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Outward sign of the hope of glory

by
04 June 2021

Reordering a church was worth the time, money, and effort, Nick Davies found

Emma Painter/Pacific Curd Photography

The nave of St Philip and St James, Cheltenham, which now has a limestone floor. A staircase ascends to one of the new pods

The nave of St Philip and St James, Cheltenham, which now has a limestone floor. A staircase ascends to one of the new pods

REORDERINGS take time, they don’t come cheap, and they are not for the faint-hearted. Ours took 18 months to build, six years to plan, and was 20 years in the dreaming. It also cost a shade under £3 million.

At stages along the way, it all seemed ill-advised and unlikely. “You can only sell a building once,” our archdeacon sagely noted, while reviewing our funding plans. “You’ve got a mountain to climb,” our barrister observed, as he slid our correspondence with the Victorian Society across his desk in chambers.

And yet, for all that, last month, we opened a glorious, flexible space that celebrates the inheritance of the past 150 years while fitting us for ministry and mission into the future.

We have taken out all the pews, put in underfloor heating, a new limestone floor, two-storey pods in the side aisles containing servery, office, and meeting rooms (News, 24 August 2018), glassed in our memorial chapel, added four lavatories, opened up the west end as our new entrance, doubled the length of the wheelchair ramp, landscaped a new plaza, and renewed lighting and audio-visuals.

Services are booked to capacity, community bookings are filling up fast, and even the naysayers admit that it is so much better than they had feared.

 

SCROLLING back ten years, we had a dark, Grade II* listed Victorian church with a leaky roof and a failing boiler. It had a nave filled with pews. We also had a congregation of 200 with a desire to worship more creatively and to serve their local community more effectively. Together, we dreamed dreams of creating “a place of hospitality for a people of pilgrimage”.

Emma Painter/Pacific Curd PhotographyThe font: the one immovable object in the reordered church

Owing to the foresight of our predecessors, we were also blessed with a large property next door. It, too, needed serious investment. Lettings and maintenance were breaking even each year. While our lot had fallen in a fair land, here, in leafy Cheltenham, we certainly did not have £3 million in the bank.

We decided to align our assets and our liabilities, and to sell the neighbouring building, to help to reorder the church. We appointed a tenacious project board led by a lay chair with the necessary patience, drive, and eye for detail. We gave 16 months’ notice to the nursery, talked to the DAC, appointed a project manager and architects, developed plans, consulted with amenity bodies, and submitted our faculty application.

The matter went to Consistory Court proceedings and long delays. We appointed a barrister, marshalled our arguments according to the St Alkmund, Duffield judgment, and appointed a fund-raiser.

A year passed as we awaited our judgment, during which I went on sabbatical. I visited churches in the UK and the United States which had undertaken radical reorderings. I saw the good, the bad, and the ugly: thriving community hubs; poorly laid floors; creatively curated space; and sanctuaries cluttered with the furniture of yesteryear.

It was good to see churches responding to the Taylor report, although, for many, the challenges, risks, and delays of faculty legislation remain too high a bar. Too often, I saw churches that had left it too late to make the difficult decisions and climb Charles Handy’s “second curve”. By the time that the radical choices were made, the congregation was a shadow of its former self, liturgical space was an afterthought, and hospitable mission and engagement was beyond the resources of the few left behind and outside the scope of business plans for secular funders.

Eventually, our judgment was handed down, and we received permission to complete our reordering in full. We detailed the plans, reappointed architects, applied for grants, appealed to the congregation and local community, appointed contractors, and prepared to move out on the Feast of the Epiphany 2020. As it turned out, we may have been the only church in the country that knew that our building would be closed for months to come.

 

EIGHTEEN months on, and one pandemic later, we returned to our building in May. We brought in our paschal candle, blessed our font, and remembered our baptism while our choir sang songs of resurrection. Later, we knelt at our high altar to pray the General Thanksgiving.

Emma Painter/Pacific Curd PhotographyA view of the nave from one of the pods

With our four-sided altar cloth, new choir desks, and organ, we have formed a cathedral-like space for creative worship, shifting with the seasons of the Church year: a sacred space in which we might be transformed. With our font as the one immovable object, we will be able to process in and out as we are gathered into and sent out from this, a rehearsal space for the Kingdom.

We have also created a warm, shared “third space”, with meeting rooms, technology, and faster download speeds than the coffee shops, ready to play its part in rebuilding our impoverished social capital.

It is still early days, many choices lie ahead, and operational challenges are never far away; but, as I welcomed our church school in for worship, the children’s open-mouthed amazement made the journey worth while. Choosing one word to describe this new space, children opted for “contemporary”, “churchy”, “glorious”, “fantabulous”, and “awesome”. And I knew, then and there, that we had, indeed, created a holy space for the next generation.

 

The Revd Nick Davies is the Team Rector of St Philip and St James, Leckhampton, in the South Cheltenham Team Ministry, Gloucester diocese.

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