Believe in the best

The variety of faith-based venues offers rich pickings for organisers – but while many will call, not all will be chosen. John Keenan reports

When event organisers go in search of a venue, the last thing they expect is to have doors closed in their face.

But when the buildings concerned have a religious significance and are, in some cases, owned by a church organisation, the normal rules of business can be waived.

It falls to Paul Southern, managing director at Central Hall Westminster since 2011, to explain to his keen-as-mustard sales force that not every piece of business is worth chasing.

He said: “We turned down the premiere of the latest series of Games of Thrones last October because its themes are not appropriate to a Methodist setting.

“When sales staff joins us they know the rules. It can be frustrating, but they know from the start that there are some grey areas. Sometimes clients will try to disguise the true nature of the meeting from us because they know we will not find it acceptable.

“We can’t have the promotion of drink or gambling, for instance, and we have taken the decision not to host any of the political parties’ events during the general election but we would be able to hold debates.”

Victoria Steinitz, sales and marketing manager at LSO St Lukes in London, said that the operator at the venue has it on a long lease from the Church of England which stipulates it cannot do anything that is inimical to the church.

She said: “As the church is no longer consecrated that chiefly means we can’t do weddings and baptisms. But we also have to be very sensitive to the fact that our audiences may often include children and vulnerable adults so we make sure that any event we hold is appropriate. We don’t host club nights for example.”

Rose Harding, development director at Southwark Cathedral in London said that while hard and fast rules are not set, staff soon learn which events will be suitable and which will not.

She said: “Conference bookers buy in for the tranquility of this extraordinary setting with the Shard to one side and Borough Market to the other. Those at the cathedral on the sales side continue to work creatively with offers to delegates of baking bread in the market at Bread Ahead and following that up with a serious bit of kneading of admin at a workshop back at the cathedral.”

But if keeping inappropriate events at bay is one problem, an even graver issue is repelling the attention of more sinister forces.

Murderous attacks in Paris and Denmark have put all venue operators on alert.

Journalist and broadcaster David Aaronovitch has revealed that armed police were called on to patrol the area around the JW3 events centre in North London when he spoke on a panel about cartoonists and politics.

Across the country security has been stepped up at Jewish conference centres in the wake of “heightened concern” about the risk of anti-Semitic violence in the United Kingdom.

Operators of meeting venues and community centres have been told to put up warning signs in their venues.

It has emerged that more than 2,000 CCTV cameras, almost 4,000 metres of perimeter fencing and dozens of anti-ram bollards have been put in place at Jewish buildings in the last seven years.

Extra security measures at the venues have cost more than £5m since 2008, according to figures released by the Community Security Trust (CST), a Jewish charity. New research released by the trust shows that last year anti-Semitic attacks reached the highest level ever recorded in the UK.

That said, sectarian conflict remains mercifully rare in the United Kingdom and the chief concern of venue operators is     how to accommodate the myriad        religious organisations.

Last year in Brighton and Hove, the city council recorded 24 religious events comprising Hindu, Coptic Christian, Roman Catholic, Muslim, and the Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual University.

Excel London’s biggest conference all year – and possibly in the UK  as a whole – is the Festival of Life event. Forty thousand delegates are expected at Victoria Dock on 17 April for this year’s event.

Liverpool City Council does not record information regarding meetings booked at its venues on the basis of faith while Glasgow also has no record of having organised any meetings specifically with ‘faith groups’.

Perhaps they could take a leaf out of the book of Birmingham City Council which estimates that 973 faith group meetings have been held at local authority venues in the last six months. These include events by the Bible of Church of God, the Hindu Youth Group, Methodist ministers in training, the Sikh Drumming Group and Swadhyay Parivar.

The International Convention Centre (ICC), Birmingham  welcomes four new religious events to the venue this year.

The ‘Living Well Together’ Prayer Breakfast was held at the ICC in February with The Archbishop of Canterbury, followed by the Birmingham Methodist Circuit ‘Holy Habits’ event in May, the World Prayer Centre in July and ‘Open Doors’ with Brother Andrew in November.

The Prayer Breakfast, organised by Birmingham Cathedral & Chaplaincy Plus and supported by Birmingham investment firm Brewin Dolphin, attracted 500 local business people, the Bishop of Birmingham and the Mayor of Birmingham. The Archbishop of Canterbury addressed the group.

More than 1,000 attendees are expected to attend the launch of the Methodist Circuit ‘Holy Habits’ event in Mayin Hall 1 at the ICC.

The Trumpet Call, hosted by The World Prayer Centre, comes to Hall 3 on 4 July, the ICC’s largest conference room. Three thousand delegates are expected.

Laurence Sharman, operations director for The World Prayer Centre, said: “In the current financial, social, religious and political situations in the UK, it is an important time for the church to gather and pray in this climate of uncertainty. The ICC is built on the site that once housed The Bingley Hall, which from 1875 to the mid 1960’s was the site of many historic Christian meetings.”

Open Doors with Brother Andrew celebrates its 60th anniversary this year, culminating in an event for 2,500 people at the ICC in November. Catherine Newhall-Caiger, ICC business development director, said she was “delighted” the ICC was hosting these events. “Our central location in the UK makes us an ideal choice, offering ease of access for attendees from the region and beyond.”

On a secular note, Church House Conference Centre in London this year welcomed the Women in Nuclear UK event. The agenda was themed around addressing gender balance in the nuclear industry.

Baroness Verma, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for the Department of Energy and Climate Change presented the keynote speech on gender balance and the public acceptability of nuclear energy.

John Keenan

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John Keenan

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