one of those things – and what we’re now saying is we’re a Christian community, and you can use it for community use, but you can also use it for religious purposes. If you need an act of faith in some way this is a place that you can use.”
The ‘Open Door’ project is itself, in a sense, an act of faith. Only five years ago, Christ Church was violated in a break-in, during which one of the stained-glass windows was smashed and extensive damage was caused to the church organ. So did Jim detect any hint of trepidation among his fellow Select Vestry members? “Not at all. The Select Vestry were enthusiastic and said, ‘Yes’. I’ve spoken to Bishop Andrew; to Bishop Donal across the road [in St Eugene’s Cathedral]; both of them said, ‘Great, go for it.’ Long Tower does it. Pennyburn does it. St Augustine’s is doing it. We’re doing it. So, the whole area now is raising its profile and we’ll just see what comes of it.”
The ‘Open Door’ initiative goes public on Monday 27th June. From then on, the church will be open from 10.30am to 4pm, seven days a week.