Saturday, 20 July 2024

Impossible, Difficult, Done:The journey towards world heritage

Back in 2003 we first heard about the 'Christiansfeld Initiative', an aspiration of the minister of the Christiansfeld Settlement in Denmark, Rev Dr Jørgen Bøytler and the local Mayor, Mr Jørgen From, to achieve UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) World Heritage inscription for Christiansfeld and a number of other Settlements around the world. Srs Roberta Thompson and Vera Montgomery attended a meeting about the scheme on behalf of Gracehill. After discussion locally it was agreed that Gracehill should get involved in the process. Despite Gracehill being Northern Ireland's first designated Conservation Area (1975) and the only complete Moravian Settlement in Ireland, it seemed impossible that such a tiny village in a relatively rural area could be successful in such a project. We quickly realised that the process would require the active support and involvement of local and national government in addition to the local community and Church and so began a series of local meeting and discussions.

Ballymena Borough Council, our local authority at that time were supportive of our approaches and subsequently sent council representatives to Bethlehem, USA for a conference in 2005. Again, they supported delegates, including myself, to attend the next meeting in South Africa in 2006. Gracehill was privileged to host a conference in 2007 and we were delighted to welcome visitors from Holland, Denmark, USA and South Africa. Thereafter the settlements in each country focused on the first hurdle of getting on their national 'Tentative List' - this is the list compiled every ten years or so of places that might be suitable to go forward for nomination for assessment by UNESCO. Christiansfeld had already been on the Danish list from 1993.

In 2011 Gracehill Old School Trust made an application on behalf of the Settlement to the Department for Culture, Media & Sport in London to join the UK Tentative list.

While Gracehill was not immediately added to the list, importantly it was not rejected either. The report stated 'Gracehill provides excellent evidence of a socio-religious system - the Moravians - which, unusually for its time was highly tolerant. The international importance of the Moravians is high and there is potential for a transnational nomination of Moravian sites. This site was judged not to have the potential to demonstrate OUV [Outstanding Universal Value] on its own. The Government should consider adding Gracehill to this Tentative List in the future if firm proposals for a transnational nomination should be developed, provided that it can be demonstrated that the site could make a substantial contribution to the OUV of the series as a whole.'

Very happily Christiansfeld undertook significant research, including a comparative analysis of Moravian Settlements around the world and after a huge effort it was successfully inscribed as a World Heritage Site in 2015.
All the while Gracehill Moravian Church and the wider community was working away in the background with ongoing exchange visits and research to support an application.

Gracehill has a vibrant congregation and having completed a new church hall building in 2006, which was fully utilised by the community, a programme of restoration of the Church, manse and warden's house as well as the historic pipe organ was subsequently completed. In addition, Gracehill Old School Trust raised further funding of approximately £2.5 million to restore other buildings and sites in the village including The Square.

Christiansfeld's success brought renewed vigour to the international partnership and Herrnhut, Germany joined with Bethlehem and subsequently Gracehill to develop the current nomination entitled 'Moravian Church Settlements'.

Over the last number of years there have been many meetings, several rounds of exchange visits to each other's settlements and a lot of research in the Gracehill Archives (now called The Moravian Archive of Ireland) and further afield. We are very appreciative of the support of our local council, now Mid and East Antrim Borough Council, and also the Northern Ireland Government, Department of Communities for their invaluable support, both financial and in terms of research and assistance. It is also worth noting, particularly in a Northern Ireland context, that Gracehill has enjoyed ongoing cross party political support.

Early in 2022, Gracehill was added to the UK World Heritage tentative list and the 'Moravian Church Settlements' nomination was submitted to UNESCO in Paris by the United States Government on behalf of all the partners in the Spring.
The next step in the process was a 10-day assessment visit covering all the nominated sites. The Gracehill section took place over three days at the end of July and involved a travelling team including the assessor and government representatives from Denmark, Germany, USA and UK. In Gracehill we were also delighted to welcome Rev Dr Jørgen Bøytler as Minister of Christiansfeld Moravian Church and as Worldwide Unity Board Administrator and Sr Roberta Hoey, as Chair of PEC of Moravian Church of GB and Ireland and President of the Unity Board.

The visit involved tours, viewings, presentations and opportunities to meet Church members and the many volunteers who make Gracehill the special place it is - the Tuesday Club and village committee, the archivists, God's Acre stewards, Church committee, tour guides and Trustees of Gracehill Old School Trust. The support of local facilities such as Galgorm Castle and Galgorm Resort and Spa was also important. Overall, the sense of a living community with local, national and international links and support was palpable. The Moravian living cultural tradition is a central part of the nomination and highlights of the visit included an early morning service in Church featuring the Watchword and also a presentation by Sr Sarah Groves on Moravian culture and intangible values - this was perhaps the first time we had a Christingle in Gracehill in July!

There is an old saying 'We do not inherit the land from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children'. The real value of heritage is less in thinking about yesterday and more about planning tomorrow. A rich heritage is the foundation of a bright future. What seemed impossible and what was certainly difficult at times is now moving towards 'done'. Whatever the outcome we are again reminded that the Moravian Church has a precious heritage of faith and service that has found practical expression in unity, tolerance and love and that is something worth sharing.

Br David Johnston

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Church House is the Headquarters of the Moravian Church in the British Province and is located in London at:
Moravian Church House, 

5 Muswell Hill, 
N10 3TJ


020 8883 3409

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