Catherine Clayton tells Jo Duckles about swapping a teaching career to found a charity providing spaces for school children and adults to pray and reflect.
The daughter of a Baptist minister, Catherine grew up moving around. She lived in Birmingham, Kent, Essex and Devon before settling in Oxford — the last place her parents were based before retiring to Liverpool.
She had no earth-shattering moment of conversion. “I went to church regularly ever since I can remember. I was never forced to go; it was always my choice. I have always known God and made a clear commitment when I was 16 or 17,” says Catherine. “Over the last seven or eight years I have seen God work in huge ways in my life and I feel I have become more the person he has created me to be.”
Catherine remembers being a teenager in rural churches with few young people. “My parents drove me to bigger town churches with big youth groups.”
After a four-year teaching degree at the University of Winchester, Catherine moved to Oxford where she worshipped at St Aldate’s Church before moving to Emmanuel Church, which provides office space for her charity, BeSpace.
During her time as RE co-ordinator and curriculum leader at Benson CE Primary School, Catherine first arranged a Prayer Space for the children. Earlier that year Catherine had suggested praying together to a colleague and within months they were joined by eight people. Through St Aldate’s, Catherine was put in touch with Phil Togwell from Prayer Spaces in Schools.
The headteacher and the staff prayer group helped Catherine arrange the first Prayer Space in Benson. “I remember standing there thinking that this needed to happen in other schools in Oxfordshire.”
Catherine met Phil when he visited St Aldate’s for a 24:7 Prayer event. As a result, Catherine embarked on an intern-style year with Emmanuel, facilitating Prayer Spaces in Schools locally while completing the New Frontiers biblical studies programme.
With pastoral oversight and office space from Emmanuel, Catherine joined the five-strong national Prayer Spaces in Schools team, which even moved its London meetings to Paddington to enable her to attend. The aim is to equip the local church to support the spiritual life of their schools.
Gradually more head teachers and governors heard about the initiative in Oxfordshire and were keen to run events in their schools. In the first year there were 10 prayer spaces. Committing to live by faith to facilitate Prayer Spaces was a big decision and, on the advice of church leaders, Catherine went on a retreat to reflect on the idea. “I was sitting in a room in a beautiful house with beautiful surroundings talking with God and I felt it was right. I had a sense of peace to continue to do this and that’s what I did.”
While running a prayer space she met Joseph Colliass who was volunteering from a church in Grove. As a result he committed to working alongside Catherine, also raising his own support. He did this for the next four years. There were 25 prayer spaces in 2011/2012 and 34 the following year.
Numbers continued to grow, with 76 in 2016/17 and 22 already since September 2017. “My journey with Prayer Spaces is all very much connected with my own personal development.
“In a dream, among other things, I felt God telling me to set up a regional charity. He was telling me I could do it, develop a charity in Oxfordshire.”
Since then, Prayer Spaces have been trialled in contexts other than schools, including Oxford’s Cowley Road Carnival at St Mary and St John’s Church in Oxford and in an empty shop in Abingdon.
BeSpace was officially launched in 2015, with the ethos of ‘creating a space to be’. The strategy for Catherine has always been and continues to be to train local Christians to work together across denominations to serve their schools through prayers spaces. BeSpace was granted charitable status in 2016.
Working with clergy, church-goers and youth workers, BeSpace can lend and provide practical support, advice and kit such as sheer fabrics, lights, post-it notes and everything necessary for creative, interactive prayer stations within Oxfordshire. More than a third of the county’s schools have been involved with BeSpace.
“Looking to the future we are hoping that every school has space for children to have the opportunity to connect with God and to see these spaces in other areas of the community."
BeSpace employs one full-time member of staff and Catherine continues to live by faith. “I have learnt so much in the last seven years living by faith. God has challenged me as a person and I understand myself and what God is calling me to do better. It’s a privilege how he’s worked through me.” This year, Catherine has also been asked to support the Diocese of London in facilitating Prayer Spaces.
Catherine lives in Oxford. In her spare time she enjoys swimming and has started to get into climbing.
10TH DECEMBER 2017