A MOREBATTLE couple have come up with an imaginative idea to turn a former church back into a place of worship.
Hundreds of redundant churches in Scotland have been turned into museums, trendy pubs or flats.
But in a defiant stance against the wave of church closures across the country, Richard and Margaret Pedersen have applied for planning permission to Scottish Borders Council to reopen the former St Aidan’s building, shut down 50 years ago.
It last hosted a service in 1962 and the B-listed building was used as a bus depot and a haulier’s yard before the couple bought it in 2010 for £165,000.
Now the Pedersens intend spending a similar sum converting the building. They plan a church for worship in one half and a café and a conference room in the other with a proposed opening date of June 2013.
Given falling congregations throughout the country and the depressing downward spiral of church closures it seems a financially suicidal move by a couple who are approaching retirement age.
But they believe they hold a trump card as the church is situated on one of the UK’s most walked Pilgrimage routes – the 62-mile St Cuthbert’s Way.
The Pedersens have received encouraging vibes about their project from the Scottish Episcopal Church and hope to come under their umbrella, but aim to provide services to appeal to pilgrims of all religions who tackle the walk, as well as having daily prayer sessions.
The church was built in 1866 for the congregation of the United Sessional Church of Scotland but closed in the 1960s after a merger with nearby Morebattle Parish Church.
Mrs Pedersen, who grew up in the church manse as a child before emigrating to Australia where she met her minister husband, has just completed her theology degree and hopes to be ordained into the Scottish Episcopal Church.
She said: “It is unusual to be opening a church in the current climate.
“The reason why so many churches are closing is two-fold. The buildings are very expensive to maintain and they are not getting the congregations to support them. We are not expecting to have a fixed parish as such, it is more about catering for the pilgrims who tackle the holy walk, although locals will be most welcome as well.
“The Morebattle villagers have been very supportive but this is about supplementing the church service that is already here.
“We see a lot of people walking through the village and it is difficult to tell whether they are pilgrims.
“But walking is increasing in popularity with people coming from all Britain and we in fact hosted 36 Australians recently.
“St Cuthbert’s Way is a lovely walk and there is so much beautiful countryside around here.
“We don’t know how the church will go but it will be a good stopping point on the walk.”
Danish-born Mr Pedersen, 65, lived in Australia for 40 years before visiting Scotland for the first time with his wife for an eight-week holiday in 2009 and instantly falling in love with the Borders countryside.
He was a long-serving pastor with the Uniting Church – the third largest Christian denomination in Australia – but now is channelling all his energies into renovating St Aidan.
The father-of-two was quoted a price of £500,000 by a London firm for all their works to be carried out but decided to stay local and co-ordinate the project himself.
He said: “It is a big job. But I’m taking one thing at a time.
“There is an enormous roof and a lot of work to do with the beams, but the structure of the building is sound.
“I think it is sad when you go round and see so many of these old buildings closing down. Some are used for other functions but many are just left to deteriorate and fall apart.
“The former bishop in the Scottish Episcopal Church, Brian Smith, has been down to look round and he was very interested and supportive of what we are doing.
“It will be a meeting place for people of all religions and allow them a place of worship on the holy walk of St Cuthbert.”
The Rt Rev Dr John Armes, Bishop of Edinburgh, in the Scottish Episcopal Church, said: “This is an exciting new opportunity for offering walkers spiritual hospitality as well as physical nourishment on the route of the St Cuthbert’s Way and I wish Margaret and Richard well in this.”
The planning application for the change of use of the building back to a church also covers an owner’s flat and landscaped gardens.
Situated in the main street of Morebattle, it will also be a focal point for the local community.
The application will be considered by planners at SBC within the next few months.