Southampton church will change its spots to attract a student congregation

01 May 2018

DIOCESE OF WINCHESTER

St Mary’s, Southampton, in its present arrangement

St Mary’s, Southampton, in its present arrangement

AN £800,000 church plant at St Mary’s, Southampton, currently a liberal Catholic church in the city centre, represents a “bold, faithful step” by the PCC to reach a new generation, the Bishop of Southampton, the Rt Revd Jonathan Frost, said on Monday.

The church is the largest and oldest site of continuous Christian worship in Southampton, and the original home of Southampton Football Club. It will undergo a major reordering this summer, and receive a new ministry team, led by the Revd Jon Finch, currently a curate at Holy Trinity, Brompton (HTB), a Charismatic Evangelical church.

New services will be launched in September, in time for the first term of the city’s universities. The plans were voted for by a “very significant majority” of the PCC in March, Bishop Frost said.

St Mary’s is at present part of the same city-centre parish as St Michael’s. Under the plans, they will be divided but remain part of one group. The Team Rector, the Revd Julian Davies, left in February 2017, shortly after plans for the plant were first mooted. A PCC working group was established to explore a “vision” set out by Bishop Frost which asked them to make the “costly” decision to “allow something new and very different to be planted in your midst”.

On Monday, he said that the PCC had recognised “that there was a need for revitalisation and renewal if we are, together, to serve the common good, and a generation that is currently disconnected from church life. . .

“Rather than make the same liturgical offering in churches no more than five minutes apart, the strong sense was that . . . we needed to do a new thing. And with wrestling and prayer, the PCC voted very strongly for this future.”

St Michael’s is described on the parish website as offering worship “in the sensible catholic tradition of the Church of England. Reverent without being solemn, traditional but with a light touch.”

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St Mary’s services are described as “reverential, accessible and evangelistic, with a style of worship which is open and catholic”. Currently, the main Sunday service there is a eucharist, with a robed choir. In its new format, there will still be a eucharist every Sunday, but this will not be the “main offering”, which will be a “band-led and informal” service, Bishop Frost said. A choir-led, Catholic liturgy would remain the “main offering” at St Michael’s.

“We want there to be a spiritual ecology in the city centre, where we are offering to this generation avenues into discipleship and the transforming love of Christ in ways that they can access,” he said. There were currently “very few” young people at St Mary’s, despite the city’s burgeoning student population. The congregation numbered around 40 or 50.

The Vice-Chancellor of Southampton Solent University, Prof Graham Baldwin, welcomed the plans as “good news for our students and the city centre more widely”.

Bishop Frost praised the “faithful, prayerful” people at St Mary’s, who should be “honoured and valued and loved”. He highlighted their history of strong ecumenical partnerships and a “long and deep” relationship with the city centre. The PCC had “absolutely made the right decision”, he said. “For me, this is absolutely the model of what Christians need to be doing, which is laying aside personal preferences for the sake of connecting a new generation with Jesus Christ.”

Not everyone at St Mary’s has been convinced by this argument. On Tuesday, Roger Lancey, who has been a member of the congregation at St Mary’s for 30 years, representing it on the PCC, deanery synod, and diocesan synod, said that a “significant number” were “concerned by a lack of consultation, communication, and pastoral care” in the 15 months since the departure of Mr Davies. Some had left the church.

On Sunday, he wrote to friends in the parish to explain his reasons for joining the leavers. These included what he called “autocratic and uncaring leadership by the diocese, who have treated us with disdain”. It was “ironic”, he said, that a Resource Church was to be established “where the diocese has continuously withdrawn resources from us over recent years”.

The “full consultation” that should take place when a new incumbent was appointed had not taken place, and the congregation had first learned of the reordering of the interior, and plans to close the church for three months, just two weeks ago. St Mary’s was not a “dead church” he emphasised.

The £500,000 reordering (the other £300,000 is for ministry costs) was approved by the PCC, none the less, and will include the introduction of a full-immersion font at the east end, an additional entrance in the south aisle, and the introduction of “pods” in the north aisle and baptistery to create a kitchenette, lavatories, and a welcome desk.

The investment is part of the £4.23 million of strategic development funding granted to the diocese of Winchester in December (News, 15 December 2017).

Between 2020 and 2022, church plants are due to be established in 15 “strategic cities, in terms of size and student population”, according to the diocese of London. In December, it secured a £3.9-million grant to train curates to lead these plants, ten of which will train at Holy Trinity, Brompton (News, 29 March). Each of the 15 plants will be expected to grow its congregation to 1000, and plant another church every three years.

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