Need a doctor? Go to church!

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The Independent Online
St Mary's the sports centre? Or St John's the carpet warehouse? Churches across Britain are being built to serve social purposes besides the worship of God.

Such is the weakening of the religious impulse that some communities feel they can fund expensive new church buildings only if these are put to additional uses such as health centres or sports halls.

In May the King's Centre, in Chessington, Surrey, opened, serving as a church on Sundays but incorporating for the rest of the week a 900- seat sports hall-cum-auditorium, a nursery, a room for adult-education classes and a cafe.

Recently a Methodist church in Wolverhampton was rebuilt to include a health centre, one in Birmingham is applying for lottery money to redevelop adjoining land into a football ground and tennis court, and one in Manchester functions as a nursery during the week.

Church of England spokesman Jonathan Jennings said similar projects were developing in the Anglican Church. "This is a new trend as people begin to view churches in a different light and see them as buildings that should be used by the whole community. The churches are being adapted for economic reasons, and built to fulfil the multi-purpose needs of society."

St George's Church and Centre in Tufnell Park, north London, was redeveloped last year to include a theatre, areas for dance classes and rooms for youth activities. Its curate, the Rev Rachel Montgomery, says: "Much of the work done here is secular; for example, none of the mums who attend our mother and toddler group is a church-goer. There was a large gap in the provision of activities for young people in the area, and our work has tried to fill it."

The pounds 2.5m initiative between the Chessington Evangelical Church and the Royal Borough of Kingston upon Thames provides football training, badminton clubs, dance fitness classes and church youth groups among its many activities.

"This is the first venture of this size and I think it will be replicated across the country," said the church's Rev Trevor Archer. "There is certainly a great deal of interest in our project from all denominations."

The Methodist Church's property secretary, the Rev Kenneth Street, agrees. "As our membership declines we have to find ways in which to justify the building of new churches and the maintenance of older ones," he says. "We have to assess what government funds are available, and find projects which marry in with our own agenda."

The United Reformed Church in Bromley by Bow, east London, has been converted into a pounds 6m community centre, funded by the Church, local businesses, the Borough of Tower Hamlets and the Corporation of London. It hosts more than 100 activities and is visited by 1,500 people a week.

The Rev Andrew Mawley, Chief Executive of the renamed Bromley by Bow Centre, says: "We need to give back to the community the huge church buildings that have been left to us in run-down urban areas which would otherwise be redundant for much of the week."

The Bromley by Bow site includes a health centre, a three-acre park, housing for the over- forties and a 24-hour nursery.