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When strippers took the place of reverends at the altar

By - | July 1st 2012

By Kenfrey Kiberenge

When Mombasa businessman John William Kameta converted a disco to a modern gospel discotheque many people thought it was a unique idea while others found it outrageous.

Both the young and old now converge at the Mamba premises for a shot of gospel music. This however is not the case in Britain.

O’Neill’s pub in Muswell Hill was a former church. [Photos: Kenfrey Kiberenge/Standard]

They were once holy shrines where unbelievers were converted to the Christian faith.

But now the proverbial tables have turned and the hunter has become the hunted. One after another, they have been converted into places of secular merriment, apartments or shops –and the future looks bleak.

Chalices that reverends used to administer Holy Communion have been replaced by beer taps and wine bottles.

Dazzling gowns

Altars have become dance floors while the aisles where shy brides walked down in dazzling gowns are now gangways for drunken revellers.

This is the bizarre story of British churches where innumerable are being turned into night clubs, restaurants, and apartments, as clerics contend with the chilling reality of failing numbers of worshippers.

Observers attribute this to a phenomenon where paganism and atheism are increasingly becoming attractive to most Britons, leaving clerics with halls accruing huge bills, on the one hand, and shrinking offerings, on the other.

A survey conducted by Christian Research group, an organisation that tracks religious trends in Britain, established that at least 18,000 churches and chapels had been sold across England by between 1960 and 2005.

It projected that of the 47,600 English churches operating today, some 10 per cent will be declared redundant in the next eight years. And by 2050, the Anglican and Catholic churches will only be able to muster a combined congregation of 200,000 over the whole of Britain with average age approaching 70.

This is stark contrast to the current situation in Kenya where the number of churches continues to surge every day. It is estimated that Kenya has 4,000 registered churches but this figure could be conservative as majority are unregistered.

Operating churches in Kenya is today one of the most lucrative ventures, as the prevalent promise of a good life sees most worshipers parting with colossal amounts of money as ‘seed’.

Converting a church for secular usage is also unheard of in the country.

Dr Murimi Njoka, a research fellow at the University of Nairobi, argues that the church in the North is at an advanced level where people find the need to make the buildings functional as opposed to our part of the world where the fear of the supernatural is still at large. In October 2008, there was uproar following reports that Pope John XXIII, a Catholic church in the Eldoret diocese, was about to be auctioned due to an outstanding loan of Sh26 million.

The creditor, Agricultural Finance Corporation (AFC), put up an advert in one of the local dailies announcing the date when the church would go under the hammer. Media outlets picked up the story, some predicting that whoever bought the church would be at liberty to convert it into a strip club, a bar, or a discothèque.

The decision was, however, shelved after Eldoret North MP William Ruto reportedly intervened and rescued the 20-acre piece of land that houses a church and the Mother of Apostles seminary.

Ruthless capitalism

But in UK, this is the order of the day as capitalism ruthlessly breaks fresh grounds. At a Unitarian Church in Nottingham city, pews have been replaced by cosy chesterfields and the name has been changed to Pitcher & Piano bar.

The typical cathedral design, stained glass windows on arch doors and windows, however, give it the ‘church’ look.

“Set within a deconsecrated church in the Lace Market, Pitcher & Piano Nottingham is truly iconic.  Stained glass windows, church candles, vintage bric-a-brac and cosy Chesterfields… we could spend all day in this bar,” brags the bar owners in a promo on their website.

In November 2010, a Methodist church in Westbourne, Bournemouth south coast of England was converted into a Tesco supermarket.

Church architecture

It has retained the original church architecture complete with an inscribed cross in front. But once inside, you could buy items such as condoms, cigarettes and alcohol, among other things, items you would not be caught with in a church.

Reverend Dr Bob McKinley, former minister at the church, said it was sad to see the building become a shop. “Although it is sad, it is only a building. You could say it is not appropriate to have a Tesco Express in it but once it is sold, it is no longer under our control,” he added.

In Bristol, St Paul’s church that was constructed in the 1790s was adopted in 2005 by Circomedia, a training school for acrobats, trained animals, trapeze acts, musicians, and hoppers and tightrope walkers after it proved untenable to operate as a church.  It, however, remains consecrated meaning it could still be used for services.

London hosts O’Neill’s pub in Muswell Hill, which is also a former basilica that has retained its church appearance. At the nearby Leicester Square, a former church previously played host to Walkabout Inn – a bar – but which has since been moved.

The cathedral now remains derelict. Located in Brixton, London, former St Matthew’s Church has been host to two nightclubs, Mass and Babalou. The two clubs have since ceased operations due to insolvency issues.

Other churches are also being turned into homes. In 2008, The Sanctuary, Newchurch, in Lichfield, Staffordshire was turned into a home and sold at Sh94.5 million (£700,000) while a neighbouring church, The Chapel, went for Sh61 million (£450,000) after being converted into a home.

The Old Chapel in N Yorkshire fetched Sh88 million (£650,000) after a similar transformation that saw all the churches retain their natural church appearance. Britain’s National Secular Society executive director Mr Keith Porteous Wood says the conversion of churches that have been empty for years is regarded favourably, given that something that had been derelict is now in use.

Wood was, however, magnanimous commenting on the tendency, saying he empathises with the former members of such churches.

Members’ sympathy

“Last weekend I was in Cheltenham in the Cotswolds, and as I passed one of the many converted churches, I remember thinking what a tragedy that must be those that had worshipped there. I guess the same applies to those who spend their working lives in a business that closes down,” Wood told The Standard on Saturday.

Njoka says Kenya is also headed there probably faster than how UK and other developed countries got there since we have advantage of faster technology and acculturation.

“I don’t know how longer we will wait before our churches also operate night clubs but definitely not more than 20 years from now. Maybe this will be another of our Vision 2030 achievements!” said Njoka.

The habit in UK has seen the advent of groups seeking to protect old churches from being deconsecrated and put into secular use.

In an interview with The Standard on Saturday, UK-based Churches Conservation Trust, which led the restoration of the St Paul’s church, said they are protecting historic churches that remain vulnerable.

“We’ve saved more than 340 beautiful buildings, which attract almost 2 million visitors a year,” said Laoise Bailey, the public relations officer at the Trust.

She said the Trust finds ways for adapting churches for extended appropriate use in order to bring them back to life.

“A good example of this is our church, St Paul’s, in Bristol which is now being used by Circomedia which is a circus school but is still available for occasional use as a place of worship,” added Bailey.

Many other churches under their care are used for community events as well as occasional church services as they are still consecrated buildings.



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