Clare Williams asks whether the Church can learn anything from the British high street’s attempt to re-engage with society and put itself back at the heart of the community
We’re shopping on the internet. Recession is killing the big chains. So what should we do with the streets that were once the heart of our communities?’
‘We’re working longer hours affecting the structure of our week. Family and social interaction has changed. So what should we do with the churches that were once the heart of our communities?’
Mary Portas is a marketing consultant and retail adviser. She is known affectionately as the ‘Queen of Shops’ after several television series. In May 2011 David Cameron appointed Mary Portas to conduct a review into the future of the high street. The review identified twenty-eight practical recommendations which would transform the recession sullied high streets, littered with boarded up stores and charity shops, into new business models.
Recently a British Sunday newspaper published a creative exploration about the future of our high streets. Six ‘big thinkers’ give their ideas about how to re-imagine the business of high street culture. One idea was to turn high streets into urban playgrounds, places where skateboarders and older people could meet and have their own space and community within the high street, the idea being that high streets need to be more enjoyable, more comfortable places. There were several financially savvy ideas which clearly pushed the boundaries about what is viable and acceptable for a high street setting. These were all visionary but there were two which really caught the imagination.
Firstly, that public buildings should be on the high street so that amidst the hubbub of the shopping mall, people can find an oasis in a building like a library. The idea that coffee houses have pioneered where one can find a living room in the middle of a town centre is important for the type of shopping experience that people are looking for. Secondly, Alain De Botton advocated the idea of moving psychotherapy onto the high street so that serving that need should be as normal as going to the hairdressers or a nail bar. De Botton approaches this concept by beginning with the thought of a figure who fulfilled a function in society which was not material; he was talking about a priest, someone who was ‘there to take care of that part of you called ‘the soul’ but who was vital in society. He then moves on to the therapist as what he would consider to be the ‘new’ priest, caring for the emotional needs of the individual. These creative conversations are clearly important. Mary Portas has earned herself a unique position as someone who understands the state of the high street now and the vision and action needed to improve it beyond recognition. There needs to be a re-thinking of what is the priority of the high street and how to re-engage with a society which has been disillusioned by the recession and changed by technology.
So it is with the Church. The link is not tenuous or lacking in sensitivity. Of course the Church is not about profit-making or selling itself without the need for integrity and morality, as can be the case on the high street. However, the Church is, or should be, about how to engage with society: how to best ‘market’ and ‘brand’ what it offers to appeal to the ‘mass market’ and identify its USPs (unique selling points!).
Where the high street is affected by shopping online, the recession, competition amongst big chain stores and the take-over by charity shops, the Church is affected by people’s different working hours, changes in family and social life, attitudes in society and the state of church buildings. The Church has to consider what it has to offer and how elements can be changed in conjunction with the societal changes.
The Church needs to be one of those public buildings on the high street where people can find a home from home and a calm space from the hustle and bustle of the shopping centre. It needs to think about what it offers to people in that context. The Church needs to be financially savvy, not for a motive of profit-making but rather to ensure that church buildings are used effectively and made financially viable. The Church needs to think about the timings of church services and how they can be made more accessible and more a place of fellowship. The Church needs to think about how it caters for different social groups and how it reaches out to those who have difficulty finding their place in society.
The Church needs to think about the need in society for that non-material function, the person who cares for the soul, a need which still exists, and how the Church can fulfil that function with its priests and lay people serving in the community. The Church needs to think, or find someone who can think, like Mary Portas. The Church needs to have the vision and the action necessary to propel it into the future and still remain relevant to society. The Church needs to do what it can to make it the heart of the community. ND