Sun, Sep 15, 2019 - Page 16 News List

English churches finding a new lease on life by offering stays to ‘champers’

By James Pheby  /  AFP, EDLESBOROUGH, England

“Silent night, holy night” takes on a whole new meaning for visitors paying for an unorthodox overnight stay in a medieval English church.

With a midnight walk in the graveyard and the chance to play some show tunes on the church organ, “champers” — short for church campers — make the most of the experience.

“It adds to the mood, thinking about who is sleeping underneath us,” said university student Kae Ono, with a nod toward the gravestones, ahead of what she and her three friends hope will be a spooky sleepover in the 13th-century hilltop church in the English countryside.

Hiring out their space for “champing” stays is providing a handful of churches in England and Scotland with a way to bring in much-needed cash for their upkeep.

Champers pay about £50 (US$62.53) each to hire out St Mary’s Church in Edlesborough, 64km north of London, sharing the space only with the resident bats.

The Churches Conservation Trust, which runs the village church, provides camp beds and sleeping bags so guests can “snuggle down in a truly ancient space.”

“I love it, did you see the trees? Creepy, amazing!” fellow camper Zhou Lingbo said.

Ono blasts out Gothic riffs from The Phantom of the Opera on the church organ, which comes as part of the deal.

“We’re planning on watching a horror movie later,” the archeology student said.

On arrival, the visitors explored all the nooks and crannies of their home for the night with the kind of nervous excitement seen in the opening scenes of many a horror movie.

They were hoping for a fun break before third-year university studies begin, they said.

History student Ismail Abdirahman took to the pulpit to read to the small congregation, which included the group’s dog, Coco, while Zhou scoured the walls for signs of ancient graffiti.

“I want to take a midnight walk in the graveyard,” she said.

“And I will be thinking about the creepy faces up there,” she added, pointing to the grotesque carvings that decorate the ceiling.

The trust, which looks after 354 churches in Britain, offers overnight stays in 19 of them.

The churches were selected after careful consultation with volunteers and local communities, who have been “hugely supportive of the initiative,” champing manager Neil Best said.

Despite still being consecrated, St Mary’s only rarely hosts services, and guests are given few restrictions, other than being asked to not annoy the neighbors.

“Yes, don’t be silly,” the official Web site says, on the question of whether alcohol can be consumed.

All guests had so far behaved themselves and shown the buildings due respect, Best said.

The charity, which launched champing in 2014, stresses that a church would “always be a place for contemplation, tranquility and peace.”

However, it added that champing was “just the latest chapter” in an ongoing tradition of change.

“We are sensitive to any community concerns or priorities and work with them before, during and after initiating champing on any site,” Best said.

“I’m from Japan,” Ono said. “Letting people stay overnight in a temple just does not happen.”

However, she added: “I think it raises awareness. It’s very interesting, it feels really cool, we can do whatever we want, play random songs on the organ.”

Zhou, an atheist, said that she thought it was sad that the church had become redundant, “but it’s got itself another way to keep it alive now and it’s attracting more people to come here and appreciate its beauty.”

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