Reading the Past, Writing the Future is an educational project, devised by The Laurence Sterne Trust, which aims to encourage primary schools to visit their local church and to stimulate creative work inspired by the stories that can be found there.
The project is supported by Arts Council England which recognises the value of a church as art gallery, museum and source of culture and local history at the centre of every parish. Be it church, mosque or synagogue, places of worship contain art, craftsmanship, architecture, and social history.
Though each place of worship may have common features, each will display this universal similarity in its own way. Names on the gravestones will have local significance; fixtures and fittings will often be made by local craftsmen; the stone used for building and for monuments may be local stone, making each church unique and particular to its locality – reinforcing a sense of place and identity. Sacred buildings are a repository of a community’s shared history and culture.
The project arose from the close link between the museum at Shandy Hall and the nearby church of St Michael, Coxwold, where Laurence Sterne was the vicar. Visitors to the museum obtain a greater understanding of the life and works of Sterne by visiting the church where he preached – which retains many of the eighteenth-century features it possessed in Sterne’s time.
The Reading the Past project is a good example of how educational visits can benefit pupils. The North Yorkshire village of Coxwold no longer has a primary school but St Michael’s church serves as an excellent example for children from surrounding villages. After a visit to the church with the staff of the Laurence Sterne Trust, the children then return to look at their own local church to explore its own individual history. Through these discovered facts and stories perceptive teachers can find a rich resource for many curriculum subjects.
Rather than restricting the interpretation to a single pair of eyes, the Trust commissioned experts in different crafts and disciplines to examine the church from their own particular standpoint and ‘read the past’ in their own particular way. The films of the visits to St Michael’s Coxwold can be used as a template for observing churches in any town or village in the country.
A Stone Carver, a Historian and a Stained Glass maker reveal what interests them when they visit St Michael’s and, through their approach, reveal that there are thousands of miniature stories for the creative mind to seize upon and use with the guidance of a Creative Writer.