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Church converts

As more churches in Britain fall silent, their empty edifices are finding new life as nightclubs, bagpipe training centers, theaters, pubs, and museums.

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When is a church not a church?

When you can learn to juggle, monocycle, and ride a flying trapeze in it?

After 15 years of standing empty - the victim of arson, vandalism, and dry rot - St. Paul's, Portland Square, an elegant but redundant 18th-century church in the English city of Bristol, plans to reopen later this summer. When it does, where people once went down on their knees, novice acrobats will practice back flips and risk the tightrope.

Ensuring the survival of out-of-use churches also often requires a clever balancing act - between historical use and current practicality. With dwindling congregations increasingly forcing old churches across Britain to close, new uses, such as schools for circus training or bagpipe playing, may prove surprising keys to the salvation of some. But these new lives do not come cheap.

The renovation of St. Paul's, appropriately or not, is being funded primarily by money from Britain's state lottery: More than £2 million was granted by the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF). Since gambling is traditionally condemned by some churches as immoral, use of gambling money may indicate the extent to which redundant churches come to be classed as "heritage" rather than places of worship. Yet in spite of the new secular role St. Paul's is to play, this church will remain consecrated, with the occasional service held there.

Now responsible for St. Paul's in Bristol is the Churches Conservation Trust (CCT), an independent, largely government-funded body. The church joins some 330 other redundant Anglican churches currently in the trust's permanent care. Only the absolute cream of unused Anglican churches are placed under the CCT's wing - on average about four a year.

St. Paul's "wonderful building" is in a "socially deprived" part of Bristol, explains CCT director, Catherine Cullis: "We knew the church wouldn't survive unless it had a use which brought the community in. And circus training can be done by absolutely everyone!"

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