With rapidly expanding communities and a rapidly changing society, it’s vital that we reach out to people who are untouched by the Church because they are physically, or culturally, just too far away. As part of our diocesan Common Vision we could see as many as 750 new congregations by 2030. In the second of our occasional series of photo essays, Jo Duckles went to find out how one rural Oxfordshire church is doing just that.
It began with an £80,000 appeal for works including a new kitchenette and loo. The funds also covered major drainage, guttering and sewage works. It has grown into a huge, multi-faceted project to keep St Mary’s, Childrey, alive and relevant in a small rural village with a population of just 500.
Despite having no pub or post office, Childrey is a vibrant rural community with an award-winning village store and a good Church primary school. St Mary’s, which is listed in Simon Jenkins’ Best One Thousand Churches, is central to community life.
But, with an elderly and dwindling congregation, churchgoers realised they had to consider the long-term sustainability of St Mary’s. Linda Soames and John Martin from the church have overseen the major project to build partnerships and launch events and schemes to raise the profile of the church.
“The church is vital. Ask the fundamental question of why people want the church in place and they say for weddings, funerals, Christenings and the traditional family services at Christmas and Easter.
“Before we got together as churchwardens St Mary’s had gone through a big fundraising project for a kitchenette and toilet,” says John.
The Grade One listed building dates back to the 12th Century although the site goes back 1,000 years, to Saxon times. It has been extended and adapted ever since then. The kitchenette and loo were the latest additions, helping make this ancient sacred space fit for 21st-century community activities.
They realised that to engage the community they needed to find more creative ways to get people involved than expecting them to turn up on Sunday mornings.
“To get more people into the church we would have to change our services quite significantly and weekends are very important for young families. We needed to do more than just say ‘the church is open every day and here is a list of services. You are welcome any time.’ We decided to talk to people in the community about what they want, rather than expect them to come along on Sundays,” says John.
They asked various groups in Childrey how they felt the church should continue and if they were willing to make it more than just a heritage building.
The response was extremely positive. One of the key relationships to come out of John and Linda’s work was with King Alfred’s Academy, near Wantage. This has seen the church become a concert venue, as A level music students perform for the whole community as part of their assessment.
“It gives the music teachers the chance to get all the pupils in one place and all of the recordings in one go. The church gives them a different space and ambience rather than being in the melee of school life with only one person listening. Those who come from the village absolutely love it. We are always amazed by the standard. We’ve just done if for the fourth time and the church was absolutely packed,” says John.
The church project has provided reading partners for youngsters in years seven and eight who are struggling with literacy.
“Lots of children arrive at secondary school behind on their reading,” says John. “Since October we have improved the reading standards of 28 of the year seven and eight children by 15 months in just one term,” he says. King Alfred’s gave the volunteers training and put them through the essential safeguarding checks before they started. “The children are starting to get some really good grades. We have given them a real start in life. The volunteers are loving it too. We have an 82-year-old doing it, and a man who lost a son a few months ago. Helping children to improve their reading has made a real difference to them.”
An art exhibition, with work by years seven-13 at King Alfred’s is also held every year, with work incorporated into a postcard available at St Mary’s.
The Church also forged links with Little Ducks, a pre-school in the village that has been involved in Pop Up Tea and Cakes and a huge Teddy Bears’ Picnic service. There the Revd Leonora Hill, the Rector of the Ridgeway Benefice, took the service and the Open the Book team performed The Feeding of the 5,000.
And teddy bears are now a feature of the church. “We have them so when children come to church, they must find where the teddy bears are,” says Linda.
“When the children came to do their sketches Linda and I were here. They asked questions about the church and it was absolutely amazing,” says John. The children were from the Ridgeway CE Primary School, in the village, and the art project was a joint fundraising event.
An upcoming project between the church and the primary school is a plan to bring a year group to the church for an ecology survey with some parents who are naturalists.
John and Linda have also worked to forge links with the community by getting a regular slot for church news in the Childrey and Sparsholt Signpost and working with the parish council.
A tea and cake event in the church was also held. “We had tables in the church and music and flowers and it gave the space a very different feel,” says Linda.
A bi-annual Christmas Tree Festival has seen loads of support from village organisations and links have been made with Wantage Silver Band playing at a carols event in the village.
There is also a benefice choir, which has held a fundraiser for the Charlie Waller Memorial Trust– a charity set up to help professionals like teachers, doctors, employers and university staff, to spot the signs of depression in young people. “The CEO of the Charlie Waller Trust gave a positive message about what they do to help young people. The church was packed.” Another group, the St James Singers, who sometimes sing at evensong, also held a charity event to raise funds for the charity Parkinsons.ME.
Occasional Messy Church services are also part of the life of the church – one was held on the Saturday before Mothering Sunday in the Methodist Church. “We had about five families but it did go extremely well, they all loved it. We have had some nice feedback and we are thinking of doing it twice a year. We work with the Methodist Church on an ecumenical family-focused service once a month.”
The lively projects spearheaded by John and Linda and others in this picturesque village are too many to mention here. But this is clearly an example of a rural church meeting the needs of its community.
The Revd Canon Glyn Evans, Rural Officer for the Diocese of Oxford, said: “This is a wonderful example of a rural church growing as it engages with its local community. These stories refute the myth that the rural church is declining and demonstrate that in Childrey, like in many villages, it is evolving to be more important and relevant than ever before.”